Shelf Love

Mistress of Mellyn: In love with the man or the house?

Short Description

Mistress of Mellyn by Virginia Holt is often hailed as responsible for kicking off a boom of modern gothics in the mid-20th century. In this crossover with Reformed Rakes, we ask: is this a gothic first and a romance second? Is our plucky main character in love with the man of the house, or just the house? How does Mistress explore transgression of boundaries, gender, eight-year-olds, and heroines “ahead of their time”?


crossover podcast, romance novel discussion, historical romance

Show Notes

Mistress of Mellyn by Virginia Holt is often hailed as responsible for kicking off a boom of modern gothics in the mid-20th century. In this crossover with Reformed Rakes, we ask: is this a gothic first and a romance second? Is our plucky main character in love with the man of the house, or just the house? How does Mistress explore transgression of boundaries, gender, eight-year-olds, and heroines “ahead of their time”?

Shelf Love:

Discussed: The Mistress of Mellyn (1960) by Virginia Holt

Guest: Reformed Rakes

Website | Emma | Beth | Chels


Andrea Martucci: [00:00:00] Hello, and welcome to Shelf Love. I'm Andrea Martucci host of Shelf Love. And on today's episode, I am really thrilled to share a conversation with Reformed Rakes. So please enjoy this Shelf Rakes crossover episode about the Mistress of Mellyn, the original Gothic? Hmm. We'll see.

Emma: Welcome to Reformed Rakes, the historical romance podcast that will murder your first wife and throw you in the priest hole. I'm Emma, a law librarian writing about justice and romance at the Substack Restorative Romance.

Beth: I'm Beth, and I'm on Book Tok under the name Beth Haymond Reads.

Emma: And this week, we have a special guest.

Andrea Martucci: I'm Andrea Martucci, host of Shelf Love, a podcast and Substack about romance novels and how they reflect, explore, challenge, and shape desire.

Emma: This week, we'll be talking about Mistress of Mellyn, written by Victoria Holt, a pen name of Eleanor Hibbert. Born in London in 1906, decided at a young age she'd grow up to be a writer.

Before she took the pen name Victoria Holt, Hibbert had published 30 books in different genres under a variety of other pen names. In 1960, at the suggestion of her publisher, Hibbert penned a story mixing a contemporary feeling of romance with the great Gothic tradition of brooding suspense, resulting in Mistress of Mellyn.

The Holt pen name had millions of readers. Publishers kept Holt's true identity a secret, to the point where people wondered if Daphne du Maurier was Holt. The gothic genre and the romance genre have long been intertwined, with similar origins in romances as distinguished from novels in the 18th and early 19th centuries and manifestations like the works of the Bronte sisters in Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights. The genres came together again in the 20th century, with revivals by authors like Daphne du Maurier in the 30s and 40s, and Holt in the 60s. Gothic elements continue to appear in historical romances today, like the Cornwall setting of A Bride for a Prizefighter by Alice Coldbreath, or the mystery elements of Romantic Suspense.

Mistress of Mellyn takes place in Cornwall, where Martha Leigh newly arrives as a governess to the motherless Alvean. Martha finds Alvean's father, Connan TreMellyn, a distant parent.

Quote, "he gave an impression of both strength and cruelty. There was sensuality in that face, but there was much else that was hidden. Even in that moment, when I first saw him, I knew there were two men in that body, two distinct personalities. The Connan TreMellyn who faced the world and the one who remained hidden."

Martha finds herself drawn to him, despite the class divide between them.

So before we do our traditional plot summary, what are our initial thoughts about this book and sort of our relationship to Gothic and Holt in general?

Beth: I thought this book was a lot more gentle than I was like expecting it to be. I thought it'd be a lot more supernatural maybe, even, or a lot more tension, but yeah, it's just, there's a lot of scenes of Martha just being integrated into this community that surprised me, and her relationship with Alvean was probably I don't know, the strongest relationship.

Emma: Yeah, I think I was expecting it to be a little bit more like the bodice rippers we had read, but it reminded me a lot more of the community stories we've read, like the, like Wickerly or A Lady [00:03:00] Awakened. Where someone new is arriving and has to find their place in the world.

Andrea Martucci: For the first half of this book, I found myself constantly wondering if this took place in 1960 or at some point in the 19th century.

And I mean, I looked it up. And, I guess it takes place sometime in the 19th century, and I think that because it has a lot of similarities to Jane Eyre, I think it's very easy to imagine that it takes place in a similar time period. I mean, there's trains, so I think it could be any time after.

I actually looked up when train lines went in across England, not that I can remember at this moment. I want to say 1850s, 1850s is right, right. I started to understand, oh, this takes place in the 19th century, but there is something about the way Holt writes Martha, that does feel like a woman of the 1960s.

And other than a few context clues, I could believe that it took place in a class-stratified UK. I don't know.

Beth: Right, right.

Emma: Yeah, that's true I feel like there are a lot fewer markers of like 19th century ness. I think that's a big part of contemporary historical romance novels where like you really want to know exactly when they're set. I think it's more and more common for people to even give you a year. So before you even start the plot of the book, you know whether it's Regency, whether it's Georgian, whether it's Victorian. um, All that sort of like codified genre ness that you want to know what you're getting into, but there are fewer markers in this book.

So much of the setting is atmosphere. It's like vibes rather than information. Which is going to be a big thing we talk about.

Beth: This is my pitch to all authors, is I want a year in every book. I don't want context clues, I don't want to be looking up which King George or whatever, I just want to know what date it is.

What year are we?

Emma: I have a friend on TikTok who made a video about, it's like you either need a year or you need like an undressing scene so you know what kind of undergarment they're talking about. Like those are the two ways to tell when a historical romance is set. It's is she wearing stays or is she wearing a corset?

Beth: Right. Oh yeah, I kind of love that.

Emma: Okay, so Beth is going to tell us our plot summary.

Beth: Our classic plot summary, which is actually a little bit shorter than normal, so I can't tell if that's a good or bad thing.

Connan TreMellyn hires Martha Leigh on as the governess at Mount Mellyn for his eight year old Alvean, who has lost her mother Alice the previous year in a train accident.

Alice had attempted to run away with her neighbor and lover, Geoffry Nansellock, who died in the same accident. When Martha arrives, she finds a grieving girl, although everyone in the house says she's a handful. She's gone through a few governesses. The previous governess, Ms. Jansen, had been dismissed for theft.

Another important character is the granddaughter of the housekeeper, and her name is Gilly. She had an accident as a younger child. She's the same age as Alvean, and everyone thinks that Gilly has a quote, "tile loose in the upper story." Martha takes her in hand, and Gilly grows fond of her the same way she'd grown fond of Alice.

Peter [00:06:00] Nansellock, the neighbor, flirts with Martha. She doesn't respond to most of his advances, and she befriends his sister Celestine, who frequents the house to spend time with Alvean.

Connan TreMellyn is a distant father to Alvean, as we mentioned. After a ball one night, Connan kisses Martha. She assumes he's taking advantage and threatens to leave the house. He apologizes and says they can forget it ever happened.

As Martha gets closer to Alvean, she eventually calls Connan out on this and tells him how desperate Alvean is to see him. Connan takes her advice and spends more time with his daughter.

Martha attempts to keep her feelings for Connan at bay, since Connan's name is attached to Lady Treslyn. Although Lady Treslyn's currently married, it's expected Connan will marry her when her husband dies.

One of Alvean's relatives informs Martha that Connan isn't Alvean's biological father. Geoffrey Nansellock was, Alice's lover. Martha understands now the reason why Connan kept his distance.

After a Christmas party, Lady Treslyn's husband dies on their way home, so she's free to marry.

Connan travels to Penzance and then writes for Martha and Alvean to come afterwards. They do, and they bring Gilly.

Connan proposes to Martha and she accepts. They then head back to the estate to prepare for the wedding.

On a whim, Martha writes the previous governess, Miss Jansen, and asks if she would meet with her. They meet up in Plymouth. Miss Jansen shares how Lady Treslyn framed her for robbing some jewelry, which resulted in her firing. Miss Jansen says Celestine had a shared interest in old houses, and to tell Celestine about some new interesting architecture thing.

When Martha gets back, she tells Celestine that she met with Miss Jansen. They go to this chapel together, and Celestine looks around for a passageway she believed a priest would use to hide from the Queen's men: A priest hole.

