The Secret of Matterdale Hall by Marianne Ratcliffe

The Secret of Matterdale Hall is Marianne Ratcliffe’s new novel and the first book to be published by Bellows Press, a small independent publisher who describe themselves as ‘championing unagented writers of speculative & historical fiction, particularly queer, POC & marginalised authors’. In many ways Matterdale Hall seems like a traditional Victorian Gothic novel, but it also has some fresh new elements that make it feel original and different.

Our heroine, Susan Mottram, is a young woman whose family has fallen into poverty following her father’s death. Looking for a way to support her mother and younger sister, Susan finds work as a teacher at Matterdale Hall, a girls’ boarding school run by Dr and Mrs Claybourn in a remote part of Yorkshire. Susan immediately likes the eccentrically dressed doctor, who treats psychiatric patients in his infirmary within the hall, but she has a more difficult relationship with his wife and their daughter Marion, whose views on teaching and discipline conflict with Susan’s own. Some of the children also prove challenging, particularly the badly-behaved Isabella and the silent, withdrawn Mary.

One day, Susan crosses paths with Cassandra, a young woman from a neighbouring estate. At first Cassandra seems strangely hostile, but when Susan discovers that Cassandra is both mixed-raced and deaf, able to communicate only through sign language, she understands that what she had mistaken for hostility is actually shyness and a lack of trust. Gradually, a friendship begins to form between the two of them – and Susan finds that she desperately needs a friend to help her unravel the mysteries that are beginning to emerge at Matterdale Hall. What happened to Susan’s predecessor, who disappeared without trace? Why does little Mary never speak? And what is really going on in Dr Claybourn’s ‘infirmary’?

Although I found some of the secrets of Matterdale Hall quite easy to guess, there was still plenty of suspense as I waited to see whether I was right and how and when Susan would also discover the truth. The lonely Yorkshire setting, with much of the story taking place in the winter, added to the atmosphere and it was difficult not to think of Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights, while I was also reminded of Stacey Halls’ Mrs England. But as well as the secrets and mysteries, I was fascinated by the portrayal of a small school in the 19th century and the attitudes to education and methods of teaching.

Despite the darkness and the sense of foreboding, there are still some moments of happiness for Susan. The patience and kindness she offers to the girls in her care is rewarded when they begin to open up to her and allow her to help them and her relationship with Cassandra also starts to flourish, first as a simple friendship and then as something more. I liked the way the two women’s feelings for each other develop slowly and realistically rather than being a love at first sight romance, giving the reader time to get to know them both and become invested in their stories. Deaf people don’t get a lot of attention in historical fiction (Shadow on the Highway by Deborah Swift is the only other book I can think of with a deaf heroine) so I found that aspect of the book interesting too.

The Secret of Matterdale Hall is written in a formal style that mimics the Victorian novels that have obviously influenced it and the long chapter titles, giving us an idea of what the following pages will contain, also add to the 19th century feel. It’s an entertaining read and I’ll be interested to see what Marianne Ratcliffe writes about in her next book.

Thanks to the author for providing a copy of this book for review.

Book #60 read for the Historical Fiction Reading Challenge 2022.

The Legend of Sleepy Hollow by Washington Irving

I’ve never read anything by Washington Irving but The Legend of Sleepy Hollow appears in an anthology of classic ghost stories I bought for my Kindle a few years ago and Halloween seemed like the perfect time of year to read it. I thought I already knew the story from the 1999 Tim Burton film but of course it turns out that it’s only very loosely based on Irving’s original work, which is often the case with adaptations. It’s also not very scary, so if horror stories make you nervous, don’t worry – this one isn’t likely to give you nightmares!

Irving begins by describing the valley of Sleepy Hollow, an old Dutch settlement in New York State steeped in legend and superstition.

A drowsy, dreamy influence seems to hang over the land, and to pervade the very atmosphere…Certain it is, the place still continues under the sway of some witching power, that holds a spell over the minds of the good people, causing them to walk in a continual reverie. They are given to all kinds of marvellous beliefs, are subject to trances and visions, and frequently see strange sights, and hear music and voices in the air.

