“A moving tale of love, the true meaning of home, and the haunting secrets that can bind generations”

  • Book: The Mystery Of Haverford House
  • Location: Yorkshire
  • Author: Rachel Burton

Review Author: Yvonne@FictionBooks



The story opens in the late 1920s, when a young Annie Bishop is set to follow in her mother’s footsteps, as she joins the below stairs staff of Haverford House. However, she is not strictly typical of her class, in that she has been nurtured by her parents and is quite learned and well read, so her speedy rise from maid to Lady’s maid, is not totally unexpected. Annie is restless to discover more of the what the world has to offer, although she is fiercely loyal to her mother, her employers and even the house itself, so she is not about to make any rash decisions about her future. That is until she meets wealthy American heir, Thomas Everard, who dares her to contemplate a different life and follow the dream she has, which she has only ever shared with him. The star-crossed lovers are each beset with problems from within their own societal class, which almost sees the undoing of all their carefully laid plans, so when Annie mysteriously disappears and Thomas looks to be guilty of a crime no one can determine, this particular chapter of life within the walls of Haverford House, looks to be closed for good.

It is now 2003 and Lady Seraphina and the heir designate of Haverford House, her son David, are at odds about what fate should befall the estate, which is sliding into a state of genteel disrepair and is a financial millstone around their necks. In her bid to preserve the house for the country and indeed herself, Seraphina has hired Viola Hendricks to organise open-house days and special events, in an effort to delay the inevitable. Viola, an Australian by birth, was instantly beguiled by the mystery which still surrounded the disappearance of Annie Bishop in 1933 and weaves as many stories and anecdotes around the incident as she can, for the paying public. However, Viola has also come to look upon Haverford House as her home, one which she doesn’t want to lose. Unaware that, through her actor brother Sebastian, she shares more in common with Annie than she might ever have thought, Viola organises a series of Shakespeare evenings, which are hugely popular, although still not enough to stave off the inevitable. Enter wealthy and enigmatic American Chase Matthews, heir to a hotel empire, with an agenda of his own and set by his father. Chase, is however, totally unprepared to be bowled over by the passion Viola holds for Haverford House and the secret surrounding Annie Bishop’s disappearance and finds himself prepared to accept the wrath of his disappointed father, when he decides to follow his heart in both matters of love and future career.

Where does British/American mystery write Elizabeth Smithson fit into this jigsaw puzzle of parallel stories and will her revelations help or hinder Viola, Seraphina and Chase, in their quest to maintain Haverford House for the future of a nation?

A moving romance, blended with a haunting mystery, this beautifully structured and textured, dual timeline story, was narrated in well-signposted chapters by Annie and Viola, with occasional interspersions by ‘the writer’, one Elizabeth Smithson. Two separate strands of the same storyline, which dovetailed together seamlessly as I became more and more engrossed in the lives of these women, their families and those who sought to influence their lives. Eventually I did begin to put two and two together for myself, although I was never completely right about any particular aspect of the unfolding drama, as there were one or two well placed red herrings which tripped me up along the way.

Also, as a work of cultural fiction, author Rachel Burton offered a compulsive and masterful elucidation of every day domestic intrigue and societal interest, from within the confines of a modestly sized, titled estate. Encompassing over seventy decades of challenges, the ever-changing dynamics between a life of service and master, are explored with a genuine realism, sympathy and empathy for the individuals, exuding an atmosphere which was so perfectly described, I almost felt I could step into any scene and I would know exactly what role I should be playing and how to present myself.

The characters were each well defined and rendered to completely fit their individual roles, so as I had expected, there were many of them I couldn’t and indeed wouldn’t have ever hoped to connect with or invest in. However, with Annie and Thomas, Viola and Chase, being two sides of the same coin, separated not only by time, but also by class, their lives were particularly interesting to follow; with Annie and Viola demonstrating a unique and lasting bond with Haverford House, as a place they had learned to call home, despite its many secrets. Polly also stood out as worthy of a mention for the way in which, after having escaped her position in a life below stairs without really thinking through the potential consequences of a ‘too good to be true’ situation, consequently embraced without question the next new chapter of her life with a true strength of character and stalwart loyalty, after having been shown the true hand of friendship.

Haverford House was a fictional establishment, although loosely based on many similar, real historic houses and estates, with which the Yorkshire landscape is replete. As such, the house and characters quite rightly dominated the storyline, with the wider location taking something of a backseat, although the nearby City of York and town of Halifax are alluded to on occasion, as are the City of New York, USA and the town of Kiama, near Sydney, Australia. Author Rachel Burton brought the scenes to life with her wonderfully woven words, which offered that all important extra dimension, of a lovely sense of time and place. So, everything having been taken into account, I finished this book with my ‘armchair traveller’ hat on, more than happy and contented with my virtual journey.

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