The Unseen by Katherine Webb
Publisher:William Morrow/May, 2012
Kind thanks to William Morrow for providing a review copy
A vicar with a passion for nature, the Reverend Albert Canning leads a happy existence with his naive wife, Hester, in their sleepy Berkshire village in the year 1911. But as the English summer dawns, the Cannings’ lives are forever changed by two new arrivals: Cat, their new maid, a disaffected, free-spirited young woman sent down from London after entanglements with the law; and Robin Durrant, a leading expert in the occult, enticed by tales of elemental beings in the water meadows nearby.
Quickly finding a place for herself in the underbelly of local society, Cat secretly plots her escape. Meanwhile, Robin, a young man of considerable magnetic charm and beauty, soon becomes an object of fascination and desire. Sweltering in the oppressive summer heat, the peaceful rectory turns into a hotbed of dangerous ambition, forbidden love, and jealousy—a potent mixture of emotions that ultimately leads to murder.
The year is 1911, and young Cat Morley is to arrive soon at the peaceful house of Reverend Albert Canning and his wife Hester. Cat’s reputation precedes her, but Hester sees this as an opportunity to be charitable, since surely no one else will have her, and also pay her less than one normally would for her services. Hester sees herself as very much the proper vicar’s wife, but so far, her husband has not touched her in a “husbandly” way and her desire for intimacy with him, as well as for a child, has become a problem. Spending her days with feminine pursuits, she longs for the touch of a husband that turns away from her again and again. When Albert comes home one day, flushed and excited, thinking that he’s seen elementals, or nature spirits, his excitement is contagious, until “theosophist” Robin Durrant comes to stay with them, and throws the entire household into disarray. As it turns out, Albert has been neglecting his duties, not only as a husband and companion to Hester, but as a vicar, and Hester is increasingly alarmed that Mr. Durrant may be a negative influence.
Meanwhile, in 2011, a body is found, preserved, over 100 years old, with letters that seem to have been written by Hester Canning. Leah, a journalist, is asked by her former lover Ryan to decode the letters, find the story. So, she travels to Cold Ash Holt, and manages to meet Mark Canning, the Canning’s great grandson. He’s not eager to talk to her at all, but eventually agrees to an interview. Mark has been embroiled in some serious legal battles, and as curious as Leah is, her job is to research the story at hand, and hopefully Mark can shed some light on things. I really enjoyed these scenes with Mark as they tracked down the clues to the identity of the dead man, and especially loved how she delighted in exploring the Canning’s old house. In spite of this, I did find myself wanting to get back to Cat and her story, but it provided a really good parallel to the events of 1911, and also layered in some nice suspense.
Back in 1911, Cat is wild and damaged from her time in prison and when she meets a local man, George, she feels she might have met someone that could finally understand her, and spending time with him provides a much needed respite to her sweltering days of servitude. However, she’s increasingly concerned about her best friend Tess, left behind when she was released from the gaol. Evidently, Tess has been put into a workhouse, and Cat is determined to somehow get her out. United in the suffragette cause, Tess tired of it, even as Cat grew more and more enmeshed, and it’s because of the increasingly criminal activities of the women’s group that Cat and Tess got in trouble. Cat blames herself for Tess’s incarceration, and vows to make it up to her, somehow. My heart ached for Cat, and even for the naïve, sweet natured Hester, who married a man that was her best, childhood friend, but could never, truly be her lover, and is slowly wilting in the summer heat. I also felt so sorry for poor, confused, delusional Albert who spent most of the story with stars in his eyes for the beautiful, cunning, selfish Robin.
As for Robin Durrant… He is, frankly, a jerk; an insidious weasel that manages to insert himself in every aspect of the Canning’s lives. He’s conniving, underhanded, enamored of himself, and truly believes that others are put on the planet to do his bidding. He’s the houseguest that never leaves and devastates lives in the course of his stay. He sees the effect he has on Albert, and exploits that as much as he possibly can, while delighting in Hester’s discomfort and anguish. He doesn’t stop there, either. No one is really safe from his machinations, even Cat, and his insistence on “proving” that faeries are real, therefore indulging Albert’s fantasies of the existence of “elementals” is wreaking havoc on the household. He insists on setting up a darkroom in the family’s cold storage room, resulting in waste and food spoilage, but hey, developing pictures of so-called “faeries” is much more important than the family’s food stores, right? If this sounds familiar, it is. You’ll no doubt be reminded of the true story of the Cottingly Faeries: the 1917-1920 series of pictures taken by Elsie Wright and Francis Griffiths supposedly depicting the two girls with faeries. Many people believed in these photos for many, many years until Elsie and Francis finally confessed to them being faked, and Robin Durrant is, above anything else, a fake, and a charlatan. When Cat is drawn into Robin’s subterfuge, her desire to break free of a life of servitude is buried deeper and deeper in the lies that Robin creates, her own secrets, and liberty, threatened by a treacherous man determined to make a name for himself in an otherwise aimless life.
Katherine Webb’s writing is lovely and evocative, and she manages to set up a scene thoroughly without taking anything away from her characters. Cat’s pain is evident in everything she does. Raised in a household run by The Gentleman (you’ll figure out who he is soon enough), educated, taught to read, and indulged to a certain limit, she is still shown that she’ll never rise above her station as a servant. It’s like giving a bird wings, but not allowing it to fly. Even George’s love can’t dampen the fire within her. As Hester’s desperation grows, so does Cat’s, and Albert has lost his way so completely, Hester is not sure she’ll ever get him back. All of their secrets swirl together to create a miasma of misery, eventually coalescing into a finale that will shock, and devastate.
In The Unseen,the author has created a seemingly bucolic landscape in which to set the passions and pain of her characters, and it immediately pulled me in. The Unseen has all of the drama of a soap opera, played out against a time when a strong woman had no place in proper society and religious and spiritual ideas were in constant flux. Suspense readers with a love of history should enjoy this, and I also recommend it to anyone that loves a rich, wonderfully written, character driven novel. Highly recommended.