It’s 1852 and the recently widowed Margaret Lennox has just arrived at Hartwood Hall to take up a new position as governess to ten-year-old Louis Eversham. Margaret worked as a governess before her marriage, so has plenty of experience, but she quickly discovers that the Evershams are not quite like any other family she has worked for. Mrs Eversham is secretive and overprotective, isolating herself and Louis from their neighbours, and in the village rumours are spreading that Hartwood Hall is haunted. Although this makes Margaret feel uneasy – and the hostility she faces from one of the maids, Susan, doesn’t help – she does her best to settle into her new job, while also trying to conceal the truth about her own past.
The Secrets of Hartwood Hall is Katie Lumsden’s debut novel and is obviously heavily influenced by the work of the Brontës, particularly Jane Eyre, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall and Agnes Grey. One character turns out to be an author not dissimilar to Charlotte, Emily and Anne, while others are seen reading Brontë novels – and of course, there are elements of the plot and setting that feel very familiar as well. The descriptions of the locked east wing of Hartwood Hall, off-limits to Margaret, with its strange noises and flickering lights made me think of Jane Eyre’s ‘madwoman in the attic’ and had me wondering what exactly was going on in there! Of course, this is a book written in the 21st century, not the 19th, and I could never quite forget that; some parts of this story could never have been written by the Brontës – or would have had to be alluded to much more vaguely.
This is not the only recently published book to be inspired by classic Gothic novels and at first I thought it was going to be very similar to Stacey Halls’ Mrs England, Marianne Ratcliffe’s The Secret of Matterdale Hall or Beth Underdown’s The Key in the Lock, to name a few. However, although I think readers of those books would enjoy this one too, it’s still different enough to be a satisfying story in its own right. I didn’t guess the solutions of all the mysteries hinted at in the book – although I was convinced at one point that I’d worked it all out, some of the revelations still took me by surprise!
There’s a romantic thread to the novel too, as Margaret begins to form a relationship with a male member of the Hartwood Hall staff. However, I found this the least successful aspect of the story. I sensed very little chemistry between the two of them, neither was honest with the other and I felt that Margaret treated him unfairly. For this reason, the later stages of the novel didn’t have the emotional impact they probably should have done. I did enjoy watching Margaret’s relationship with the Evershams develop, as she gained the trust and respect of Louis and Mrs Eversham – and I was angry on Margaret’s behalf about the treatment she received from the scheming Susan! Although I didn’t always agree with Margaret’s decisions, I found her quite an engaging heroine and narrator.
This was an entertaining novel and while not every part of it worked for me, I would be happy to read more books by Katie Lumsden, particularly if they fall into this same subgenre.
Thanks to Michael Joseph for providing a copy of this book for review via NetGalley.