The most famous of Sleepy Hollow’s legends involves a ghost known as the Headless Horseman, said to be a Hessian soldier who lost his head in battle and goes on a nightly ride through the Hollow in search of his missing head. When Ichabod Crane, an outsider from Connecticut arrives in the valley to take up the position of schoolmaster, he is fascinated by this story. A believer in witchcraft, Ichabod is naturally superstitious and enjoys listening to the tales of local ghosts and goblins.

Soon Ichabod sets his sights on the beautiful Katrina Van Tassel, daughter and only heir of a wealthy farmer. However, he faces stiff competition for Katrina’s hand in marriage in the form of Brom Bones, a ‘burly, roaring, roystering blade…the hero of the country round’. After being rejected by Katrina during a party at the Van Tassels’ home one night, the disappointed Ichabod rides off alone into the night – only to find that he is being pursued by a mysterious figure on horseback…

There’s not much more I can say about this story without spoiling it. It’s a short one, so if you want to read it for yourself it shouldn’t take up too much of your time. Published in 1820, it’s easy to read and to follow and although Irving’s descriptive writing provides a lot of Gothic atmosphere, it’s a fun and entertaining ghost story rather than a terrifying one. It also has a wonderfully ambiguous ending!

I’ll have to read more of Washington Irving’s stories at some point. The only other one I’m familiar with is Rip Van Winkle, but obviously he has written a lot more than that!

This is my seventh and final read for R.I.P. XVII

The Fortune of the Rougons by Émile Zola

La Fortune des Rougon, originally published in French in 1871, is the first novel in Émile Zola’s twenty-volume Les Rougon-Macquart cycle. It’s also the book selected for me in the recent Classics Club Spin and the edition I read is an English translation by Brian Nelson.

I’ve already read one of the later books from the cycle – The Ladies’ Paradise – but rather than continue picking them out at random, I thought it might be more sensible to go back to the beginning of the series and try to read them in order. I was a bit hesitant about reading this first book, however, because it sounded as though it was mainly concerned with setting things up for the rest of the series – and that was the case, up to a point, but I found that there was still enough plot to make this an interesting novel in its own right.

The Fortune of the Rougons is set in the fictional French town of Plassans and opens on a Sunday night in December 1851 with two young lovers, Silvère and Miette, joining up with an army of insurgents. It’s the eve of Louis Napoleon’s coup d’état which will result in the formation of the Second Empire under Napoleon III. Silvère wants to give his support to the Republicans who are opposing the coup and thirteen-year-old Miette finds herself coming along to carry the flag.

We then leave Silvère and Miette behind for a while so that Zola can take us back several generations and introduce us to Adelaide Fouque who, through her marriage to the peasant Rougon and a later relationship with the alcoholic smuggler Macquart, is the ancestor of most of the other major characters in the novel. He then follows the lives of Adelaide’s three children – her eldest son, Pierre Rougon, and his illegitimate half-brother and sister, Antoine and Ursule Macquart – as they grow into adults and embark on a family feud. Finally we meet Adelaide’s grandchildren (of whom Silvère is one) and see how they all fit into the events of the formation of the Second Empire.

Once Pierre, Antoine and Ursule have married and had children of their own, the number of characters in the novel quickly multiplies and I’m glad my copy of the book included a family tree as I found myself constantly needing to refer to it. The Rougon-Macquart family are largely an unpleasant group of people – Pierre Rougon tricks his mother into signing over her house to him, depriving his brother of his inheritance, while Antoine Macquart is a violent, aggressive drunk – but there are still some characters with traits I could admire and some I could pity. It seems that Zola’s aim in writing the series was to explore the effects of heredity, so in this book the legitimate Rougon branch of the family are shown to be scheming, avaricious social-climbers while the Macquarts, descended from a rogue, are leading miserable, sordid lives.

The history of the coup d’état and the Second Empire is quite complicated, particularly if, like me, you come to the book with no prior knowledge of these events. With Plassans (based on Aix-en-Provence, where Zola himself grew up) being so far from the action, information comes to the Rougons via the eldest son, Eugène, who lives in Paris, and the people of the town gather in the Rougons’ yellow drawing room to discuss the latest developments. This keeps the reader at a bit of a distance and it took me a while to get everything straight in my head, but later in the book when we rejoin Silvère and Miette marching with the army we get a little bit closer to some of the action.

I didn’t really love The Fortune of the Rougons, but there were parts that I enjoyed very much and I’ll look forward to meeting some of the characters again in the other books in the cycle. I wish I had read this one before jumping straight into The Ladies’ Paradise as I would then have had more understanding of Octave Mouret’s background (he is another descendant of Adelaide Fouque).