When Celestine opens the passageway after they find it, she pushes Martha inside and shuts the passage again. When Martha is locked inside, she discovers Alice's body.

Later, Connan finds Martha because Gilly had watched the entire exchange and led everyone there.

Martha and Connan marry, and in the epilogue, we find out they had ten children together. We also learn Martha has been narrating the story in the future to her great grandchildren.

Anyway, that was the abbreviated version.

So we've already covered Hibbert a bit. She was kind of private and didn't give a ton of interviews, like she never revealed her age or her maiden name. I think one of the defining things about her as an author is how many pen names she had. From this New York Times article in 1977, she calls them, quote, "my ladies. One is Philippa Carr, another Jean Plaidy. And the most famous is Victoria Holt."

Andrea Martucci: I'm so sorry, when you said she calls them my ladies, I'm instantly thinking about that audio sound. These are my ladies. This one's Philippa Carr, this one, [00:09:00] I call this one Jean Plaidy.

Beth: I just thought it was so funny, that's why I had to add it in here.

Another thing I found interesting is what she said about her characters. So, this is quoting from the same New York Times article.

"'The women I write about,' she went on, speaking of her romantic Victoria Holt creations, 'are unusual for their times. They're struggling for liberation, fighting for their own survival. They have no money, no relations, and they can't just bop in a car and get away. They're women of integrity and strong character. These women of mine are going to fight and show the world that women are every bit as good as, and serious as men, but they're not going to go popping into every bed they see.'"

Emma: How often is that happening in the early 1960s? Which characters are doing that?

Andrea Martucci: It's so interesting because everybody thinks that the people of their time are the most modern, and that everybody before was so different. But I feel like this conception that her heroines in the 1960s, let's say, are so unusual for the mid 19th century.

And I'm like, are they? I'm not so sure that they are, and I think you definitely still see This claim to modernity, but then also pulling back and being like, oh no, but they're not sluts.

Emma: But I would also, this quote could be from an author in 2023. Yeah, maybe not the popping into every bed they see. I think they would, that's like a PR. They wouldn't say that, though there are quite a few virgin heroines who are not like other girls in books that are coming out in 2023.

Beth: I agree. I feel like I've seen this exact quote of " my characters are strong women" by lots of authors.

Andrea Martucci: Not like women used to be.

Beth: Right. One of the reasons we wanted to talk about Mistress of Mellyn and Victoria Holt, other than we love gothic literature and that she's interesting is she pioneered the romantic suspense genre.

So, from this literature article I found, which I'll include in our show notes, called Madness, Monks, and Mutiny, quote, "Holt's novels, often described as gothic romances, were influential as well as successful. Diana Wallace, who has turned serious critical attention to Holt as a historical and gothic author, credits her with developing the modern gothic novel, while The New York Times called her a pioneer in the romantic suspense or gothic genre. Marian Harris remarks that in 1960, no one was writing or publishing novels of Romantic Suspense, but by the time Holt's fourth novel was published, the phrase Romantic Suspense had become part of the language and an important category in bookshops."

Andrea Martucci: I thought this was interesting, at least one of these articles was from 93, where I wonder, and I'm not sure, if maybe because Mistress of Mellyn maybe had more staying power, it has started to take on this position as being the first or the first notable book to do this.

Which is interesting because I've found some sources especially from the 80s, that don't necessarily say that Maura[00:12:00] published in 1959 by Virginia Coffman was the first, but that it was doing something very similar to Mistress of Mellyn.

And there was this really interesting quote from Love's Leaving Ladies, which was a book Katherine Falk put out in 1982 that collected all of the romance writers of the day and Virginia Coffman after this point went on to write books that are much more legible as romance novels.

But when Virginia describes Maura and the plot, it's so funny because she also is positioning it as doing this new thing that hadn't been done before. This is from Love's Leading Ladies, "in this story she took three ingredients of typical 19th century gothic, an evil uncle, equally wicked housekeeper, and innocent niece, and surprised readers with a shocking plot turn.

Quote, 'I made the wicked uncle the hero, the villainous housekeeper the heroine, and the sweetest girl who ever lived the monster. And nobody has ever guessed the solution until the end. It's always been such a shock,' she says with pride."

So, there does seem to be maybe like this jockeying of, this idea of who started putting a new spin on the gothic and taking these older tropes and making them new for the mid century reader.

Emma: Yeah, it's also interesting, we talked before we started recording about like the sort of arcs of Gothic, there's du Maurier, who Holt gets compared to a lot, like of the Cornwall settings. And du Maurier, even though she's a peer to Holt, like they were born, I think almost in the same year, she starts writing at a much younger age, the Gothic stuff. And so she's more associated with the thirties and forties, so she was writing through the sixties.

But du Maurier really separates herself rhetorically from romance. Like she hated being called a romantic author. She's like, my books don't end happily a lot of the time. Like my Cousin, Rachel is probably her second most famous book after Rebecca. The heroine dies in that. It's not a happily ever after.

And then I think in Rebecca, I think du Maurier would argue that ending is ambiguous, like the house burns down yes, they're together, but are they happy? We don't know. It's not this tidy sort of thing. So we have the Gothic tradition that's being revived in the 20th century careening towards the codification of Happily Ever After and romance.

This book ends happily and we would definitely call it a romance novel by like modern standards. But it's coming from a genre that relies on ambiguity, especially even in its origins, like in the 19th century.

Jane Eyre. It's always weird to me when people use Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights as like a distinction, like when they're explaining Happily Ever After, they're like, Jane Eyre is a romance novel because they end up together. And Wuthering Heights is not a romance novel, because they are dead at the end.

Which characters have the more satisfying ending for themselves? I would argue that Kathy and Heathcliff being ghosts together is more romantic than Jane being married to Rochester, who kind of sucks.

Beth: Right. They're haunting the moors together.

Emma: Right. To me, that's like as happy as Kathy and Heathcliff can get. But it's like you're taking these genre conventions that are not so siloed and strict at any other point. People act like Happily Ever After is this thing that has to happen for all romance at all of its origins.

And it's it's not always been that way, and so I [00:15:00] think that, but this is the moment we have this 1960 moment where these things are coming together and confronting each other, but that doesn't mean that we can't retrofit all these things to fit, fit backwards for all the Gothic origins. Daphne DuBaurier would be mad at us if we tried.

Andrea Martucci: What's funny, Emma, is you just spoiled Wuthering Heights for me.

Emma: You've never read Wuthering Heights?

Andrea Martucci: Correct. I've never read it. I mean, I've heard the song by Kate Bush.

Emma: But she's a ghost in the song.

Andrea Martucci: Oh, is she? Oh, okay. Today I learned.

Emma: Yeah, Kathy through my window, she's outside the window as a ghost.

Andrea Martucci: Oh, okay. Well, I mean, the dancing just seemed very lively, so. But anyways, yeah, so look, literally, learning new things every day, new surprises. I like your interpretation of it, though. Yeah,

Emma: I've always tried to argue that Wuthering Heights ends happily, and it falls on deaf ears, but.

Beth: I have a question for both of you.

As you're reading this book, were you like pulling out like, oh, I can see, this is like a Kleypas, or I see, this author pulled this inspiration while you were reading the book? Did you have any of those moments?

Emma: I do think the ending feels like a Kleypas novel. So, you may have noticed in Beth's plot summary that the ending comes really quick.

That was not editorializing by Beth, but the ending does happen very quickly.

Beth: Yes.

Emma: Both the reveal of who killed Alice and who's trying to kill Martha. Her getting out of the priest's hole. And then switching to the epilogue, that pacing felt so Kleypas to me.

I don't think people would point to Kleypas as gothic I don't hear that word with her, but I think she must be a fan of these. I think, she's always trying to deploy the supernatural in her books, and I think people ignore that because it doesn't always work that well. It's sometimes like the thing that falls the most flat in her books, like the wishing well in the Stony Cross Park, like that has magic to it.

The ghost with Leo's dead fiancee, I think the ghost comes up in one of the early Hathaway's books. And then he's haunted by her, like the literal ghost, but also the figurative ghost. She does seem interested in sort of supernatural elements that are kind of misplaced in some of her books, but she really loves a quick resolution to an external conflict, which feels very gothic.

Because in a gothic, what you're interested in is like how it's happening. And so the resolution is not once we know who's interested in hurting Martha, that's the mystery. um, Not her getting out of the priest hole. And also, that part isn't even in the action that's all explicated in the epilogue.

