An isolated house allegedly filled with ghostly presences. Two women mired in restrictive social circumstances and linked over a generation. Secrets from the past reawakened years later. Atmospheric and resonant with emotion, Kate Riordan’s saga has many elements of the traditional gothic novel but is in other ways a refreshing departure.
Fiercombe Manor in Gloucestershire, a Tudor-era dwelling crafted of golden stone, sits at the base of a valley “so steep that it’s like an amphitheatre.” As Alice Eveleigh wanders the grounds and gets to know her temporary home during the languid summer of 1933, her observations form an inviting travelogue of this hidden corner of the Cotswolds.
Left pregnant after a brief affair with a married man, Alice is forced by her parents to leave London to stay with her mother’s old friend, Edith Jelphs, the housekeeper at Fiercombe, until the baby is born – after which it will be taken away and brought to an orphanage. Away from her mother’s disapproval, Alice thrives in her new environment, though her pretense of being a widow proves to be tiring. Mrs. Jelphs is kindly but cautiously watchful, more so as Alice begins quietly uncovering a local mystery. A previous mistress of the estate, Lady Elizabeth Stanton was a dark-haired beauty who lived in nearby Stanton House in the late 19th century and who was pressured to produce a son.
Why was Stanton House dismantled, and what became of Elizabeth and her daughter Isabel?
Hints of tragedy, inherited madness, and restrictions placed upon women wind through this dual-period novel, but while it offers occasional frissons of suspense, it lacks the terrifying menace typically found in the genre. The pacing is leisurely, and despite a past that holds overwhelming sadness, Fiercombe is a lovely setting in which to linger. If you google “Owlpen Manor,” the place that inspired it, you can visualize its charm.