Current Cardiff undergraduate Caitlin Coxon offers some thoughts on Florence and Giles, one of the books featured in our March BookTalk event.
I began Florence and Giles not having read Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw (1898), and admittedly did not realize I was reading a reworking of a renowned ghost story until I was already several chapters in. Scary stories and I do not usually do well together, but having finished Florence and Giles, I am intrigued as to the story that sparked its inspiration. I can’t help but wonder if reading The Turn of the Screw would aid in my theorizing—and Florence and Giles is a novel which invites copious theorizing, even as the aftershocks of its finale continue to reverberate. John Harding’s narrative resembles a piece of my knitting: tightly knotted in places, the tension of the plot thread pulling the wool so taut it feels on the brink of snapping in places. And yet there are unexplained gaps and threads left dangling temptingly. They beckon the reader to grasp at them and attempt to pull them together into some sort of coherent explanation.
My theory is that Miss Taylor is Giles’s mother: although we are told she was lost in a boating accident, Florence’s unreliability as a narrator and her apparent stonewalling of her early memories opens the fate of her stepmother up for questioning. It would explain the moments of flickering familiarity Florence feels towards Miss Taylor as unrecognized—recognition of Giles’s features in her ‘nemesis’ and repressed childhood memories of her own, not because she is their dead governess returned. It would also explain why Miss Taylor is so focused on Giles alone. Forgotten in Blithe House, the children are well hidden from the rest of the world, and Miss Taylor is revealed to have been looking for a job as their governess specifically. Perhaps, rather than a demon, Miss Taylor is just trying to retrieve her child from a neglectful legal guardian and an unhealthy environment?
Florence herself is a girl left alone, and contentedly so. From the opening pages of Harding’s novel, she demonstrates again and again she will not accept anything less than her own way. Often melting into the shadows of the eerie Blithe House, she twists around and between the wishes of the adult staff who look after her and Giles, congratulating herself on her cleverness and looking down on the poor, simple-minded grown-ups. She professes her adoration for Edgar Allan Poe above all other writers, and as a writer infamous for his morbidity, depictions of instability and the degenerative mental faculties of his narrators, you begin to see the similarities. In the descriptions of her own physical appearance, she even seems to physically resemble a Poe-ian heroine. In the allusions to the death of Miss Whitaker, it is impossible not to suspect Florence’s involvement—especially when we are told Miss Whitaker had attempted to take Florence’s books from her. Combined with Florence’s actions at the end of the novel, the notions of her innocence and her mental stability become increasingly unstable. Would it be so far off to surmise the more distinctly supernatural events to be constructions of her imagination?
Florence emerges as a girl who will do anything to preserve the world she has built for herself. Although the protection and well being of her ‘beloved brother’ are her self-touted motivation for such ruthless determination, as a reader you come to doubt this. She claims to want nothing more than Giles to return home to her, yet when he does come home, their games are planned to distract him and keep him out of her hair. In the face of attaining her goals, she does not hesitate to put Giles in harm’s way. The moment when Miss Taylor refers to Florence as Giles’s stepsister is a particular detail that stands out for me. Neither child disputes it, which seems odd when they supposedly mean so much to each other. In literature and wider popular culture, to have a ‘step’-anything rarely bodes well. While it is usually stepmothers who are figures ubiquitous with evil, ‘wicked’ stepsisters are not without their own place in popular narrative. Florence, great absorber of the written word that she is, could not fail to know this tradition—so why does she not rebut the comparison?
There is a chance I have spent far too long over-thinking this, but the fact Harding’s novel has provided me with quite so much to think about can only be a recommendation. Having discovered there is a sequel (tantalizingly titled, The Girl Who Couldn’t Read), I am already factoring it in to my reading for the following weeks. Hopefully, it will answer at least some of my questions …