1871. An age of discovery and progress. But for the Wainwright family, residents of the gloomy Teesbank Hall in County Durham the secrets of the past continue to overshadow their lives.
Harriet would not have taken the job of governess in such a remote place unless she wanted to hide from something or someone. Her charge is Eleanor, the daughter of the house, a fiercely bright eighteen-year-old, tortured by demons and feared by relations and staff alike. But it soon becomes apparent that Harriet is not there to teach Eleanor, but rather to monitor her erratic and dangerous behaviour – to spy on her.
Worn down by Eleanor’s unpredictable hostility, Harriet soon finds herself embroiled in Eleanor’s obsession – the Wainwright’s dark, tragic history. As family secrets are unearthed, Harriet’s own begin to haunt her and she becomes convinced that ghosts from the past are determined to reveal her shameful story.
For Harriet, like Eleanor, is plagued by deception and untruths.
As the nights draw in and autumn turns to winter, my reading life tends to head for the cosy comfort blanket that is historical fiction. I love curling up with something historical and gothic during the winter months, especially if it has a crime, mystery and/or supernatural element. With its isolated setting and Jane Eyre vibes, Helen Scarlett’s The Deception of Harriet Fleet, thus had ‘winter reading vibes’ written all over it.
Billed as an ‘atmospheric Victorian chiller’, The Deception of Harriet Fleet follows the eponymous Harriet as she takes up the post of governess at the brooding and isolated Teesbank Hall, home of the prominent Wainright family. Entrusted with the charge of Eleanor, the daughter of the house and of a similar age to Harriet, it is soon apparent to the new governess that all is not well with her charge. Prone to outbursts of sudden violence and watched night and day, Eleanor is feared by the staff and despised by almost all her relations. But is there some method behind the young woman’s apparent madness? As Harriet learns more about her charge – and about the tragic history of the Wainwright family – she begins to think that not only might Eleanor have unearthed a dangerous family secret, but to fear that the ghosts from her own past will be revealed.
With a dark and brooding house, an isolated and chilly family, and a protagonist with secrets of her own to hide, The Deception of Harriet Fleet certainly ticks all of the ‘Victorian Gothic’ boxes! Helen Scarlett does an excellent job of conveying the sinister atmosphere of Teesbank Hall and the intimidating authority that the various members of the Wainwright family hold over Harriet and her future. Teasing the reader with the promise of secrets both within Teesbank Hall and within Harriet’s own past, Scarlett also does an excellent job of introducing and maintaining an uneasy tension right up until the novel’s dramatic final act.
Key to this tension is the combative relationship between Harriet and her charge. By turns manipulative, cruel, deceitful, frustrated, maligned, neglected, and brilliant, Eleanor is a complicated figure, whose intellectual curiosity and fierce ambition are being repressed by old-fashioned notions of female duty and societal position. Harriet, meanwhile, tells us from the outset that she has committed a great deceit herself: running away from home and assuming a new identity to escape unspeakable horrors. As the two women realise that they are both victims of society’s lack of respect for women, an uneasy accord grows between them that is both fascinating and nerve-wracking to witness.
This unlikely alliance – and the tension that arises as a result – was the driving force of the novel for me, with Eleanor and Harriet both unwittingly (and often unwillingly) assisting each other in uncovering the secrets of Teesbank Hall. I also enjoyed the way in which their discoveries tied into the ‘age of discovery and progress’, with forays into the dark fringes of the scientific world. It should be noted, however, that some of Eleanor and Harriet’s investigations lead to traumatic discoveries so trigger warnings for mentions of or discussion of child death, mental illness, confinement, forced institutionalisation, emotional abuse, sexual abuse, infidelity, and pregnancy.
There are some glimmers of hope for Harriet amidst all the gloom. A burgeoning friendship with Eleanor’s brother Henry provides some moments of levity, although I have to say that personally I found the relationship that eventually develops between them to be somewhat lacking in meat on the bones and, as a result, one of the weaker elements of the novel. Another friendship with a fellow servant was more successful, and featured a twist that had me reeling at the novel’s end!
With its absorbing story of family secrets, revenge, jealousy, betrayal, and forbidden love, The Deception of Harriet Fleet definitely meets the criteria for a haunting gothic read. Fans of historical mysteries are sure to enjoy discovering the many macabre secrets of Teesbank Hall, as will anyone who is looking to fill a Bronte-shaped hole in their reading lives!
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My thanks go to the publisher and to NetGalley UK for providing an e-copy of the book in return for an honest and unbiased review.
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