Friday, September 9, 2016

Friday Forgotten (or Overlooked) Book: MISTRESS OF MELLYN (1960) by Victoria Holt


"There are two courses open to a gentlewoman when she finds herself in penurious circumstances," my Aunt Adelaide had said. "One is to marry, and the other is to find a post in keeping with her gentility."

I know, I know, similar in cadence to the beginning paragraph of PRIDE AND PREJUDICE, but nicely done just the same. For it tells you right away (in case you hadn't noticed the cover of a woman in her nighty running away from a mysterious castle/house) that you are in for a specific sort of book. And that is exactly the delight I take in gothic romances - that they are, indeed, a specific sort of book.

Even though I rarely read them anymore (except as rereads) I still have very fond memories of discovering the genre for myself many MANY years ago after finishing JANE EYRE and looking around for something in a similar vein. Oh yes, JANE EYRE was the first and remains the finest example of the style. Had she but known she was formulating a genre or, at least, a style of story telling, I wonder how Charlotte Bronte would have felt about it all. There's lots of the 'had she but known' thing going on in gothic story-telling, so who knows.

But Bronte owns the responsibility of having created the two essentials of the gothic romance: the penurious, strong-willed but shy and soft spoken plain-jane heroine forced to earn a living and the tall, willful, craggy-handsome hero with regrets and a bad first marriage.

I feel comfortable in saying that MISTRESS OF MELLYN will turn you into a gothic romance reader (if you aren't one already) especially if you happen to stumble across it at just the right time in your life. Of course it helps if you have already read JANE EYRE and are willing to be further enticed by romantic gloom and doom - not that Holt is the writer Bronte was, of course. But she knows how to create the necessary sinister ambience and has the knack for making her heroines likable and her heroes enigmatic.

An intelligent heroine is a given, but the key is the hero: he must never come off as a dark-browed jerk who poses in riding pants and cracks a whip. And he must always, ALWAYS be nursing a broken heart that is aching to be mended by the right sort of woman. AND most importantly, he must not be a brute. AND even if he once was, he must have gotten over it by the time the heroine comes into his life.

Gothic Romance is a phase many of us go through - mine lasted for many years and I'm happy enough now and then to revisit my favorites. I actually own a paperback copy of MISTRESS OF MELLYN as well as the hardcover (though not the first edition). It's one of those books that sort of refuses to go away.

The heroine is Martha Leigh (aka Marty to friends and family), a brave, intelligent, stalwart, plain-spoken spinster who has given up on ever having a husband. Truth is she is just too outspoken and, of course, not beautiful enough to attract a 19th century male. (Little does she know.) We first meet her as she travels to Mellyn, an eerie mansion on the Cornish coast of England. There she will be taking on the job of governess to a young headstrong girl named Alvean (she has vanquished three other governesses), at a lonely estate full of secrets. Her brooding employer, Con TreMellyn, is a handsome but stiff-necked country gentleman who has never gotten over the fact that his first wife ran off and left him and their daughter. He is not a happy man and has the money to indulge his unhappiness.

Enter Miss Leigh, the diffident red-haired governess. She almost immediately piques TreMellyn's interest, of course. That is a requisite for this sort of tale. But this interest manifests itself as annoyance, even anger.

Unaware (she's not worldly), Miss Leigh settles into her routine and begins making headway with the difficult young girl. Almost from the beginning though, she can't help but sense menace lurking within the walls of the huge house. There is something about the place that disturbs her and as she grows to like her charge and even to admire her employer, she realizes that unless the family's secrets are vanquished, Alvean's happiness (much less her father's) can never be realized.

That's always the way of course and what else is a poor inquisitive governess to do but get involved, risking life, limb and sanity.

In the end, there is a horrifying revelation as the truth finally dawns on all concerned but not before poor Miss Leigh almost pays for it with her life.

