For years I thought I was the only fan of the Irish writer J. Sheridan Le Fanu, who is best-known for his ghost stories and Gothic novels. As an adolescent I discovered his masterpiece, Uncle Silas, and decades later I enjoy it just as much. But until I got Wifi, I never met anyone who had heard of Le Fanu. Most of his books are out-of-print in the U.S.
Having raved about Uncle Silas, you will hardly be surprised to learn that my new favorite book is Le Fanu's little-read The Rose and the Key. Mind you, I do not claim it is a great novel. Parts are brilliant, parts are draggy and dull. And yet I loved it from the beginning, with its ornate description of "a summer sunset, over a broad heath." Maud, the impulsive heroine, and her good-humored elderly cousin, Miss Max, are enjoying a sketching tour.
But Le Fanu is an expert on withholding information. He teases us with the question of Maud's identity. Early on he asks whether the shabbily dressed Maud might be a governess or an artist. Maud idly wonders aloud if she could earn a living by sketches and water colors. Miss Max is wildly indulgent and laughs at Maud's whimsy.
Nothing is as it seems, and the idyll is interrupted. They are shadowed by a stalker, an "odious, ill-looking" old man who follows them from inn to inn. Miss Max angrily confronts him on the heath, but they cannot stop him. And a romantic young gentleman, Charles Marston, pursues Maud after falling in love with her at first sight. She chides him and challenges him with the information that she is poor and must earn her living. Miss Max thinks Maud is much too hard on him.
Le Fanu has postponed telling the truth about Maud's identity. He is a tease. We soon learn that she is not poor. She is the daughter of the fabulously wealthy Lady Vernon, a cold, pale woman who hates her beautiful daughter. This is a mother-daughter relationship we seldom see in 19th-century novels. (But tell me if you think of others.)
There are many twists and turns - you are in suspense till the very end, because Le Fanu withholds information and we are misled as to motives.
(SPOILER - DEPENDING ON WHY YOU READ & WHAT YOU WANT TO KNOW)
This is one of several 19th-century novels, among them The Woman in White, in which a sane woman is committed to a lunatic asylum. There are some terrifying scenes.
Since I read two eerie 19th-century novels with this trope almost back-to-back, I wonder how many other such novels I've missed out there.
Let me know if any come to mind.