09 June 2010

Book Review: The Secret Woman by Victoria Holt

2010 TBR Lite Challenge

The Secret Woman When Anna Brett’s best friend, Chantel Spring, offers to help secure her a position as governess at Castle Crediton, Anna leaps at the chance. What else can she do? Her last living relative, Aunt Charlotte, is dead; and despite Chantel’s evidence at the inquest the shadow of suspicion still hangs over her. The antique business she inherited has turned out to be mired in debt, and her house must be let to pay the bills. The only real inconvenience is that Anna is in love with a married man, and it’s his son she’ll be teaching.

An odd family resides within the castle’s walls. Lady Crediton shares her roof with her late husband’s mistress, and the wife and child of his illegitimate son. Monique Stretton, consumptive and prone to hysterics, alternately fusses over and ignores her son while waiting for her husband to return from sea. When he does, Anna finds herself accompanying her pupil, her friend, and her rival to the Pacific island of Coralle. Years before, Coralle was the place where Redvers Stretton did what no captain should and lost his ship, under mysterious circumstances. Now, it’s the place where Anna will be stranded for the next two months.

You know a book is a candidate for a TBR challenge when you can’t remember how long you’ve had it....

Though it was more a case of TBF - To Be Finished. I started reading it a few years ago, but only made it halfway. This time, though, I reminded myself that it was for a challenge and kept going. It was just as slow as I remembered, but it was also a great alternate spin on the classic gothic novel format.

There is, of course, a heroine who’s pretty much alone in the world, and not one but two spooky houses. The Queen’s House, with its clutter of old furniture and forbidding owner, is just the sort of place where you’d expect things to go bump in the night. And the faux-Norman Castle Crediton abounds in twisting passageways and family secrets. But then heroine, secrets, mystery and all move on board ship. And then they arrive on a tropical island!

A less gothic setting than the Pacific is hard to imagine, but it works splendidly. The house, with its heavy shadows and austere economy, seems just waiting for something to happen to shake it out of its torpor. Monique’s old nurse, Suka, is every bit the sinister servant, making no secret of her animosity toward Anna and hinting darkly at curses. Most everything seems potentially threatening due to its utter unfamiliarity. And they’re stuck there until the Serene Lady returns. The setting was my favourite aspect of the book.

The mystery was not. The circumstances under which the Secret Woman was sunk kept me guessing, but the truth of Aunt Charlotte’s demise was obvious from very early on. In fact, I wondered why none of the characters figured it out. But that part of the plot did at least redeem itself somewhat at the end with a neat twist to resolve it. The romance, on the other hand, never struck me as particularly romantic, and the characters never really engaged me.

Rating: C


  1. I haven't read a Victoria Holt book for years. I used to really enjoy them. Love the idea of the different setting for a gothic novel.

  2. As above. I have read them, have some of them but havent read one for ages. Should rectify that soon.


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