Like, how she got out, Gilly watching the whole thing. We don't see that in the plot. Which also feels very Kleypas, the epilogue being the explanation for the resolution.

Andrea Martucci: Yeah, where I see Kleypas using some of the things that we saw in the Mistress of Mellyn, not because she's pulling from it directly, but kind of these echoes, is whereas, I think Kleypas, like the first half or three quarters of the story, very focused on the main couple getting together, but then what Kleypas does a lot of times in a black moment or in the third act, is all of a sudden there will be this sort of oh, some mysterious things are going on and who could be behind it, and then there tends to be a kidnapping [00:18:00] or a violent encounter.

Beth: She hasn't heard of kidnapping a lot.

Andrea Martucci: Right, and where it's like all of a sudden this figure who has been there in the background, like Celestine is in this book, all of a sudden you realize additional context that has been kept from you as the reader and from our main characters, and it's revealed their malicious intent and, they are the obstruction preventing the main characters from having their happily ever after by potentially killing them. Or keeping them as their sex slave like Lady Joyce Ashby wanted to do with Sara in Dreaming of You.

Emma: People are always getting kidnapped. And there was this summer where I only read Lisa Kleypas books.

And I would tell my old roommate about the plot and she'd be like, Who kidnapped who? when I would wake up and tell her the plot of the book. And I was like, yeah, someone got kidnapped.

Andrea Martucci: Yeah. And, there's an author, Susanna Craig, who's writing books right now. The first book in this spy series she has called Who's That Earl? When I read it, I was like, Oh, I this feels very gothic. Like it takes place in this crumbling castle. But what it's doing differently is instead of having the brooding, mysterious master of the house the heroine is the one who, is living in the castle and the mysterious figure, and the hero is the one who comes to her and is trying to figure out a mystery, and I think she's, she's also trying to figure out a mystery.

So, tonally, it has a little bit of that eeriness, but also is definitely a historical romance in terms of its focus unlike Mistress of Mellyn, which I think is a gothic first and a romance second.

Emma: Is Susanna Craig's, that one, dual POV?

Andrea Martucci: I think so? I don't think it's first person.

Which, Mistress of Mellyn is first person, so, single POV.

Emma: I know the, that was one, the single POV, when we read A Bride for a Prizefighter. And that was a big thing where it's like, I always say I've never read single POV books. At this point, I've read half a dozen, but they still feel like the very small minority for historical romance, but in Gothic, single POV is the norm because, you're trying to figure out the mystery, like that's how Jane Eyre is written, right?

Like the single POV first person we're watching through the eyes of Jane Eyre also with the distance, so, Mistress of Mellyn also is written with this distance, so you're not sure about that until the end. I think there are more narrative clues in Jane Eyre that Jane Eyre is looking back on her life, but that single POV in the first person is very gothic.

It's deployed sometimes in more traditional historical romances, but often when there is this mystery from one person to the other where if you had dual POV, the reader would be given too much information. So you're really like closely aligned with Martha in this book, because you don't know anything that she doesn't know.

Beth: That's like such a mystery thing, where it's like first person because you want limited information, and you're only learning it as like the detective or whoever is learning it. And you talked a bit about narrative distance, like Jane Eyre, I think is it ten [00:21:00] years that she's writing back on the events? And we kind of talked about how this one feels a little bit more modern, like we couldn't place it, and I think it's because there is like a huge narrative distance.

Like, She's writing to her great grandkids, it could be conceivably written 1930s, 40s, who knows, from that time where she has had, been able to reflect. In text she'll say things like. As an impoverished gentlewoman, this was like my only opportunity. And I feel like if you were living it right at the moment, you wouldn't think of yourself that way.

You wouldn't be like, I'm an impoverished gentlewoman. But it makes a lot of sense if you're explaining it to your grandkids, where maybe that social structure has changed a lot and you need to give them those clues of yeah, back in my day when I was a governess. Or those were my two options.

I could either get married, in which I didn't, so I had to go be a governess.

Emma: When characters describe what they look like, it feels like fan fiction always, but it's oh, it does make sense to tell your great grandchildren what you looked like.

Beth: I used to have amber hair, yeah.

Andrea Martucci: Were you pretty, grandma?

Beth: It's very important we know that she's pretty.

Andrea Martucci: And in thinking about that first person perspective, I think that connects to some of the reading I did about the gothic genre, which is, which I have not read a ton of gothics. I didn't know a ton about it, other than anecdotal things.

And so I was reading the chapter in the Routledge Research Companion to Popular Romance Fiction, and there's a chapter on the gothic romance written by Angela Toscano, and she talked about how this first person perspective was actually a core part of the gothic.

This is a quote from there talking about "realism and how there was this bent towards reflecting not just life as it is, but the turn that occurred in 18th century philosophy and epistemology towards the perspective of the individual subject because It enacts through narrative, the shift from a truth conceived via tradition to a truth conceived via individual observation. The novel as a realist form attempts to represent the world as it is for particular persons in particular places."

And so really like that sense of being within one person's perspective and the world being presented as true according to their perspective, apparently is tied really specifically to gothic as a form and realism, the tradition of realism that emerged.

So many times in this book, I felt like Martha was projecting, where the way she would talk about a scene, really felt like she was projecting her emotional state or kind of her perspective onto another person's actions.

At one point she says, "I should have liked to comb my hair and tidy myself a little, but I had a notion that Kitty, the maid, was constantly looking for one aspect of the relationship between any man or woman, and I was not going to have her thinking that I was preening myself before appearing before the master."

She [00:24:00] is projecting her own anxieties about seeming too romantically interested in the master of the house and is like, oh yeah, I bet Kitty thinks I'm gonna make myself pretty for this guy. And I'm like, did Kitty actually do anything? It's all telling and no showing, which in this I don't have a problem with because I think it says a lot about Martha.

It's showing Martha's characterization and her perspective, but it's not necessarily telling me anything about Kitty.

Emma: It's so interesting what England takes from the Enlightenment and what it refuses to take. They still have a king, but they do learn how to write first person novels. Yeah. Yeah.

Andrea Martucci: Yeah. I actually do think that if we want to talk about the echoes of the Gothic on what becomes what we think of as the romance genre that kind of comes a little bit after this, I think a lot of the really early historical big epic romances that came out in the 70s and even the contemporary romances that started becoming much more popular in the early 80s, they're starting from a place of really focusing on that heroine and her perspective and her interpretation of events, and often being confused by what's happening and not sure how to interpret what her love interest is doing, or why other people are doing the things they're doing.

And then I think that what you start to see over time is you get much more, maybe you might get a glimpse of what the hero is thinking, or what other characters are thinking. And then we get to the point now where it is much more likely that you're gonna have dual perspective, like chapters flipping back and forth between both love interests.

But, early romances definitely foregrounded and prioritized the heroine's perspective, much more so than they do today.

Beth: Yeah, dual POV has not always been a thing. I think it started out as much more heroine focused.

Andrea Martucci: Thanks, gothics.

Emma: I know, I'm always like, I love dual POV. And then we read a single POV and I'm like, I liked this one too.

I just like when people are smart about it. I feel like there has to be a reason you're doing either of them. I think sometimes the reason for doing dual POV is that's the one everyone does, but there's still so many choices to be made about who's telling which part, but in my mind, I'm like, oh, there's less of a choice there with single POV, but obviously you're still choosing that projection. Are we getting Martha's projection on Kitty, or are we getting what Kitty is saying to Martha?

Her interpretation, so.

Beth: I think it's used really well in this book. You had a good example, but that's not the only example. It's fairly frequently throughout the book, she makes an assumption that Alice married a philanderer. Even before she meets him, she is thinking poorly of him, and then when she is talking to him sometimes yeah, she projects onto Connan a lot, and he calls her out on it, I think, in conversation once, and then I think her sister does too?

Emma: Yeah, that was one of the first things I noted when I was reading the book, so pretty early on, she's talking about her sister, Phillida, and she's thinking about, like, how is she gonna fit into this new house at Mellyn, and she's saying oh, my sister noted that I'm always assuming that people are thinking the worst of me, and it's inviting people [00:27:00] to think the worst of me.

