The Girl Who Couldn’t Read by John Harding

A year or two ago I read a book called ‘Florence and Giles.’ It was a deliciously gothic tale; a reimagining, a distortion, of ‘The Turn of the Screw’; and the centre of it all was the most wonderful character.

Florence was trapped in a gothic mansion, she was forbidden to read, but she found a way to learn and to keep that secret, and she loved reading and words so much that she developed the language she read, making nouns into verbs, joining words in unexpected ways to make gloriously expressive expressions, and twisting the English language into something magically new and strange.

When I learned that there was a sequel I rushed to order a copy from the library.

This isn’t Florence’s story, but she has a pivotal part to play.

In New England, in the 1890s, Doctor John Shepherd arrives at an isolated women’s mental hospital to begin work as assistant to the owner, Doctor Morgan. He is shocked by what he sees, he realises that things are not right, and his mind fills with questions:

  • Why are so many of the patients treated do very harshly?
  • Who is the woman who wanders the corridors by night with murderous intent?
  • Why does the Nurse O’Reilly so hostile, and why does she have so many privileges?
  • Why are only Doctor Morgan and Nurse O’Reilly permitted to visit the third floor?

The new doctor wants answers, but he has to tread carefully. Because it is clear from the start that he isn’t John Shepard. And that he isn’t a doctor at all.

Can he keep his secrets? Can he uncover the secrets of the hospital?

The possibilities were intriguing, the setting was so evocative, and then there was Florence ….

9780007324231Doctor Shepherd was intrigued by a patient known as Jane Dove. That wasn’t her real name. she said that she couldn’t remember that. She couldn’t remember anything of her life before she was found at a railway station and was admitted to hospital.

She knew that she wasn’t allowed to read but she so loved stories, and she had a distinctive way of speaking, making nouns into verbs, joining words in unexpected ways to make gloriously expressive expressions ….

Doctor Shepherd persuaded Doctor Morgan to him take charge of her an attempt, to let him try to prove that there were  humane alternatives to the hospital’s harsh treatments.

He was sure that he could persuade Jane to learn to read, that he could restore her memories. And he thought that maybe she would offer him the chance of escaping from the hospital and from his own troubled past.

Maybe he could. Maybe she would. But of course it wasn’t as simple as that.

The story moves like a thriller, written in language that is clear and direct, concise and urgent; it is the perfectly evoked setting, the well-drawn characters, and the intriguing questions hanging in the air make it enthralling.

The plot grew nicely, with lovely echoes of a certain other story, and as it accelerated to a conclusion all of the promise that I saw was realised, and the echoes of that story grew louder.

The plotting was so well done, with twists nicely scattered, and the strand of bookishness threaded through was lovely.

The finale was pitch perfect.

And I think there is an opening for a third book.

I do hope there will be a third book ….

Florence and Giles by John Harding

Florence and Giles?

Now doesn’t that sound like Flora and Miles?

Is it a coincidence, or are the two pairs of names connected?

Well no, it isn’t a coincidence. And yes, the names are connected. But not as you may think.

If one is a true story then the other would be a variation on that story far from the truth as it has been told, misheard, distorted, embellished so many times.

Or, I like to think,  neither is a whole truth. Both are distortions of another story  that has never been told.

John Harding’s version of the story, unlike Henry James’, is told by somebody who was there, at the heart of everything that happened.

“It is a curious story I have to tell, one not easily absorbed and understood, so it is fortunate I have the words for the task. If I say so myself, who probably shouldn’t, for a girl my age I am very well worded. Exceeding well worded, to speak plain. But because of the strict views of my uncle regarding the education of females, I have hidden my eloquence, under-a-bushelled it, and kept any but the simplest forms of expression bridewelled within my brain.”

Florence. A strange and utterly engaging heroine.

She lives in a large secluded house in New England with her beloved young half-brother Giles. They are orphans, left by their uncle in the care of a small group of servants. He never visits, but he lays down strict rules. Giles, the boy, is to be educated but Florence, the girl, is not. She is not even to learn how to read: the extensive library is out-of-bounds.

How can you not weep for her?

And how can you not cheer as Florence, precocious and self-possessed,  subverts her uncle’s rules?

She enters the library. she pulls out books and reads them, utterly entranced by the people she meets and the tales that unfold.

And she finds so many wonderful words to twist into her own rich and lovely dialect, nouns, verbs and adjectives trading roles back and forth, as she wanders through so many lonely rooms. 

“No maid ever ventures here; the floors are left unbroomed, for unfootfalled as they are, what would be the point? The shelves go unfingerprinted, the wheeled ladders to the upper ones unmoved, the books upon them yearning for an opening, the whole place a dustery of disregard.”

It is clear from the start that this will be a dark and gothic tale. 

There will be questions:

Why is the children’s guardian is so remote?

What lead to the untimely death of the their governess?

There will be drama:

A  new governess arrives. Florence believes that she is dangerous, and that she must fight for herself and for her brother.

Is she right? Is she deluded? Or is she just plain unreliable? She is so compelling that whatever the answer is you can do nothing but turn the pages until her tale is told.

It’s very readable and very, very effective. Not necessarily great literature, but definitely great entertainment.

