Now and then I come across a book so wonderful and enchanting that I feel obliged to recommend it to everyone I know. Florence and Gilesis my latest addition to the list – it was a particularly spiffing suggestion from the Renaissance Man.
It is narrated by the eponymous Florence, a highly intelligent child of perhaps 12 or so. She idolises Shakespeare and, noticing that he made up a great many words, she resolves to “Shakespeare” some words of her own. This produces wonderful turns of phrase like opening a book in a disused library producing “a great sneezery of dust”. This idiosyncratic style is used throughout the book, and proves unexpectedly readable!
Florence lives a rather lonely and unusual life with her brother Giles, and the bleak and very gothic plot clearly references both The Turn of the Screw and MacBeth. I won’t say any more here for fear of spoiling the plot – if you haven’t read the book please do read it first, as what is below the line will spoil all the suspense and joy of puzzling out what happens for yourself!
****************** Warning – spoilers ahead! ********************
Florence and Giles explains most things, but not everything which is always a good trait in a book I think. So here is my theory of what really happened – I would love to hear what other people think…
At the end of the book based on the photograph I think it is fair to say that Miss Taylor is Giles’s mother and Florence’s father’s second wife, and she clearly did not die in a boating accident. So proceeding on that assumption…
My theory is that there is no uncle. The man that Florence believes is her uncle is in fact her father, who cannot bear to see his children, so painful are his memories of the past – hence the uncanny resemblance between his portrait and the photographs. His first wife died giving birth to Florence, and his second wife went to college, ran away with someone else, and tried to take Giles with her. However, the young Florence woke up at the critical moment, and thwarted the attempted abduction, hence her persistent dreams and sleepwalking, her father/uncle’s hatred of educated women, and Miss Taylor’s dislike of Florence. So there never was a boating accident, and the father / uncle replaces all of the servants with ones who are not acquainted with his shame (so none of the servants predate Florence’s fourth birthday). Years later, Florence kills the first governess (perhaps hitting her on the head with an oar) when the governess threatens to take away the only thing keeping the miserable Florence sane (her reading) Florence is consumed by guilt and blocks the horrible memory from her mind. The guilt begins to torment her when the new governess, Miss Taylor arrives, and she convinces herself the Miss Taylor is in fact Miss Whittaker’s ghost. She realises that Miss Taylor wants to take Giles away, and finds her reading to Giles at night just like she used to do before the first abduction attempt… Florence begins to hallucinate a little and, well, the rest is in the book!
Other possibilities include that Miss Taylor really is a ghost – just the ghost of Giles’s mother, but she seems a little to corporeal for that. Why would a ghost need boat tickets? And surely a ghost can’t be killed by being knocked into an abandoned well? Alternatively, perhaps she was drugging Florence to prevent her interfering – that might explain her refusal to eat, and Florence becoming so sleepy and hallucinating after eating the picnic in the garden… But there isn’t much other evidence for that.
If anyone else has any theories I would love to hear them….