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Book Review: The Secrets of Hartwood Hall by Katie Lumsden

Book Review: The Secrets of Hartwood Hall by Katie Lumsden

‘Nobody ever goes to Hartwood Hall…. Folks say it’s cursed, but I dare say a lady like yourself wouldn’t believe such talk.’ From the moment the landlord of the local public house utters those words to Margaret Lennox, the central character in The Secrets of Hartwood Hall, a sense of unease begins to creep into the story. Why does nobody ever go to the mysterious Hartwood Hall? And why do folks say it’s cursed? With these questions posed early on, Katie Lumsden’s debut novel has all the hallmarks of a gothic haunted house novel, but it’s not necessarily presences of the paranormal variety that lurk within its pages.

It’s 1852 and young widow Margaret Lennox accepts a position as governess at isolated country house Hartwood Hall. Having been vindictively cut out of her husband’s will just before he died, Margaret is running from her past and seeking a place to start afresh. But from the moment she arrives at Hartwood Hall, she gets the unsettling feeling that something about her new home isn’t right. It’s not just the hostile villagers, who whisper about the house and its solitary inhabitants. It’s the creaks and footsteps that echo around the house at night. It’s the many locks on the doors and the fact that half the house is out of bounds. Then there’s the reclusive owner of the house, Mrs Eversham, who insists Margaret never let her pupil, Louis, out of her sight. Margaret isn’t easily spooked but even she starts to think that something other is haunting the halls of Hartwood.

Despite her fondness for her bright and curious charge, Margaret feels increasingly unnerved by the strange happenings going on around her. Unsure who to trust, she embarks on a forbidden relationship with gentle and unpretentious gardener Paul. Having lived in a loveless, coercive marriage before her husband died, Margaret falls hard and fast for Paul. His easy, uncomplicated affection makes her feel desired and alive, yet their passionate trysts soon become yet another secret to keep. As Margaret’s own past catches up with her, she must trust her instincts before it’s too late. But whether the threat is ghostly or something corporal, there’s one thing that Margaret is absolutely certain of: she will protect Louis and his family at all costs.

When I think of Hartwood Hall, there are moments that come back to me again and again, moments that stain me, that cling like ink to my skin.”

Drawing inspiration from the likes of Jane Eyre, Katie Lumsden’s debut is a twisty Victorian mystery full of intriguing characters and a creepy gothic atmosphere. Margaret is a resilient and compelling central character who knows her own mind. She hasn’t had the easiest life but it hasn’t diminished her kindness. If anything, her challenging marriage to an intimidating man who viewed her as property rather than an equal has only made her more tolerant. Through Margaret and various other characters in the book, Lumsden perfectly captures the reality of what marriage was like for women in the 19th century. They were lucky if they found love but most of the time marriage was more of a business transaction – done for convenience, money or power.

This is a book populated by loyal, sympathetic and intelligent women. It’s perhaps unsurprising that the few men who feature in the story are bullies or chauvinists or both. It’s such a shame, then, that the most decent man in the whole story isn’t treated particularly kindly at the end. Lumsden has created a genuinely lovely character in Paul – the very definition of a gentleman even though he isn’t titled and is by all accounts ‘lowly’ in station. The conclusion to his part in the story might be in keeping with Margaret’s evolution from subdued widow to an independently minded woman, but it will sting readers who really came to care for him and appreciate his discretion and gentleness.

However, that’s just one minor complaint in a book that is evocative, riveting and rich with historical detail from beginning to end. The Secrets of Hartwood Hall is in many ways a chilling ghost story, just not quite the one you might be expecting. After all, ghosts can come in many forms – in eerie spirits that wander hallways at night, or ghosts of the past that follow you into the present. What truly shines through this novel isn’t the unnerving tone but the prevailing theme of learning to let go of society’s expectations and finding your people in the process. The people who allow you to be you and who accept a complicated history without judgement. This book might be set over a century ago but those themes of embracing difference and following your heart feel universal. So whilst this is a beautiful piece of historical fiction, it also has a forward-thinking, feminist slant that’s perfect for modern readers.


The Secrets of Hartwood Hall is published by Michael Joseph on 30 March 2023

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