The Girl Who Couldn’t Read by John Harding

The Girl Who Couldn't Read Three years ago I read John Harding’s Florence and Giles and loved it, so I was pleased to find a copy of The Girl Who Couldn’t Read in the library. It’s a sequel and will make more sense if you’ve read Florence and Giles first, but don’t worry if you haven’t because it should still work perfectly well as a standalone.

The story is set in the 1890s and is narrated by Doctor Shepherd, who has just arrived at his new job in a women’s mental hospital on an isolated island in New England. Taking a tour of the hospital’s facilities with his new colleague, Doctor Morgan, he is appalled by some of the methods being used to control the patients. When he tells the other doctor of his concerns, Morgan agrees to an experiment: Shepherd can choose one of the women to work with using his own methods in an attempt to prove whether gentle, humane treatment can be as effective as harshness and brutality.

The patient Doctor Shepherd picks for his experiment is a young girl known as Jane Dove – she says she can’t remember her real name, her age or anything about her past. She is also unable to read (and claims that she has never been allowed to learn) and, according to Doctor Morgan, she can’t even use the English language correctly. It seems Shepherd’s task could turn out to be a lot harder than he’d expected! After spending some time with Jane, though, he begins to realise that while the girl’s speech is unconventional, the way she uses nouns and verbs actually makes perfect sense.

She invented new words from old, often by changing the way they were used. She said “we outsided” rather than “we went outside”, or “I downstairsed” in place of “I went downstairs”, both of which I found perfectly clear and actually more economical than the conventional expression.

Jane immediately reminded me of a character from Florence and Giles – another girl who used language in a creative and unusual way. As Doctor Shepherd continues to work with her, encouraging her to search her memory and giving her books to look at, the connection between Jane and that other girl becomes clear. But what about Shepherd himself? It’s obvious from the very first chapter that he is not who he says he is either…and possibly not even a doctor at all!

I love books with unreliable narrators and Doctor Shepherd is a very intriguing one. We know that he is unreliable, we know that he is not being honest with us – but we don’t know why and we don’t know who he really is. The truth about Shepherd isn’t revealed until near the end of the novel, but along the way there are plenty of plot twists and surprises! And to make things even more interesting, Doctor Shepherd and Jane Dove aren’t the only people in the story with secrets to hide; there’s also a third mystery and this one made me think of a classic Victorian novel – an impression that grew stronger as the story progressed.

The Girl Who Couldn’t Read is a great book – it’s maybe not quite as good as Florence and Giles but it comes very close! I did wonder whether the setting might make it too similar to The Asylum by John Harwood, which I read just a few weeks ago, but fortunately they are two very different novels with very different plots and characters. I thoroughly enjoyed them both!

Florence and Giles by John Harding

I hadn’t even heard of Florence and Giles until recently but as soon as I saw that it had been described as a gothic thriller and compared to Henry James and Edgar Allan Poe I knew I wanted to read it – and it went straight onto my list for the RIP challenge!

Florence and Giles could be considered a loose retelling of The Turn of the Screw by Henry James (the first clue is in the title as the children in The Turn of the Screw are called Flora and Miles) but if you haven’t read the Henry James book yet it doesn’t matter at all because this is a great story in its own right.

The book is set in 1891 and the Florence and Giles of the title are two orphans who live at Blithe House, a mansion in New England. The house belongs to their uncle, but Florence and Giles never see him – he never comes to visit and prefers to leave the children under the care of the servants. Soon Giles is sent away to school and twelve-year-old Florence is left behind because her uncle disapproves of education for girls. After secretly teaching herself to read and write, Florence spends her days hiding in a forgotten tower room with books she’s smuggled out of the library.

This seems a good place to mention Florence’s narrative style, which is one of the most unusual I’ve ever come across. Although she’s been denied a formal education, she’s an intelligent and imaginative girl who has created her own private language with a very strange way of using nouns, verbs and adjectives! Here, for example, she describes Blithe House:

A house uncomfortabled and shabbied by prudence, a neglect of a place, tightly pursed (my absent uncle having lost interest in it), leaked and rotted and mothed and rusted, dim lit and crawled with dark corners, so that, even though I have lived here all of my life that I can remember, sometimes, especially on a winter’s eve in the fadery of twilight, it shivers me quite.

The whole story is written in this way. The ‘unbroomed’ library is a ‘dustery of disregard’, her bedroom becomes a ‘smugglery of books’ and she ‘lonelies’ her way around the big house. It did take me a few chapters to get used to Florence’s voice but I loved it because it was so creative and different.

Anyway, back to the story: when Giles is removed from his school after being bullied, a governess is appointed so he can continue his education at home. But as soon as Miss Taylor arrives at Blithe House some strange things begin to happen and Florence starts to believe that she and her brother could be in serious danger. Is Florence right? Can we trust her? We don’t know, but as she’s the book’s only narrator we have no choice but to read on.

Florence and Giles has a wonderfully dark and gothic feel and has everything this type of book should have: the spooky mansion, the mysterious guardian, the sinister governess…Even the quirkiness of Florence’s narrative voice adds to the unsettling feel. Not everything is explained or tied up at the end of the book, but I felt there’d been enough clues throughout the story for me to draw my own conclusions.

I can’t remember who it was that first brought this book to my attention, but as Florence might say, ‘I grateful them!’