I really need to work on that. I need to stop assuming what other people are thinking. So I think that's like the clue to the reader there are gonna be some things that Martha assumes that are gonna be incorrect. Because this person, she seems to have a good relationship with her sister throughout the book, and they have a lot of affection for each other. That Phillida is giving us an accurate assessment of Martha, and from now on, assessments of Martha, from Martha's perspective, may be incorrect, that people are going to be judging her, or misinterpreting her.

And I also love the moment on the train When she's with Peter, she doesn't know it's Peter yet, and she's like, how dare you assume that I'm a governess?

It's It's like, girl, you are a governess. Yeah. It's like someone has accurately read you and she gets mad. I'm a governess. Well, people must be assuming the worst of me, like I'm a governess. You are a governess.

Andrea Martucci: Which speaks to her own discomfort with this new place, new position that she's taking up in life, this new liminal space that she is going to occupy somewhat unwillingly.

Beth: Well, it's a new social position for her she's never been a governess before, and previously she had hopes that she would get married, and socially, being a governess is a step down, so she's just trying to find her place in this new class structure .

Andrea Martucci: And I feel like, you just said she had hoped to get married. And it's so funny because when I think about what she says about it, I don't think she hoped to get married. I don't think she was that interested in it. Obviously, for social class positions, understood that marrying would be a better option than falling down the social ladder but she didn't seem that interested in the romantic ideas that other women in her position may have about looking for a romantic partner because she's so practical and she's a little cynical and she does kind of have a little bit of a chip on her shoulder and it seems like she needs to mature a little bit and isn't ready for those things and so this novel really does kind of take you through that journey where she does start to be interested in these things that she wasn't interested in before.

I feel like that says so much about Martha as a character. I mean she is positioned as in the text as like she isn't a silly debutante, right.

You know, like she is a little bit jaded and above the pageantry of husband hunting.

Emma: While we're talking about governances, we can talk about the importance of this work in both the origins of the genre and then also like in historical romance. There are a lot of heroines in the gothics like sort of original 19th century gothic that are governances.

So obviously Jane Eyre. Her employee position is as a governess. Lucy Snow, the heroine of Valette, is also a teacher governess. It's another novel by Charlotte Bronte. Agnes Gray. She's a governess, The Turn of the Screw by Henry James. Governesses populate these like stories of mystery.

And I think some of the mystery comes from the ambiguity of the governess role in the household. So this seems to be like a big question in the 19th century is like, how do we treat governesses?

There are all these like sort of educational tracts about what do you do with a governess in the house? How do you treat her? Because people had this anxiety about it. So this [00:30:00] author, Elizabeth Missing Sewell, who wrote educational text, wrote, "she's not a relation, she's not a guest, not a servant, but something made up of all, and no one knew how to treat her."

So in order to be a governess, you have to be educated enough to teach someone. You have to be noble enough to sort of have that access to education. So you're different than someone who's like a housekeeper or a maid, but you're still being employed. You're working for money. So there's this shame attached to it. And also obviously you weren't able to get married.

So you're this in between state and this comes up a lot in Mistress of Mellyn with both Martha and other people around her. It's like, where does Martha fit in? Does she eat with the children? Does she eat with the family? When the children eat with Connan, does she eat with Connan? Does she go to the ball as a supervisor of the children, or does she go to the ball as a guest? And she's always doing these multiple things.

And so, Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar, who wrote Madwoman in the Attic, the sort of seminal work on 19th century Victorian novels, identify this ambiguity of the governess as "a place for women to transcend the binary imposed on Victorian women." So, Angel and Monster in Jane Eyre. Jane is not Blanche, Rochester's paramour that she thinks he's gonna marry, but she's also not Bertha in the attic. She's in this in between position.

This in between position also is seen in Mistress of Mellyn, where Martha doesn't have the privileges of the housekeeper. She's not allowed to gossip about Connan, almost because she has too much access to him. Like, when she asks questions or is given gossip she has the sense that she's not allowed to reciprocate she's like oh that's something for servants to do. I'm not allowed to do that almost because of the intimacy she has with the family then it would be uncouth to talk about the family. And of course like servants gossiping is a huge part of the social network of Victorian novels where that's how information gets passed is through servants but Martha, even though she has this extreme access to the family, doesn't have access to information, and again, that lends itself to her being a Gothic heroine because she has to find things out piecemeal.

Like she doesn't know when she talks to Miss Jansen, which happens so late in the novel, and Miss Jansen's the other governess that she goes to see, the dismissed governess. Like she doesn't know so much about the house and the family until that conversation that comes so late.

Even though anyone could have told her these things earlier, they just chose not to.

Andrea Martucci: Yeah, when you were just talking about Miss Jansen, I was thinking about the precarity of the position when it comes to class, and this book is full of doubles for lots of things, and we'll talk about doubles more later.

But I think that Martha is having this identity crisis because she has, as a debutante, on the marriage mart for whatever, four seasons, been able to maintain this certain level of class where she could marry somebody of her class and maintain that class.

And then she slipped just a little, like she's not full on into the middle class, right? She's still in that upper echelon, she is good enough to teach the children of the upper echelon and mingle with them to some extent. And basically her choices from this point are that she can somehow [00:33:00] go up, kind of pop back up via marriage, which she does eventually do, she marries Connan and actually has a higher class than she started with, as the wife of a man with a title and land and wealth.

She can manage that precarity so she can hold on to being a governess where she has that class but no power, or she can go down and fall victim to the vices of the lower classes, such as being seduced by somebody and falling.

Or when you brought up Miss Jansen I was like, oh, Miss Jansen is marrying a doctor. So Miss Jansen, even though she's marrying, is basically marrying beneath her into the middle classes of people who are respectable, but they're working for money. And, she becomes the wife of a doctor, which again, I mean, is fairly privileged in this world, but she's slipped down.

So Miss Jansen then I think becomes a double of this alternate path. And, dangers abound, temptations abound that could make her slip. But yeah, she has to balance that constantly. She has to say no to the gift of a horse. She has to reject the advances. She has to do all of these things so that she can not slip any farther.

Emma: This is a part of the marriage proposal, right? Like he's like, governesses leave, wives don't. It's like, well, your first wife left, but neither here nor there. But he's like, you could always leave if you stay the governess. Cause he's like, I want you to stay forever.

And she's like, what does that mean? And he's like, I'd like to marry you.

Andrea Martucci: I'm offering you a permanent position as my wife.

Beth: I feel like this interesting thing with governesses is because they have this intimacy with the family. It does seem like a natural, just just move one step over and you just fill the role of like wife and mother.

I think it's kind of an interesting thing that you can explore with governesses that you can't really with other social positions or jobs that women do.

Emma: Yeah, I was thinking about this before we read this and then while I was reading it is how few governess books that I've actually read. I feel like I've read so many more housekeeper books.

Like I feel like people who are in sort of housekeeper duties, and I'm not sure why. I feel like that's the plot that if you were to describe a historical romance novel plot, titled man falls in love with his governess, I feel like would be an easy go to.

But I haven't actually read that many. But I think a lot of times they elide the fraughtness of falling in love with an employee. Some of them address it a little bit more directly.

I reread parts of Married by Morning this morning because I love that book. And that's one where they do talk about the trouble of Leo, who's the hero of Married by Morning, being the employer of Catherine, though Catherine is in disguise in that book. She is actually much more not noble, but she's higher up than a governor's position would suggest. And so that sort of helps some of the tension with the falling in love with an employee. They're more concerned with how it's gonna look than how it actually is, because it's like she's been in the employee of the family for so long.

[00:36:00] But they are anxious about it being coercive because they think she doesn't like him that much. Leo has seduced a servant. Stop that. And I think it's more of a concern in this book where it's like, But again, she's also always concerned about how people are going to look at it rather than the actual coercion.

She seems pretty on board with him quickly. Like when he kisses her and then she's like, I have to leave. And his apology is not that good. And she's like, I'm staying.

Beth: She didn't have to be persuaded too much. She is like a governess, but I feel like it's a little bit different because she's brought in to the Hathaway girls because they just have no idea how to act in society.

And they're older. So she comes in more as Like a role model, like an escort, like when they go out to

Andrea Martucci: like a chaperone.

Beth: Yeah, I still think she fits that governess mold, but I think it's just like a little bit different, like that I, you would typically see with a governess, where I feel like governesses are normally shut away at a big country estate where Catherine kinda is integrated into society at times as the girls are.

So it's a little different that way too, which I think is interesting.

Emma: It's also interesting in these books obviously because the plot of a historical romance is that they have to fall in love, but the only families that ever have governesses are ones that don't have mothers, which I don't think would be the case.

