Originally published in June 2005, on my original 52 Books blog.
Warning: Minor SPOILERS
Kate Malvern is left alone in the world after the death of her father, and discovers she is too young and too pretty to get work as a governess. Her former nursemaid, Sarah, writes to Kate’s estranged aunt, telling her of Kate’s misfortunes, and the aunt soon arrives and sweeps Kate off to her mansion. It soon becomes clear that aunt Minerva has ulterior motives in bringing Kate to Staplewood, and Kate’s sense of uneasiness is increased by the erratic and often violent temper of her very handsome cousin, Torquil. When Torquil’s cousin Philip appears on the scene, Kate’s feelings are thrown into an oproar: she sees that he despises her, but she still feels attracted to him, and when his misconceptions about her are cleared up, he starts showing interest in her. But her aunt has other plans, Torquil’s behaviour keeps getting stranger and stranger, and it looks as if Kate and Philip may not be able to be together after all.
Up until I read this book, I had considered Georgette Heyer to be a skilful and diverting writer of funny historical novels with romances at the centre. This book, however, is not a comedy at all. There are no misadventures and silly secondary lovers, and romantic feelings crop up much sooner in this book than in the others I’ve read. It is, in fact, closer to being a typical romance than the other Heyer books I have read. But it is about much more than romance. It’s a psychological thriller, a gothic novel with the supernatural element removed (gothic lite perhaps?), with its theme of a (seemingly) helpless female, isolated and trapped in a big house with people who are not all what they seem, and its atmosphere of menace and danger. Torquil’s mental illness is handled skilfully and with compassion, and he is not made out to be a villain (as would have been very easy to do), merely a poor sufferer who can not help himself. It is his mother who is the villain of the story, and her “madness” or rather obsession, is of a completely different and altogether more subtle sort.
Rating: Very good romance with gothic touches. 4 stars.