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Congratulations! It’s a bouncing, baby… gothic?

Horace Walpole's Twickenham house, Strawberry Hill, gleaming white in spring sunshine, soon after restoration. [photo credit: Chiswick Chap via Creative Commons license]

Horace Walpole’s Twickenham house, Strawberry Hill, gleaming white in spring sunshine, soon after restoration. [photo credit: Chiswick Chap via Creative Commons license]

He loved the idea of old castles and gothic cathedrals. He just didn’t happen to have one lying around. So Horace Walpole, 4th Earl of Orford, decided that if he couldn’t get them the old-fashioned way (by inheriting or marrying them), he’d have to make his own. From a couple of cottages in Twickenham, he built Strawberry Hill, a gothic castle in miniature. Turrets, battlements, cloisters, suits of armor, vaulted ceilings, rose windows—from 1747 until his death in 1797, Walpole kept adding them all. The only thing missing was a ghost.

Then one night in June, 1764, Walpole woke from a strange dream in his bed at Strawberry Hill.

I had thought myself in an ancient castle… and that on the uppermost bannister of a great staircase I saw a gigantic hand in armour. In the evening I sat down and began to write.

The resulting book, The Castle of Otranto, was first published as a “discovered” medieval manuscript which Walpole claimed he had translated. But just as Strawberry Hill, Walpole’s built-from-scratch gothic became the model for a wave of Gothic revival architecture, so too did Otranto, his medieval forgery, give birth to the gothic novel as a genre that was to eventually include works from Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, Bram Stoker’s Dracula, the Bronte sisters Wuthering Heights and Jane Eyre, Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey, and on down to modern heirs such as Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca, Stephen King’s Salem’s Lot, and untold others.

Today my guest is a very worthy successor to those gothic novel greats. Frances Evesham says she’s fascinated by the Victorians, especially the women in England, so complex and human, hiding longings, ambitions and repressed passions under society’s stifling conventions. She joins us to talk about writing, life, and Victorian viagra.

frances-croppedAuthor Frances Evesham can’t believe her luck, spending her days writing and collecting grandsons, Victorian trivia, and stories of ancestors. Cooking with a glass of wine in one hand and a bunch of chillies in the other, Frances devours books full of mystery, murder and adventure, pages spattered with olive oil and scented with rosemary and garlic, spines propped up on piles of lemons and oranges in
the kitchen. Writing the Thatcham Hall Mysteries leaves just enough time to enjoy bad jokes and puns, and wish she’d kept on with those piano lessons.

NEWS! ⇒Frances Evesham is offering a digital copy of Danger at Thatcham Hall to the first person who comments on this post. 

  1. What is the single biggest challenge of creating the settings in your novels? Writing historical mysteries means I get to spend hours happily reading and researching the time and place I’m describing, and call it work. The Thatcham Hall Mysteries are set mainly in a great country house in 19th century England, so I have great fun discovering fascinating facts about the era. I found arsenic poisoning was a common way for Victorians to die. They used it everywhere: in the new, fashionable green wallpaper that Queen Victoria used in Buckingham Palace; in the green dye of dresses; in “Dr Simms Arsenic Complexion Wafers and Medicated Arsenic Soap;” designed to give a woman a rosy complexion; and in a ‘pure’ form which men took to improve sexual function. Unfortunately, death often followed on the heels of such a use of “Victorian Viagra,” but at least those men died happy. The challenge, of course, is dragging myself away from the research. But once I have the characters, the setting and the plot, for I love a proper plot, I get into my writing zone and live in the 19th century until I finish.
  2. Are the names of the characters in your novels significant? Names have such significance to a reader. I can never use the name Beryl, because I used to know a Beryl in primary school with a runny nose. The names must be appropriate to the period, and convey the right kind of vibes. The hero in Danger at Thatcham Hall is called Nelson, because he was born at a time when the name was popular in England, following Admiral Nelson’s victories at sea. It’s a dashing name, with a hint of poignancy, for Nelson lost an arm and an eye in battle. I also choose names that have lost their popularity, like Epiphanius. One of my husband’s ancestors, Epiphanius Evesham, was a sculptor, born on the Feast of the Epiphany on 6 January. It’s a name that trips beautifully off the tongue. I’d love to bring it back into use, but my children steadfastly refuse it for the grandsons.
  3. What are you working on right now? With two Thatcham Hall mysteries under my belt, I’m busy on the third. It’s such fun deciding who gets to be murdered!
  4. Best guilty pleasure ever? The first time I ate a whole packet of biscuits all by myself: I was in the 6th form (aged 17) at school and we were, being almost adult, at last allowed out to the shops during the day. I bought a packet of squashed fly biscuits (also known as garibaldis) full of currants, and scoffed the lot. If I’m allowed two guilty pleasures, I’d add not eating the crusts on my sandwiches. I was born just postwar, when food was precious and rationed, and my parents, quite rightly, forbade waste. Oh, the joy of being a grown up and leaving those horrid, dry, butterless edges on the plate!
  5. What’s the best writing advice you’ve ever heard? Stephen King gives a whole bookfull of great advice, in “On Writing.” Apart from that, I love Jane Austen’s description of the need for attention to detail: “The little bit (two inches wide) of ivory on which I work with so fine a brush as produces little effect after much labour.”

