Today is the 20th anniversary of Eleanor Hibbert’s passing on January 18, 1993 and in honor of her memory I have taken on her first suspense novel, published in 1960 under the pseudonym Victoria Holt—Mistress of Mellyn. While I have previously read The Queen’s Confession and My Enemy, the Queen, both biographical historical novels have the exact same quality and style of her Jean Plaidy novels. In fact, I am unsure why they were even published under Holt, unless it was to keep with the pace of publishing one Holt novel each year (as two other “Jean Plaidy” novels were published during those same years).
Mistress of Mellyn is different from Plaidy, Kellow and Tate novels in that it is undeniably of the mystery and suspense genre, and though may be labeled “Gothic Romance”—with tacky vintage covers to accompany the brand—they are no more romantic than her other works, or at least not in the sense of today’s romance novels. Noticeably missing, if the reader is familiar with Plaidy novels, are the abundant archaic and uncommon words, historically accurate timelines and the politically infused drama centered on royalty. The characters of this particular Holt novel are completely fictional and not found in history books or other literature, however are well-rounded and make a very interesting story, most notably for the array of differing personalities represented. From dark and mysterious, to light and humorous (and the in-between Miss Prim-and-proper Martha herself), there is a plethora of possibilities to analyze when solving the mystery of Mellyn. Much is written on the landscape of Cornwall and details of its history and customs, so it is not completely void of all the attributes that make Jean Plaidy novels enjoyable for historical enthusiasts.
Book Description from the 1966 Crest Paperback:
House of Darkness
From the moment Martha Leigh first glimpsed the cold, brooding manse high on the fog-shrouded Cornish cliffs, she felt a chill of apprehension.
Then she met her employer, the arrogant master of Mellyn, and his spoiled, headstrong daughter, Alvean, and knew why the three governesses before her had left the eerie mansion.
Slowly, almost imperceptibly, Martha began to be aware of an atmosphere of menace. There had been whispers of past horrors, warning of violence yet to come—and now there were the strange accidents. It was madness to stay on.
But Con TreMellyn’s dark charm had overpowered Martha’s natural caution. Against her will she fest irresistibly drawn to the handsome, enigmatic master of Mellyn.
Now, even as she found herself being pulled deeper and deeper into a frightening web of unseen terror, she knew she could not, would not leave…
Set in the Victorian era, Mistress of Mellyn is the story of Martha Leigh, a gently born daughter of a parson, who failed to attract a husband during her “coming out” year, though her younger sister succeeded in this endeavor. As such, she doesn’t have a very high opinion of her charms and takes her new role as governess very seriously, determined to succeed in her apparent calling. When she arrives at Mount Mellyn, a large Elizabethan castle on the Cornish coast facing the sea, she immediately feels an eerie presence and quickly learns the sordid details of the demise of her young charge’s mother, Alice. As the weeks pass by she finds herself very curious about Alice’s mysterious past, and the master of the house, Connan TreMellyn. Her fascination with the latter both excites and frightens her, as she begins to suspect he may have had a hand in his wife’s death.
There is an intriguing cast of characters alongside the prim but excessively likable Miss Leigh—the humorous Peter, and his friendly sister, Celeste, who are from a neighboring estate. The daughter of the house, Alvean TreMellyn, is obstinate and a bit selfish, but Martha soon finds the chinks in her armor and sets to win her over while teaching her proper behavior—something three governesses before her failed to achieve. The Cornish speech and customs of the servants really serve in bringing them to life and making Mount Mellyn into a tiny world of its own, which is ultimately a little sad to leave behind. The author fortunately wrote a few pages past the climactic ending to tie up loose ends. This is a very satisfying read!
Favorite quote: “I felt this man impaired my precious dignity to which I was clinging with that determination only possible to those who are in constant fear of losing what little they possess.”
To end this discussion in the tone it began, I leave readers with thoughts of this incomparable, prolific author on the day of her death twenty years ago. I read somewhere online (and I am unsure how much truth there is to it) that Eleanor Hibbert died at her typewriter, in the midst of writing. She died as she lived—devoting all of her time to what she loved best. In her own words: “I write regularly every day. I think this is important. As in everything else, practice makes perfect. Research is just a matter of reading old records, letters, etc., in fact everything connected with the period one is researching. I can only say that I love writing more than anything else. I find it stimulating and I never cease to be excited about it.”
Nineteen-year-old Favel Farrington has lived most of her life with her parents on the Italian island of Capri. Having spent her younger years at the boarding school her mother attended in England, she never thought she’d go back, but her life is forever changed when Roc Pendorric of Cornwall walks into her father’s art studio. Before long she is married and journeying to an ancient and formidable ancestral home to meet complete strangers who are now her family.
Though she has a warm welcome from most of the family and staff, her newly acquired 12-year-old twin nieces are a source of curiosity and sometimes annoyance. While the exuberant Lowella seems eager to charm, the melancholy Hyson tends to trouble Favel. To her chagrin, she finds she is unable to tell them apart many times and wonders whether they are playing tricks. Favel quickly learns there is a legend surrounding Pendorric that pertains to its brides–of which she is the newest. Hyson is eager to impart the story, setting into motion a succession of sinister events that prove to Favel that her life is in danger.
There is a plethora of characters (ghostly and otherwise) who seem suspicious, but even so I had a good idea of the culprit early on–although that is not to say the way it played out was at all boring or predictable. One area in which Victoria Holt excelled was creating complicated characters with true-to-life personalities and motives. When this book was published in 1963, its genre was most likely not as saturated with Gothic stories as it would become. There are no loose ends, and I am satisfied with the outcome.
