Today’s review is the first of three novellas by Holding, which were reprinted by Stark House Press at the start of July. The introduction is written by Curtis Evans and I enjoyed finding out more about Holding’s, often difficult, life. Financial insecurity definitely seems to have been a driving force behind her literary career. In the same way that it is surprising to think that Gladys Mitchell was publishing novels as late as the 1980s, I was disconcerted to see that today’s read was published as early as the 1920s. I just didn’t really have Holding pegged as someone who was writing that early.
‘Lexy Moran is the secretary to innocent, young Caroline Enderby, whose mother watches her like a hawk, always concerned about a possible scandal. So when Caroline doesn’t come home one night and her mother doesn’t seem worried, Lexy is surprised at her reaction. It seems that Caroline has eloped. But how did the sheltered Caroline find time to meet a suitor, much less arrange a marriage? When Lexy is approached by a young man who claims to be her fiancé and is looking for Caroline, Lexy knows something isn’t right. That’s when she decides to find out what really happened to Caroline Enderby.’
The story starts well and Lexy Moran is set up in the Marian Halcombe mould, and her competency is established from the get-go:
‘Though the present difficulty concerned nothing more serious than a cross-word puzzle, an observer might have learned a good deal of Miss Moran’s character from her manner of dealing with it […] whatever she undertook she did carefully and, intelligently – and obstinately.’
Lexy fits into the vein of female characters who start out in a situation of wealth but through being orphaned and through financial mismanagement, find themselves broaching adulthood in a precarious state: ‘at twenty she had her first puzzle to solve – how to keep alive without eating the bread of charity.’
One of the reasons Lexy is depicted as someone who can stand on their own two feet is to contrast with the young woman she is a companion to, Caroline. Caroline has been overcoddled, never been to school and her mother has made sure she has never been alone with a man. Or has she? Certain events make Lexy think otherwise.
Mrs Enderby’s lack of concern over her daughter’s disappearance and her determination that Lexy will not make the knowledge public adds an intriguing aspect to the story, as it makes you wonder what she might be hiding. I envisaged her being quite a prominent figure in the tale, but unfortunately this narrative thread does not lead anywhere, other than to propel Lexy into the wide world all alone.
However, the space Mrs Enderby occupied in the story is quickly filled by a series of new characters. For instance, we have Captain Grey the handsome stranger, who has come all the way from England to see his married sister who he is worried about. In sharing their troubles by the fire we see Captain Grey and Lexy initially join forces. So it is interesting when Holding frays and then rips this narrative thread in two, replacing it with benign and malevolent figures working against Lexy to discredit her growing concerns for Caroline and for Captain Grey’s sister. This is not a story when masculine heroism gets to shine, as male characters are often shown to be more inept or impotent figures.
Wilkie Collins’ The Woman in White (1859) is alluded to in more ways later in the story, which I won’t spoil for readers, but by the end of the narrative you do get the feeling that Holding has thrown in everything from sensation fiction including the kitchen sink. Having read this novella in conjunction with the other two stories in the Stark House Press reprint, I noticed that certain elements are returned to such as the ambiguous medical presence, as well as the way Holding pairs her young characters at the end.
My first encounters with Holding’s work are from the 1930s and 40s, so it was interesting to see what the later work, firmly rooted in the psychological suspense mould, evolved from. Being an earlier effort The Thing Beyond Reason, is less polished and satisfying, and is more awkwardly incumbered with sensation fiction patterns. Nevertheless, Holding still manages to deliver an unexpected ending.
Source: Review Copy (Stark House Press)