Creepy historical gothic: The Silent Companions by Laura Purcell
The Silent Companions is a tense gothic novel set in the nineteenth-century, centred around a dilapidated old house and the newly widowed woman who goes to live there. Elsie’s short marriage is quickly ended by her husband’s death at the country seat he was trying to make hospitable for her, but when she moves there herself to see through her pregnancy, there is more for her to worry about than the hostile neighbours and inexperienced servants. Between her and her husband’s strange, awkward cousin Sarah, they discover the diaries of a woman who lived in the house in the seventeenth-century—a diary full of death and despair—and a strange wooden figure, a silent companion. This companion is not the only one, however, and they might be silent, but their influence scares Elsie to an ever-increasing extent.
The novel is written with different threads of narrative, with Elsie trying to recall her story in an asylum, her third person narration of the events she lived, and excerpts from the earlier diary. Through this, Purcell weaves mystery and darkness, leaving the reader wanting more with each narrative jump. There are plenty of classic gothic tropes to enjoy, with spirits, mysterious doors, noises at night, and unsettling family secrets on all sides. At times the story is genuinely unsettling, both in terms of fear and in the claustrophobic atmosphere.
The presentation of Elsie—a heroine with a tormented past and a present in which men seem to be threatening her freedom—is clever, combining sympathy with an uncertainty for what she could be potentially forgetting or misremembering. The position of women in Victorian society, particularly in relation to class, is near the forefront of the novel though not explicitly discussed, and the gothic heroine is one contained by men against her will. At the same time, the novel is populated by other women who are trapped in a position or have done bad things without realising the consequences, reflecting her plight.
The Silent Companions fits very well into the gothic genre and provides a suitably eerie and unnerving read. In atmosphere, it has similarities to Waters’ Fingersmith as well as older gothic novels, and its use of an additional seventeenth-century narrative both fulfils the trope of an older, inset narrative and gives a different aspect to the novel, showing how women could be seen as witches or as insane and hysterical depending on the century. Purcell’s novel shows that the historical gothic novel is a genre that will continue to live and continue to question female autonomy whilst providing chilling reads.