Holt, Victoria. (1970). The Secret Woman. William Collins Sons & Co Ltd.; Glasgow.
It would be remiss of me not to cover the very great volume of books available in the genre of ‘gothic romance’, as I consider it to be one of the most relaxing forms of fiction. You always know what the plot will be, and the characters are archetypes familiar from multiple other novels. And yet, it’s the best way to spend a rainy evening or a misty, grey day.
Victoria Holt – whose real name is Eleanor Hibbert – is one of the most prolific authors in this genre. By the time of her death in 1993, she had written more than 200 books that sold more than 100 million copies worldwide (Wikipedia article). She was not devoted to any single genre of writing, but rather published different novels under a variety of pen names, including: Jean Plaidy for a fictionalized history of European royalty; Victoria Holt for gothic romances, and Philippa Carr for a multi-generational family saga (Wikipedia article). Her writing extended into crime novels and murder mysteries under the various pseudonyms of Eleanor Burford, Elbur Ford, Kathleen Kellow, Anna Percival, and Ellalice Tate (Wikipedia article). She was always very accurate in her descriptions of everyday historical life, and sought to emulate authors such as the Brontës, George Eliot, and Charles Dickens (Wikipedia article).
I believe that I have read all of Victoria Holt’s novels at least once, so this was my second exposure to The Secret Woman. As with many novels in the gothic romance genre, it follows the story of a young, genteel woman who is thrown into difficult financial circumstances by a relative’s death and must survive by becoming a governess. Anna Brett, the protagonist, thus becomes governess to the child of the man she is in love with – a man tied through birth and circumstance to a mysterious family, ancestral castle, and problematic wife. Secrets, near-death experiences, and plot twists abound as the characters reveal themselves to each other from behind their polite, British façades.
Some reviewers did not like this Victoria Holt novel as much as her other works, believing it to be a slower plot with less engaging characters (Beneath the Covers, 2010). I thought it in keeping with her other works, with a few new geographic settings to enjoy. I also approved of Anna Brett as a character – far from simpering and having the vapors at every dramatic turn of events, she was very independent and even held a profession as an antique appraiser.
If you are looking for a ghost- and castle-type of gothic romance full of suspense and intrigue, Victoria Holt has much to offer you. I would also recommend that Victoria Holt be shared with younger adults, as it’s an easy read which offers exposure to an extensive vocabulary and lots of historical facts. I began reading Victoria Holt when I was 11 or 12 years old, and have never regretted the experience!