Florence and Giles by John Harding

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Florence and Giles is a gothic, New England ghost story steeped in atmosphere and buried secrets. Florence is a 12 year-old orphan who lives under the tyrannical rule of her uncle, with only her brother Giles and the servants for company. Forbidden to learn how to read, Florence spends her days and nights in the dusty, disused library, secretly devouring Shakespeare, Dickens, Austen, even The Mysteries of Udolpho. She eavesdrops and makes up stories, but above all, is fiercely protective of her little brother. When their first governess is struck down in a mysterious accident, her replacement, Miss Taylor, arrives and immediately strange and sinister events start to occur. Florence becomes convinced the governess is a witch or a spirit trying to take Giles away, and resolves to fight her at every turn.

Florence is an intriguing character. She narrates the novel in a style that borrows from gothic and Dickensian prose, Shakespearean plays and sonnets, interspersed with words and phrases of her own creation. Raised in isolation, bound by the rules of a distant and vaguely sinister guardian, Florence is intelligent but stunted and deeply damaged. No one will believe her about Miss Taylor, possibly because her theories are fantastical, and partly because Florence herself readily admits to making up stories and sometimes loosing track of which facts are real and which were hers.

Florence and Giles is, in some ways, more about uncovering the mysteries of the narrator than it is about the mysteries of the house, although they are intricately bound in each other. Harding was attempting to create a ghost story in the tradition of The Turn of the Screw, and he is more or less successful. This novel is filled with secrets and a brooding atmosphere. Harding has the confidence to leave many mysteries opaque, which may baffle or anger some readers, but I consider it a strength of the novel.

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