Have you read any of the Rougon-Macquart novels? Did you read them in order or at random and do you think it makes any difference?

This is book 33/50 from my second Classics Club list.

The Romantic by William Boyd

Wandering through Africa wasn’t that much different, in a sense, from wandering through London, or Paris, or Boston. You thought the road ahead was obvious and well marked but more often than not the destination you had so clearly in mind would never be reached. Never. Things got in the way. There were diversions, problems, changes of mind, changes of heart…

Cashel Greville Ross, the hero of William Boyd’s new novel The Romantic, is a man who does plenty of wandering and whose path through life changes direction many times. Born in Ireland in 1799, he lives through some of the major events of the 19th century and becomes a soldier, a writer, a farmer and an explorer – though not all at the same time. He is present on the battlefield of Waterloo, befriends Byron and Shelley in Pisa and travels through Africa in search of the source of the Nile.

Cashel is not a real person, of course, although Boyd does his best to convince us that he is. The book is presented as a biography, complete with footnotes, pieced together from a bundle of letters, notes, maps and photographs which apparently fell into Boyd’s hands several years ago. It’s not a new idea, but it’s very cleverly done here and I can almost guarantee that you’ll be googling things to see if they’re true, even while knowing that they can’t possibly be!

The Romantic is a long novel, but I read most of it in one weekend because it was so gripping I couldn’t bear to put it down. Although the story never becomes bogged down with historical or geographical detail, it’s still completely immersive and I loved every minute I spent in Cashel’s world. His life story unfolds in a series of distinct episodes and I found each one equally compelling: his childhood in County Cork and the uncovering of family secrets; a journey across Italy in order to write a book about his travels; a moral dilemma faced in a Sri Lankan village while fighting with the Indian Army…these are just a few of Cashel’s adventures and there are many more which I’ll leave you to discover for yourself.

Cashel himself is a likeable character, but also a flawed one. As the title suggests, he’s hopelessly romantic; as a young man, his own proud and impulsive nature ruins his chance of happiness with the woman he loves and this sets the tone for the rest of the novel and the rest of his life, as he continually moves from country to country, continent to continent, unable to put this missed opportunity behind him and settle down. His naivety makes him vulnerable and he is repeatedly taken advantage of, suffering a series of injustices and at one point ending up in the Marshalsea Prison for debt, but he never seems to learn from his mistakes, falling into the same traps over and over again. It’s frustrating, but it’s also what kept me turning the pages, desperate to see how Cashel would get out of the latest predicament he had found himself in!

This is one of my books of the year without a doubt and I’m sorry that I’ve never read any William Boyd before.

Thanks to Viking for providing a copy of this book for review via NetGalley.

This is book 53 read for the Historical Fiction Reading Challenge 2022.

The Rose of Sebastopol by Katharine McMahon

When I put my list together for this year’s 20 Books of Summer, I tried to include a mixture of new releases I was excited about reading and older books that had been on my TBR for a long time. The Rose of Sebastopol is one that I bought back in 2010 from my favourite bookshop, Barter Books, and has been waiting on my shelf for twelve years! If I’d known I was going to enjoy it so much I would certainly have made time for it before now.

The novel opens in 1855 with our narrator, Mariella Lingwood, arriving in Italy to visit her fiancé, Henry Thewell, a surgeon who has recently been stationed in Crimea where war is continuing to rage between Russia and the allied forces of France, Britain, Turkey and Sardinia. Having become seriously ill, Henry has left the battlefields and is recuperating in the Italian town of Narni. Their reunion doesn’t go as planned, however, when the feverish Henry mistakes Mariella for her cousin, Rosa – and she discovers that throughout his illness he has been calling Rosa’s name.

Rosa had left England for the Crimean peninsula several months earlier hoping to join Florence Nightingale’s team of nurses. At first she had kept her family informed as to her whereabouts, but then her letters stopped coming. Unable to learn any more from Henry other than that he and Rosa had met in the Crimea and that Rosa is now missing, Mariella sets off for the war zone herself, determined to find her lost cousin and to hear the truth about her relationship with Henry.