I had trouble at first dating this story, as there is no definitive year specified. Since most of Holt’s “Gothic” novels are said to be Victorian, I assumed late nineteenth century at first, but there is mention of automobiles, television and phones. Finally, about halfway through, a date is cited and then said to be “almost two hundred years ago”, and so this seems to be set when it was published–in the early 1960’s.
This is my third Gothic novel by Holt, and I’m noticing a pattern in characterization. Once I get through Kirkland Revels, and perhaps one or two others, I’ll have a better idea–but so far they seem formulaic. That’s not say the stories aren’t interesting and intriguing. In this one in particular, there is much about Cornish customs and historical sites (Trethevy Quoit, Cheesewring, Merry Maidens).
As usual with this author’s books, there are plenty of philosophical themes included. My favorite quotes:
“Life must be very difficult for some people. If they’re continually seeing omens it doesn’t give them much chance of exercising their own free will.”
“He’s the typical self-made man–a character off the shelf. There are some people who mould themselves on old cliches. They decide the sort of person they’re going to be and start playing the part; after a while they’re so good at it that it becomes second nature. That’s why there are so many stock characters in the world.”
Cordelia Grant, an English student at an exclusive finishing school in Switzerland, is enjoying her final term and looking forward to going home to her beloved aunt Patty and working as a schoolmistress. Cordelia and her friends decide to go on one last adventure together after hearing the local legend set during the Hunter’s Moon. It’s said that in a certain spot in the forest, one’s future husband will make an appearance. Not truly expecting an apparition, the girls are shocked when a young man steps out of the trees and sits to talk with them. He seems to give special attention to Cordelia, and when he takes his leave the girls all agree that it seemed an unusual encounter. Not long after, Cordelia was on her way home to England.
Finding much pleasure in her occupation, Cordelia flourishes at the girls academy where she teaches English, literature and social graces to girls not much younger than herself. Her world, however, darkens when the local lord and landowner, Sir Jason Verringer, begins relentlessly pursuing her. Not only does he have a reputation as an unapologetic rake, but there are rumors that he hastened his wife’s death to be rid of her. Cordelia, a master verbal duelist, is able to hold him at arms length for a while, but soon finds herself fascinated and looking forward with pleasure to their emotionally exhausting meetings. Events, nonetheless, change her attitude quickly as she soon finds not only her livelihood in danger, but the lives of those she loves.
It has been said that Victoria Holt lost her touch with the believably of her plots in her later years. This particular title is her 22nd Holt novel, published in 1983. As a veteran Plaidy/Holt reader, I found it equally immersing, witty and inspiring as her earlier reads. Though I had some ideas on the mystery and previous experience hinted the friend-versus-foe aspect, it didn’t turn out exactly the way I’d have thought, and there were several questionable characters to ponder. The atmosphere of the story–on the ruins of an ancient abbey–is the perfect setting for a Gothic tale with a smart, level-headed protagonist. The Time of the Hunter’s Moon is without a doubt a rival to Holt’s first novel, Mistress of Mellyn, which was published in 1960 and thought to be penned by Gothic Romance’s leading lady, Daphne du Maurier.
Though there is no year mentioned, there are several clues to point to early turn-of-the-century rather than late 1800’s, and so I have categorized it with 20th century reads.
Lettice Knollys, the Countess of Leicester, because of her beauty and attractiveness, was a constant rival to Queen Elizabeth I. A Boleyn relation, she was summoned to court to attend the queen at an early age, and the Queen recognized her right away as one of those young women she would have to watch closely, less they become ‘wanton’ and stir up gossip in her court. Queen Elizabeth is described as coquettish towards the male favorites, but stern and strict with the ladies. Though she liked having beauties surrounding her, she always wanted to think of herself as the most beautiful of all. And so, she became jealous and angry if any of her women had lovers or wed secretly.
Robert Dudley, the Earl of Leicester, was the favorite among favorites and could do no wrong (at least in the long run). The Queen would reprimand him again and again, but always took him back into favor. The worst offense, according to the Queen, was his secret marriage to Lettice. Once it was known they had wed, the Queen went into a rage and refused to have Lettice, newly dubbed The She-Wolf, at court ever again. Robert, however, was allowed back into her good graces after a while and returned to favor.
This story is from the perspective of Lettice, who is not exactly an admirable character – she is vain, selfish and overly ambitious. She is, however, a good mother and the choices she makes are justifiable for the most part. I quite enjoyed reading about her extremely long life (94 years!) and her complex relationships. I was not impressed by her attraction to Leicester, but I think it was depicted in a way that allowed her to be human – a woman with a weakness who made mistakes and admitted such.
I’ve read several accounts of Robert Dudley from different authors, and I have to point out that this one is the most unflattering. It is insinuated that he poisons anyone who gets in his way, though never stated as absolute fact. In this novel he is sinister and his only goal in life is climbing his way to the throne, no matter by what means. In Lettice he sees an ambitious woman who also matches his amorous appetites, and once he is certain the Queen will not marry him she is settled on as his partner in life. The fact that she had a husband did not stop him, and one more person conveniently died a suspicious death, making Lettice available for a second marriage. Unfortunately for her, this was her ticket to a life in the country, never to be admitted to court again. It wasn’t long before she began to realize that perhaps Robert wasn’t worth the trouble.
This is a wonderful account of the happenings at court not directly related to politics – Elizabeth’s shortcomings, gossip and scandals. While it’s not entirely fair to the Queen, as it mostly shows her weaknesses, it does give a sense of that other side of her – the coquettishness and aversion to marriage. Though she was not at court to witness everything, Lettice had friends and relatives close to Queen at all times, including her son, Essex, who was a great favorite. As such, she had firsthand accounts of everything and was able, in a way, to be involved even if Elizabeth would not see her face to face.
Elizabeth’s death came 30 years before her own, though because she was impoverished by Leicester’s debts she remained in the country caring for her grandchildren.