by Victoria Holt
Mount Mellyn stood as proud and magnificent as she had envisioned...But what about its master-- Connan TreMellyn? Was Martha Leigh's new employer as romantic as his name sounded? As she approached the sprawling mansion towering above the cliffs of Cornwall, an odd chill of apprehension overcame her. TreMellyn's young daugher, Alvean, proved as spoiled and difficult as the three governesses before Martha had discovered. But it was the girl's father whose cool, arrogant demeanor unleashed unfamiliar sensations and turmoil-- even as whispers of past tragedy and present danger begin to insinuate themselves into Martha's life. Powerless against her growing desire for the enigmatic Connan, she is drawn deeper into family secrets-- as passion overpowers reason, sending her head and heart spinning. But though evil lurks in the shadows, so does love--and the freedom to find a golden promise forever...
3.5 stars? Rounded up to four, I guess. Four feels rather generous, but it'll do. After all, the book did entertain me...
The blurb sounds a lot steamier and "romance-centric" than the book merits, in my humble opinion. Maybe it's just me. Possibly I'm too picky about romance in novels, but I can't remember the last time that one of these so-called "gothic romances" really delivered in the romance department. There is a romance, but it failed to thrill me. Fortunately, there's also a mystery or two to solve, along the way, and these successfully held my interest until the novel's end. It helps that there's a good cast of well-developed supporting characters, as well as a setting (Cornwall) that is sketched with greater-than-expected skill.
This is only the second Victoria Holt novel I've read, and it's by far the better of the two. The Silk Vendetta is simultaneously more melodramatic and more plodding than Mistress of Mellyn. Fortunately, the latter is enough of an improvement that I feel willing to give more of her novels a try. (There are plenty of them, too!)
Specifics (with SPOILERS):
-- I found the Cornish setting very interesting and appealing. I don't suppose I've read (or seen) much about Cornwall before. The references to palm trees came as a surprise. (I've never associated the UK with palm trees, for one reason or another.) The descriptions of the mild seasons and the flowers-- roses, fuchsias, and hydrangeas-- were charming, too. However, there was at least one reference to yellow hydrangeas, and that makes me wonder if Victoria Holt's horticultural knowledge was only rudimentary, because I love hydrangeas, yet have never heard of a variety with yellow flowers. You might call some of the creamiest ones slightly yellowy...
-- I commented earlier on the lack of crackling romance. (And again, maybe I am too harsh a critic, these days...)
The first problem is that our heroine, Martha/Marty is a governess because she has not married, despite the benefit of a London season. You get the impression that she's not especially-- or immediately-- attractive to most men, and yet she soon has the attention of two eligible bachelors, in this rural village. One romantic suitor would have been enough, not to mention more believable, but certain aspects of the story made it convenient for her to have two suitors, and so she had.
The second problem is that Connan TreMellyn runs so hot and cold with Marty. That approach can work in a romance, but I think it works best when the two characters are thrown together much more than Connan and Marty are. With so few encounters between the two, Connan sometimes comes off more as a lecherous employer than a dashing, romantic hero. I realize that we are intended to question Connan's motives until the very last moment, but the downside is that it's difficult to warm to him. By the end, I actually preferred the excessively flirtatious Peter Nansellock to the unapproachable, unknowable Connan.
Third: Many readers remark that Mistress of Mellyn is a combination of Jane Eyre and Rebecca. Similarly, Connan clearly draws some of his character traits from Mr. Rochester. However, Connan is yet another Rochester-inspired romantic lead who simply can't "get away" with the sorts of things (past indiscretions, for instance) Mr. Rochester can. Why not? Is it all due to the relative charm and magnetism of the characters? Whatever the reason, Connan feels much less of a sympathetic character than Mr. Rochester, despite the fact that he has some similarly legitimate causes to have lost faith (his fiancee's infidelity, the fact that she was knowingly pregnant with another man's child when they married, etc.).
-- "Miss Leigh, you came here to teach Alvean, but I think you have taught me a great deal too." Cringe. Just cringe.
-- At some point, I couldn't take one more of Marty's hyper-sensitive (internal and spoken) comments on the fact that she is "merely a governess" (and the way she looks at everyone and everything else through that one tiresome filter). It's just too much. We get it!! Otherwise, I liked the heroine very well, but she is annoyingly obsessed with and resentful of her status as a quasi-servant.
-- I was suspicious of Celestine from the start, but I have to say that the author did a good job of making a number of characters seem suspicious, so I was never completely sure which would turn out to be guilty (until she showed up in the middle of the night and wanted to go investigate the leper's squint). Apart from Celestine, there were Peter Nansellock, Lady Treslyn, and Connan himself-- not to mention the occasional fleeting suspicion that Alice herself might still be alive, lurking somewhere around the estate, possibly insane, and not very pleased with interlopers like Marty.
-- I'm finding it difficult to believe that no-one would have been drawn to Alice's location by sense of smell (to put it as delicately as possible). If it were a dry enough environment, maybe, but the priest's hole, we are told, is damp and dank. Having smelled what happens when a mere mouse dies in the walls (and how long that can take to dissipate), I'm skeptical-- but then again, I suppose stone walls aren't quite the same thing as modern drywall... And maybe the little disused chapel was large enough to keep the priest's hole at some significant distance from the inhabited rooms of the building.
-- The Cornish Christmas was interesting-- especially the odd-looking names for some of the foods/drinks. Dash-an-darras. Metheglin. Sloe gin. Hog's pudding. The pies: giblet, squab, nattling, taddage, and muggety. And of course I had to look up the "Furry Dance" online to see what that was all about. (I'm still not sure I completely understand.)