1. Daphne du Maurier. Of course I must start off with the queen herself, the original. Daphne du Maurier is the author of Rebecca, a 20th-century classic and the possessor of one of the more famous opening lines in literary history. Rebecca is a spooky, gothic romance, but mostly it’s just darn addicting – the story will grab you as if you’re a 10-year-old reading Redwall or an Alistair MacLean novel for the first time, and rush you along its irresistible current. If you like Jane Eyre or its lesser-known cousin, Villette, this will be exactly up your alley.
The narrator is never given a name, but she’s a young bride to Maxim de Winter, the charismatic but slightly mysterious owner of a Cornish estate. He’s a forceful personality ala Rochester, proposing by saying “I’m asking you to marry me, you little fool.” When the narrator moves in, however, she finds a home haunted by the memory of his first wife, Rebecca, who was killed in a sailing accident. Du Maurier herself always said she didn’t mean this book to be a romance, but I’ve always read and loved it as such: it’s about two people who overcome darkness to stay together. It’s heady and giddy and gripping and rather lovely. It’s never been out of print and is the standard-bearer for Gothic romance.
The opening lines resonate. “Last night I dreamt I went to at Manderley again…”
2. Mary Stewart. I went through a period in high school where I was obsessed with Stewart books – they’re such a deft, gripping blend of complex characters, suspense, and romance. She was one of the most widely read fiction writers of the 20th century, and passed away recently in May of 2014. A British novelist, she wrote both romantic suspense and historical novels and was respected for both. By far and away my favorite of her books, and a good introduction, is Nine Coaches Waiting, which yes, I admit, bears some resemblance to Jane Eyre as well (can I help it that all these Gothic romance writers are tripping on the same thing?).
Linda Martin, an orphaned young governess from England, takes a job at a chateau in the French Alps. Her ward, 9-year-old Philippe, has just lost his parents to a terrible accident, and is moody and detached. Linda quickly begins to think that something is amiss with his guardians, and meanwhile is both suspicious of and attracted to Raoul Valmy, the young lord there. This is easily one of Stewart’s most suspenseful, and lovable novels – Linda is spunky and collected, and Stewart pokes a little tongue-in-cheek fun at herself by having her heroine see herself as something of a Jane Eyre. Most of Stewart’s novels involve clever heroines getting into what appears to be normal situations and then experiencing a gathering sense of danger, while also falling in love and attempting to protect someone who is vulnerable.
3. Victoria Holt. Victoria Holt is often mentioned in the same breathe as Mary Stewart and is very nearly as loved. Her novels skew a little more historical fiction than Stewart’s very Gothic novels, but maintain the same traits of action, suspense,and romance. She wrote about 200 novels in the 1900s under various pseudonyms and was widely read and loved. Mistress of Mellyn, my favorite, has such a place in my heart that I start smiling as soon as I think about it – but my loves, please a)take my word that these novels are all genuinely page-turning and romantic, and b)do not read them back to back. As they all have similar-ish plots.
Martha Leigh heads to a sprawling mansion in Cornwall to act as governess to Connan TreMellyn’s daughter Alvean. The wealthy widower proves to be as enigmatic and cold as his daughter is rambunctious and love-starved, but Martha quickly settles in. Gradually, however, even as her feelings for her employer grow, she begins to suspect something is wrong..
As I said, very similar plot, but read these opening lines, the strong voice that is immediately set, and I dare you to not want to read it.
There are two courses open to a gentlewoman when she finds herself in penurious circumstances,” my Aunt Adelaide had said. “One is to marry, and the other is to find a post in keeping with her gentility.”
As the train carried me through the wooded hills and past green meadows, I was taken this second course; partly, I suppose, because I had never had an opportunity of trying the former.
4. Michael Cox. Michael Cox is easily the most “literary” writer on this list apart from du Maurier. The author of a number of children’s books, he also published several anthologies and collections of ghost stories and Victorian mysteries, but it’s The Meaning of Night and The Glass of Time which he’s remembered for, suspense novels set in Victorian England. They debuted in 2006 and 2008 to stellar reviews, and had he not passed away in 2009 would no doubt have written more. Both are superbly crafted and feature slightly more convincing plots than the other novelists on this list.
The Glass of Time is my favorite: orphaned Esperenza Gorst arrives at the country house of Evenwood in Northamptonshire to serve as a new lady’s maid to Lady Tansor. But Esperenza is there on a mission by the mysterious Madame de l’Orme – to uncover the secrets of the household and right an old wrong. It’s a delicious period mystery and virtually un-put-downable. It’s also slightly more sinewy than most Gothic novels so could be recommended to men as well as women.
5. Madeleine Brent. What’s hilarious about Madeleine Brent is that the author of broody, emotionally heightened, gothic romance/suspense novels such as Tregaron’s Daughter is in fact male and a former soldier. Peter O’Donnell was stationed all over the world during World War II and turned to writing later in life after returning to England. His novels are absolutely fantastical as far as their plots, but his writing is so strong that nearly all of his books are page-turners. The one that stands out most to me in memory is Golden Urchin, which is, groan, about a white girl raised by an Aboriginal tribe in Australia, who eventually runs away and is adopted by ranchers. She gradually discovers her identity and stumbles on a mysterious inheritance. The plot is frankly ludicrous on multiple levels (ala Barbara Cartland) but it is very evocative of time and place and packed with twists and some romance, and I really enjoyed the fact that it spanned several years (tracking the heroine growing up) and also multiple locations. Sherwood Smith wrote a positive review of this on Goodreads.
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