Mariella is an unlikely heroine to be undertaking such an epic journey. Coming from a comfortable middle class background, she has led a very sheltered life and so far her only involvement in the war has been sticking maps and newspaper cuttings into a scrapbook. She represents the Victorian ideal – quiet, obedient, devoted to her parents and conforming to society’s expectations in every way – but for most of the book, I found her very unlikeable. Not only does she lack personality, she’s also quite selfish – probably a product of her upbringing as she has never been encouraged to show any real empathy for people less fortunate than herself.

In contrast, Rosa is a much more engaging character – strong, courageous, determined to achieve her ambition of becoming a nurse and making a difference to people’s lives. I think most authors would have chosen to tell Rosa’s story rather than Mariella’s, so I was intrigued by Katharine McMahon’s decision to write from the perspective of the boring, uninteresting Mariella who, until Rosa disappears, seems content to sit at home with her needlework. Of course, there’s some character development eventually and the journey across Europe does begin to gradually change Mariella’s outlook on life, but it’s always Rosa who drives the plot forward despite being physically absent for most of the novel. Similarly, it seemed at first that Henry would be the main male love interest in the book, but the real hero turns out to be someone unexpected. I was impressed by the way McMahon has us thinking we know which characters we’re supposed to like or dislike, then turns everything around and makes us think again.

This is possibly the first novel I’ve read with the Crimean War as the setting. I’ve read other books set in that time period where the war has been referred to, but I can’t think of any that have actually taken us to the heart of the action – Florence Nightingale’s base at the hospital in Scutari, the sites of the Battle of Balaclava and the Battle of Inkerman, and the besieged city of Sebastopol (or Sevastopol as we would normally call it now). McMahon doesn’t try to portray the war in any kind of romantic way, concentrating instead on the mistakes made by the British and French commanders and the terrible human cost, with large numbers of deaths and casualties. The idea of allowing women to nurse wounded soldiers was very new at that time and we see how some of the women volunteering to join Florence Nightingale were turned down because they were too young or too attractive; they had to meet a strict set of criteria because everything they did would be reported in the British media and Nightingale wanted nothing to damage the reputation of the nursing team she had put together.

I really enjoyed this book and if any of you have read any others set during the Crimean War I would love to hear about them.

This is book 18/20 from my 20 Books of Summer list.

This is book 46/50 read for the Historical Fiction Reading Challenge 2022.

The Blood Flower by Alex Reeve

The Blood Flower is the fourth book – and sadly, the last – in Alex Reeve’s Leo Stanhope mystery series. I’ve been following this series since the first book was published and am sorry there won’t be any more to look forward to, but the author has stated that he has achieved what he set out to achieve with these novels and is ready to move on to other things.

The four novels in this series all work as standalone mysteries, but if you want to get to know Leo properly and understand his history and relationships with the other characters, I would recommend starting with The House on Half-Moon Street and reading the books in order if you can.

In The Blood Flower, set in the late Victorian period, Leo and his wife, Rosie, are heading for the south coast of England, where Leo, in his position of journalist with a London newspaper, has been asked to cover a murder case in Portsmouth. Rosie’s sister, Viola, happens to live in Portsmouth with her husband and Leo is looking forward to seeing them for the first time – but Rosie seems strangely reluctant for him to meet his in-laws. He doesn’t have too much time to wonder about this, however, because work must come first and soon Leo is being updated by the local police on the deaths of two young people, both found by the Portsmouth docks with their throats slit.

When Sergeant Dorling dismisses the two victims as misfits and outcasts and seems more concerned with how Leo is planning to portray the police in his newspaper article, Leo knows that if the murderer is going to be brought to justice he will have to solve the mystery himself. His investigations lead him to the notorious Papaver nightclub and a circus at the New Hippodrome theatre in search of the mysterious Blood Flower which seems to have played a part in both murders. But Leo has a secret of his own: he was born and raised as Charlotte Pritchard, before leaving his old life behind to live as the man he knows he really is. Only his closest friends know he is transgender, but if this information falls into the wrong hands he could find himself in serious danger.

