Author: Michael Ford
Genre: Paranormal / Historical / YA
Target audience: 12+
UK Publisher: Bloomsbury Books
Abigail is a maidservant in Greave Hall, an elegant London household governed by the tyrannical housekeeper, Mrs Cotton. Whilst the widowed master slips slowly into madness, Mrs Cotton gradually usurps the position of gentlewoman of the house. She wears his dead wife's jewellery and clothes, entertains guests as though the house is her own and reserves her most despotic treatment for Abi. In the dead of night, Abi makes a desperate bid for freedom, but is soon captured and returned to Greave Hall. As Mrs Cotton's malice intensifies, a ghostly presence distracts Abi with clues to a deadly secret. And Abi now realises that she can trust no one in the house.
The Poisoned House is a true Victorian Gothic novel. Set in 1856 London, it follows the life of recently orphaned Abigail Tamper working as a maidservant in Greave Hall, where the widowed master of the house is only a shadow of his old self and the housekeeper and the master's sister-in-law, Mrs Cotton, dominates the house as if she were its rightful mistress.
The story begins with Abigail's failed escape from Greave Hall. Her mother died one year ago and Abigail has no reason to stay in the cold house, so she decides to run away in the middle of the night, but Mrs Cotton is a formidable figure who always seems to be one step ahead of everyone and she has Abigail brought back to Greave Hall not long after the girl escaped. Abigail is forced to stay and work under the tyranny of Mrs Cotton, who tends to resort both to mental abuse and physical punishment of the servants and Abi is a particular thorn in her foot.
After this event, strange, paranormal things begin to happen to Abigail and after an uncanny encounter with one Dr Reinhardt, who is a medium communicating with the dead, it becomes clear to Abi that her mother's spirit hasn't left. It is restless and wants to tell Abi something very important. Abigail's mother was murdered and Abi must find out who the murderer is. Abi is not friendless in Greave Hall. She has Lizzie, another maidservant, Cook and Rob, the coachman. Even the aloof Mr Lock, the lord's butler, is good to her. But Abi finds herself in a situation where it is not safe to trust anyone in the house. When Lord Greave's son Samuel returns wounded from the Crimean war as a hero, he is the only person that Abi feels she can trust because Abi suspects that Mrs Cotton is the criminal and she might even harm Samuel, who is Abi's good friend.
The suspense in this novel is wonderful and it builds consistently from the first page and only dissipates at the very end of the story, and even then, a sense of unease lingers. The atmosphere is delightfully Victorian and Gothic and brings to mind the atmosphere of Thornfield Hall from Charlotte Brontë's Jane Eyre and even of Wuthering Heights created by Emily Brontë in the novel of the same name. Mrs Cotton reminded me of Nurse Ratchett from One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest, but she is far crueler and directly cold than Nurse Ratchett. The paranormal activity and Mrs Cotton herself are the key elements to the suspenseful feeling permeating the novel. The mystery grows thicker with every page and the final revelation is quite shocking.
Abigal Tamper is a great heroine. She is young and inexperienced, but she knows what she wants and she is a brave girl. She accepts her situation in life very maturely and although she knows her place and understands that she must be careful and alert, she is not afraid to act when that becomes necessary. Mrs Cotton is a great antagonist, cold and self-righteous, as well as cruel, but she is not the only villain of the story, which makes everything all the more exciting. Other characters are not quite so significant and are not truly developed, but they serve well in supporting and shaping the story.
I liked the vague ending, as it offers many possibilities for Abi, but I do wish two things had been made clear. I would have liked to know what happened to Abi's best friend Lizzie, also a maidservant in Greave Hall, who had been dismissed by Mrs Cotton, especially since in the end, Abi was in a position to help her. And the other thing I would have liked to be made clearer was Abigail's future. A hint would have been enough, showing the reader how she might have decided to live her life from that point on. Otherwise, I think that the way the story ended really fit the entire scheme of the novel and was pleasing for me as a reader.
All in all, the novel provided me with a great, suspenseful read and lovers of mysteries and the Gothic atmosphere will be delighted to read this ghost story set in the Victorian era.
Becky says: Irena, this novel certainly sounds like it embodies everything gothic. It sounds a little terrifying and well-paced. What a great review! Thanks for sharing your thoughts with us. Both our thanks go to Bloomsbury Books for sending The Poisoned House for review.