Beth: Right. You'd have a governess. Right.

Emma: Obviously you would have the governess fall in love with the father of the family or the brother of the family. So there has to be someone. missing like a mother figure missing, but like I imagine that there were married couples who employed governances because the mother was doing other things, managing the house, or didn't wanna. teach the children or wasn't skilled at it. So yeah, that's again, like the distance between reality of governesses and the way that they work in books.

Andrea Martucci: Right. Yeah, the trope is a trope in romance because even though statistically a governess would probably be much more likely to be employed in a house with a married couple, for the romantic fantasy to work, the whole ploy there, just like only one bed, it's basically, the governess is a forced proximity trope, right? Like, how are we going to get this woman in close proximity to this guy and he has to be somewhat available romantically and, from a marriage perspective. So, yeah.

Beth: So, there's this kind of Holtism where she describes the beauty of every character, like if they're beautiful or not, like it's mentioned.

I think this is an interesting case of intention versus results. Pretty much everyone in the literary community agrees you can really never know what an author's intention is, even if they tell you. And I do think this is something that Hibbert focused a lot on herself, like just beauty because she said it in New York Times interview.

"I don't want my readers to picture me as some old hag tapping away." And then the journalist goes on to mention like how small and delicate she is. This was from the 70s. But the result of this Holtism makes for interesting reading where you can kind of apply a queer [00:39:00] lens to Martha or just like to the text in general.

We've talked a bit about first person, but I think first person enhances this quite a bit because we're limited to Martha's thoughts. So yeah, what did you guys think of that?

Emma: Well, it definitely feels queer in that the beauty is really focused on the female characters. Connan is very vaguely described, just spooky and big, grim, but she really languishes over the descriptions particularly of Lady Treslin, who's like very stunningly gorgeous, and then even Celestine, there's her otherworldliness, her feyness is a big plot, and we get a lot of that information.

Beth: Yeah, the description for Lady Treslin... She says in the book, "she was very dark and one of the most beautiful women I had ever seen. Her features were strongly marked and she wore a gauzy scarf over her hair and in this gauze sequins glistened. I thought she looked like someone out of A Midsummer's Night Dream, Titania perhaps, although I'd always imagined her fair." I just, yeah, like this description, I'm like, do you like Lady Treslin?

Andrea Martucci: Do you want to? Well, I think this question comes up a lot. It's definitely a question in Jane Eyre. It's the, do you want to be her or do you want to kiss her? But I wonder if it's really just the self consciousness and maybe going back to identity, forming one's identity in relation to others around you as sort of comparison points.

Because if you think about Martha, there's this thing that happens all the time where she is comparing herself to Alice when she literally is wearing her clothes, and she's like, "it was a bit tighter in the waist." And so you get the sense that A, Martha is a bit more practical because she doesn't go in for tight lacing, as she tells us. So it kind of casts Alice as a bit more frivolous, maybe also a little bit more delicate and slimmer, and less substantial. Less, maybe, healthy and I don't know, I mean, you can cast a lot of things upon that characterization of how she is positioning herself in comparison to Alice.

Lady Treslin is beautiful, but also... A seductress, right? And, yes, she's beautiful, but Martha doesn't want to be that kind of seductive beautiful. She admires it, but also the book, via Martha's perspective, is very much casting her as this, I keep using the word seductive, but like a seductive figure who is gonna lure men into something bad, right?

Because I feel like Martha does take a certain amount of pride in being a very practical and functional type woman. And I think beauty in this sense isn't always a positive thing.

Emma: Yeah, I guess it's something to be like suspicious of. And it's also interesting, like distinguishing Martha using other people's beauty to differentiate herself.

So the queer reading in Jane Eyre is especially her relationship as like a young girl with Helen Burns at the school. But that's like. They're very much like aligned with each other. Like they are similar. Like Helen is beautiful and Jane Eyre is plain, but the [00:42:00] way that Jane talks about Helen is that there's this sympathy with each other that they're the same and they're peers in the same way.

And the Helen is, it's like this punishment from God and the family, the Brocklehurst to pick on Helen because of her illness. And she just, it's like this person to be beat down by earth. She has consumption, which is this very wasting away illness. And so, there's this ambiguity in that she's between life and death. She's sick for a long time and she's going in and out.

But Jane sees herself in Helen and then as she gets older, the distance between her and the women at Rochester's house is greater, like her distance between, I can't remember the child's name in Jane Eyre,

Andrea Martucci: the little French girl?

Emma: The little French girl. Yeah. Whose name I think also starts with an A, but now I can't remember what it is.

But Rosamond and Blanche, Jane creates like distance between them. But even then, she's like not describing Rochester's body in a sexy way. There's always this like discussion in Jane Eyre's is Rochester hot at all? Probably not. He sounds really scary and stern. He's compared to a bird all the time. And so the way that she emphasizes beauty in women and doesn't have that language for men.

And also like the queer reading, it's I think an important part of this is like Victorian queerness is like sameness. Like we're seeing each other as the same, and that's gonna be punished, and it's a big part of Jane Eyre, there's also queerness in Rebecca, that's a huge part that I think doesn't exist in this book, because the Mrs. Danvers character, the person who's doing something bad, there's so much more mystery about it.

There's hints of Celestine's --maybe if I reread it, I would notice it more, like knowing how the book ends, but I feel like Mrs. Danvers is spookier for longer and has this obsession with the first Mrs. De Winter, while Celestine's obsession is with the house, and so that, the relationship between Mrs. Danvers and the first Mrs. De Winter I think in the book, is pretty queer, and then the movie gets more queer coming out in 1940, and then also Daphne du Maurier ambiguous about her sexuality throughout her life, like possibly had intimate relationships with women, but also was pretty homophobic in some of her public writing, so there's ambiguity about what her relationship to queerness was, but obviously there's queer narratives in some of her novels.

Andrea Martucci: What's interesting is Celestine, even from the beginning, there is a queerness about her, and I don't mean necessarily queerness as in her sexuality, but there's some behavior here that does not fit the norms that we would understand. And, also, her interest in Alvean seems a little unnatural.

And again, I don't mean like sexually, like she is a pedophile. But, it is cast in the book like, why is Celestine so interested in Alvean? And she really wants to be around her. For what reason? And there's like a weird desperateness to her. feel like there is that question of oh, why is Celestine identifying so much with Alvean, a child, right?

And again, I don't mean that in casting aspersions on queerness, but I think like from the perspective of the text and how it's characterizing these [00:45:00] people, it does kind of call out this otherness.

Beth: Right. I guess I kind of saw Celestine's interest in Alvean where it is like she is over at the house a lot, but then when you find out that she is probably Alvean's aunt, I feel like it's maybe kind of explained a little bit that way.

I don't know, I saw more as her being so desperate to be the mistress of this house, that she's just worming her way in, like spending all this time with Alvean, and trying to win over Connan, even though I don't think she cares about him at all, she just wants this house.

Andrea Martucci: Right, and well, and I would love to come back to that when we talk about the doubling, but when talking about the bodies, I think there is something. Interesting with Connan as a romantic figure because first of all, male beauty standards, particularly in the 19th century, were very different from male beauty standards of today.

So in this book, which was published in 1960, Connan is described as like tall and gaunt and elegant and that in itself stands in contrast to I think some of the markers we would expect to see. Like big yes, but like muscular and kind of brawny a little bit, right?

And so hearing him described as gaunt, I'm a little bit like, well that's a, okay. Am I supposed to take that as a marker of being attractive? But the descriptions of Connan are so spare and so much of them really just position him as being a figure of romantic interest because of his position of power and authority.

He's born into this elegance. There is this essentialism about him and his character where it is just natural that you should desire this man. Like it has nothing to do with what he does. What he looks like is just a reflection of his position of power.

So there is this of course you're gonna think this guy is hot and desirable. But then I think where Martha starts to consider him as a romantic figure a bit, it is much more when she captures that glimpse of his emotions, and so it's less of this physical desire, at least at first. You actually read this quote at the very beginning, but this quote where Martha is thinking, "For a few seconds I looked into those cool eyes, and I thought I had fleeting glimpse of the man behind the mask. I was sobered suddenly, and in a moment of bewildering emotion, I was deeply conscious of my loneliness, of the tragedy of those who are alone in the world with no one who really cares for them. Perhaps it was self pity, I do not know. My feelings in that moment were so mixed that I cannot even, at this day, define them."

