The Secret of Matterdale Hall – Marianne Ratcliffe

Published By: Bellows Press
Pages: 380
Released On: 15/11/2022

Susan Mottram lives an idyllic existence until her eighteenth birthday, when her father’s sudden death plunges the family into penury. To support her mother and younger sister, Susan takes employment as a teacher at a remote Yorkshire boarding school, Matterdale Hall, owned by the radical Dr. Claybourn and his penny-pinching wife.

Susan soon discovers that all is not as it seems. Why is little Mary so silent? What really happened to Susan’s predecessor? Is anyone safe in the school’s draughty halls? Through a life-changing meeting with the beautiful and mysterious Cassandra, Susan begins to uncover the truth about Matterdale Hall, and discovers the cruelty, and love, that can lie within the human heart.


Thanks to Marianne for offering me a copy of her book in return for an honest review.

I’ve read a number of these Victorian “woman has to take on a job in a grand house that turns out not to be as it seems” books recently and I was worried this might be a bit samey; I wondered if there was anywhere this genre could go, but this felt fresh. Sure, there’s some recognisable elements, the things we expect to come across, but it has something new about it, something that Marianne has managed to find.

There are some really strong characters in this, both strong in the literal sense, and in the sense of Marianne’s writing. For me, it is the female characters that take top spot (we’ll get to the men later). I liked Susan immediately. She might be slightly naive at times but she is strong willed and knows her own mind and is not afraid to voice her opinions on what she believes is proper – which wouldn’t have been the done thing for a staff member in those days. Mrs Claybourn is a nasty piece of work, from the beginning right to the end, for a plethora of reasons I won’t get into for fear of spoilers. But she is so well written that way, that you can hear her criticising voice as you read it. I didn’t care much for the character of Mrs Grainger at first, she was not likeable for me, but she did redeem herself by the end and I could understand why she was the way she was. Cassandra was an inspirational character too – mixed race and deaf is not a great combination for the time period, and whilst she suffered greatly, she used that suffering to find her inner strength. And there are a number of other female characters – mainly the students – and they all had their little quirks and really worked well with each other. Then you have the male characters of Mr Claybourne and Richard who, whilst coming into their own near the end, were inconsequential to me for the majority of the book, they just weren’t as important to me as the women. Important to the book, yes, and cannot be ignored, but personally, they worked to show off the female characters, which I enjoyed immensely.

I loved the inclusion of some deaf characters. Thanks to my mother’s previous job, I grew up around children and adults who were deaf, and so it wasn’t an unusual thing for me, but it’s rare you see a book that has prominent deaf characters, especially in a historical novel.

I had a look at Marianne’s website and her bio and on it she reminisces a time in her childhood where her parents bought her the entire collection of Enid Blyton’s Malory Towers series, and whilst this doesn’t have any impact on this review, I just wanted to mention it as I grew up with that series and, even at nearly 30, they are among my favourite books to read, so that was a little perk for me.

I’m not sure if this is her debut book of not. I did Google it and there were others with the same name, but I couldn’t confirm if it was the same person, but if this is her debut, it’s such an accomplished piece of writing.

My one very tiny criticism is that I wish more was said about Mr Claybourn’s medical work and infirmary. It’s mentioned here and there but I thought there would be more. It only really becomes a part of the plot in the last 10% or so, and whilst it is well written and has an excellent ending, I just wish there’d been slightly more earlier on in the book for me. But apart from that, I can think of no other negatives for this book, it was really enjoyable.

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