Upon reading the first chapter of Laura Purcell’s THE SILENT COMPANIONS and the detailing of recently-widowed woman greeting a looming Victorian estate that resided in the middle of nowhere, I was a tad worried that it was yet another architectural horror work, of which I am a tad burned out on at the moment.
As I read on, I discovered that THE SILENT COMPANIONS is more of a ‘haunted object/grounds’ work, centered around a litany of hand-carved, hand-painted wooden depictions of youths and adults alike that evoked a certain Victorian ‘uncanny valley’, pieces named ‘silent companions’.
I digress — let us get back to the recently-widowed woman. Said widower is Elsie, a woman in her mid-20s who grew up working in her father’s match factory, and has the flame-scarred hands to prove it, as she burned them trying to put out a fire and, as her father went to rescue her, he fell into a sawmill, and that was the end of him. Her mother died shortly after, leaving her to take care of her younger brother Jolyon, and the two inherited the match factory.
Later, three investors come by, sniffing around to purchase the now-ailing factory. Both Elsie and Jolyon sit down with these three men, two object to Elsie’s inclusion, and her willfulness drives all but the third off, a Mr. Rupert Bainbridge. He invests in the factory, saving it, and weds Elsie — elevating her social status.
Elsie ends up marrying Rupert, and is elated to be marrying above her station, to live in London, waited on by staff and wearing finery. She discovers she’s pregnant, and Rupert sets off to their rural estate to make it fit for the three of them to live in but, sadly, he dies shortly after. Cue Elsie’s trip to estate.
What follows is a tightly interwoven generational tales about the house, the silent companions purchased by prior ancestors that haunt the estate, and flashforwards to Elsie in an asylum.
It is a lot, but it is measuredly spooled out and, while it doesn’t quite hang together at the end, it’s a thrilling read. The standout part of the novel itself is Elsie herself, who is a fascinatingly prickly woman, one who managed to rise above her station in hopes for greater comforts, then spends the bulk of her internal monologuing at the Bainbridge estate grousing about the lack of manners and fashion codes of her aides and staff. Well worth reading, especially if you are a Sarah Waters fan.