After I read this book, I was inspired to write about it; little did I know that Valerie had beat me to it with her great review here! I read John Harding’s Florence & Giles more than a year ago, but somehow I still can’t get it out of my head: this one is truly worth a second look.
Florence is a brilliant and isolated 12-year-old girl living in a dilapidated mansion owned by her absent uncle. She and her brother, Giles, are taken care of by servants, until Miss Whitaker becomes their Governess. At Miss Whitaker’s insistence, Giles is sent to boarding school and Florence is left to mourn the loss of her only companion. All day, she is left to her own devices: bored and lonely, Florence develops her own unique language.
Florence & Giles, by John Harding, is told from Florence’s perspective in her special way of speaking, which she never reveals to anyone but her readers. Although her uncle has forbidden her education, Florence has taught herself to read, and sneaks into the old library in an unused wing of the house to devour the works of Shakespeare and Poe. When Miss Whitaker discovers that Florence is reading instead of learning how to embroider, she takes away Florence’s greatest pleasure.
Soon after, Florence witnesses an accident which leaves Miss Whitaker dead, and Giles returns from boarding school. Florence is overjoyed that her brother is home, but her excitement is soon replaced by dread when a new Governess, Miss Taylor, mysteriously appears. Florence immediately distrusts their new caretaker, and begins to believe that Miss Taylor is a character from a recurring childhood nightmare. In it, a woman stands over Giles’s bed, licking her lips and saying, “I could just eat you.”
Florence begins to suspect that the new Governess is a malevolent ghost, intent on stealing Giles away from her—or worse. After that night, Florence starts to follow Miss Taylor, and discovers that the Governess seems to have supernatural powers. Worst of all, no one else seems to notice, but Florence resolves to spoil the Governess’s evil plans:
“If she wanted a fight she would have one, no matter what dark powers she had at her beck and call. I would wasp her picnic. I would spoil her plan. I would not give in. I am not made that way.”
Florence & Giles is a chilling gothic novel with a fascinating narrator. Florence’s fierce love for her brother is almost scary at times, but I found myself empathizing with her nonetheless. Florence does have one other friend and confidante: Theo Van Hoosier. Her relationship with Theo is often hot and cold, but soon becomes attached to him, and begins to miss him when he doesn’t come to visit her. At the height of the battle between Florence and Miss Taylor, Theo becomes the key element in helping Florence to stop the Governess’s evil plot.
John Harding maintains a hair-raising, tense atmosphere throughout Florence & Giles. I didn’t want the book to end, and afterward, I found myself asking questions and wanting to read the book again. Florence & Giles is a thought-provoking, creepy, and unique novel in the tradition of Edgar Allen Poe, Jane Eyre, and Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw. It is a page-turner to the last, and I would highly recommend it.