Friday, 22 January 2010
The Seance by John Harwood
It is really a story within a story, as it starts in one place and then veers off in a different direction altogether. We start (and finish) the story with Constance Langton, a priviledged child in Victorian England and a brief overview of her life in her childhood home. However, although she was financially privileged, emotionally both her parents were distant. Her mother is in permanent mourning for her younger sister, who died in infancy, and her father has very little emotional attachment to her at all. Constance is brought up in the care of her nurse, and is then sent to school. When her father eventually leaves, a chance encounter leads Constance into the world of seances, and what she sees as an opportunity to make her mother happy again. Constance convinces her mother to attend a number of seances with her, and in consultation with the 'medium', Constance pretends that Alma is speaking through her and for a time, her mother seems to improve. But when the 'contact' with Alma leads to disastrous consequences, Constance is left to face life with her increasingly distant father.
Constance is saved from this fate in the nick of time by the appearance of a distant uncle, who offers her the chance to live with him, which she gladly accepts. She then discovers she is the sole inheritor of a run down estate, Wraxford Hall, with a dubious history, and at first the only advice the solicitor will give her is to sell it, sight unseen and to never ever live there. And just to add to the intrigue, he is shocked by her appearance as she seems to bear a striking resemblance to someone he once knew. He does eventually reconsider though, ands sends Constance a packet of journals explaining the history of the decrepit house and what happened there.
This is where we veer off into a totally different story, and move into a story of the spooky and disturbing events that happened at Wraxford Hall, which include eccentric old men, mysterious accidents, mesmerism, villainous men and suspicious deaths. The story itself is full of intrigue, mystery and murder. Nell Wraxford, a woman who possibly has real clairvoyant powers flees her stifling, distant family to her friends in the countryside, falls in love with a man her family would consider unsuitable, is blissfully happy for a short while until tragedy strikes, and all the supernatural connections with the Hall are threaded into the story. The story within the story ends with murder, in a most bizarre fashion, and the disappearance of numerous central characters.
The book itself doesn't end here though. We return to Constance, determined to prove that that Nell was innocent, possibly that she's still alive and even that she may be her daughter. The idea of fake Seances returns to the plot here, as Constance takes a trip to the hall and eventually unwinds all the twisted threads and discovers the truth, with the usual twists that accompany Victorian fiction.
I really enjoyed this book. All the twists, turns, red herrings and vague suggestions kept me guessing right until the end. The plot hinges on various aspects that are mentioned throughout the story, and everything that Constance works out is laid out throughout the story, when you go back and look for it. The portrayal of women in Victorian society was covered very well, especially the idea of them being possessions of their husbands, and at their beck and call. Both the central female characters in the story suffer for being women in Victorian England. It was typical of this type of fiction that the plot was turned on it's head at least twice, and just as we think we've figured it all out, something else comes along and changes it all. Brilliant!