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Florence and Giles, By John Harding
Gothic tale with mystery appeal
Wednesday 05 May 2010
It's a brave writer who will take on Henry James, but John Harding's publishers trumpet his debt to The Turn of the Screw. So Flora and Miles become Florence and Giles, and Bly House becomes Blithe House, a mansion set in New England in the 1890s. Fortunately, however, Harding rings enough ingenious changes on James's study of perversity to produce his own full-blown Gothic horror tale.
The narrator here is the 12-year-old Florence. At the start of the novel, Florence lives a life of solitary contentment. Her brother is away at school, her guardian is in New York, and there is an indulgent housekeeper, Mrs Grouse. Florence spends most of her time in the library or an abandoned tower of the house where she creates her own small and secure world. Her only friend is Theo Van Hoosier, a boy from a nearby estate.
This world is threatened when Giles returns home and a new governess, Miss Taylor, takes command of the household. Miss Taylor is a terrifying figure. It is obvious that she regards Florence as an enemy and adores Giles. She bends over Giles's bed while he sleeps, crooning to him and whispering, "Ah my dear, I could eat you."
Florence discovers two steamboat tickets to Le Havre and a duplicate set of Giles's clothes packed in Miss Taylor's room, and it is evident that the governess means to spirit Giles away. Florence tries to enlist allies in the form of Theo and a policeman in the nearby town, but no one quite believes her tale. When the governess discovers Florence's suspicions, she removes her only ally, Mrs Grouse, in a murderous attack.
The witch-like governess is able to appear in the mirror of any room in the house and so spy on Florence. The climax of their struggle, when Florence has to fight to the finish to protect Giles, is genuinely exciting and shocking.
Like all good fairytales, this is not one for children. The governess is evil and frightening, but Florence, in the end, is almost as ruthless and destructive in her fight for Giles. A warning: Florence's way of reinventing language in telling her story grates at first. Nouns and adjectives become verbs, as in "a house uncomfortabled and shabbied", and verbs become nouns, "a twiddlery of thumbs". It is hard to see how "commenced to restlessing" is an improvement on "became restless". But bear with it, Florence's often very personal narrative does, in the end, powerfully and convincingly convey the vulnerablility of children faced with terror.
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