Boyne recreates all the attributes of a Victorian haunted house tale in this well-constructed, beautifully written Gothic novel that focuses on the supernatural intrigues of Gaudlin Hall, a grand, crumbling house deep in the wilds of the Norfolk countryside. Once a firm sense of place is established, there is no looking back. The pages readily speed by, raising the hairs at the back of the reader's neck (like good ghost stories are supposed to) and resulting in one of the most genuinely eerie ghostly climaxes I have ever read.
In 1867, London’s fog-shrouded miasma and a decaying Norfolk mansion become a wonderfully creepy backdrop. The incessantly cold winter weather adds insult to injury to two orphaned children, Isabella and Eustace Westerly, who have been left largely to their own devices after leaving behind a trail of four dead governesses, each having expired under mysterious circumstances.
A governess herself, Eliza Caine is thrust into the strange events of Gaudlin Hall when she answers an advertisement from the mysterious “H. Bennet” who purports to be looking for someone to attend to the care and education of the Westerly children. After her father’s sudden death, Eliza is drawn to the urgency of the appeal. Blessed with an independent streak, she makes a hasty decision to uproot herself from London, believing that a change in her circumstances will be just the thing for her shattered life. Upon arrival at Gaudlin, however, Eliza is transported from serenity to horror, far from the solace and comfort of the parlor of her small terraced home near Hyde Park.
From the outset, there are a number of disturbing incidents. Eliza remains unsettled by how little she knows about the Westerly family. Then there’s the strange woman at the train station with the monogrammed initials “HB” etched red in the dark brown leather of her suitcase, who collides with Eliza just before she’s picked up amidst a thin drizzle by old Mr. Heckling (who refuses to tell her about goings-on at the Hall). Eliza feels ill at ease immediately, as though the house itself is intimidating her with its imposing exterior and Baroque splendor.
This ambiguous reality reaches not only into Eliza’s perception of Gaudlin but also into the actions and motives of the children. What is real here? And whose innocence is being corrupted? Dark-featured Isabella has a curious nature and a maturity combined with a childishness, but she seems to be suffocating under the weight of so many secrets, behaving as if “she were the mistress and not the daughter of the house.” Little Eustace is “a peculiar little boy” who constantly aches for affection. The children have seen great upheaval in their lives, their only contact with the outside world the officious housekeeper, Mrs. Livermore, who comes to Gaudlin every day to take care of various things.
Eliza attempts to forge a relationship with the children, at the same time contacting family lawyer Mr. Raisin to get to the bottom of their parents’ deaths. Amid grief, confusion, frustration, and even euphoria, Eliza begins to settle down into a sensation of melancholia, her mind troubled at the things she has learned or failed to learn since she awoke that first day in one of Gaudlin’s drafty bedrooms. Clearly there is evil here, but its emanation is ambiguous and amorphous. For Eliza, it forms a presence that is something unholy, “an idea that I had previously dismissed as fancy and told me it was true.”
All is revealed through the secondary characters, who seem to exist in a pervasive atmosphere of dread: Mrs. Toxley who shares her husband’s honest concern; gruff, uncommunicative Mr. Raisin; and devoutly religious Reverend Deacon, always in denial over Eliza’s stories of violent happenings and a House that is perhaps “alive in matters unearthly.” Boyne revels in the brooding, subversive undercurrents and richly developed sense of propriety hidden behind the semblance of Victorian manners. The suspense is ethereal and nothing is sure in this painstakingly constructed mystery wrapped around psychosexual tensions, which end manifest themselves in the supernatural.