It’s 1852 and Margaret Lennox, a young widow, is offered a position as governess at Hartwood Hall. She quickly accepts, hoping this isolated country house will allow her to leave her past behind.
Cut off from the village, Margaret soon starts to feel there’s something odd about her new home, despite her growing fondness for her bright, affectionate pupil, Louis. There are strange figures in the dark, tensions between servants and an abandoned east wing. Even stranger is the local gossip surrounding Mrs Eversham, Louis’s widowed mother, who is deeply distrusted in the village.
Margaret finds distraction in a forbidden relationship with the gardener, Paul. But despite his efforts to reassure her, Margaret is certain that everyone here has something hide. And as Margaret’s own past threatens to catch up with her, she must learn to trust her instincts before it’s too late…
The Secrets of Hartwood Hall is a chilling gothic mystery, and an authentic and atmospheric love letter to Victorian fiction.
Many thanks to the publishers and to the Squadpod for my proof copy of The Secrets of Hartwood Hall. This has been an excellent pick for our Squadpod bookclub, as there’s so much to discuss!
I really enjoyed this story. It’s such a clever mix of familiar Victorian motifs and refreshingly original twists. We have a young governess, but she’s no naive innocent – she’s both an experienced teacher (who takes her profession seriously, unlike some governesses in Victorian literature!) and a formerly married woman, whose husband has passed away. We also have a crumbling stately home, ripe for all sorts of ghostly gothic adventures, but again, there’s a new take: there is no master of the house house here, just Mrs Eversham, her son, and a handful of servants. Things also get steamier than your typical Victorian novel would allow, with Paul the hot gardener gracing us with his literary-crush-worthy presence!
I won’t go into the plot too much, as the way it plays out is all part of the joy of reading this book, but I will say that it’s a gripping read, one of those ‘just one more chapter’ books that keep you reading until way past your bedtime! I was so engrossed by the story and the characters – especially poor Louis, Margaret’s charge, who has experienced so little of the world that his trips to church with Margaret feel like an adventure. The author does a wonderful job of capturing his personality, and it is easy to see why Margaret grows so fond of him. Their bond is a lovely thing to see develop – and as I mentioned before, it’s refreshing to see a governess who actually does a great deal of teaching! There are characters to loathe as well, such as the nasty piece of work that is Susan – although I will give her credit for the tension she injects into the plot, as I came to dread her next move as much as Margaret does!
The writing is really strong – Hartwood Hall comes to life in all its creepy, lonely glory, and there are moments of genuine fear provoked by the gothic atmosphere and strange events. Margaret, too, feels complex and rounded as a character as she wrestles with her conscience and big life decisions. And – no spoilers – when the ‘secrets’ finally come to light, they are both unexpected and everything you’d want them to be.
I loved this book because it gave me all the vibes of those hefty Victorian novels I read at university but with a much pacier, more intriguing plot, and characters whose sensibilities spoke to me more – the best of both worlds, nineteenth century and contemporary, you might say! I will definitely be looking out for more from this author after reading this fantastic debut.
The Secrets of Hartwood Hall by Katie Lumsden is published by Michael Joseph and is available to purchase here.