A Country Gentleman and His Family (1886) – Margaret Oliphant

As tame as the title sounds, this novel by Margaret Oliphant is anything but a light ‘picnic in the park’ type Victorian book. It’s a dark, psychological novel with domestic themes, following the fortunes of two families: a widowed mother and her three grown children, and a widow and her young son. As is common with Mrs. Oliphant’s writing, the novel can seem quite prosy in places, but her keen observations, and her wonderful plot twists, inspire one to see what lies ahead for the interesting and well developed characters.

The story opens with the death of the old country gentleman. After her husband’s death Mrs. Warrender becomes restless and overwhelmed by her mixed emotions i.e. the joy of emancipation and the guilt of not feeling as sorrowful as she ought to during her mourning. Oliphant tackles this sensitive topic with great skill, and I was even side-tracked by my own thoughts and feelings on the subject of bereavement.

Hereafter, the novel essentially follows the lives of the three Warrender siblings: moralistic Minnie, who marries a snobbish clergyman from an old noble family, so an appropriate match really; the naïve Chatty, who is so sweet and innocent I want to marry her myself, and the hugely unlikable and egotistical Theo, who suffers from what can only be described as a borderline personality disorder. Selfish, strict and exacting, Theo Warrender is literally a brute in every sense of the word. Overcome by his jealousy and uncontrollable anger, he systematically bullies a sickly 9 year old boy, his ‘competition’ for Lady Markland’s love. I mean really? Jealous of a child who is close to his mother. Be warned … this novel becomes quite disturbing. I don’t want to spoil the ending, but Lady Markland is eventually ordered to choose between her own son and her deranged lover.

Things are equally tough for our lovely Miss Millie, the third Warrender sibling. Her love affair with Daredevil Dick Cavendish is also fraught with scandal and trouble. Without spoiling the story, we learn that Dick Cavendish has a dark history, and there are some very serious obstacles (just impediments) in the way of their marriage… but does everything turn out well for Minnie and Dick? Well that would be telling!


The Secret of Wold Hall (1905) – Evelyn Everett-Green

Evelyn Everett-Green came from a Methodist family, and many of her early works were pious ‘improving’ books aimed at children, especially at young girls. She wrote over 350 novels in her life time, some two thirds of them using her own name, the others were published under several male pseudonyms. She found it rather difficult writing at home and she struggled with the dreary town winters. As a result she eventually upped-sticks and settled in Madeira with her friend Catherine Mainwaring Sladen.

The Secret of Wold Hall was first published in 1905. Now entirely forgotten, this novel is a real gem, and I highly recommend it to anybody who likes a good old fashioned mystery story. Everett-Green’s realism greatly appealed to me, and the reader is left spellbound by her beautifully written and fast paced narrative.

The novel opens with a ten year old girl who has fallen down a small precipice searching for edelweiss flowers. She is rescued by a sixteen year old boy called Marcus who promises to come back and marry her when he has made his fortune. The young Lady Marcia Defresne is touched by his offer, but explains that as she is an Earl’s daughter it is impossible for her to marry outside her social class. He carries the young girl back to her hotel where the Earl St. Barbe and his family are residing. In the commotion of their arrival, her ‘brown boy’ disappears and is not seen again.

The novel jumps forward ten years, and true to his word, the now rich Marcus (son of a man recently given a baronetcy) keeps his earlier promise. Lady Marcia’s family has now hit hard times, and Sir Robert (Marcus’s father), is able to save the ‘penniless peer’ from embarrassment, and secure Lady Marcia’s hand for his son.

As the novel unfolds, we learn that there is an old secret in Marcus’s life. It transpires a strange death took place at his bachelor pad (Wold Hall) and although he was cleared by the magistrates, the locals are still deeply divided about whether he is guilty or not of the murder.

After their marriage, Lady Marcia starts learning more about her husband’s past, and she is unable to form a positive opinion about him. Feeling she has made a terrible mistake, she hears harrowing stories from the locals, and is nearly convinced of her doom when she stumbles upon the old dalesman, Ebenezer Raleigh, and learns it was his son who was found dead in Wold Hall. His crazed ramblings frighten her, and cast a dark shadow over any hopes of marital bliss.

Without revealing too much of the plot or spoiling the mystery, I can say that the sinister and deluded Ebenezer, eventually seeks revenge on Marcus. He decides to blow up the local mine, whilst Marcus is down overseeing the workers. During this intense episode a mysterious man appears from the past, save’s Marcus’s life, and reveals what really happened that unfortunate night at Wold Hall.

There are also many interesting sub-plots in the novel. One cannot help admiring Sweetheart (a little orphaned girl) and her protector ‘Best Beloved’ (a mysterious and reclusive relative), two fascinating characters from Marcus’s past, who ultimately win Lady Marcia’s love and respect, and help her to overcome her marriage doubts. It seems everybody has skeletons in their closets in this book, but as the story unfolds, all is eventually explained with satisfaction, and our aristocratic pair finally fall hopelessly in love with each other. As if to compensate for all the darkness and suspense which prevails throughout the book, there are a number of exceedingly happy endings, including three love matches which ultimately reach fruition – amor vincit omnia!