Lancashire Times
Weekend Edition
Features Writer
1:02 AM 6th January 2024

Secrets Are Poison: The Fortunes Of Olivia Richmond By Louise Davidson

Jane Eyre meets Woman in Black with a hefty dose of Mrs Danvers stirred into the mix - this is a real gothic tale of intrigue. The opening describes the death of a child, a tragedy deemed to be misadventure but with the implication that the coroner’s verdict is far from accurate. Slowly, as the pages are turned, the horrifying truth is revealed.

Set in the late nineteenth century, the sense of injustice hits hard from the very start when Victorian law is applied to our heroine, not the eponymous Olivia Richmond, but Miss Julia Pearlie, who, on the death of her mother, is left penniless, at the hands of her greedy and selfish brother. She has no choice but to seek employment which she finds as companion to the young Miss Olivia Richmond, at Mistcoate House in Norfolk. (I love an aptronym!)

Olivia Richmond is ethereal and other worldly, used and abused by those around her, even those who profess the greatest love for her; a sickly figure, she is convinced she can commune with the spirits and has visions to which other mere mortals are not privy. She is also the subject of cruel fun by locals who do not know her well, receiving invitations to parties by those who think she is fair game for taunting: a spectacle for their amusement. It is Julia Pearlie’s job to rid Olivia of her associations with those ghostly figures which have seen her cast as the Mistcoate Witch, and to prepare her for her first season in London where, her father hopes, she can secure a wealthy husband – such is the lot of the Victorian daughter of a not so wealthy man.

...she is convinced she can commune with the spirits and has visions to which other mere mortals are not privy...
That Julia herself is plagued by nightmares and visions of the ghosts of her previous young charges only adds to the gothic intensity of this novel. She is haunted by the ghosts of Christopher and Lucy and by the lies which accompanied the events surrounding them. The dripping of water heralds their arrival each time and Julia’s nerves are often stretched taut. Guilt and ghostly apparitions go hand in hand it seems.

All the features are there: fogs, dark shadows, indiscernible figures, a churchyard and a forest, nightmares, death and despair – what more could a lover of dark mystery want? Well, let’s add to the list the ‘Shambler’, a demon who lurks in the forest, terrorising the neighbourhood as he attacks at will. Disfigured and dangerous, he casts a long shadow. Even the chapter headings of tarot cards merely add to the impression of other worldliness, of a power beyond human scope.

Read on!

There is also the unmistakable vulnerability of young Victorian women, both at the hands of their masters and within the hierarchy of the household. Lingering looks hint at sensuality, welcome or not. Closed doors hide many secrets. And then there is Mrs Eda Hayes, the all-seeing, all-knowing housekeeper, who is capable of far more than just a menacing glance, as she clings to the future she has mapped out for herself. She resents Julia’s presence and is determined not to allow her to ruin her machinations – whatever it takes.

Manners maketh the man and Dr George Richmond proves himself to be a sorry specimen – despite his somewhat tardy apology. The wailing of Captain Richmond, a tormented old man, filling the house, at first echoes Rochester’s mad wife in the attic, in Jane Eyre, but later, his lucid moments reveal the truths from which he shies away, as he allows the melancholy of a wandering mind to protect him from his memories.

Too often Julia seems to leap from the frying pan into the fire despite having the best of intentions, and the reader is unable to help. Her friendship with Rev Ed Byres and his sister, Alice, seems to be all that is real in her world and even that is cast into doubt at times.

Olivia is surprisingly sure of herself at the end and the reader is less worried for her.
Peter and Mina Joyce are condescending people who use others, with their false manners and a ‘mock display of affection’, and while the final letter Julia receives from her sister-in-law, purports to be a peace offering, it is easy to read between the lines to detect more evidence of insensitivity, of someone who recognises that there could be ‘something in it for her’. It does not paint a pretty picture of Victorian etiquette, more of the hypocrisy for which Victorians were also famed.

Miss Pearlie ultimately finds her inner strength and summons the mental resilience to do what is right, determined that history shall not repeat itself. She stands up for the weak and forces the truth to be heard, despite great risk to herself. Even though her best laid plans do not exactly come to fruition, she is successful; Olivia is surprisingly sure of herself at the end and the reader is less worried for her. So too, Julia’s fortunes change for the better and the reader need no longer worry for her.

Once again, I found myself hurtling through the final few chapters of a novel which had me gripped. Once again, it’s quite different from my usual fare, not that I’m sure any longer what constitutes ‘usual’. It seems ‘a varied diet’ is good in more ways than one.

The Fortunes of Olivia Richmond is published by Moonflower