I remember Helen wrote about this with enthusiasm some years ago and, since then, I’ve been keen to read it. Fortunately I found a copy during a very ‘productive’ recent visit to Hay-on-Wye and pounced upon it with great glee as ideal summer reading. Although I’ve had Mary Stewart’s Merlin novels sitting on my shelf for some time, this is the first of her books that I’ve actually read and so I wasn’t quite sure what to expect. But with delight I found myself drawn into its deliciously Gothic modern tale of a governess in a remote French chateau: a tale of avarice, greed and attempted murder. After all, when you are alone in the world, who can you trust?
Having spent most of her childhood in an orphanage, Linda Martin finally sees a way out of her dead-end life when one of the institution’s supporters recommends her to a friend for a job. This friend, Madame de Valmy, is a French chatelaine looking for a governess for her nine-year-old nephew Philippe, also an orphan. A shy, quiet English girl seems to be just the thing. There’s only one problem: Madame de Valmy is quite clear that she doesn’t want a girl who can speak French, as she wants the governess to speak only English with Philippe. Linda is half-English and half-French, but she decides to hide this inconvenient fact in favour of securing the job of her dreams. And so, presently, she finds herself heading off to Paris and thence to Valmy, a sprawling and beautiful chateau in the wooded hills near the Swiss border. Here she meets her new family properly: fragile, cold Madame de Valmy; her dangerously charismatic husband Léon de Valmy, confined to a wheelchair by a tragic accident; and, of course, Linda’s new charge Philippe.
From the moment Linda arrives at Valmy, it crackles with low-level tension. There are many things she doesn’t quite understand, even with her secret knowledge of French. Léon de Valmy is saturnine, shrewd and devilish, this she knows; but why is Philippe so afraid of the man who’s both his uncle and his trustee? Why is there such antipathy between Léon and his own son, the equally brooding Raoul, who crashes in and out of Linda’s susceptible life like a comet? How can she gain the trust of little Philippe, who has spent his short life being manipulated by adults? And how can she find a real place among the Valmys without giving up her own secret: that she can speak French fluently? Just as Linda thinks that she’s beginning to understand the workings of this strange, ancient, troubled family, there’s an unpleasant new development. A series of curious accidents start to happen to Philippe. If Linda didn’t know better, she’d think someone was trying to kill him. But who would possibly want to murder a child?
Taking its inspiration from Jane Eyre, but bringing it firmly into the modern age (or at least the late 1950s) with motor cars, telephones and aeroplanes, this proved to be an unexpectedly addictive mystery. Its characters are playfully conscious of their own antecedents: Léon de Valmy sees himself as a kind of Rochester, while the title comes from The Revenger’s Tragedy, which is also referenced in the text. Nine coaches wait to whisk people away to a palace ball, full of elegance, festivity and glamour – but the glittering allure of these frivolities hides the wickedness simmering beneath: things of the senses are, of course, the devil’s territory. In the midst of this world, Linda makes an appealing heroine, capable and resilient, yet also plausibly girlish in certain ways (e.g. when faced with the dashing charms of Raoul de Valmy). And the modern setting doesn’t take away from the old-fashioned style of life at Valmy, with its secretive servants, whispering locals, and occasional extravagant parties. As the story progresses, Stewart ratchets up the tension to such effect that the final chapters almost fly by, highly-seasoned and melodramatic though they are – but honestly, by this stage in the novel I was so caught up in Linda’s world that I didn’t mind a jot.
This was a thoroughly enjoyable introduction to Mary Stewart – I loved it – and I’ll definitely dig out more of her work. Stormy Petrel was another novel that I picked up in Hay and, as I said, I have the Merlin books waiting to be read, so there’s plenty to keep me amused. What are the other books that I should especially look out for?