And it stands up as fine tribute to the Turn of The Screw and as a novel in its own right.

But I’m still clinging to the hope that both are echoes of a stanger tale yet to be told…

Library Loot

I am finally managing to bring down the size of my library pile. Just four books in two weeks!

And here they are:

Inside The Whale by Jennie Rooney

“Stephanie Sandford, recently widowed, must tell her family the truth. But the past is indistinct and it’s complicated. First, there was her mum, who developed an anxious streak after marrying the wrong Reg. And then there was the young man from the dairy who gave Stevie swimming lessons before he broke her heart. War came, and four years chopping root vegetables in the canteen of the Sun Pat peanut factory on the Old Kent Road. Then the wet London nights, with the Doodle Bugs slipping through the sky like huge silvery fish. It’s not until she’s under an umbrella with Jonathan – dark hair and seaweed eyes – that Stevie finally starts to sense safety. Meanwhile, Michael Royston’s memories are squashed into a shoebox (along with Queen Matilda’s Dicken Medal for bravery) ready for his move into hospital. Years ago, he trained military carrier pigeons for the Royal Corps of Signals in Cairo so it’s ironic that his own homecoming has taken a lifetime. Michael has never been good at putting things into words; he’s more comfortable with the click of Morse code. But Anna, a young healthcare assistant, has the patience – and rare tenderness – to eke out his story. And so he begins.”

The synopsis may seem a touch muddled, but I’ve started reading and so far it is quite wonderful.

The Shadows in the Street by Susan Hill

“Simon Serrailler has just wrapped up a particularly exhausting and difficult case for SIFT – Special Incident Flying Taskforce – and is on a sabbatical on a far flung Scottish island when he is called back to Lafferton by the Chief Constable. Two local prostitutes have gone missing and are subsequently found strangled. By the time he gets back, another girl has disappeared. Is this a vendetta against prostitutes by someone with a warped mind? Or a series of killings by an angry punter? But then one of the Cathedral wives goes missing, followed by another young married woman, on her way to work. Serailler follows lead after lead, all of which become dead-ends. The fear is that more women will be killed, and that the murderer is right under their noses; meanwhile the public grow more angry and afraid. It is only through a piece of luck, a chance meeting and a life put in grave danger that he finally gets a result…”

I arrived in the library just as the new crime novels were being put out. There were a few I was interested in, but I was restrained and picked up just this one.

Sandy: The True Story of a Boy and His Friends Growing Up in Cornwall in the Late 1800s by C Richard Foye

“Sandy is the true story of a boy and his friends growing up in Cornwall in the late 1800s. It’s the story of a ‘lost world’ in two senses — the lost world of childhood as recalled from an adult perspective, and the lost world of late Victorian England as lived through in a rural community, when the ordinary family depended for its livelihood on long hours of difficult manual labour. The Sandy whose early life this book chronicles grew up in West Cornwall’s countryside at the end of the 1800s. Initially living in Falmouth, where he was born, Sandy moves when his father inherits a derelict house and farm from his Uncle Benjamin. Here we come to see the restoration process that the whole family is involved in once this move had been made. The reader can enjoy an array of local colour in the antics and adventures Sandy embarks on with the new friends he makes, from Polwheveral Creek to Porth Navas to the woodlands north of Constantine. Then there are larger-than-life characters, such as the sailors who wouldn’t feel out of place in Treasure Island, with facial scars and eye-patches and mutilated limbs. Enjoy such new-fangled inventions and machinery as gas lighting for the home and a horse-drawn grass-cutter, and share in the wonder their arrival must have excited among the common people. Become acquainted too with such local traditions as the Helston flora dance, and delicacies like star-gazy pie. Childhood however runs its natural course, and once on the brink of manhood Sandy cannot resist his passion for the sea, of which his father sternly disapproves. The only option Sandy has is to run away from home, which he does, joining the Royal Navy in Plymouth. He returns briefly after serving for ten years, to find out what has happened to his friends and family. Then that chapter too closes, and with it a whole past world of English rural life.”

Hopefully this will be perfect Cornish comfort reading!

Florence & Giles by John Harding

“In a remote and crumbling New England mansion, 12-year-old orphan Florence is neglected by her guardian uncle and banned from reading. Left to her own devices she devours books in secret and talks to herself – and narrates this, her story – in a unique language of her own invention. By night, she sleepwalks the corridors like one of the old house’s many ghosts and is troubled by a recurrent dream in which a mysterious woman appears to threaten her younger brother Giles. Sometimes Florence doesn’t sleepwalk at all, but simply pretends to so she can roam at will and search the house for clues to her own baffling past. After the sudden violent death of the children’s first governess, a second teacher, Miss Taylor, arrives, and immediately strange phenomena begin to occur. Florence becomes convinced that the new governess is a vengeful and malevolent spirit who means to do Giles harm. Against this powerful supernatural enemy, and without any adult to whom she can turn for help, Florence must use all her intelligence and ingenuity to both protect her little brother and preserve her private world.”

The influences are fairly obvious, but  it does look good and a gothic novel does appeal right now.

Have you read any of these? What did you think? Which book should I go for next? And which are you curious to know more about?

And what did you find in the library this week?

See more Library Loot here.