Monday, January 14, 2013

The Girl in the Gatehouse by Julie Klassen

"Don't hold on to the knots and forget the life ahead."

                                                                                      Amy Merryweather

The Girl in the Gatehouse is Klassen's fourth book and was published in 2010. With another book just published this month (which I will be reviewing soon), I thought I would try more of her novels since I so enjoyed The Maid of Fairbourne Hall..

Mariah Aubrey is being sent away to live on her own at her aunt's estate in Whitmore. She is accompanied by her former nanny, Miss Dixon, who will be her companion. All we know is that Mariah has done something terrible that has damaged her reputation and brought dishonour to her family. Her father, not wishing to sully Mariah's younger sister, Julia, sends Mariah to Windrush Court where she is to live on her aunt's manor, in the gatehouse. When Mrs Prin-Hallsey, or Aunt Fran as Mariah used to call her, comes to visit Mariah at the gatehouse, she gives her a trunk containing her old diaries and warns Mariah about her step son, Hugh Prin-Hallsey.

One stormy night a man comes to the gatehouse after being thrown from his horse. Mariah helps the stranger, whom she learns is Captain Matthew Bryant, to retrieve his horse. When during the winter, Mrs. Prin-Hallsey becomes ill and dies leaving her step-son Hugh to take charge over the estate, he decides to lease Windrush Court to Captain Bryant. Bryant has recently retired from the Royal Navy, having made his fortune and is determined to win back the heart of Isabelle Forsythe whose father deemed him not rich enough nor good enough for his daughter. 

With the death of her aunt, Mariah finds herself suddenly at the mercy of Hugh Prin-Hallsey who tells her that she will no longer be able to live au gratis at the gatehouse. Since the allowance her father has given her will soon run out, Mariah makes the difficult decision to submit her writing for publication so as to support herself for the remainder of the year. With Henry at first acting as her agent, Mariah has her first book published under the pseudonym of Lady A.

Mariah and Dixon settle into life at the estate, developing a friendship with some of the occupants of Honora House, a poorhouse located across from the gatehouse. Mariah and Captain Bryant along with his house guest, Lieutenant William Hart often meet and socialize. Matthew Bryant however, finds himself increasingly distracted from his goal of enticing and winning Isabelle, by the beautiful and well spoken Mariah. His distraction is tempered rumours of Mariah's fallen character of which he eventually learns later on.

Bryant continues planning his attempt to win the heart of Isabella back, even though she is now engaged to another man. He decides to host a small house party inviting Isabelle, her fiance, and other friends. Bryant hopes that when Isabelle sees that his fortunes have improved greatly since their last meeting years ago, she will consent to break off her engagement and marry him. The captain encourages Mariah to attend, but she vigorously declines initially and then appears bearing a mask she made for a play to be staged. Drawn into performing, Mariah has no idea what is about to happen. The house party is an unmitigated disaster that brings everything to a head and sees Captain Bryant recognize that his love for Isabelle is an illusion and that his heart lies elsewhere.

The Girl in the Gatehouse is a complex novel, with numerous storylines which Klassen ultimately and effectively weaves together to achieve a predictable end. In some ways there are almost too many threads to follow, although they are interesting. There is the storyline of the two sisters, Amy and Agnes Merryweather, that of Captain Prince and Jeremiah Martin, Lizzy and George Barnes, Captain Bryant and Isabelle, of Hugh Prin-Hallsey, and of Mr. Crawford and Mariah.

The climax of the novel which occurs at Captain Bryant's party is overly melodramatic. After one of the guests has humiliated Mariah,  Mr. Crawford, Isabelle's fiance, declares in front of all of Bryant's guests that he alone is responsible for Mariah's "fall" and that he led her into thinking that he would marry her. He then expounds on the unfairness of society in how it treats women! A lovely sentiment really, but probably not likely to have happened. Most 19th century upper class men simply accepted the double standard that existed in society towards women for it worked to their advantage. Although they too were bound by ridiculous notions of propriety, such as a man writing letters to a woman was considered to be tantamount to a marriage proposal!  It was also out of character for Mr. Crawford to behave this way - he was a bad man who led a young woman into thinking he would marry her so he could seduce her and yet suddenly he cares for what he has done?

Nevertheless, The Girl in the Gatehouse is an enjoyable read that focuses once again on the "fallen woman" theme. The characters are reasonably well drawn and each is very different. Klassen maintains the suspense by not revealing exactly what happened to Mariah until the very end and by providing the reader with juicy tidbits through the novel that Mariah is working on. And once again Klassen bases a character's situation on one from a Jane Austen novel, that of Maria Bertram in Mansfield Park. As Klassen mentions in the back of the novel, Captain Bryant was inspired by Captain Wentworth of Persuasion as well as Forester's Horatio Hornblower. I found he reminded me most of the latter. Klassen's use of situations and similar characters from well known English literature is partly what makes these novels so much fun.

Book Details:
The Girl in the Gatehouse by Julie Klassen
Bloomington, Minnesota: Bethany House         2010
391 pp.

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