And there's a flash of something, but then the rest of that is her projecting her own feelings onto him. But it's almost like she sees an opening to do that, where she didn't before. I'm not exactly sure what my point is here, other than... There does seem to be something about her attraction to him, he is presented as this rakish powerful figure that is unattainable to her and then she's like, oh he does have emotions Oh, we are the same. We both have the same loneliness Like and she starts getting all like that.

She's [00:48:00] fascinated by him. She's curious about him There's like a preoccupation. He looms large in her mind.

I wanted to talk about the reforming of this rake. Because I was curious what you, rakes, thought about, kind of

Beth: We're the original reformed Rakes, obviously.

Andrea Martucci: Yes, you are the original reformed Rakes. You could decide to allow Connan into your ranks. But what actually reformed him from being interested in Lady Treslin as his lover, and then he's like, well now I'm in love with you, Martha, and now I will get all of my emotional and sexual satisfaction from you.

What made Martha so special to him?

Emma: Well, the turning point is Alvean's accident, right? Because Martha's also pushing back on him. Like you need to show up for this girl who's in your house, whether she's your daughter or not.

And that seems to be his turning point. It is a little funny when she was like, you were sleeping with Lady Treslin pretty recently.

And he's like, well, I'm going to be loyal to you now forever. It's like, okay. Um, I'll, I believe you, I guess. but I think that's like the sort of holistic person that can come into his life. It's if Alvean is in his life, Lady Treslin no longer fits. She's not going to be the mother, and oh, he has this duty to Alvean that he now recognizes as distinct from what he once thought it was.

He thought that keeping his distance from her would protect her, because I think he does care about her the whole book. He just doesn't know what to do with her. So Martha's pushing back on him. I think that someone doing that is a turning point for him, and I think his relationship with the girl is the thing that the proposal is predicated on, he says it would be good for me, it would be good for Alvean, would it be good for you?

So I think that sort of unit family is the point for him.

Beth: Yeah, I feel like how he initially defines, he's like, well, this girl, I have given her food and shelter, and here's your education. He redefines that later after the accident, and I think it's important that Martha isn't there when it happens.

Andrea Martucci: And I'm so sorry I kept trying to jump in because Emma, what you were saying, I was like, okay, so he was a rake who was only interested in Hedonic sexual pleasures, like the pleasures of the flesh, that's the only interest he has in women. And then, suddenly he's like, I should be a father! And then suddenly integrates, not just his interest in women for sex, but Oh, I need a domestic woman who will take care of my home, and take care of my child that I've suddenly decided I care about, and take care of my emotional needs, and take care of my physical needs.

And that's what reformed him. So,

Emma: yeah, I think maybe I have a more generous reading towards Connan than, than that description, where I think he talks about, he's like, I thought what I was doing was what was best for Alvean, because I wasn't sure if I could love her because I knew she wasn't my child.

He didn't think it was an available emotion to him. He's like, Alice and I live separate lives. Like I knew she loved Geoffry. We married because we had these houses next to each other. No, came from somewhere else,

Andrea Martucci: she had a house that then he would get, and it was like, it was a property transfer.

Emma: And also he and Geoffry they referenced the droit de seigneur, which is [00:51:00] like just one of the most gross concepts ever, he used like rakish he's sleeping around with all these women in the town and he just understood that Geoffry was also going to be doing that.

Also once you get to the end of the novel and realize that Alice is not evil she's this tragic character you have more understanding, I think, of Connan, where it's like, they were sort of pushed into this situation, both of them could have led to tragedy, Connan escapes that tragedy by Martha coming in and fixing things, but I don't think he doesn't care about Alvean, he just doesn't know what to do.

What to do with it, and it's easier to bury his head in the sand. And I think Beth was saying he does come to that conclusion on his own, to some extent I need to figure out what to do here, Martha is just the solution that's present in the moment, this will unite Things. And I love Alvean's reaction to the proposal when she tells Alvean oh, I'm gonna marry your father and Alvean like smiles, but then suppresses her smile because it's oh, Alvean's excited that she's going to have Martha as her mom. And she's like, what do I call you?

And they go through the discussion, which I thought was cute.

Andrea Martucci: I have an eight year old and she refuses to express any emotions to me except under duress, so I understand that completely.

Emma: Alvean is so normal. Beth and I were talking about this when we started reading it for the first time.

Everyone's like, Alvean you're just gonna have a lot of trouble with that girl, and it's every reaction she has is so... Normal. Like for an eight year old

Beth: Also her mom died. Give her a break.

Andrea Martucci: She's eight. Well, okay. So. Does Connan love Martha? And if so, why? According to this book.

Beth: I think what's funny about that is like in the epilogue, maybe it's just because Martha's looking back on her life that she'd be like, yeah, we had a lot of ups and downs. Like it wasn't perfect. That's what she leads with.

Hey, we got married. Oh, yeah, it was it was kind of hard. I don't know.

Emma: I think this is especially true for books that are fixated on houses. Love is one piece of the pie, right? Yeah. You gotta fix the house. You gotta fix the estate. You gotta fix the family. And of all those pieces together, love is like a byproduct of that.

And I think that's the worldview that this novel takes. Martha is the right Mistress of Mellyn. it's not Celestine, it's not Alice. Martha is the right person to be in this house and to fix it. That's the overarching thing, which maybe is what makes this a gothic instead of a romance.

I think houses are so important to Gothics. Houses often don't make it to the end of the gothic. The house burns down in Jane Eyre, it burns down Rebecca. They leave Wuthering Heights in Wuthering Heights to go to Thrushcross Grange.

And so it's like, how do we fix the house?

We're either gonna destroy the house, or something major has to change, and I think Martha's that change, and because Connan all of his attraction is connected to the house. Connan is the house, that it's those two things make Martha, she's right, love is like a byproduct of the whole thing.

Beth: Since we're already kind of talking about houses, I think it's like a good time to talk about the dual estates, because you said either the [00:54:00] house has to like... Burn or it has to be fixed and I think it's fixed kind of weirdly in the epilogue So, I don't know if we've mentioned this yet, but there's like a dual estate. Like there's these two neighboring houses where the Nansellocks live, Mount Widden, and then we have Mount Mellyn, obviously So here's a description from the book, this is Martha speaking.

"'This house, Mount Mellyn, sounds as though it's on a hill.' 'Well, it is, built on a clifftop, facing the sea, and the gardens run down to the sea. Mount Mellyn and Mount Widden are like twins, two houses standing defiant like, daring the sea to come and take them. But they're built on firm rock.'

"'So there are two houses,' Martha said. 'We have near neighbors. In a manner of speaking, Nansellocks, they who are at Mount Widden, have been there these last two hundred years. They'd be separated from us by more than a mile, and there's Mel and Cove in between. The families have always been good neighbors until,'" and then there's cut off onto who won't say what, why they are not good neighbors anymore.

So I just, I think it's interesting they're described as twin houses. And then in the epilogue, we learn that one of Martha's, so the house gets sold, like it falls out of like the Nansellock's possession, and then Martha's daughter ends up marrying the owner of Mount Widden. And then Martha describes Mount Widden as as dear to her as Mount Mellyn at that point in her life.

So I feel like this is the solving that happens, even though it's in the after and in the epilogue that like, these two houses do eventually come together, even though it's a long time after Martha and Connan get married.

Emma: So the idea of the devil comes up a lot in this like a very gothic thing, like Wuthering Heights again like I mentioned like there are two houses in Wuthering Heights. There's Threshcross Grange in Wuthering Heights and people are always going back and forth between the two. People being in the wrong house is like a source of anxiety in the novel and the idea that you have to be in the right place and the right people have to be in charge of the right place.

And then I guess also the doubling comes up in a sort of micro level too with the characters, like that Martha is doubled with Alice. And how often she's in Alice's role and how even before she actually becomes the Mistress of Mellyn, she takes on her clothes and her room and her relationship with the daughter, that she's this taking on this like ghost figure.

And then also, it almost ends up in the same fate as Alice by being locked in the priest hole. Which also, if you're gonna commit murder, don't do it the same way both times. That's how you get caught.

Andrea Martucci: Yeah, right. The same MO.

Beth: Change up your methods, Celestine.

