The Mistress of Trevelyan
by Jennifer St. Giles
(Pocket, $6.99, PG-13) ISBN 0-7434-8625-0
****
Jennifer St. Giles’ first book, The Mistress of Trevelyan, fits infoplease.com’s definition of a gothic romance perfectly:

“During the 1960s so-called Gothic novels became enormously popular in England and the United States. Seemingly modeled on Charlotte Brontë's Jane Eyre and Daphne du Maurier's Rebecca, these novels usually concern spirited young women, either governesses or new brides, who go to live in large gloomy mansions populated by peculiar servants and precocious children and presided over by darkly handsome men with mysterious pasts.”

The “spirited young woman” in this case is Ann Lovell, and…yes, indeedy…she does apply for the position of governess at Trevelyn Hill, a mansion that definitely deserves to be described as large and gloomy. Although Ann’s mother struggled to support herself and her daughter as a laundress in 1870’s San Francisco, she still managed to spend every extra cent she earned to further Ann’s education. Even so, when Ann knocks on Trevelyn Hill’s impressive front door, she is all too aware of her hands, rough and reddened from the lye soap she and her mother used, and of her complete lack of teaching experience.

The “darkly handsome man” who employs Ann for a trial period is Benedict Trevelyan, and of course he has a “mysterious past.” His first wife jumped to her death from the window of Trevelyn Hill’s highest tower; some say that Benedict pushed her. She left behind two “precocious children:” Robert, aged five, and Justin, nearly eight. Ann Lovell quickly realizes that, in addition to their academic subjects, Robert and Justin need help working through their grief for their mother and their strained relationship with their stern father.

Was Benedict Trevelyan responsible for his wife’s death, or was it one of the other residents of Trevelyan Hill? Besides Benedict, there is his brother, Stephen, just back from a trip east; his wheelchair-bound mother; his reclusive younger sister, Kathryn; and his shop-a-holic sister-in-law, Constance Ortega. The requisite “peculiar servants” are represented by Dobbs, the unremittingly condescending butler, and Maria, the children’s sinister nurse. Whether or not one of these seven killed Francesca Trevelyan, someone in the Trevelyan household – probably one of the seven - is spying on Ann and occasionally playing nasty pranks on her.

Ms. St. Giles had obviously chosen the Gothic novel format as the structure for her first novel, and she adheres to it faithfully. This is no tongue-in-cheek Gothick romance, playing off the conventions of the genre. Instead, Ms. St. Giles takes those conventions seriously and – for the most part – reminds us that they do work. The immediate attraction between Ann and Benedict simmered nicely for most of the book before coming to a boil in the last third. The other members of the household each had their turn at center stage, so that by the denouement the reader had sufficient evidence to decide on a culprit, if indeed Francesca’s death was murder.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, Ann’s role as governess, and her growing love for Robert and Justin, was at the heart of the book, as it should be. Benedict’s treatment of his young sons was unduly authoritarian, and much of Ann’s interaction with Benedict arose from her efforts to better their relationship. As for the curriculum that Ann considered appropriate for a five-year-old and an eight-year-old, I can only say that it struck me as believable for a 19th century governess. If only your children and mine were treated to such a wide range of topics so early!

Ms. St. Giles tells her story from Ann’s point of view. I happen to be a fan of first- person story telling, and it works especially well in the Gothic genre. Perhaps the most important challenge a Gothic heroine faces is whether to believe that the unhappy hero is guilty of the crimes with which he is charged. If the reader sees the hero from his point of view, his innocence is immediately established. (If it isn’t, we are faced with an unreliable narrator, and that’s opens up a whole ‘nother can of worms.) I’m afraid that, in this case, Ms. St. Giles never made Benedict sinister enough for me to consider him a serious contender for the title of Murderer.

The publisher eliminated a second suspect with a blurb on the inside cover, announcing that Stephen Trevelyan’s book will be out in 2005. Fortunately, that left four or five possible culprits to keep the reader guessing, but I hate it when a book cover gives plot points away. On the other hand, I will be looking forward to Ms. St. Giles’ next book. The Mistress of Trevelyan was an auspicious start to her writing career.

--Nancy J Silberstein


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