A little while ago The Virtual Victorian wrote about the wonderful work of artist and writer Charlotte Cory, and I knew that I had to seek out her novels. I read ‘The Unforgiving’, her first novel, years ago and though the details had slipped my mind I remembered that I loved it, and that the black covers that made Faber and Faber novels so distinctive had suited this book so very well.
Because this is dark, gothic Victoriana at its finest and its most subversive. If it wasn’t so subversive I might have thought that I had been pulled into a Victorian novel, because every character, every word, every action, every detail is pitch perfect.’ The Unforgiving’ is a story of selfish people, of the very different forms that their selfishness takes, and of the strangely unexpected consequences that their selfishness brings.
It begins with three little girls who have lost their mother, sitting upstairs, looking down over the bannister. Because downstairs, their father, the famous and distinguished architect Mr Edward Glass is being manoevered into matrimony by the scheming widow, Mrs. Elizabeth Cathcart. Her strategy is successful, and the arrangement was sucessful, though it would not prove to a conventional marriage.
What Mr. Edward Glass really wanted wasn’t so much a wife as a household manager. He lived at work – with an assistant who planned to succeed his master by stealth, an assistant who planned to succeed his master by marrying one of the Glass girls, and an assistant who planned to succeed her master by establishing herself as his mistress. His wife’s only role was to ensure that this household ran like a well-oiled machine, and exactly as the household of a great man should.
That role suited the new Mrs. Edward Glass very well indeed. She was looking for security, money and status – the three things that the late Mr Cathcart had never been able to give her – and an absent husband, who would gladly offer offer more money rather than turn his attention away from his business for a single moment, was not a problem at all. The new lady of the house gave orders, and soon she had things running in a way that suited her perfectly; she hired a governess, Miss Housecroft, even thought the girls all weant to schools, because she had no interest at all in the children and wanted them kept from her sight; and then she went out, to shop, and to see and be seen in society.
Miss Housecroft was unimpressed by Mrs. Glass, but she had plans for the future and thought it best to bide her time.
The housekeeper, Mrs Curzon was also unimpressed – she had much preferred the first Mrs. Glass – and was upset to the point of becoming unhinged. She put her hopes in her brother, who taught the Glass girls piano, but he had other plans. The maids saw opportunities too.
Upstairs three clever girls were bored, they had far too much time on their hands, and they began to plot and scheme too.
Something had to break, of course it did. The story started slowly, but it gradually increased its grip until in the end the revelations came tumbling. There would be death and destruction, but there would be better things too.
Years later, when they were old ladies, something happened that made two of the Glass girls look back at those years …
The story is so cleverly constructed from so many small details. What I’ve mentioned is just the tip of the iceberg. And it is made wonderfully effective by the characterisation, and wonderful understanding of the darker side of human nature. The final act is a little messy, but otherwise ‘The Unforgiving’ is difficult to fault.
if you like your Victoriana with a touch of subversion …