Kate Riordan’s 2015 novel The Girl in the Photograph is one of many to be compared to the Daphne du Maurier classic Rebecca, but apart from being set in a country house and having a few Gothic undertones, I couldn’t see many similarities. It is, however, an interesting read in its own right, exploring some of the social issues faced by women who lived during less enlightened time periods.
This is a dual-timeline novel, but unlike most, which have one thread set in the present and the other in the past, both narratives in this book are historical. In 1932, we meet Alice Eveleigh, a young woman of twenty-two who lives with her parents and works in an office as a junior typist. With many of her friends becoming engaged, Alice is worried that she will be ‘left on the shelf’, so she is flattered when the new accountant at work, a handsome older man, begins an affair with her. Unfortunately, he is already married and when she inevitably finds herself pregnant, he refuses to leave his wife for her. On discovering what has happened, Alice’s mother quickly packs her off to stay with an old friend at remote Fiercombe Manor where she can give birth away from prying eyes and have the baby adopted.
After arriving at Fiercombe Manor, Alice becomes intrigued by hints of the house’s tragic past, picking up snippets of information about Elizabeth Stanton, whose husband Edward was the Manor’s previous owner. Alice attempts to learn more about Elizabeth from Mrs Jelphs, the housekeeper, but it seems that she is reluctant to talk. Not ready to give up, Alice finds Elizabeth’s diary and gradually her secrets begin to be revealed.
Elizabeth’s story, set in 1898, unfolds alongside Alice’s in alternating chapters, allowing us to see parallels between the lives of the two women. Like Alice, Elizabeth is expecting a baby; unlike Alice, she has a husband, but she still feels very alone. Edward is controlling and distrustful and they don’t have a close or loving relationship, but as Elizabeth’s narrative progresses we begin to wonder whether she is really the most reliable of narrators and whether something could have happened to cause Edward to turn against her.
The Girl in the Photograph is a beautifully written novel, with lovely, vivid descriptions of the old house surrounded by yew trees, the formal gardens and terraces, and the views of rolling meadows and setting suns. Riordan creates an eerie atmosphere, with some very subtle ghostly/supernatural elements. However, I found the book very slow and unnecessarily long – I felt that some of Alice’s chapters could probably have been left out without affecting the overall story too much. Still, the novel offers some fascinating insights into what it was like to be a pregnant woman in the 1930s or the 1890s. Attitudes of society towards unmarried mothers, the challenges of postnatal depression and ‘puerperal insanity’, and the general lack of understanding of women’s mental health issues are some of the subjects Riordan touches upon.
Although I felt that this book didn’t have much, apart from the quality of the writing, to set it apart from others of this type, I thought it was still a worthwhile read. I see Kate Riordan has written several other novels which all sound interesting too.