Review – Florence and Giles by John Harding

I gave up smoking on 8th December 2008 and I must admit that I occasionally miss that nicotine kick but every now and then a great book comes along which replicates that surge to the brain!  Indeed, Florence and Giles is such a book – I heard about it by chance  via Twitter, saw the cover, heard the words gothic, Henry  James, Poe and I was off like a shot.

Imagine, if you will, an old mansion in New England.  It is 1891 and Blithe House’s sole inhabitants are young orphans, 12 year old Florence and her younger brother Giles plus the small group of servants entrusted by their absentee uncle to look after them – an uncle who adds insult to injury by insisting that Florence is kept illiterate whilst her brother Giles is sent off to boarding school – well, we all know how females who read too much ended up in lunatic asylums until relatively recently!  Fortunately Florence succeeds in teaching herself to read and, when Giles returns from an unsuccessful sojourn at boarding school, she greedily sucks up the crumbs of learning provided by the governesses enlisted to home tutor him.   The feisty Florence narrates this chilling tale including the coming and goings of not one, but two governesses.

So far, so Henry James, you may very well think – swap Flora and Miles from The Turn of the Screw for Florence and Giles here, Bly House for Blithe House, Mrs Grose for Mrs Grouse etc etc – but you don’t have to have read The Turn of the Screw to fully appreciate Florence and Giles.  Whilst it indubitably pays homage to James, this clever, gothic chiller has its own distinct merits.  First and foremost of these is Florence’s idiosyncratic use of language as she transposes verbs with nouns and vice versa – you need a taster to demonstrate, look at this wonderful description of the neglected library -

“No maid ever ventures here; the floors are left unbroomed, for unfootfalled as they are, what would be the point?  The shelves go unfingerprinted, the wheeled ladders to the upper ones unmoved, the books upon them yearning for an opening, the whole place a dustery of disregard.” 

 Now, I have a distinct feeling that you will either love Florence or hate her and as she is the narrator, your liking or disliking of her peculiar turn of phrase will make or break this novel for you.

As the tale progresses, events take an even more sinister turn and the arrival of a new governess, Miss Taylor, following the unfortunate demise of her predecessor, Miss Whitaker, seems to unleash malevolent forces which propel the reader along with the characters towards an inevitably calamitous ending.   Don’t expect subtlety but also, don’t expect predictability and be on your guard – who knows what’s around the corner in this macabre realm?

I would be very surprised if this doesn’t make it into my Top Ten Reads for this year – who needs nicotine, eh??? ;-)

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  1. [...] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Teresa Majury. Teresa Majury said: New blog post: Review – Florence and Giles by John Harding [...]

  2. I have a copy of this, but haven’t heard much about it. I am excited to hear that you enjoyed it so much. I hope to get to it sometime in June.
    Congratulations on keeping off the cigarettes!

  3. admin says:

    If you like a touch of Gothic, you’ll love this, Jackie. Somehow it seems modern and old at the same time and Florence is such an engaging character even when she’s being rather naughty!

  4. Iris says:

    I’m not sure if this would be the kind of book for me, but I wanted to leave a comment anyway to say that I love how reading helps with your sometimes desire for nicotine. Luckily, I’ve never been a smoker, but I like hearing that people were able to shake the habit.

  5. admin says:

    Thank you, Iris. My husband and I both gave up at the same time when I had to go into hospital. It’s an extremely difficult habit to break and I will probably still get withdrawal symptoms for the rest of my life but I have so much more energy and we smell much nicer too! ;-)

  6. Nymeth says:

    Old mansion! 1891! Governesses! Say no more :P

  7. admin says:

    I think you’d really like it, Ana. It has so many references to older novels, Jane Eyre, The Mysteries of Udolpho and, as I’ve already mentioned, The Turn of the Screw but somehow retains it’s own little identity. I loved it!! (just in case I haven’t made that clear already… ;-))

  8. Violet says:

    This sounds right up my street, so I’ve requested it from the library. I do like books that play with language, and I love anything remotely Gothic.

    Congratulations on giving up smoking. I used to smoke, and am one of the lucky ones who didn’t have any trouble quitting or staying “quit”. Giving up drinking alcohol was slightly more difficult…

  9. Sold! Gothic, Poe, James, Victorian period – my kind of book! Didn’t know it existed, now I do and want to read it! Thank you very much.

  10. This sounds fascinating. I don’t know if I’d want to read it without revisiting the Henry James first though.

  11. admin says:

    Annabel, I had already read and enjoyed The Turn of the Screw but I think if you read it and F&G in quick succession you might be too distracted by comparing and contrasting the two – depends how disciplined a reader you are! ;-)

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