Setting: Dorset, England, 1893
When Nell Winston accepts a position as companion to Allegra Selkirk, she does not realize she may be putting her own life in danger. She thinks she has been hired by Allegra’s uncle, Gervase Montgomery, to help his niece recover from a carriage accident that killed the girl’s parents. The young heiress has neither walked nor talked since the dreadful event.
Hovering relatives and servants have discouraged Allegra’s recovery. Gervase’s hiring of Nell angers Desmond Selkirk, who currently controls Allegra’s household, so he bans him from the house. Gervase therefore asks Nell to do her best under the awkward circumstances, and to send him regular reports on his niece’s progress.
Gervase is Allegra’s legal guardian, so Desmond grudgingly allows Nell to take up her post at Hope’s End, the Selkirk’s Dorset estate. There she encounters hostility on almost every front, and her efforts to gain Allegra’s confidence invariably go awry. To make matters worse, Allegra’s attending physician, Dr. Herbert, keeps his patient well sedated with laudanum.
Nell is unexpectedly encouraged in her efforts by Hamilton Lewis, the son of neighboring nobles. Nell attempts to quash his romantic interest in her, however, because class discrimination has caused her past humiliation. As danger threatens both her and Allegra, and Gervase is temporarily out of touch, she wishes she had not been so rash.
This classic Victorian gothic romance has many pleasing aspects for lovers of the genre. There are numerous possible villains, the household members are suitably eccentric, and Hope’s End offers a previously pleasant setting now swathed in gloom and greed. There are a few too many characters, or they and their possible motives for mayhem are not distinctively presented. This may result in reader confusion of one with another. A kettle of red herrings simmers with promise.
Narrative from Nell’s journal pages adds interest to the tale, although the journal’s unguarded existence puts her at significant risk. Period detail also is nicely woven into the story, particularly the teachings of Sigmund Freud and the descriptions of the stationer’s shop.
Subplots include the secret amour of Desmond’s rebellious daughter and the star-crossed love between Allegra and her childhood sweetheart. Readers’ emotions about each of these liaisons will be fully invested. Allegra’s beloved dog, Tippy, plays an active role in the plot.
The ending leaves a few loose ends dangling, but it is otherwise creative, suspenseful, and satisfying.
Gothic romance lovers will want to savor this latest addition to Jane Peart’s excellent series of Edgecliffe Manor Mysteries. Although it is published by a religious press, this fine book contains only a few religious references that enhance, rather than intrude. Peart deftly keeps the heroine’s challenges and perils in the forefront while engaging the reader in championing two romantic subplots and trying to unravel the many motives for villainy.
ISBN 0-8007-5676-2, 218 pp., $11.99 (trade paperback), Revell, Baker Book House, Mystery, October 1998
–Kristi Lyn Glass, Publisher, Gothic Journal
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