Since reading some of Jane Aiken Hodge’s books, I’ve been interested in trying something by her sister and fellow author, Joan Aiken. Maybe it would have been more sensible to start with the classic children’s novel The Wolves of Willoughby Chase, for which she’s most famous, but her adult novels appealed to me more and when I saw that Castle Barebane was published in 1976, I decided to read it for this week’s 1976 Club hosted by Karen and Simon. I loved it, so it turned out to be a perfect choice!
The novel is set towards the end of the 19th century and opens with Val Montgomery, a New York journalist, at a party to celebrate her engagement to Benet Allerton. The party is not an enjoyable experience for Val – she feels awkward and out of place around Benet’s wealthy, fashionable relatives and can sense their disapproval of her clothes, her family and the fact that she works for a living. When she discovers that she will be expected to give up her career once she becomes Benet’s wife, she begins to have second thoughts about the marriage.
As luck would have it, Val returns home from the party later that night to find that her half-brother Nils has just arrived from England and when she tells him that she is having doubts about Benet, he persuades her to come and stay with him in London for a while to give herself time to think. However, the next day Nils disappears, leaving a note saying he has been called back to England urgently. Val follows on another ship a few days later, but by the time she reaches London, she discovers that her brother’s house has been abandoned, there’s no sign of Nils or his Scottish wife Kirstie, and their two young children are staying with a cruel and negligent servant. Desperate to know what has happened – and wanting to find someone more suitable to care for little Pieter and Jannie before she goes home to America – Val takes the children and boards a train for Scotland and Kirstie’s old family estate.
The rest of the novel is set at Ardnacarrig, nicknamed Castle Barebane because of its derelict, neglected state. This is where the gothic elements of the story emerge, with descriptions of underground passages, dangerous rocks and treacherous quicksand and tales of at least two resident ghosts who haunt the upper floors of the house at night. Val, who is too practical to believe in ghosts, suspects that if the house is haunted at all, it is haunted by the misery and unhappiness of the people who have lived there. As we – and Val – wait for the truth behind Nils’ and Kirstie’s disappearances to be revealed, the poignant stories of other characters unfold: the elderly housekeeper Elspie and her lost lover Mungo; local doctor David Ramsay and his dying mother; and six-year-old Pieter and his little sister Jannie, who is not like other children.
It took me a while to get into this book; it was very slow at the beginning and I felt that more time was spent on Benet and his family than was necessary, considering that they don’t really feature in the story after the first few chapters. Once Val arrived in London to find her brother missing, though, it became much more compelling. Val is a great character; although I didn’t find her particularly likeable at first – and I don’t think she was intended to be – I admired her dedication to her work and desire for independence when it would have been easier to just marry Benet and conform to society’s expectations. After she breaks free from Benet it’s fascinating to watch her grow and flourish as a character while doing all she can to help the people around her, even when it seems that they don’t really want to be helped. There’s also a new romance for Val, which I liked, but we didn’t see enough of her love interest for me to feel fully invested in their relationship.
Most of the action in the book is packed into the final few chapters; there’s definitely a problem with the pacing and also a bit of needless violence which I wasn’t expecting and felt that the story would have worked just as well without. But despite the novel’s many flaws, I thoroughly enjoyed reading it – both the domestic parts and the gothic adventure parts. The atmosphere is wonderful, there’s a suitably sinister villain and I loved the remote setting (and was impressed by the Scottish dialect which seemed quite accurate, although I’m not an expert). I’m certainly planning to read more of Joan Aiken’s books and am hoping they’re all as good as this one!
I’m also counting this book towards the 2021 Historical Fiction Reading Challenge and the R.I.P. XVI event!
1976 books previously read and reviewed on my blog:
Sleeping Murder by Agatha Christie
Touch Not the Cat by Mary Stewart
Dark Quartet by Lynne Reid Banks
Some Touch of Pity by Rhoda Edwards
The Children of Dynmouth by William Trevor
22 thoughts on “Castle Barebane by Joan Aiken – #1976Club”
I never knew that Jane Aiken Hodge was Joan Aiken’s sister. You learn something new every day!
Yes, they were sisters, although I wish they were called something other than Jane and Joan – I had to keep double-checking my review to make sure I’d got the names the right way round!
Now I’m coming to the end of one set of Aiken’s children’s books I’m keen to read more of her adult writing. I have a couple of her Austen sequels waiting and a teen novel with an SF flavour, but the closest I’ve come so far to her adult writing is The Silence of Herondale, set in ‘contemporary’ 60s Britain but with Brontë echoes. This is another I’d be interested to read — good choice for all the memes you mention!
It’s always nice when you can make one book count towards several different challenges and events! I will definitely be reading more by Joan Aiken and The Silence of Herondale is one I’m interested in, after reading your review recently.
I used to read Jane Aiken Hodge but I didn’t know she was related to Joan Aiken. This book sounds like a lot of fun.
It’s a great book. Fun, but also quite dark!
What an interesting choice! I had no idea she wrote books for adults – sounds great! 😀
I had always assumed she was just a children’s author, so I was surprised to see how many books she had written for adults – luckily including one from 1976!
I haven’t read any of Joan Aiken’s books in a very long time. This one does sound like a fun read. The Five-Minute Marriage is my favorite book by her. 🙂
I’ll have to read The Five-Minute Marriage soon, then!
So glad you enjoyed this! Wolves is fine, but my favorite of that particular series is the next one, Black Hearts in Battersea, which is a total hoot. Aiken’s short stories are also wonderful (and I don’t usually like short stories).
I’ll probably move on to the Wolves series eventually, after I’ve tried some more of her adult novels. I’m not a big fan of short stories either, so I’m pleased to hear you think Aiken’s are good!
Lovely. Thanks for this new to me author
You’re welcome! I loved this one.
I read The Wolves of Willoughby Chase at school and I am hoping to re-read it soon. I like the sound of this book too. 🙂
I hope you enjoy your re-read of The Wolves of Willoughby Chase. I’m sure I will read it eventually too.
So glad you enjoyed this one – despite the pacing. Well done for persevering!
I really enjoyed it, after the slow start. Looking forward to 1954 now!
I thought I asked you this but sometimes WordPress won’t let me comment – is this the Aiken where there is a severed finger in a matchbox?
Yes! Actually, I’ve just checked my copy and she finds a whole severed hand in a box.
Thank you! It has been driving me crazy and even her daughter wasn’t sure.
The pub year made me fairly sure, however, as I had such a strong recollection of being in Ithaca, NY when I read it and that was the year it came out.