Menfreya

Menfreya close up (2)

“Love, lust and the Cornish sea pound through this saga of a 19th century family.” EVENING STANDARD.

For Harriet Delvaney, the great house of Menfreya, standing like a fortress on the Cornish coast, has always been a citadel of happiness and high spirits. Not until she herself comes to Menfreya as a bride does Harriet discover its legend of infidelity, jealousy and murder. And not until that legend comes dangerously to life does Harriet begin to believe the old story that when the tower clock of Menfreya stops, it means that someone is about to die…

“Sinister… a splendidly wild background.” BOOKS AND BOOKMEN.

Menfreya Fontana (2)Written by Victoria Holt. First published 1966. First issued in Fontana Books 1968. 

Our first encounter with Harriet Delvaney is as a thirteen year old runaway – fleeing the confining, hostile environment of her father’s grand London house to hide out in an abandoned old cottage on an island just off the Cornish coast.

From here she gazes across the dawn-lit sea towards Menfreya, an enchanting stately manor sprawled across the cliff top. Home to the Menfrey’s and more castle than house, Menfreya’s gothic turrets, machicolated towers and ancient flint walls symbolise for Harriet everything she has been longing for in her short, sad life – romance, intrigue, mystery and adventure.

Menfreya Fawcett Crest (2)

Fawcett Crest reprint. Cover art Harry Bennett

Fast forward a few years and Harriet’s adolescent dreams have come true. Now a wealthy heiress and married to the dashingly handsome Bevil Menfrey, she has become mistress of Menfreya. However, this being a gothic romance, the best of times very quickly sour into the worst of nightmares for our heroine, with madness, murder, treachery and rape being just a few of the ordeals she finds herself enduring. Worse still are the mercurial moods and roving eyes of husband Bevil, forcing Harriet to ask herself – did he marry her for love or for a reason much more sinister?

Menfreya Fontana banana

Fontana 19th Impression 1979

Menfreya is a great read full of all the usual ingredients beloved by fans of Victoria Holt’s novels – gorgeous settings oozing atmosphere, a likeable heroine who is feminine without being flighty partnered alongside a dangerously rakish leading man whose motives will keep you guessing right till the end. It’s a familiar formula yes, but in Holt’s hands never predictable and I love the way she weaves complex family histories and mythologies so effortlessly into her books, creating back-stories which are just as engrossing as the main plot of the novel itself. 

I have three copies of this book. My favourite by far being the older Fontana edition with its wild n’ wuthering crimson-stained sky. I got this from Healthy Planet, complete with a stamp on the inside cover asking me to pass this book on once I have read it… but I think I’ll be keeping this one for some time yet!

Menfreya Fontana (2)

Help Wanted – Harry Bennett Cover Art

Harry Bennett artwork

Alex Henzel has emailed me this lovely piece of artwork crying out for a gothic romance to call its own. The artist is Harry Bennett, an award-winning painter and illustrator who created over 1,000 covers and illustrations during his career as a commercial artist.

I have quite a few Fawcett Crest novels (mostly written by Victoria Holt, Susan Howatch, Phyllis Whitney and Mary Stewart) that feature Harry Bennett covers but I don’t recognise this one. The more I look at it though, the more it’s ringing bells for me somewhere – I’m sure there must be a deliciously creepy tale behind this eerie threesome!

Harry Bennett close upThe piece could be a preliminary sketch for a more complete work and it’s beautiful. Harry Bennett has a very distinctive style – the lush sweep of a dress or cloak, the brooding, shadowed expressions combined with a vivid use of light and dark are all trademarks of his gothic romance art. Violet is such an evocative colour to use and very Victorian, bringing to mind a storm swept, winter’s dusk. I think this would make the perfect cover for an sinister vampire novel.

Does any recognise it or can hazard a guess what it was used for? If so, please get in touch!

Alex also has an amazing collection of vintage paperbacks which you can view at his web page Good Girl Art Vintage Paperbacks. They really don’t publish books like these anymore – I’ve spend hours looking through his collection already and I think the titles are almost as wonderful as the covers!

Thank you for sharing Alex!

The Waiting Sands

“I feel so strongly as if everything here was waiting. The house, the shore – and now these sands are waiting.”

Rachel had been waiting, too. Waiting for an end to the nightmare that had already taken two lives and now threatened more. Someone Rachel knew and loved had become a murderer and had turned the handsome old Scottish manse into a place of horror.

But which face, which dear familiar face, was the mask of the killer?

Rachel did not know – yet.

