The House in the Hollow
The Talbots are wealthy. But their wealth is from ‘trade.’ With neither ancient lineage nor title, they struggle for entrance into elite Regency society. Finally, aided by an impecunious viscount, they gain access to the drawing rooms of England’s most illustrious houses.
Once established in le bon ton, Mrs Talbot intends her daughter Jocelyn to marry well, to eliminate the stain of the family’s ignoble beginnings. But the young men Jocelyn meets are vacuous, seeing Jocelyn as merely a brood mare with a great deal of money. Only Lieutenant Barnaby Willow sees the real Jocelyn, but he must go to Europe to fight the French. The hypocrisy of fashionable society repulses Jocelyn—beneath the courtly manners and studied elegance she finds tittle-tattle, deceit, dissipation and vice. Jocelyn stumbles upon and then is embroiled in a sordid scandal which will mean utter disgrace for the Talbot family.
Humiliated and dishonoured, she is sent to a remote house hidden in a hollow of the Yorkshire moors.
There, separated from family, friends and any hope of hearing about the lieutenant’s fate, she must build her own life—and her own social order—anew.
Awards and Recognition
Our journey to this wild, rugged and faraway place took many days, travelling with unseemly speed in a closed, unmarked carriage and attended by strangers. We stopped only to change the blowing, sweat-lathered horses and take hurried sustenance at filthy wayside inns. Mother insisted we retain our veils, even while we ate. She is practiced in subterfuge, at concealing, beneath a façade of respectability, the deplorable truth.
The cold was bitter; no quantity of rugs or blankets could keep my limbs from trembling. To be sure, the weather was appalling. Sheets of rain like relentless curtains of ice-shards assaulted the carriage. It seeped in through the thickly-shrouded windows and ran down the interior, soaking the thin seat-cushion. But the incubus of shock and grief equalled the weather’s onslaught. I could not still my body’s shaking.
My mother, beside me on the seat, offered no word of comfort or of mitigation. She sat like a figure carved from stone, her eyes fixed on the opposite seat. She was as thickly swathed as I, in shawls and wraps, but she did not tremble. Her face, like her intention, her resolution, was iron. She will do this to spite me, and if, in doing it, she spites herself, she does not care.
At night, on the hard, malodorous mattresses we were forced to share, her body emanated no heat and I concluded she has no corporeal warmth, no blood in her veins, no heart to pump it. She is cold, cold, cold. In any case I cannot bear to touch her, or for her to touch me. I hate her.
What little I could see of the country—beyond the ordure-slicked stable yards of the inns—was grim and dour beyond expression. Nothing could be further from the bucolic pastures and gentle hills that surround Ecklington, where I have spent all my life, up to this violent and unexpected removal. The sky, as we travelled, was a charcoal shroud of laden cloud or a deluge of steely, remorseless rain. The days seemed hardly to get light at all. There were smudged hills, dark canvasses of moor, mean-streeted towns of mud and shadow. The people were grey and stooped and spoke a dialect of broken teeth and hacking expectoration.
Then we came here. From a landscape of wind-scoured heath that seemed to go on for eternity until it melded with the storm-torn sky, we plunged down what felt like a sheer ravine. Mother and I were thrown forwards. Her jewel-case, which she had stowed beneath the seat, slid from its place and hit the backs of my ankles with such velocity that I cried out. She gripped the edge of the opposite seat and threw me a look of withering contempt. Trees on either side scratched the sides of our carriage, like skeletal hands of clawing ghosts. I could hear the horses’ hooves scrabbling to keep a purchase on the precipitous slope, their snorts of remonstrance and the answering yell of the coachman as he hauled on their lines. We lurched sharply one way and then the other, thrown against the carriage doors and against each other, jostled like flotsam on a flood. Then, mercifully, the slope levelled, we righted ourselves and the coach skidded to a halt.
The groom got down and opened the carriage door, but with difficulty; the wind would have snatched it from his hand. The door of a building so drear and ugly—all shadows and blackness and forbidding façades—opened and Mother hurried inside. I followed, the door closed and I heard the carriage pull away.
‘Our luggage,’ I called out, but hopelessly.
‘It’s alright miss,’ said a voice that was familiar to me. ‘They’ll bring it in the back. It’s more sheltered there.’
She carried a candle—the only illumination in the room—and held it aloft in such a way that it highlighted her features unnaturally. She was all bony brow and shadowed eyes and hollowed cheek. But I knew her.
‘Annie?’ I said in wonderment.
My pleasure at seeing her—a benign face from the kinder past, a friendly figure—was obliterated by my sense of disappointment; that she should be party to this obscene deception.
‘Come upstairs,’ she said. ‘It’s late. I have a room ready for you.’