Mistress of Mellyn really creeped me out. There I was sitting up in bed at midnight, the dark only relieved by the light from my iPad screen. And I really felt uncomfortable. Uncomfortable enough to turn on my bedside light.
That is how good Victoria Holt’s writing is. She had me swept up in this Gothic romance set in Cornwall. Even though there were obvious references to Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca, Wilkie Collin’s The Woman in White, Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre and Henry James’ novella “The Turn of the Screw,” nevertheless this story of the governess’s love for her employer and her attempts to solve the mystery surrounding his wife’s death kept me up. Until 4 am!
What is it about Victoria Holt that is so compelling? She immediately creates sympathy for her heroine by writing in first-person in such a way that we are in Martha’s head, and privy to Martha’s thoughts. And what does Martha think of herself?
“…my brown velvet bonnet, tied with brown velvet ribbons under my chin, was of the sort which was so becoming to feminine people like my sister Phillida but, I always felt, sat a little incongruously on head like mine. My hair was thick with a coppery finger, parted in the center, brought down at the sides of my too-long face…My eyes were large, in some lights the color of amber, and were my best feature; but they were too bold…”
Re-reading this passage in the light of the events that happen to Martha it is possible to see that she is a beautiful young woman. However, she doesn’t think she is, and that is what makes her so endearing to the reader. So we are invested in Martha from the start, and as we follow her on that train down to Cornwall, meeting an impertinent young man who pretends to read her hand:
“I see a child there and a man…perhaps it is the child’s father. They are wrapped in shadows. There is someone else there…but perhaps she is already dead.”
It was the deep sepulchral note in his voice rather than the words he said which momentarily unnerved me.
I snatched my hand away. “What nonsense!” I said.
He ignored me and half closed his eyes. Then he went on: “You will need to watch little Alice, and your duties will extend beyond the care of her. You must most certainly beware of Alice.”
I felt a faint tingling which began at the base of my spine and seemed to creep up my neck. This, I supposed, was what is known as making one’s flesh creep.
Here, Victoria Holt deftly drops in hints that all is not well at Mellyn House where Martha is to take up the post of governess. Is this young man just toying with Martha? Or should she heed his warning? And who is Alice? The little girl she is to take care of is called “Alvean.” The reader is intrigued and hooked, and turns the page wanting to find out more. If you have never read Victoria Holt before, you are in for a treat. Five Stars.