Motivation for the truly dark deeds is a bit thin, but other than that, this is a wonderful story told exceedingly well by a terrific writer who truly understands the name of the game. Holt (a pseudonym for Eleanor Hibbert) went on to write dozens of books in this genre, several of them quite memorable. Another off the top of my head: KIRKLAND REVELS.

Since it's Friday, don't forget to check in on author Patricia Abbott's blog, Pattinase, to see what other forgotten or overlooked books other bloggers are talking about today.


18 comments:

  1. I'm sure I read this book in translation when I was a teenager. Can't remember a thing about it, but maybe I should revisit it.

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    1. That's what I do, every few years or so. :)

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  2. From FantasticFiction.com :
    Victoria Holt
    UK (1906 - 1993)

    A pseudonym used by Jean Plaidy

    Eleanor Alice Burford, Mrs. George Percival Hibbert was a British author of about 200 historical novels, most of them under the pen name Jean Plaidy which had sold 14 million copies by the time of her death. She chose to use various names because of the differences in subject matter between her books; the best-known, apart from Plaidy, are Victoria Holt (56 million) and Philippa Carr (3 million). Lesser known were the novels Hibbert published under her maiden name Eleanor Burford, or the pseudonyms of Elbur Ford, Kathleen Kellow and Ellalice Tate. Many of her readers under one penname never suspected her other identities.

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    1. Good to know, Gram. Thanks for the info. I just quickly picked up Hibbert's name from a Wikipedia sidebar. Actually, I've heard of Jean Plaidy. Didn't know she was also Victoria Holt. So I was one of those readers. :)

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  3. Goodness, this post brought back memories! I was a teenager in the 1960s and loved the revival of Gothic novels. I read this book and tons of others in the genre. I'm afraid it skewed by impression of what my life was going to be like, though it did turn out to have its romance and mystery.

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    1. Me too, Joan. I bought into all of it as well. Ha! We were SO impressionable!
      I've forgotten most of what I read as a teen, but certain books will always stand out.

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  4. Loved VH who I discovered as a teenager at just the right time. MOM & KR were among my favourites, I reread them often. Also read all of Jean Plaidy & that sparked my love of history.

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    1. I've never read Jean Plaidy, Lyn, but it's never too late to start. Think I'll see what the library has or Abe Books. I'm really in a retro frame of mind these days - reading-wise. :)

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  5. For some reason I just love stories about England.
    The Ghost and Mrs. Muir, Greer Garson films-Goodbye MrChips
    Mrs Miniver,etc. yvonne

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    1. Then you will love this book, Yvonne. :) I too love stories set in England. Maybe in another life we were both English. Hey, anything's possible.

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  6. I feel uncomfortable now fearing your review alone has seduced me to stick a toe into the dangerous (for me) waters of gothic romance, which, until this very moment, I never dreamed to be even remotely plausible. What else can I say but HELLLLP...

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    1. Ha! Well, Mathew, it couldn't hurt. Who knows? You might like it. I suspect that there might be many males out there who secretly read gothic romances or for that matter, romances in general. They just don't like to advertise it. :)

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    2. I've no doubt, Yvette, and maybe some of us don't even realize we're reading romance, which most novels involving men and women interacting ultimately are.

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  7. I haven't read much Gothic romance lately, but I am sure I did when I was younger. Including Jane Eyre and Rebecca. Which I plan to reread. I don't have any Victoria Holt books, but I do have some more contemporary novels with at least an element of Gothic suspense in them. This title sounds familiar, I will have to look around for it.

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    1. Oh, I'm sure you must have read it, Tracy. Well, even if you didn't, it will probably seem very familiar. I hope you do find a copy, they're very available and cheap.

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  8. Yvette, I'm almost tempted to read not just Gothic romance but even this particular book, by an author I have never read before. It's all very pictorial. I mean, I could picture Miss Leigh and the others in the mansion.

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    1. Oh, definitely, Prashant. That's part of the reason we have always enjoyed them so much. I say: give in to temptation and find a copy. :)

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