Blurb

img_0233Ambitious lawyer Nelson Roberts, jilted by his fiancée and embittered by war, trusts no one. He jumps at the chance to make a name for himself solving the mysterious thefts and violence at Thatcham Hall, a country house in Victorian England.

Olivia Martin, headstrong and talented, dreams of a career as a musician. She’ll do anything it takes to avoid a looming miserable fate as a governess.

The pair stumble on a body. Is the farmhand’s death a simple accident, or something more sinister? Who attacked the livestock at the Hall and why are the villagers so reluctant to talk? Can Nelson and Olivia overcome their differences and join forces to unravel the web of evil that imperils the Hall?



4 1/2 gold starMy Review: 4.5  stars out of 5

In John Bowen’s talk filmed at Horace Walpole’s miniature gothic Strawberry Hill—birthplace of the gothic novel—the Professor of 19th century literature at the University of York lists the essential elements of the gothic genre. Danger at Thatcham Hall, Frances Evesham’s latest novel, provides a seamless illustration of each point:

  • A proper gothic requires its heroine to be transported to a strange place, such as a wilderness or prison. When Olivia Martin’s father dies leaving his wife and daughter in dire financial straits, they accept her cousin Hugh’s offer of an empty manor house near his own estate, Thatcham Hall. Although only a train ride from London’s amenities, the English countryside is a place full of unknown terrors for London-raised Olivia, who we first meet during her encounter with a terrifying horned beast—which turns out to be a placidly grazing Jersey milk cow. Her fear is mocked by an elegant stranger, barrister Nelson Roberts, also a London transplant brought in by Lord Thatcham when one of his servants is falsely accused of animal maiming. In best gothic fashion, her relief that the cow isn’t an attacking bull is short-lived, as another stumble leads to the discovery of a murdered body. Of course, a proper gothic also includes a contrast from the past, and Olivia soon meets that in the form of a strange young boy and his even stranger grandmother, whose tragic history is connected to both Thatcham Hall and to Nelson Robert’s military service as a British Major during a botched Afghan campaign.
  • Power is always a theme in gothics, and frequently expressed in their fascination with sexuality. Vulnerable young women are threatened, either explicitly with rape or at least with the sexual power of patriarchal figures who seem to have no restraints on their desires. But the gothic is all about the ways in which those seemingly fragile and vulnerable women triumph over such supposedly unbeatable forces. In Danger at Thatcham Hall, Olivia is indeed vulnerable, seemingly without protection or resources. As she and Nelson investigate the mysterious deaths and other events, however, we learn that she is both self-reliant and strong, with a plan to escape her fate. The hero, interestingly, is not part of this power dynamic. His job, plain and simple, is to be strong, preferably witty, and save the heroine while (unsuccessfully, of course) attempting to conceal his tortured soul (from which torment, of course, she rescues him). Olivia senses the darkness and conflict in Nelson, suffering from what we would today call post-traumatic stress disorder.
  • The indispensable tools of the Gothic-genre are the uncanny and the sublime. The former surfaces as Olivia and Nelson see familiar items used in peculiar ways, such as personal items stolen from Lord Thatcham’s family, rope with strange items twisted into it, or seemingly innocent herbs. For eighteenth century readers and still today, terrifying and overwhelming natural events such as storms or fire—things outside of the usual categories of beautiful or harmonious—contained sublime meaning. In Danger at Thatcham Hall, for example, a storm rages the night Nelson is accused of murder, while a climactic fire provides answers to the final mysteries.
  • As they describe frightening events, gothics usually fall into either terror or horror categories. Some, such as Frankenstein or Dracula, embrace supernatural phenomena to evoke horror. One of the early masters of the gothic, Ann Radcliffe, believed that terror could be “morally uplifting” by not explicitly showing horrific events, but only warning readers of their possibility. Horror, on the other hand, would describe those events fully, and thus be “morally bad”. In choosing terror over horror, the writers often looked for a natural or realistic explanation for perceived supernatural phenomena. For example, the ghostly sounds and events Jane Eyre witnesses prove to be caused by her lover’s very-much-alive hidden wife. As they investigate the mysteries in Danger at Thatcham Hall, Olivia and Nelson hear whispers of witchcraft, curses, and echoes of past evil.