Written by Susan Howatch. First Fawcett Crest printing, February 1975.

Another day, another gorgeous Harry Bennett cover. And another cracking read from Susan Howatch. Set within a remote castle in Scotland, The Waiting Sands tells the tale of six people whose fates become forever intertwined when two of them are murdered at a birthday party.

The story opens with Rachel receiving a letter from an old school friend called Decima, inviting her to Decima’s 21st party at her home in Castle Roshven (renamed Ruthven in later editions?). Situated on an isolated Scottish island surrounded by quicksand, Roshven is a bleak place – accessible only by boat and bereft of modern conveniences like hot running water. But Decima loves her crumbly old home and is more than happy to forgo a few creature comforts in exchange for the peace and quiet Roshven provides her.

Decima’s new husband Charles is not so taken. A scholar, and far too much of an English gent to actually work for a living, he wants Decima to sell the castle so they can travel the world,  living in luxury on the proceeds of the sale.

Not surprisingly this has caused a rift in their relationship, with both partners seeking solace in the arms and hearts of others. Enter siblings Rebecca and Daniel, fellow academics and students of Charles. This dynamic brother / sister duo had popped into Roshven on their way to the Edinburgh Festival and have now ended up living there, since their presence seems to help ‘ease the tension’ (nudge, nudge, wink, wink) between our feuding couple.

Dark & Brooding Ace Edition

To further complicate matters, there is a catch in Decima’s parent’s will. (Isn’t there always? Why are parents so cruel?) Decima is set to inherit Castle Roshven and all its land outright as soon as she reaches twenty one. However if she dies even one minute before then, her husband is the one who ends up with everything. 

So by the time Rachel arrives with best friend Rohan, she is met by a house heaving with paranoia and not so petty jealousy. Decima is sure her dearly beloved is out to kill her — all she need do is survive till Midnight when she officially turns twenty one and she will be free from Charles and his threats forever. Oh if only it was that simple, if only…

Though the premise of this novel is very similar to The Dark Shore, another Susan Howatch book I reviewed earlier on this blog, it still kept me engaged right up to the end. What makes her books so readable is the depth and complexity she manages to bring to her characters and the relationships between them. I tend to get a bit lost with stories told from multiple viewpoints but the voices in this one are all so distinct it wasn’t a problem, in fact it made trying to suss out who the murderer was all the more enjoyable.

I noticed The Waiting Sands got pretty bad reviews on Amazon and I’m not sure why – as well being an enjoyable murder mystery there’s a great gothic setting, with full use being made of the gloomy castle and its surrounding storm-swept coastline. So I’m giving this one a big fat four out of five.

The House on Hay Hill

One of today’s outstanding novelists writes tales about love, intrigue, wealth, power – and of course romance. THE HOUSE ON HAY HILL will keep the reader’s dreams intact and keep the reader turning pages deep into the night.

Here is romantic suspense at its best – the beguiling story of a young woman’s unexpected legacy and a bewildering impersonation that threatens her future.

Written by Dorothy Eden. First Fawcett Crest printing May 1976

For me, it’s Autumn, rather than Spring, that symbolises the beginning of things – with Summer being relegated the season of closing up shop and shutting off from the world. As a result, there is something about this time of the year that brings out the butterfly-brained in me – and I find myself barely able to concentrate on much of anything useful, let alone read and review a whole book.

So it was nice to come across a collection of short fiction by Dorothy Eden with this gorgeous cover by Harry Bennett. As well as the title story, House of Hay Hill includes five others – The lady and the Tycoon, Fly by Night, Summer’s Love Affair, The Hopeful Traveller, Love in the Wilderness, Mirage and Happy Ever After. Acknowledgement is made to Woman’s Journal and Good Housekeeping where they first appeared.

I reviewed one of Dorothy Eden’s books, Voice of the Dolls, last year and found it less than amazing, but I’m three stories into House and enjoying it very much. The titular story is the longest and my favourite so far – a twisted tale of intrigue and impersonation where a young heiress finds her inheritance under threat when someone pretending to be her starts burglarising her house, then flogging off the family heirlooms. Haunted by a mysterious doppelganger and sinister antique shops that have a habit of disappearing, she turns to her handsome cousins for help but, when there is this much money and a grand Victorian mansion up for grabs, how far can she really trust them?

The cover art on my Fawcett Crest edition is lovely – the flowing headscarf, gown and beads combo (almost) making me yearn for the days of flares and kaftans, and judging from the beautiful regency-style facades behind her, she could be parading round The Old Steine in Brighton. Four out of five stars.