Rosemary Summers has writer’s block. Her thesis on Victorian Gothic Lit has come to a standstill. To rejuvenate her ideas, and salvage any remains of her once close bond with her recently deceased grandfather in the process, she decides to visit his grand, but crumbling home, Magpie Hall. Like all proper Gothic houses, Magpie Hall has a few dirty secrets, one of them being Rosemary’s great-great-grandfather, Henry Summers’ dubious dealings in his first wife’s death.
This book’s most striking aspect is the setting; Magpie Hall with its windswept plains and creaking foundations was a suitably Gothic backdrop for the story. The house is overflowing with ghosts, be they symbolic or literal ones.
Rosemary’s story alternates with that of her great-great-grandfather’s as a young man newly arrived from London, trying to make a life in New Zealand. I found Henry’s, and his soon-to-be-wife, Dora’s storyline more intriguing than Rosemary’s. I was just as curious as Rosemary to solve the great mystery surrounding her great-great-grandfather’s relationship with his first wife.
Henry Summers is a collector of curiosities, acquiring animals and objects unique to each of the cultures he encounters. Even more intriguingly, he is also a collector of tattoos, a physical art form that was apparently all the rage in Victorian England after some members of the Royal family brought them into fashion. His famous taxidermy collection, along with his skills and passion for the process is passed down to his great grandson, and from him to Rosemary.
Magpie Hall is a treasure trove of Gothic references and any fan of this particular genre will be delighted to recognise all the nods to the Gothic greats. It ticks all the boxes for a creepy, Gothic tale : a lone, young woman in an isolated house creaking with ghosts from its past, surrounded by questionable characters who might be out to do her more harm than good. And yet. Now we come to the knot in the thread. And yet, the story falls flat. Despite all these ghostly trappings of her past, Rosemary’s story failed to deliver a satisfying revolution.
[MAJOR SPOILERS AHEAD]
The revelation of Rosemary’s past, and her part in her sister’s death, which adds an extra layer of unease to the tale and boosts Magpie Hall’s creepiness factors happens near the end of the book. This detracts from the story considerably. I think it could have been mended by revealing the secret earlier, or simply by giving it the stronger conclusion that it deserved.
Instead, Rosemary continues to be quite churlish in the way she handles the situation. Her lack of maturity, as well as her inability to accept any responsibility was disappointing to read. I can’t help envisioning how much more effective Rosemary’s narrative would have been had she been allowed to reach a point of contention regarding her role in her sister’s death. As it is, it’s simply left hanging, and Rosemary continues to turn a blind eye to it, right till the very end of the story.
She connects more strongly with her idea of her great-great-grandfather’s wife, Dora. In fact, the book’s ending, of Rosemary adding the same tattoo of a bird that she believes Dora Summers may have also had, only further emphasizes her lack of growth. When Rosemary arrives at Magpie Hall, it is with her head full of ghost stories, and her heart ready to cast herself as a player in them; by the time she leaves, things are in the same state of affairs. Rosemary’s head is still in the clouds, and she is still as narrow-sighted as when we first meet her.
The lack of a strong ending was doubly disappointing considering all that the novel had to offer, and considering the preceding Gothic novels that it persisted taking a page out of. There is neither redemption nor learning from past mistakes. In Northanger Abbey Catherine Moralnd learns that there is a line between reality and fiction; in Wuthering Heights, Cathy and Hareton’s blossoming relationship promises a bright future to counter the havoc caused by Catherine and Heathcliff; in Jane Eyre a love that was obstructed by lies is made to overcome those lies. Magpie Hall, though full of potential, does not achieve anything of this kind. Despite this unfortunate lack of a conclusion, it is still a good ghost story, and I’d recommend it to anyone looking for a chilling story for a rainy day.