I find it difficult to resist period romances set in country houses, especially when there’s a hint of suspense or a touch of the gothic, and ‘The Girl in the Photograph’ promised all of that.
This is a story is told in retrospect, recalling events that had happened just a few years earlier.
‘I could never have imagined all that would happen in those few short months and how, by the end of them, my life would have altered irrevocably and for ever’
In 1932 Alice was young, and she was holding down a good job while she waited, quite passively, for when ‘her life – her real life – would begin’. That made her susceptible to a charming older man she met at work. She thought that he was the great love of her life, but he seduced and abandoned her.
Alice’s mother was horrified when she found that her daughter was pregnant, but she was practical and she took matters out of Alice’s hands. She arranged for her daughter to stay with an old friend who was the housekeeper and custodian of Fiercombe Manor, in the depths of Gloucestershire , while she waited to give birth. She told Alice that she must present herself as a widow, whose husband had died in an accident not long after the wedding, and that when the child was born it would be put up for adoption, so that Alice could resume her old life without shame or stigma.
The story was well told, and it rang true. I believed in Alice’s fall, and in her mother’s response. I understood how each of them must have felt
The old acquaintance in the country – close enough to offer such help but not so close that she might have any idea that the story she was told was untrue – seemed a little convenient, but the story was engaging and it held such promise.
“Firecombe is a place of secrets. They fret among the uppermost branches of the beech trees and brood at the cold bottom of the stream that cleaves the valley in two. The past has seeped into the soil here, like spilt blood. If you listen closely enough you can almost hear what’s gone before, particularly on the stillest days. Sometimes the very air seems to hum with anticipation. At other times it’s as though a collective breath has been drawn in and held. It waits, or so it seems to me.”
When Alice arrives at Fiercombe Manor she is uncomfortable with the story she has to tell, and the unwarranted sympathy that she receives. And at night, when the house is silent, she feels another presence in her room. She wonders if the house is haunted, if that is why the family who own the house but who never visit, if there might be a story to be uncovered.
‘I felt intrigued and almost excited, as though a mystery had presented itself to be solved. Delving into the past was just the sort of distraction I needed to take me away from my own present.’
She asks Mrs Jelphs, the housekeeper about the history of the house and about Lady Elizabeth Stanton , the last lady of the manor. Mrs Jelphs had been concerned, helpful and supportive of Alice, she became evasive. Even though she knew that Alice knew that she might have told her a great deal; because years ago she had been Elizabeth’s maid.
Elizabeth’s she recalls the summer of 1898 when she too is awaiting the birth of her child. She lived in Stanton House which was nearby to Fiercombe Manor, but was there no more. Like Alice, she is pregnant, she is alone and yet not alone, and she is apprehensive about what will happen when her baby is born.
The Girl in the Photograph tells Alice and Elizabeth’s stories, until one of them comes to a dramatic, shocking end.
The story with beautifully told. The house lived and breathed; the atmosphere, the mystery and intrigue, were pitch perfect; and the gothic overtones were so very well done.
But though I loved Elizabeth’s story, which broke my heart in the end, I was less taken and less moved by Alice. I found her gauche and self-absorbed, and when I came to the end of the story and thought back to her words in the prologue …. well, that confirmed my feelings..
The writing is gorgeous, the story is readable, and I’m sorry that it doesn’t quite live up to that writing and that it has no more than the writing to set it apart from many other stories like this..