2009 Re-read Challenge (March): Mistress of Mellyn
Mistress of Mellyn by Victoria Holt
When I was a kid, we used to have a rumpus room in our converted garage. It had (fake) wood paneling, a dart board, and orange indoor/outdoor carpeting. (Don’t mock, it was the 70’s, ok?) It also had a wall of bookshelves loaded with books my family no longer considered important enough to be in the living room. On these shelves were a couple of rows of Reader’s Digest Condensed books, mostly dating from the late 50’s thru the 60’s. I spent a lot of time in the rumpus room, working my way through these anthologies.
Mistress of Mellyn, one of the first adult books (and definitely the first romance) I read, was in a 1960 RDC edition. Last month, after reading Tracy’s and Li’s February Re-read Challenge reviews, where they re-read books that had been published a while ago, I decided to track down an unabridged copy (the RDC versions were abridged) of the book that had such an impact on my reading tastes.
Even the library edition of the book brought back fond memories. It was one of those old library books (MoM was published in 1960,) bound in a solid orange hard cover, with the title embossed in black print on the spine.
Here’s the back cover description:
Mount Mellyn stood as proud and magnificent as she had envisioned . . . But what about its master — Connan TreMellyn? Was Martha Leigh’s new employer as romantic as his name sounded? As she approached the sprawling mansion towering above the cliffs of Cornwall, an odd chill of apprehension overcame her.
TreMellyn’s young daugher, Alvean, proved as spoiled and difficult as the three governesses before Martha had discovered. But it was the girl’s father whose cool, arrogant demeanor unleashed unfimiliar sensations and turmoil — even as whispers of past tragedy and present danger begin to insinuate themselves into Martha’s life.
Powerless against her growing desire for the enigmatic Connan, she is drawn deeper into family secrets — as passion overpowers reason, sending her head and heart spinning. But though evil lurks in the shadows, so does love — and the freedom to find a golden promise forever . . .
Martha is an earnest young woman, who is still in the process of accepting her reduced circumstances which have required her to accept the position of governess. While this makes her sympathetic, she also comes off as a bit whiny at times (something which I don’t remember noticing when I was 12 years old. lol)
The book is told in first person pov, and the style is that of Martha recounting the story, years later. Usually, I like 1st person, but with MoM, I noticed an (oft-mentioned) issue with the pov really interfering with an opportunity to gain insight into the hero’s perspective. This isn’t usually something I have a problem with, but with MoM I was wishing for more info on Connan.
That being said, this limited perspective does allow for greater suspense, given that Martha suspects Connan’s motives in much of the book.
Here are some things that really stood out to me upon reading Mistress of Mellyn for a second time:
Victoria Holt can bring alive a setting like nobody’s business.
The book’s opening is a definite harkening to Pride and Prejudice’s opening line, “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.”
Awesome quote #1:
There are two courses open to a gentlewoman when she finds herself in penurious circumstances,” Aunt Adelaide had said. “One is to marry, and the other to find a post in keeping with her gentility.”
The mood of the opening is also reminiscent of the beginning of Daphne duMaurier’s Rebecca, where the young naive woman is entering a remoste and mysterious house owned by a handsome, brooding widower.
Everything I know about Victorian England, I learned from Victoria Holt.
OK, well, not everything. But, lots of things. Again and again, I came across references I know I read about for the first time in this book: details about Cornwall and Cornish customs, Boxing Day, priest holes and peeps (architectural details,) upstairs/downstairs dynamics. It was a whole new, exotic world to me.
One of my favorite passages is the description of Cornish holiday traditions.
Awesome quote #2:
The men had been out the previous day and brought in ivy, holly, box, and bay. I was shown how the pillars in the great hall were entwined with these leaves and Daisy and Kitty taught me how to make Christmas bushes; they were delightedly shocked by an ignorance like mine. I had never before heard of a Christmas bush! We took two wooden hoops — one inserted into the other — and this ball-like framework we decorated with evergreen leaves and furze; then we hung oranges and apples on it; and I must say this made a pretty show.
There is such a sense of place in this book, that it was easy to immerse myself in the past.
Nostalgia sometimes trumps perfection.
Familiar phrases leapt out. I loved that complete sentences came back to me as I read. I never considered myself much of a “re-reader” but, I realized I must have read this book a lot over my teen years.
However, again and again I winced at the old fashioned tone of this book, with Martha often seeming to give “improving” advice to the reader about proper behavior and morals. I had to remind myself that the reason the book seemed old-fashioned was that it was written almost 50 years ago. It wasn’t copying a style of book, it was an original book at the time it was written.
I guess I can re-read for many different reasons. I was much happier when I viewed this re-read from a nostalgic perspective rather than the way I’d re-read a literary classic like Pride and Prejudice which will stand any test of time. Or re-reading a book I really enjoyed, which I knew I’d enjoy just as much a 2nd time around. This was more about going down memory lane with Martha, and the 12 year old I was when I was first reading it in the rumpus room.
Victoria Holt introduced me to an entire genre that was incredibly rich. During my (pre)teen years and beyond, authors like Madeleine Brent, Mary Stewart, and Phyllis Whitney were my go to authors for enjoyable, rewarding, and satisfying reads.
True confession time: When I was in junior high, my friend and I used to watch Fantasy Island every week. We’d often discuss what fantasy would we choose to enact if we were guests on the island. My fantasy never changed: I wanted to be a character in a Victoria Holt-type scenario. I wanted to wear the big pouffy dress or riding habit. I wanted to live in the “big house” up on the hill. I wanted to encounter the brooding hero who was mysterious, kind, and maybe just a little (but not really) dangerous. And in the end, the mystery would be solved, the hero would be mine, and I would be the mistress of the big house. Sort of like the Mistress of Mellyn.
As I read Mistress of Mellyn, sometimes a little impatiently, I remembered that while this was my first Victoria Holt book, it wasn’t my favorite. I have a feeling I’m going to be tracking down Pride of the Peacock and Shadow of the Lynx (which were my favorites) sometime in the future.