Magazine article The Spectator

Divide and Rule

Magazine article The Spectator

Divide and Rule

Article excerpt

MARKHAM THORPE by Giles Waterfield Headline, £17.99, pp. 280, ISBN 0755329694

Victoriana is unleashed in Giles Waterfield's third novel, an upstairs-downstairs drama upholstered in period detail, of which he is a meticulous curator. It is a claustrophobic world of tea caddies, starched dresses and orange blossom; where mulligatawny soup from India and Christmas trees from Germany are both exotic novelties.

The plot unfolds within the confines of the Yorkshire manor house, Markham Thorpe. Our impression of events are those of Ellen, a teenage girl sent into service there under the wing of her father's cousin, the housekeeper Mrs Rundell. Ellen quickly discovers that her relative divides and rules both the servants' hall and the Markham family; and that she is vigorously intent on regaining the status of landed gentry that their family enjoyed only two generations previously. The young housemaid is pretty enough to become the catalyst for a refinement to this plan, with both Sir Richard Markham and his only son, James, gradually brought under the housekeeper's control. Until, that is, a murder changes the balance of power within the house once more.

Ellen is intelligent but naive, stubborn and yet seemingly destined to be manipulated by those fighting over the social divide. She is well-imagined, but a problematic protagonist inasmuch as she too often confesses herself baffled by a comment or action that to the reader is strikingly obvious. …

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