I think this is the best book in the series; I enjoyed it even more than the last one, The Butcher of Berner Street. The Portsmouth setting makes a nice change from the Victorian London of the previous three books and Alex Reeve brings it vividly to life, with a contrast between the tourist areas with their colourful beach huts, bathing machines and shops selling postcards, and the darker side of the city which is where most of the story is played out. It was good to meet some of Leo’s old friends again – the actor Peregrine Black; Alfie the pharmacist and his young daughter, Constance; the elderly Jacob and his wife, Lilya – but moving the action away from London also allows Leo to meet lots of new people. Of the new characters, one I found particularly interesting was Olga Brown, or Miss La La, a black acrobat from Prussia and a real historical figure (her portrait was painted by Edgar Degas).

Leo himself continues to be a very likeable and engaging narrator, liable to make mistakes or say and do the wrong thing, but that only makes him feel more human. His transgender status is just one part of who he is and never really dominates the story; this, like the other books in the series, is a mystery novel first and foremost and the mystery is always at the centre of the plot. It’s quite a complex one and there are some interesting twists and turns towards the end as we discover what the Blood Flower is and who was responsible for the murders. Once the mystery was solved, I was sorry to have to say goodbye to Leo and his friends but I respect the author’s decision to move on and will be interested to see what he writes next!

Thanks to Raven Books for providing a copy of this book for review via NetGalley.

This is book 43/50 read for the Historical Fiction Reading Challenge 2022.

The Magician by Colm Tóibín

The Magician is probably a book I would never have chosen to read if it hadn’t appeared on first the longlist then the shortlist for this year’s Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction. I’ve read and enjoyed other books by Colm Tóibín: Brooklyn, about a young Irish immigrant in 1950s New York and House of Names, a retelling of the Oresteia. This one, though, a fictional biography of the author Thomas Mann, sounded less appealing to me, particularly as I’ve read very little of Mann’s work (only Death in Venice and Other Stories) and wasn’t sure if I was really interested in reading about his life. There was only one way to find out…

The Magician begins with Thomas Mann’s childhood in the German city of Lübeck towards the end of the 19th century, then takes us through his entire adult life as he marries, has children, becomes a successful author and leaves Germany for first Switzerland and then the US, where the family will live for several years. The childhood chapters help us to see what shapes Thomas into the man he will later become. His father dies in 1891, leaving Thomas and his siblings with their mother, a Brazilian woman who doesn’t quite conform to the expectations of their quiet, staid community in Lübeck, so they move to Munich where Thomas meets and marries Katia Pringsheim, the daughter of a Jewish mathematician.

A lot of time is devoted to Mann’s relationship with Katia and the six children they have together, but also to his sexual desires for young men, something Katia must have been aware of but seems to have ignored. Some of Mann’s repressed feelings for these men find their way into his writing, such as in Death in Venice where the middle-aged von Aschenbach becomes infatuated with the beautiful young Tadzio. Katia herself also inspires her husband’s work; her stay in a Swiss sanatorium after becoming ill in 1911 forms the basis of The Magic Mountain, a book I haven’t read. No knowledge of Mann’s work is required, but when I came across references like that, I did feel that if I’d been more familiar with his books it would have added something extra to the experience of reading The Magician.

The novel also explores Mann’s relationship with his older brother, Heinrich, another writer, and later in the book, the focus switches more and more to Thomas and Katia’s children, giving us a glimpse of what Thomas was like as a father – but only a glimpse, because Thomas remains a remote and distant figure throughout the novel. I felt that he never fully came to life and although I did learn a lot about him, there was no warmth and I wasn’t able to connect with him on an emotional level. I think a non-fiction book on Mann would probably have worked better for me.

However, as well as telling the story of Thomas Mann’s life, Tóibín also tells the story of the first half of the 20th century; not much time is spent on World War I, but I did find it interesting to see World War II unfold from the perspective of the Manns, a family who leave Germany for their own safety and become part of the German émigré community in Los Angeles. Although it takes Thomas a while to come to terms with what is happening in his home country, once he does he becomes a public critic of the Nazi regime. He also worries about the future of his own books and the loss of the freedom to write material that everybody is able to read:

He contemplated the idea that someday in the near future his books would be withdrawn in Germany, and it frightened him. He thought back to Buddenbrooks and The Magic Mountain, the books for which he was most famous, and realized that they would have been paler books, less confident, less intense, had he known when he was writing them that no German would be permitted to read them.

The Magician is a book that I admired, but not one that I loved. I’ll continue to read other books by Tóibín, but I think I prefer the way he writes about fictional characters rather than real ones.

This is book 40/50 read for the Historical Fiction Reading Challenge 2022.