REVIEW: Haunting Miss Trentwood by Belinda Kroll
Dear Ms. Kroll,
I was intrigued by the opening paragraph of Haunting Miss Trentwood. It was different, unusual and original. It evoked a gothic atmosphere which is not something I encounter much these days in romance, and I do so love a good gothic. I was looking forward to reading and reviewing this self-published book. Unfortunately, the bulk of the story did not live up to its opening passages.
Miss Mary Trentwood’s father has just died, leaving her orphaned and penniless. With the family manor slowly deteriorating around her, Mary is alone but for her father’s valet, the cook, and her mother’s twin sister. That is, she would be alone if her father’s ghost had not climbed out of his grave the day he was buried, dusted himself off and had begun to haunt her. For what reasons, she is not certain. Mary has no idea if she is going mad from grief or if her father is really a ghost. She has no desire to try to speak to him, no desire to leave the house, but instead becomes more isolated and lonely than she was during the year of her father’s illness. With only the memory of her one suitor, Mr. Steele, to keep her company, Mary seems to exist neither in the world of the living or the world of the dead. It is only when Mr. Alexander Hartwell, a barrister from London, arrives that Mary’s strange isolation ends.
Hartwell has come from London to investigate the blackmail of his sister, Lady Kirkham. She has reason to believe that whoever it is that is behind the letters threatening herself and her son, the answer will be found at this lonely, decrepit manor. So Alexander Hartwell has come here, unannounced, to investigate, only to find a grieving young woman, a sour old one, and two devoted servants.
As soon as Hartwell enters the house, he knows something is wrong. Pomeroy, the late Mr. Trentwood’s valet, reveals to him that Mary believes that she is being haunted by her father’s ghost. A revelation that seems more and more likely to be true, what with the odd occurrences surrounding Mary—the voices, cold air, and strange sensations, all of which seem to affect Hartwell as well.
Hartwell immediately likes Mary, and she him. Their romance begins quietly, with conversations and walks. When Mr. Steele unexpectedly returns, this changes everything—both the nature of Mary and Hartwell’s budding romance, and Hartwell’s belief in the ghost of Mr. Trentwood. Hartwell can suddenly hear Trentwood, and Trentwood can possess him. This ominous state of affairs is only exacerbated by Trentwood’s belief that Mary is in danger from her aunt, Mrs. Durham, and Pomeroy’s certainty that it is Mrs. Durham who has been blackmailing Hartwell’s sister. The rest of the story is about the resolution of these different threats, as well as Mary’s choice between her old love and a new one.
I was really hoping to like this book, both because it seemed to have an original plot but also because the authorial style was different and unique. I thought that the premise of the novel sounded really interesting. Or rather, to be more precise, the premise of the story is one that takes the usual romance plot of the orphaned young lady and adds this interesting twist: that her father’s ghost is haunting her. Not in a metaphorical way, but actually haunting her. That is intriguing. That is a ripe and rich vein to harvest a story from.
But alas, a premise is only as good as its execution. And the execution of this little novella leaves much to be desired.
It seems to me that this book was intended to be a gothic or, at least, a commentary on the gothic. The markers are certainly there: the lonely manor, the orphaned girl, the unknown threat that wanders the hallways, ill-intentioned relatives, ghosts, secrets, and a man with a past. And indeed, for the first half of the novel this gothic tone is maintained quite effectively. Oh, there were signs here and there that perhaps the plotting was not as tight as it could be. Mrs. Durham is, from the get-go, a rather vague and shakily motivated character. And there was, on occasion, an awkward sentence or two, an info-dump or a strange exposition, a sense that the plot wasn’t quite as tight as it should be. Troubling since, with gothics and mysteries the novel needs to be as tightly plotted as possible, lest they go unraveling on you, or getting sloppy. I say lest because the tension of a tight plot is what generates the anxiety laden atmosphere needed to propel such a story forward. It is in the tight stitching together of the plot that the tension, urgency, and anxiety are created; tension, urgency and threat are fundamental to the genre of the gothic.
But I ignored the signs of a loose plot, because they were minor. I thought, “Well, perhaps these oddities will be explained later.” Alas, no. They were not. Instead the oddities got larger, clunky-er, and chunkier until finally Mr. Steele shows up, not quite out of freaking nowhere but close. And with such heavy-handed speed that I was left confused. Things deteriorated from there. The rest of this review contains quite a few spoilers because I cannot find a way of explaining what went wrong with this book without giving away details. So, you have been duly warned.