It is such a pleasure to see an expert at work, and Frances Evesham is clearly a master of the gothic novel genre. Danger at Thatcham Hall is the second book in her Thatcham Hall Mysteries, but also stands well on its own. The main characters, Olivia Martin and Nelson Roberts, are at the same time perfectly shaped by their world and struggling against the limits imposed by their backgrounds and demographics. By rights, as the daughter of an impoverished widow, Olivia should be destined for a life as a governess or paid companion. Nelson should have been at the center of a group of military heroes telling tall tales of his exploits. But she is determined to earn a living with her music, while he struggles to make a name for himself as a barrister. Frances Evesham’s technique of alternating points of view between the two main characters allows us see them both from the outside and also get a glimpse of the people beneath their conventional facades. The Victorian vocabulary of the gothic is particularly entertaining, such as Olivia becoming properly “breathless” when being carried by Nelson. And I’m no expert on Victorian times, but I’m bowled over by the amount of period detail and research she commands.

My complaints are fairly minor. Even Victorians, I believe, would not be so formal in private as to have Miss Dainty refer to her cousin and friend Olivia as “Miss Martin” even when the two are alone. More significantly, I just couldn’t buy the final revelation of the identity of the villain who is manipulating the whole chain of events. Without going into spoiler-territory, I have to say I didn’t see enough buildup in the story to ever believe that “the villain” could possibly have the understanding and depth to influence and/or cause the events.

But overall, for the pitch-perfect orchestration of the gothic genre in all its elements, for the beautifully paced and written narrative, and for the creation of two wonderful lead characters, I would give Danger at Thatcham Hall four and a half stars out of five. And I certainly can’t wait for the next book in this incredible series!


rosie3I reviewed Danger at Thatcham Hall for Rosie’s Book Review Team.

*I received this book for free from the publisher or author in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.

Book Title: Danger at Thatcham Hall
Author: 
Frances Evesham
Genre: 
 Gothic Novel
Length:
282 pages
Publisher:
The Wild Rose Press, Inc (July 3, 2015)

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Excerpt

Aghast, Olivia slid to a halt, half lying in the stream. Water seeped into both boots, chilling skin, bone and muscle. Her woollen skirt mushroomed, the dress absorbing moisture until damp fabric outlined every curve of her body.

The stranger watched, eyes widening. Oh! He was staring at her—at her—no, Olivia could hardly even think the words. He could see her—her shape. Shame drove out the chill, reddening her chest, and heightening the dreadful humiliation. Oh, if only the earth would open and swallow her whole! She gulped, strove for words, but none came.

Wait. The stranger wasn’t watching her at all. His gaze travelled further, coming to rest beyond Olivia. He stared, the knowing smile fading, and Olivia’s insides turned to horrified pulp. What could he see? Something terrible? Slowly, heart hammering inside a tight chest, she twisted, awkward in the flow of water, to peer over one shoulder.

A brown boot, heavy and cracked with wear, wavered in the stream, barely an inch from Olivia’s fingers. She gasped. A swollen leg bulged from the battered leather, the pale stretch of waxen flesh exposed through torn brown trousers. Olivia snatched back her hand, biting the knuckles to stifle a scream.

The man’s body lay on its back, head half submerged, as the current stroked wisps of black hair across a pale cheek.

jersey-star

YOUR CHANCE TO WIN! ⇒Frances Evesham is offering a digital copy of Danger at Thatcham Hall to the first person who comments on this post. 

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