Andrea Martucci: Right, right. Before I talk more about doubles, in prepping for this episode I brought up an essay that I actually really like, called Somebody's Trying to Kill Me and I Think It's My Husband, by Joanna Russ, it was published in, I believe 1972, and it was about the modern gothic, so, writing at a time where all of the books that followed Mistress of Mellyn have come out and it's reached a point of incredible saturation, right?

Where now there's been all of these [00:57:00] simulacrums of the original Mistress of Mellyn. And, I actually like this essay for several reasons, and Emma, know you have some issues with it. And so I was thinking about it a lot, like, huh, how come my takeaway was... kind of different from yours, Emma, in particular.

And the more I was thinking about it , the more I think Johanna Russ's observations are accurate, and the patterns that she's talking about are accurate, but my interpretation of what that means may be different from what Russ thinks they mean, so I read her analysis , and I'm nodding along more so because I find it like useful to think about it as a framework more so than agreeing necessarily with all her takeaways.

So something Joanna Russ talks a lot about she talks about this concept of doubles and really how they work to show what is appropriate, like appropriate womanhood and heroinism and like the right way to be as a woman and I don't necessarily see these patterns as being an indictment against the characters or the women of the time who are reading this and I shouldn't just say women but it is understood primarily cis female audience reading this.

I think the reason the patterns are interesting is because it says something about the world they're living in, and not that they're limited in these ways, but the world is trying to limit them in these ways, and so they're interested in thinking about and exploring these things repetitively over and over again, which is where we get the repetition of the format in all the gothics that came out.

So when you see this doubling of okay, we have these other models of womanhood. We have Lady Treslin, and she is conniving, and she uses marriage wrong. Therefore, she can't be the wife and she can't be the mother.

Alice was also not right. She was seduced by this superficial flatterer and she didn't uphold that chastity that was expected before marriage to come in as like the good woman and good wife. And so she paid for that by being killed.

And then the maids are low class. They're a little too sexual, according to Martha, and Jennifer, which is Gilly's mother, she also fell for this seducer, which showed that women of all classes fall for these seducers, and it's a danger to all women.

You can kind of go on with like the inadequate mothers, right? Like Celestine is pretending to be nurturing, but she doesn't actually care about being a mother. She's grasping, she wants the house, and on and on.

Whereas I think the text does position Martha as she is interested in the house after she's married, which is like the right time where you can kind of start to think about taking on these domestic duties.

She's not cast as acquisitive . She does want to marry Connan, but she isn't going to fall for seduction prior to a marriage proposal.

Yes, it is saying, okay, this is the right way to be a woman, but I don't necessarily see that as Victoria Holt author's perspective. I see that more as like really just reflecting what society is saying and that is what is going to be of interest to readers.

I don't know. [01:00:00] Feel free to disagree. Challenge me.

Emma: I think the distinction is I don't know if Martha's womanhood... is universally right. I think it's right for Mellyn. Like it's right for Mount Mellyn. That's the distinction maybe that I'm seeing. Because I don't think the book comes hard. Again, with the single POV, like Lady Treslin even, I don't think the book hates her. I think it's interested in her. It's like she, but she's not right for Mount Mellyn because of these added aspects of it.

The way she fails as Mistress of Mellyn is that she would not be a good mother to Alvean, but she's not right for this. But I don't think it hates her. She doesn't get punished in a way that women who sleep outside of marriage do. She just doesn't get the house.

And even Celestine, her bad actions are explained away not super sympathetically by Martha, she ends up being hospitalized after her trial for Alice's murder, which it's that's its own sort of punishment in the 19th century, but it's explained there's something wrong with her, she has an illness. It's something more subtle than just outright evilness, like this obsession with the house. I don't think you can universalize Martha's, womanhood I'm thinking imagining, like dovetailing, like . She's just right. She just fits.

And I think that's what Connan's proposal points out. It's like, why wouldn't I propose to you? Because this just makes so much sense. I think we're like right here.

I'm gesturing that Andrea and I are next to each other, in her assessment. A visual metaphor, which doesn't work on a podcast..

Andrea Martucci: You and me: same. And I guess the one thing I would think about that though is she's right for Mellyn. But if this same pattern persists across a bunch of texts where essentially that same sort of pattern of, certain markers of like good femininity versus not right, if that kind of persists across books in different contexts, it's kind of like, hmm, what's going on there?

But again, I mean, I agree with you that I don't think the book casts, unlike Kleypas, the doubles as malicious. I mean like some of them are really sympathetic figures. I think Lady Treslin she's kind of a nasty lady. She gets what's her name fired, the previous governess, and Celestine set her up for that, right?

Because Celestine actually stole the bracelet and then set what's her name, the previous governess up. But yeah, no, I don't think the book hates them, but it does kind of, it positions Martha as the best option in comparison to them and their choices.

Emma: Right, and I guess, the, I'm just thinking about the doubling again I think Martha and the house are doubled I think there's so many aspects of Martha and the house.

So one of my favorite parts of the house is the peeping aspect, and how that's like the, one of the most gothic elements of the house throughout the book that comes up earlier than the peeping is actually part of the plot.

There are all these ways to look through different rooms looking inside of different rooms. The house invites people to look into rooms but not enter them. Again, like Martha as the governess in this ambiguous position where she's watching intimacy, but not a part of it is like the house [01:03:00] in that way.

Like she is looking inside the family and she's right for Mistress of Mellyn because she's never gonna ask for more than that. Like she becomes part of this family as this like manager and this emotional manager of Connan and Alvean's relationship.

She's like the house. Celestine is obsessed with the house, but Martha like is the house.

Beth: And this is like a point we were, we will touch on, where there's a lot of, especially at the beginning, when she's talking to the housekeeper, Mrs. Polgrey, where she's like, this is your part of the house. Designated rooms, she like shows her other parts of the house, but makes it very clear I'm just showing you this, but you're not expected to be here. So yeah I agree with that a lot. It's Martha is this house.

Emma: Yeah, when I was first reading the book, I think I texted Beth and was like, so much of this book is about setting boundaries and it's like Martha learning what are her boundaries as a governor?

So we talked a little bit about that in her, like the work discussion, but Martha realizing this is where I'm allowed in the house. This is what I'm allowed to say. This is what I'm expected to do. That's not intuitive for her. That's so much of her internal dialogue is thinking okay, I've just gotten this piece of information. That means this for my role in this house.

And so she's always like interpreting where she's supposed to be, what she's supposed to do. And she's interested in learning those boundaries and not being like master. Also, she will set a boundary, that's a big part of what makes her a good governess with Alvean.

And she's saying this is the time that we do our reading I don't care if your father's home. I'm gonna be the disciplinarian, because that's my role as governess.

Andrea Martucci: Right. Well, and I guess that, I don't want to say policing of boundaries, but highly aware of boundaries? I think that's what's interesting as a reader, even today, but also particularly to the readers of this time, is that we live in a society that has a lot of messages about what women should be like, right?

And so if you are somebody who grows up with this understanding that you are responsible for maintaining these boundaries and behaving in a particular way and always being aware of how other people perceive you and like always strike the balance of don't be too helpless but don't be assertive. Don't intrude on anything but also don't be a dependent that you know is a strain on anybody. Right like always do the right thing in every single situation.

I think that there really is a fascination and look this is what I enjoy about romance novels is I think thinking about them through the lens of kind of a fascination with thinking about how you manage your way through the world and your way through relationships with other people: that's interesting to me.

I guess that's what it feels like it's doing is it's this preoccupation with not a self centeredness, but inhabiting the role of the main character of the story and really thinking about the world and life through their eyes, through their perspective, right?

Seeing a room through the peephole's perspective instead of being in the room all the time, which [01:06:00] makes it really interesting and fascinating to go through that perspective

Beth: Yeah I would say a big thing in the gothic is boundaries and violating boundaries like societal boundaries especially I'd say is more like gothic so you have murder, violence, theft, incest.

There's all these things where it's like, societally we say you should live within these boundaries, but the gothic is interested in what happens when you transgress those boundaries.

Andrea Martucci: Right.

Emma: I guess which transgressions get punished and which ones don't, too. Yeah. Because it's like, Alice is she's a huge transgressor of boundaries.

I also could see Alice being the heroine of a different book. Like this marriage of convenience running off with Geoffrey, Geoffrey is not heroic in any way.

I also want Peter to be the hero of the book. I just love Peter. I haven't said this yet, Peter is the other person who's vying for affection for Martha and I was so charmed by him.

