asylum

 

Weary, windswept, and wet, a young woman arrives outside Tregannon House, an estate-turned-asylum in somewhere near Cornwall in England.  She awakens with little memory of how she got there, or why. She is convinced, however, of her identity as Georgina Ferrars.  The only problem is the kind staff at the asylum assure her she arrived under the name Lucy Ashton, and the few belongings she does have support their version of events.

Frederic Mordaunt, descendant of the family whose home this once was, befriends the confused Georgina and sets her mind at ease.  He convinces her to stay for a few days, regain her strength, and allow Doctor Straker to help her recover her memory before setting off again.  Somewhat reluctantly, she does, and tries to reconcile what she does remember with what the clues tell her.

This is a Gothic novel with everything — madness, captivity, a manor house, letters, solicitors, paranoia, family secrets, inheritance and mistaken identity.  For those who have read Harwood before, this book is more like The Seance than The Ghostwriter.  It is set firmly in the Victorian, with all that it brings.  Train travel, inns, carriages, arranged marriages, suppressed female characters and a mystery.

Frederic sets the frightening stage of Tregannon house here:

And of course the house — the original part, where I grew up — was built nearly eight hundred years ago.  nobody lived there anymore.  I would find it oppressive, even now; to a small boy it was profoundly so. … Well, I suffered badly from night terrors, and the housekeeper we had then — Mrs. Blazeby, her name was — used to play upon my fears, telling me bloodcurdling stories of ghosts until I did not know whether I was more afraid of falling asleep or staying awake.  A house as old as that is never entirely still, even in the dead of night, with a  myriad of tiny creatures gnawing away at fabric, not to mention –” He stopped abruptly, colouring.  ~Pg. 34

But we also get a unnerving view of Victorian London here:

Seen through the grimy windows of a cab, London by night looked truly infernal.  Gaslight flared over wet cobbles; blackened figures moved amidst the glow and smoke of braziers, sending grotesque shadows capering across the walls behind them.  I had passed beyond exhaustion into a strange, febrile, hallucinatory state in which the prospect of food, bath, and bed receded endlessly before me.  ~Pg. 85

The two settings are the archetypal country versus city, but both are equally unsettling. For the young heroine, there is no safe place for her.

Blackman Street Borough, London by John Atkinson Grimshaw
Blackman Street Borough, London by John Atkinson Grimshaw

The novel is epistolary in parts, typical of the genre, and here is allows the reader to gain knowledge before the protagonist — effectively raising tension for us.  The final confrontation is a little bit unrealistic, but only a little.  The book as a whole is so engrossing and enjoyable that it hardly matters.  Readers will enjoy this tight, compact mystery that takes after Wilkie Collins and the like.

Additionally, enthusiasts of the era simply must check out Victorian London by Lee Jackson and the Virtual Victorian by Essie Fox.

Many thanks to Houghton Mifflin Harcourt for the review copy.
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Hardcover: 272 pages
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt; 1 edition (May 21, 2013)
Language: English
ISBN-10: 0544003470
ISBN-13: 978-0544003477
Product Dimensions: 9.1 x 5.8 x 1.1 inches

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