The story begins with Edie Burchill, a thirty-year old woman living in London and working as an editor. Her mother Meredith was one of the children who were evacuated from London during the bombing in World War II, and who had been taken to live at Milderhurst Castle during that time. The castle’s occupants, Percy (Persephone), Saffy (Seraphina) and June (Juniper) Blythe were the daughters of Raymond Blythe, famous for his horror story, “The True History of The Mud Man.” When Edie found out about her mother’s stay at Milderhurst, she became obsessed with finding out more about her mother’s past, and went to tour the castle and visit the three sisters.
This book alternates between 1993, telling Edie Burchill’s story, and fifty years earlier, telling the story of Milderhurst Castle and its inhabitants during the war years. In the process, we learn the dark secrets that tie the two families together and the present to the past, in an eerie replication of the distant hours.
Discussion: I knew when I was reading this that it was a “gothic novel” but it was more of an instinctual thing, so I set out to investigate just what one is, and whether in fact The Distant Hours meets that criteria.
The short version is that “Gothic is a genre of literature that combines elements of both horror and romance” (Wikipedia). Specifically, English professor Robert Harris lists these elements:
1. Setting in a castle.
2. An atmosphere of mystery and suspense.
3. An ancient prophecy connected with the castle or its inhabitants (either former or present). In modern examples, this may amount to merely a legend or ghosts that wander the halls.
4. Omens, portents, visions. A character may have a disturbing dream vision, or some phenomenon may be seen as a portent of coming events.
5. Supernatural or otherwise inexplicable events.
6. High, even overwrought emotion. Characters suffer from raw nerves and a feeling of impending doom. Crying and emotional speeches are frequent. Breathlessness and panic are common.
7. Women in distress.
8. Women threatened by a powerful, impulsive, tyrannical male..
9. The metonymy of gloom and horror. Metonymy is a subtype of metaphor, in which something (like rain) is used to stand for something else (like sorrow). (Included in this category are howling wind, blowing rain, thunder and lightening, eerie sounds, etc.)
10. The vocabulary of the gothic (i.e., words that suggest mystery, fear, terror, sorrow, etc., such as “ominous” or “wretched” or “mournful”).
11. Elements of Romance (including powerful love, uncertainty of reciprocation or unrequited love, tension between true love and father’s control, illicit love, rival love, or lovers parted).
And with this list, you have a pretty good summary of this book!
Evaluation: There is plenty of mystery and there are twists galore to keep you turning the pages in this unsettling story. At the end, I couldn’t decide if I felt happy or sad, but definitely some of both. The characters are well drawn, and the story is at turns creepy, tragic, and heart-warming. This book would be perfect for the Halloween season, if you can wait that long.