All The Books I Can Read

1 girl….2 many books!

Review: The Girl In The Photograph by Kate Riordan

on January 28, 2015

Girl in the PhotographThe Girl In The Photograph
Kate Riordan
Penguin Books AUS
2015, 438p
Copy courtesy of the publisher

It is the summer of 1933 when Alice Eveleigh arrives at Fiercombe Manor. She is pregnant, just barely showing. To the housekeeper of Fiercombe, Alice is a young widow who needs rest and recuperation. Somewhere quiet and peaceful to see out her pregnancy in safety.

Alice finds a beautiful but neglected house – no one has lived there for some time and there’s only a skeleton staff there to keep it from falling into ruin. There’s mystery and sadness in every room and when Alice hears of Elizabeth Stanton, a former mistress of the country property she’s intrigued. Rumoured to be incredibly beautiful, little remains of Elizabeth now other than a portrait and a few blurred photographs. Even less remains of the far grander Stanton House, built by Elizabeth’s husband Edward, a short distance from Fiercombe Manor. Although the housekeeper Mrs Jelphs, who was there during those days, is reluctant to talk about Elizabeth and what happened, Alice finds ways to pick out bits and pieces of information. She finds a forgotten diary in the abandoned Summerhouse that gives glimpses into Elizabeth’s life and mind but when she finds a connection between Elizabeth and her she cannot begin to wonder if their fates will end up the same.

If I had to think of one word to describe this book it would be atmospheric. In that way it reminds me very much of Jane Eyre or Rebecca. All books contain someone new to a mysterious house with an air of neglect or lacking in activity and there are some secrets that unfold in each one. In The Girl In The Photograph, Alice is in what might be discreetly described as “a bit of a situation” and needs to remove herself from her London home to avoid bringing shame on herself and her family. There’s only her, the housekeeper Mrs Jelphs, the gardener Ruck and a girl that comes in daily from the village to sweep and dust. It’s an unseasonably warm English summer, the air heavy with humidity and secrets.

Given the events of the previous generation and what happened to Elizabeth, her husband Edward and Stanton House, there are some that believe the valley Fiercombe Manor is a part of to be cursed. Mrs Jelphs is a brisk sort, she’s clearly been alone or mostly alone for a very long time. She was personally connected to Elizabeth and still bears the scars of what happens and although she’s sometimes abrupt with Alice, it’s also very obvious that she worries about her and that she wants her to be well. To everyone in the valley, Alice is a young widow, her husband’s life tragically taken only a very short time after they wed. She needs rest and recuperation, time to get well and strong but Alice becomes intrigued by the mystery of Elizabeth and spends a lot of time exploring, visiting a local historian for information and reading the remnants of Elizabeth’s diaries in the summerhouse. Alice’s narrative is interspersed with Elizabeth’s as she prepares for the birth of her second child, having already lost two, both of which she believes to be boys after the birth of her first child, a daughter, some four or five years before. Her husband Edward is convinced that this one is a boy and that it will give him the son he craves to bestow his legacy upon. The reader gets an insight into a life that looks picture perfect from the outside: dashing, handsome husband. Beautiful and coveted wife. Darling daughter and soon to welcome another child into their fold. But scratch the surface and Elizabeth’s life is not even close to being idyllic.

Elizabeth lived during a time where medical practices were at best, ill conceived and at worst, barbaric. It’s hard not to feel for her as you get the full picture of what she has endured – crushing pressure from her husband to produce an heir in a marriage that is crumbling, not to mention diabolical treatments. I found myself utterly transfixed by Elizabeth’s story, I kept willing the narrative back to her even as I was enjoying Alice’s telling of events. There was something about Elizabeth – I think the author captured an ethereal presence to her, a sort of woman of mystery who had been hidden away, shamed instead of celebrated. Hope, misery, expectation and love seep through in every page when she talks or thinks about her children – those born, lost and the one on the way.

Both Elizabeth and Alice face challenges as women born in the times that they were. Elizabeth was to do her duty: provide the heir and spare, look beautiful whilst doing it and afterwards, give a face to the perfection of privilege. Instead she suffers and it’s only made worse although her husband may feel that he was doing what was best for her. However he doesn’t listen to her – really listen. And in a way, it’s the same for Alice. She too was supposed to do her duty: finish her schooling and then find a suitable man and get married. Provide grandchildren. Instead she disappoints her mother and although her parents do not disown her, as many would have, they also do not really give her much of a say in what happens. Her mother is firm with her, indeed I feel she has always been firm with Alice. It’s the mothering Alice experienced that causes her to have some doubts about her own situation although I really did appreciate the understanding Alice and her mother came to towards the end of the story.

I loved this book, from beginning to end. The back of the book claims it for fans of Kate Morton and Kate Mosse – I’ve never read Mosse but I’ve read Kate Morton and love her. This book slots in with those perfectly. Beautiful historical fiction, wonderfully woven characters and dark secrets.


Book #23 of 2015


One response to “Review: The Girl In The Photograph by Kate Riordan

  1. I’ve got this one in my TBR pile, I’m really looking forward to it now! 🙂

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