So what was gothic or psychological about the novella at its opening became farcical and comedic by the end and it seems to me—based on the tonal shift—intentionally so. But I don’t know why there was that intention or if there was that intention. So everything starts out in this grieving and isolated space that is Mary’s haunting. And in the opening passage, the appearance of Mr. Trentwood’s ghost feels ominous and disturbing, like some perversion of Mary’s grief:
Whatever suggestive power Mrs. Durham had on Mary could not prevent the horrifying vision of a man, muddy and coughing, clawing his way from the grave site. He hung from the edge of the hole into which Trentwood’s coffin had descended, his elbows digging into the dirt as he wriggled his way out.
Mary stared open-mouthed.
He was dismayingly flexible, able to swing a leg over the edge and roll onto the disturbed ground. He stood, brushing himself off almost apologetically though no dirt clung to his clothing. He gave Mary time to study his determined chin, firm mouth, and snappish eyes. He combed his sandy hair back from his forehead while clearing his throat, revealing streaks of gray running from temple to crown. The overall effect was chilling familiarity.
Ignoring what I think are a couple awkward turns of phrase, the overall effect of this is horror. Though, I also think it is horrid precisely because it is tinged with the comic. There’s a certain grotesquery in the description. As well there should be because gothic sensibility, in this reviewer’s opinion, hinges on the horror not only in the domestic, but in the comic and the absurd. Moreover, this passage immediately moves into a description of Mary’s grief and loneliness, confusion and fear. All of which are emotions that paint a claustrophobic picture of Mary’s life. We, the reader, question why Mr. Trentwood has come back from the dead? What does he wish to speak to Mary about? Was he a good father? A bad father? How is her mother’s death connected? In short, the beginning of the book suggests in its exposition and tone that there is a mystery at the heart of Mary’s relationship with her father. This may or may not be connected to the fact that he seems to have left her no money. And it may or may not be connected to the blackmail of Mr. Hartwell’s sister. All well and good. But then the tone starts to get really uneven, veering into the silly. And the plot starts to unravel, its threads waving loose in the wind unconnected to each other. The sign of this disintegration of plot and tone was Mr. Steele’s abrupt arrival on the scene.
Introduced in a flashback, Mr. Steele was at one time a suitor for Mary’s hand. A suitor her father did not approve of and who was dismissed from Mary’s life before Mr. Trentwood fell ill. That was a year ago, which is a long time to not see someone you were rather serious about. So it seems a little bit odd that Mrs. Durham, suspicious and upset that Hartwell and Mary are getting close, writes a letter to Steele as she thinks he will be able “to confuse Mary’s affections” (Nook 39/120). That makes a kind of sense since Mary’s been pining for him. And it makes a kind of sense if Hartwell is a threat to Mrs. Durham, which he is. But this is tenuous because Steele and Mary’s relationship hasn’t been sufficiently established except for the pining she has done and the one flashback. Even in the flashback, it seems like Mary only likes Steele because he likes her and he is handsome. There is no indication in that scene that they have a long term emotional connection. So it is an odd plot turn to have him reappear.
So Mrs. Durham writes her letter and then Mr. Steele shows up pretty much immediately, out of the blue and to the surprise of everyone including Mrs. Durham. I mean, like, a half an hour after she writes the letter. Quoi?
The explanation, such as it is, is that Steele has been employed as a solicitor working for the law firm that Mary’s father had hired as executors of his will. But, but . . . ? Okay. I sort of see why maybe Steele needs to come back, plot-wise—to create further tension in Mary and Hartwell’s budding relationship—but why so fast? What purpose does his swift arrival serve? Why does it have to be right then? Why have Mrs. Durham write him a letter at all if he’s just going to show up any way like some fated obstacle to Hartwell and Mary’s romance?
But Steele’s arrival also marks a turning point in the tone and plot overall. The gothic atmosphere dissipates, and a farce takes its place with Hartwell and Steele awkwardly sparring and the ghost of Mr. Trentwood make a mess of things. The ghost of Mr. Trentwood is no longer the ominous sign of something rotten in the state of Compton Beauchamp but, it seems, has returned from the grave solely to help Mary choose the right beau. The prose itself reflects this unexplained tonal shift:
When she had kissed him, it had been curious, chaste, innocent. When he kissed her, there was of course, a hint of curiosity, as there must always be with a first kiss. Yet it was blended with a touch of sadness, a whisper of goodbye, a breath of passion, a pull of desperation. He cradled her face in his hands gently, giving her the option to leave him. She did not. The kiss deepened into a proper goodbye. Breathless and heady. They fell away from one another gasping
“That,” he began. “Was,” she agreed.
“Completely inappropriate!” Trentwood snapped.
A lovely description of a kiss descends into silliness. Worse, it seems to do so for no particular narrative purpose. Mr. Trentwood becomes a comic intrusion into Mary’s love life rather than a character who has returned from the grave to either make amends with his daughter or to hurt her or whatever we might guess his reasons to be.
