Genre: Gothic, Historical: European, Mystery/Thriller
The Secrets of Hartwood Hall is a traditional Gothic novel that suffers from uneven pacing and a lack of tension. While I was intrigued by some of the themes, overall the book was a bit of a drag to get through.
Margaret Lennox is a young widow who is facing poverty after the death of her husband. A former governess, Margaret takes a job at the remote Hartwood Hall teaching ten-year-old Louis Eversham.
Right away there are hints that not everything is normal at Hartwood Hall. Louis’ mother, the widowed Mrs. Eversham, keeps a very small staff for the large hall. The east wing is closed off and forbidden to the staff as well. Lastly, Louis has spent almost no time outside of the grounds of the house, and Margaret is forbidden from letting him out of her sight.
That sense of paranoia and wrongness is key to a good Gothic, but the initial tension from the strangeness of Margaret’s new job slackens as the novel continues. The indications that all is not right at Hartwood Hall are sprinkled throughout the first two-thirds of the book, but they are overshadowed by other, less sinister, elements.
For example, in fully Gothic creepy developments, we learn that Louis had a sister named Isabella who died tragically when he was five years old. Margaret believes she sees someone moving around the east wing and at times wonders if Isabella could still be alive and hidden away.
That delightful creepiness is overshadowed by the subplot of one of the housekeepers, Susan, blackmailing Margaret. Margaret’s sister-in-law sends her a letter that states that her mother believes Margaret may have poisoned her late husband; Susan steals this letter and blackmails Margaret, threatening to show it to Mrs. Eversham and get her fired. The Susan subplot is necessary to move the book along but it felt like more time was spent there than on the creepy supernatural elements that make up a Gothic, and that I was looking for.
Additionally, time is spent on Margaret healing from her toxic marriage. Her late husband was a vicar who stripped her of her agency, forcing her to live a narrow life that he believed was proper for a vicar’s wife. Margaret is still reeling from those elements of control and abuse, even as she begins a forbidden affair with the Hartwood Hall gardener, Paul.
There’s nothing wrong with this element of the book, but it’s not woven into the narrative in a way that gels with the Gothic “what is going on in this house” plotline. Instead it feels like the book is divided into distinct sections of Gothic mystery and a novel about a woman healing from an abusive marriage and regaining her agency.
Finally, when we do find out what is really going on with the Evershams and Hartwood Hall, a lot of action happens very quickly and I thought that some of the major elements that are revealed
Overall, this novel was made up of of intriguing elements and themes, but they never quite came together smoothly, making for an uneven reading experience. Sometimes I was reading a Gothic, which I expected, and other times I was reading a women’s fiction novel about personal recovery. The result was that the tension that should have been present from the creepy Gothic bits slackened or disappeared entirely as more attention was paid to Margaret’s emotional healing, disrupting the overall pacing and effect.
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Elyse great review. I’ve got this from the library and am finding it slow going. Glad to hear it isn’t just me!
Oh dear. Katie’s videos are terrific–I discovered them when reading Bleak House in 2020–but was worried her novel wouldn’t be all that great.