Rosemary Craddock: Avalon Castle
Robert Hale 2015
1867. It’s almost halfway through Victoria’s reign, the American Civil War has not long finished and nouveau-riche industrialists are creating castellated Gothic residences to suggest spurious ancient heritages. From Cyfarthfa Castle (1840) in Merthyr Tydfil, Wales to King Arthur’s Castle Hotel (1899, now the Camelot Castle Hotel) near Tintagel, Cornwall these bastardised edifices stand as monuments to limited imaginations and dubious tastes.
Avalon Castle in Worcestershire is just such an edifice in this mystery romance laced with murder and intrigue by Staffordshire author Rosemary Craddock. Along with family secrets, suspicious deaths, concealed rooms and hidden drawers we have faint Arthurian echoes: damsels in distress and a lady in the lake, for example.
As suits this genre there are also stereotypes out of the pages of Jane Austen, the Brontës and Georgette Heyer, even fairytales such as ‘Bluebeard’, rubbing shoulders with railways, the telegraph and the arms industry.
Rachel Garland and her half-sister Lucy make the acquaintance of one Nicholas Blackwood at a seaside resort. Despite his easy manner Nicholas is not as he seems, and little things make Rachel feel anxious about his motivations. When Lucy elopes with him Rachel suspects he is after Lucy’s inheritance, and even when Rachel is invited to stay at Avalon Castle, where the couple are staying with Nicholas’ brother and sister, her suspicions are raised: what happened to Nicholas’s first wife, why is he so distant with their daughter, and why is he away from them so much?
For us readers, faced with Rachel’s first-person narrative, it’s pretty obvious that Nicholas is not to be trusted; but given that this is set in the Victorian period when women had even less social status and fewer legal safeguards, she has an uphill struggle trying to persuade anyone in the Worcestershire community that there is substance in her suspicions.
The ghost of Nicholas’ first wife, the laudanum that Ambrose the brother takes, the stern manner of the sister and de facto housekeeper Jessica, the odd disappearance of Miss Carr the governess, the unexplained illnesses that sister Lucy suffers from, the twist at the climax of the story — these and many other elements help to build up a poisonous atmosphere of mistrust, mystery and, ultimately, murder, along with the desired High Gothick setting.
Avalon Castle is more than competently plotted, rarely faltering until the final tying up of threads — which is when it uncharacteristically felt a mite perfunctory. There was a nice variation on the trope of ‘those whom the gods love die young’ in that evil-doers appear to literally get away with murder (or do they?); though it’s a fun and quick read with no literary pretensions, I nevertheless was comfortable with the author’s handling of the social conventions of the period — it does bother me when anachronistic language and habits distract from storytelling but, satisfyingly, that wasn’t evident here.
As to those Arthurian features that the title appears to promise, they are minimal: bedrooms named after knights and ladies, echoes of Mordred and Morgan Le Fay, for example. What’s more to the fore are the nods to classic Gothick fiction: it’s as if Catherine Morland’s fears in Austen’s Northanger Abbey have been fully realised, while the family that owns Avalon Castle share a surname with that prolific Victorian writer of ghost stories, Algernon Blackwood. Unlike Tennyson’s island-valley of Avilion “where falls not hail, or rain, or any snow, | Nor ever wind blows loudly” Avalon Castle is not ever going to be a place of peace and rest.
This is my first read for 20 Books of Summer (no 20 on my list)