Perhaps he was there to prevent her from being harmed by Mrs. Durham. But all the fore-shadowing to the contrary, Mrs. Durham ends up not seeming to care two bits about Mary. Her ill-intentions lie elsewhere by the end, which would be have been fine but for the fact that there’s no logical cohesion between the things that were foreshadowed and the things that actually end up happening in the plot. Mrs. Durham seems to only to want Hartwell out of the way because he is a threat to her. Or she only wants to make Mary miserable because she wants everyone to be miserable. There doesn’t seem to be any specificity to her malice. Even when her malice is finally explained—her husband cheated on her with Hartwell’s sister—it does not suffice as a motive. So what, we ask ourselves?
This lack of logical cohesion is symptomatic of the problems with the book overall. Characters that were only mentioned as asides before, suddenly, and with no warning whatsoever, appear on the scene, just in time to participate in the climax of the blackmail plot—a plot that somehow manages not to be interesting at all even though it is as confusing as hell.
First, I could never figure out the basic timeline of events or the ages of the characters. Mary, it seems, is in her early twenties. Mr. Hartwell perhaps his early thirties. Mr. Hartwell’s older sister went to school with Mary’s mother and aunt. They were friends, though this has not prevented both Mary and Hartwell from ever having heard of each other before. Okay, fine. I can buy that if Hartwell is a decade older than Mary, and his sister a decade older than him, then she could have gone to school with Mary’s mother. It is plausible. Or it was plausible until Hartwell’s sister shows up with his nephew and his nephew is a baby and his nephew is his sister’s first child and is also, somehow, Mrs. Durham’s husband’s bastard child. Again, this is plausible but it isn’t set up very well as being probable. I mean, no matter how absurd and out there the secret at the heart of the gothic is, it still has to make sense within the story itself.
And second, the reason for Hartwell’s sister and his mother and his nephew to all show up at the manor is on the flimsiest of pretenses: to take the baby somewhere safe to keep it from the threats of the blackmailer. This makes no sense ESPECIALLY when considering the fact that Hartwell was sent there in the first place because that’s where his sister thought he would figure out who the blackmailer was. I mean, come on. Who else could it have been but Mrs. Durham? There are only four people alive in the house, and only one of them has any motive.
Then there is this little horror of an information dump about Dame Hartwell, Alexander’s mother in the midst of the climactic scene:
She, unlike her daughter, insisted on her proper moniker of Dame, for she had also married a knight of the realm and delighted in old traditions. Her daughter, she felt, put on airs by insisting she be called a lady. Ladies were married to viscounts, earls, and dukes, not knights. But that was neither here nor there. By this point, Mrs. Durham had backed up to the open window, where the wind blew fiercely through the sole access point to the interior of the house. She clung to baby Henry, madness alight in her eyes.
Sigh. There is so much wrong with this passage. But putting aside the fact that I think that this is wrong (while technically true at some point during the British empire—possibly during Chaucer’s lifetime—I do not believe this was the case in 1887) then why bring this up at this point in the story? Why introduce a character in the last act of the play? It just makes no sense. Why is she there? What does she add? She’s not even a deus ex machina. I mean, this adds no color, no depth, and no point to the scene as it stands. Dame Hartwell is utterly extraneous. She has not even been present in her absence throughout the rest of the plot. She is a non-entity. So what is she doing in this book?
But all of this would have been tolerable had it not utterly detracted from the romance. Mary and Hartwell fall in love, but so swiftly and in such a short space of time that, what with the interruptions by Steele, Pomeroy, Trentwood and Mrs. Durham, etc., it seems as if they have barely had time to get to know one another. Although there aren’t actually that many plots running through the book, and even though they are all interconnected, it still felt as if the sexual and romantic tension between Mary and Hartwell was dissolved by an unfocused narration, one that divided its attention between two many characters and plots without digging deeply into any of them. Even the relationship between Mary and her father, the relationship that catalyzes the “haunting” at the center of this book, seems to disappear in the shuffle.
“That was a lot of coincidences upon which to rely” thinks Hartwell at one point. And the same could be said for the plot. It is a lot of coincidences upon which to rely, a lot of coincidences and not a lot of characterization or motivation to fill in the gaps that the coincidences leave behind.
Overall, I was disappointed with this book because it has so much potential. On occasion there were flare-ups of lovely prose and good, strong characterization. The underlying themes of grief, losing a parent, family connection, and loneliness were solid and could have been interestingly explored through the return of Mr. Trentwood’s ghost. But this was not how the plot played out. It unraveled very swiftly, leaving behind the ghost of a good gothic. So that what remains is only the promise of a story, one that seems to have been stitched together by a plethora of the author’s favorite tropes, favorite trivia, and favorite scenes from her imagination, rather than through knitting a few of these into a larger, tighter, and more coherent narrative.
Sadly, I must give this book. C-