I kept waiting for the other shoe to drop and waiting for him to be evil, but mostly he's just kind of a good time guy.

Andrea Martucci: He's very good natured. He doesn't get surly about rejection or disappointment. Yeah.

Beth: He's just gonna try again.

Emma: I think mostly he's disappointed when she gets married. It's like, oh, they're not going to get a new governess for him to seduce.

Right. It's like Mount Mellyn was providing him like this string of governesses to flirt with that he doesn't have anymore. So he has to go to Australia.

Beth: I'm always wondering what will compel one of us to write fanfiction, and I just want to add a running total. So maybe in one world we'll have a fanfiction about Peter in Australia, and how he meets his wife.

Emma: Yeah.

Andrea Martucci: Well, and I think that the text, yes, it constantly has people transgressing, and then the book is like, okay, and then what's going to happen when they transgress? Yeah. So, Connan transgresses by kissing the governess and she's like, boundary, and he's like, okay like, okay good to know that boundary is there.

Peter good naturedly keeps pressing against this boundary, see if he can transgress it. Geoffry, don't rest in peace, rest in mispiece whatever, he was constantly pressing and then, what the book shows is what happens when women in this text allow men to transgress in that way, how they are the ones who are punished.

Geoffry isn't punished, except by maybe deus ex machina train accident, whereas I think society punishes. And leads to the downfall of all the women who transgress, right, like Jennifer, who's Gilly's mother, she was knocked up by Geoffry and the shame was too great and she dies by suicide.

Alice didn't love the house enough according to Celestine and had to be you know, gotten rid of. Celestine transgressed by obviously killing people,

Emma: murder

Andrea Martucci: murder uh, and doing other things, right, right, and I did want to talk about, so, so Celestine is described as somebody with a mental illness and there is this villainy ascribed to mental illness, which is problematic, [01:09:00] very similar to the Wife in the Attic from Jane Eyre, where the characterization in the text is oh, she was mentally ill, and therefore she wants to hurt people.

And, in real life, we understand that people with mental illnesses are much more likely to be hurt by other people than to be the one harming and transgressing. I think that's maybe a place where I would buy Celestine as, she could have been given a bit more agency and Victoria Holt, if I could send some notes to Victoria Holt in the past like, hey, maybe just make her actually villainous, I'd be fine with that. She doesn't have to be mentally ill.

But I think that's something that like, with hindsight, we're like, hmm, that's a troubling trope to continue to create that narrative that mental illness is villainous and a transgression.

Emma: Yeah, I do wonder, so, I mean, thinking about Mad Woman in the Attic and Bertha specifically.

With the first person narrator, both in Jane Eyre and Mistress of Mellyn, I think you could read both of them. Again we're not sure about like authorial intent, but also we'll never know. There have been definitely like interpretations of Bertha, that she's not mentally ill. She's been punished for not falling in love with Rochester, for her mixed race identity, she maybe had some mental illness that then becomes exacerbated by being put in the attic and like that drives her to violence.

Andrea Martucci: Isolated.

Emma: Like that'll do it.

And similarly with Celestine, it's like her mental illness, whether it is real or not, it does make sense to me that a gentry woman who's murdered someone would be hospitalized rather than punished in another way. And because we only have this one perspective of Martha, who's not particularly sympathetic to Celestine, she even says I think Celestine was faking it for a while, but then she's hospitalized for 20 years.

Think that there's still some ambiguity there about whether we're ascribing the violence to mental illness or this is like an accurate representation of what would happen to someone, a woman who was convicted of a murder, like she's not gonna go to jail or be punished or transported. She's gonna be hospitalized or institutionalized, which is not the, also the gap between prison and hospitalization: narrow.

I mean, similarly with Bertha, the most generous reading to Rochester possible is, like the keeping her in the house was not great, but better than institutionalizing her because of the institutional violence that she would have had if she had gone to a mental hospital in the 19th century.

I think that's maybe too generous to Rochester, but that's the Jane Eyre perspective of you're trying to read Rochester still as hero and not as like violent husband. So I think there is ambiguity with both of those characters about whether the reader has to interpret them as mentally ill.

But also, it's like not that mental illness causes violence, but that mentally ill people can be violent like anyone else. And there also is an explanation for this lack of reality that they're occupying for Celestine. I mean, she does have these obsessive characteristics with the house that she's almost like violently obsessed with the house, whether that source is mental illness or evilness.

It's just an explanation.[01:12:00]

Andrea Martucci: Okay, Emma, I buy what you just said if we consider that the text gives us the option of understanding society as having diagnosed Celestine as mentally ill because a noble woman that would make sense in like the 19th century oh, she did this bad thing, therefore, she must be mentally ill, and as a noble woman, the way we deal with that is we institutionalize her. Right?

And the text does cast doubt on the veracity of that actually being the case. So actually I get that. Whereas Jane Eyre, the text, and again, there are other texts that say, I take issue with the way Jane Eyre characterized Bertha, and actually if we think about this from another perspective, it could be a different story, but within the text's perspective, Bertha is mentally ill. Right,

Emma: I think the question is more like, what is the source?

Andrea Martucci: Yeah, he is an unreliable narrator.

Emma: How sick was she when you put her in the attic? Because I think it's, so much of her behavior stems from that isolation. They characterize her sometimes things like PMDD or like bipolar, whatever we're casting Bertha with. Also like whether her violence is coming from her mental illness or her isolation and her abuse, I think that's also ambiguous in the text. I think you can say Bertha is definitely mentally ill, but I don't know if the one to one connection between violence and mental illness is there because we do have that limited jane Eyre perspective.

I think you can read that book without even like the post colonial readings of it, just from the text, be like, okay what's making her violent? Is it the isolation and the abuse that she's suffering, which is explicit, whether it's sympathetic abuse or not, which Jane is sympathetic to, but the reader doesn't have to be.

Beth: Final thoughts on this book.

Emma: It's a quick read. People should read it. Like it's compelling and short and it's good. I really liked Martha. I did not expect to like her as much because I just had an image of her as being like plain, first person perspective character, I feel like it's she's all doing all this projecting, so I was like imagining I was also like gonna be projecting onto her, like she's gonna be this blank slate, but she has more personality than I anticipated.

Beth: Yeah, I found her very sympathetic, and all the time she was like, assuming... Like what other people were thinking about her. I'm like, this is relatable. This is very relatable.

Andrea Martucci: Yeah, I am really glad that you all wanted to read this book because it is a book that I had heard about a lot and I definitely have a tendency to think about older books and I'm like, oh gosh, is it gonna be interesting to me as a modern reader?

Just because there's different expectations for books today. Like some older books I find get really long winded and I'm like, I just don't have the attention span for this. Get to the point. What's happening? Just tell me what's happening.

And I really enjoyed this book, really enjoyed Martha as a character. I thought she was really interesting. I thought the story was really interesting. I think, Miss Holt is a very talented writer and has a great career ahead of her. Um, you [01:15:00] know.

I think it's also very interesting to think about, we are romance podcasters, and so obviously our underlying project here is to think about this in the context of modern romance, I do think it raises some interesting questions, and other people who like romance today, whether you think you like romantic suspense or not, It's a book worth reading and checking out and seeing what you think about it.

Emma: Yeah, I think as far as like grandmothers of the genre go this is an easy read.

I think sometimes people are hesitant to read some of the bodice rippers from the 1970s maybe you just aren't in the mood for that or don't want to read a bodice ripper. This I think you could read and see so many threads of it in the genre and it's like such a good touch point and obviously has these threads that come out in so many different places and it's this bridge between early 20th century and late 20th century so I think it would be like a good part of your mental map of romance. I think that's that would be my selling point for it.

Beth: Thank you so much for listening to Reformed Rakes. If you enjoyed this podcast, you can find monthly bonus episodes on our Patreon at patreon. com slash reformedrakes. You can also follow us on Twitter and Instagram for show updates. The username for both is at reformedrakes. Thank you again, and we'll see you next time.

Andrea Martucci: Hey, thanks for spending time with me today. If you enjoyed this episode, please subscribe, rate or review on your favorite podcast app or tell a friend. Check out for transcripts and other resources. If you want regular written updates from Shelf Love, you can increasingly find me over at Substack.

Read occasional updates and short essays about romance at Thank you to Shelf Love's $20 a month Patreon supporters: Gail, Copper Dog Books, and Frederick Smith. I have a great day. Bye!