(Kindle e-book 2011, originally published 1988)
I’d held off getting this one since I was hoping to win a copy in the Brown Paper giveaway: sadly, it was not to be, so I bought it for my Kindle. Geillis Ramsey is a sensitive child growing up in a home which, although not short of love (at least on her father’s side), is rather hard and unsympathetic, particularly to the young girl’s love of nature. Only occasional visits from her mother’s cousin – also named Geillis – help young Gilly survive her harsh upbringing in a north-eastern mining village, and later at boarding school, with discovering the world of plants, animals and the environment. Gilly is also made aware that her cousin has some “foresight”, since Geillis seems to know very accurately that things will happen and when.
After the death of her father (her mother was killed in a car accident before the war), and an unfinished degree, Gilly has a very uncertain future in 1948, at the age of twenty-seven. As she is contemplating having to shut up the vicarage in the mining village where she and her parents had spent many years, and consider the future, she’s given a lifeline: Cousin Geillis herself has died, but left Gilly her house, Thornyhold, in Wiltshire.
She moves in, delighted by the house – which is out in the woods and some distance from the nearest village – though rather disturbed by her neighbour, Agnes Trapp, who seems far too interested in what Geillis Saxon may have left behind in her house. She makes friends with young William Dryden, who often used to come to Miss Saxon for help with his ferrets, and to help her harvest herbs, and who regards the younger Geillis also as another white witch or ‘wise woman’.
There’s an atmosphere of witchcraft and herbalism, and some very nicely done suspense turning on Mrs Trapp’s eagerness to get hold of Miss Saxon’s recipe book, and the conflict between her feelings and Gilly’s for attractive writer Christopher Dryden, William’s father. It’s a bit Gothic novel-y with Gilly coming to think the worst of her neighbour, but tricked by her deductions and the circumstances to think so (though Mrs Trapp is involved with the mistreatment of a dog whom Gilly rescues, and she certainly believes her dabblings in witchcraft work).
Gilly is a very attractive and believable character. Her upbringing sounds awful (one is tempted to wonder if there are any autobiographical elements in Stewart’s portrayal of Gilly’s hard, unsympathetic mother – who, nevertheless, is given believable reasons for her rather harsh treatment of her daughter – and brutal first school), and very lonely: cut off from the villagers by her family’s different social status and education, and from sympathy and affection. Her eventual flowering, as the person she’s intended to be, aided by the house and the spirit of her dead cousin, is very touching, and one feels the ending is just right.
There’s a very real delight in the natural world in Stewart’s books: sympathy with animals, and love of flowers and plants. In this book in particular they’re a very strong part of the plot and the character of Gilly herself. It’s a lovely book, with appealing, realistic, characters, and a charming romance.