Book Review: Florence and Giles by John Harding

Book Florence and Giles by John HardingFlorence and Giles is a gripping, re-imagined version of Henry James’ gothic ghost story, The Turn of the Screw. Set in a remote New England mansion in 1891, the novel is narrated by Florence, a twelve-year-old girl who has been left alone by her guardian uncle with nothing but forbidden books and her younger brother for company. It is gripping from the start, as you delve into Florence’s world of literature and loneliness.   

I recently attended a meet-the-author event, organised by Cardiff Book Talk, in which John Harding spoke about his inspiration for the novel, and the process of writing it. It was particularly interesting to hear about Harding’s creation of his protagonist, Florence. She is forbidden any kind of education, and has taught herself to read, sneaking into the closed-up library when no-one is looking, careful to keep her reading a secret. As a result, her world is distorted – she doesn’t know what real life is like, and has developed her own unique language:

“If I say so myself, who probably shouldn’t, for a girl my age I am very well worded. Exceeding well-worded to speak plain… I have hidden my eloquence, under-a-bushelled it, and kept any but the simplest forms of expression bridewelled within my brain.”

As I began the novel I immediately felt a certain affinity with Florence, a fellow book-lover, and pity for her situation: alone in the world, without much in the way of company. I enjoyed her subterfuge, trying to ensure that no servant should stumble upon her secret, covering up her tracks with diligence.

It is only in chapter six that you begin to get a sense of something more sinister, as Florence describes her recurring nightmare, in which a mysterious woman tries to harm her younger brother, and her ‘night-walking’ when she roams the house in her sleep.

Gradually, you realise just how unprotected and helpless Florence is and, as the novel continues, you can see how these circumstances are beginning to affect her mind. She imagines things, is afraid of her own reflection, and conjures up an imaginary version of her friend Theo, in order to ask his advice. But the key moment in the book when, at last, a governess (Miss Whitaker) arrives to educate Giles, and then dies tragically by drowning in the lake, is almost completely glossed over. Florence uses a single page to describe these significant events, and it is at this point that you begin to wonder whether she is revealing the entire truth, or just a version of it.

After this brief reference to Miss Whitaker’s arrival and tragic death, the new governess Miss Taylor arrives, and things begin to escalate. As a reader, you suspect that Florence is imagining things, and yet there are clues which seem to corroborate her story – evidence which does appear to suggest that Miss Taylor is up to something; Florence is convinced that she plans to kidnap her brother. The reader is left wondering which events are real and which ones take place purely in Florence’s overactive imagination.

The more I read, the more I felt the novel affecting my own thought-patterns and behaviour. As I passed a mirror, I imagined what Florence would see… This is certainly a book which examines how reading affects a person’s mind. In the case of Florence (a girl who has lived in a world of nothing but books) it is extreme.

The final chapters are shocking, and I can honestly say that I was horrified, particularly as these scenes are narrated in such a matter-of-fact way by Florence. I can see why Harding’s readers demanded a sequel, and I shall look forward to reading The Girl Who Couldn’t Read.

2 thoughts on “Book Review: Florence and Giles by John Harding

  1. I read this a year or two ago, and man is it creepy! (In an awesome way though!)

    I really loved the whole unreliable narrator deal-y going on with Florence, and the fact that things just get creepier and creepier as it goes along.

    • Yes, it certainly does get creepy towards the end. I still think twice every time I pass a mirror at night.

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