“Nathan felt a chill in the air and an irrepressible feeling of dread. He clambered to his feet and found his way to the bedside table. He grabbed the matchbox from the drawer, and with trembling fingers, struggled to light the candle he kept close by. The footsteps were nearly there.” – Talbot Finch, Violet Reverie
Violet Reverie, by Talbot Finch, takes inspiration from the gothic romance novels of the nineteenth century, much in the vein of Charlotte Brontë and, in a more modern interpretation, Vincent Virga’s Gaywyck. As I’ve stated before, 19th-century fiction, particularly the gothic romance & horror genres, is my cup of green tea. (My nod to Sheridan le Fanu, there.) Characterized by a haunting, foreboding atmosphere and complex, often tortured relationships, these novels generally end in a Happy Ever After. Set in the nineteenth century, before the events of Finch’s companion novella, The Housekeeper, Violet Reverie is a captivating example of how a contemporary author can use tropes associated with period gothic romance novels but do so in a subtle, less “on the nose” fashion. And do it successfully. I don’t indulge in hyperbole when I say I REALLY enjoyed this. [Image On Left: Author Talbot Finch. Property Of Talbot Finch]
I thoroughly engaged with the novel’s protagonist, Nathan, a gifted violinist with a psychic power that often overwhelms him. Banished to his aristocratic family’s summer manor on orders from his tyrannical father, Lord Hambleton, Nathan is diagnosed with a “weak constitution” and prone to “hysteria” by his family doctor, an arrogant man with a sinister agenda. Some see Nathan as written too immature, irrational and overdramatic—and I’ve read those reviews—but they don’t grasp that these emotional responses make complete sense in the context of 19th-century medical and social control of women. Only here, the victim of this patriarchal abuse is a young (gay) man.
Nathan is genuinely plagued by fear, which bleeds into anxiety and depression; he lives a life where he has little autonomy. And his future? He doesn’t see one where he’s in control of his actions and his decision-making. He’s even presented with the potential of forced confinement in an asylum, which would make anyone, even a young adult man, act out in a way that appears to emotionally regress them. Nathan is sensitive, not immature, and an easy target of patriarchal manipulation. As readers, we must step outside our modernity and place ourselves in the shoes of period figures, or the disconnect felt with this type of literature is our own creation.
Historically, the theoretical postulation of Fainting Woman Syndrome was a tool employed to control women and suppress their autonomy; it could also be found in period drama and literature as a mechanism to disempower and connote female fragility. Here, the author contemporizes his story by making the victim of “hysteria diagnosis” a gay man, creating a queer reinterpretation of a conventional period melodramatic trope. Even adding the threat of confinement to an asylum rings true to the patriarchal constructs of the time and the literary scenarios it influenced. If Lord Hambleton and Dr. Mathis had their way, Nathan would become our modern version of Charlotte Brontë’s “Bertha Mason.” Only more “mad gay in the attic.”
Nathan does maintain some awe and wonderment toward his preternatural abilities, but more so, he’s afraid and confused by them. While this extra-sensory ability allows him to know things about people and connect with them on a heightened, nearly spiritual level, they’re unpredictable and seem impossible to control. It feels more like a curse, an attack, than an advantage. There’s a component of PTSD from an incident relating to his abusive father in the mix, and these combined devastate Nathan’s self-control and ability to cope. The author is deft at capturing the feelings of suffocation, despair, panic and emotional distress in these more dramatic scenes. The trauma is real. Or is it imagined? Or both? Textually, Finch has positioned his reader to be fascinated and anguished while we experience Nathan’s struggles.
The novel is filled with intriguing supporting characters, especially the handsome love interest, Peter, Mrs. Fairchild, the summer home’s housekeeper with a heart of gold, and Nathan’s brother’s fiancé—with a shocking secret of her own. They all add to the believability of the period narrative; we have been taken on a true journey to experience an aristocratic Victorian manor and the era’s rules, decorum and classism. Finch doesn’t disappoint in propelling the story forward with juicy secrets, hidden agendas, and potential threats, weaving a compelling Victorian melodrama, yet one that feels “elevated,” not schmaltzy. And there is a shocking tie-in to The Housekeeper. The novel is nicely paced and well-written; the structure reminded me of a Henry James novel, though not yet at that precision, but the potential is definitely there.
Now, about that romance—! Rurally raised, Peter isn’t a one-dimensional love interest for our aristocratic Nathan; he’s a fleshed-out character whose emotional composition is expressive and realistic. We get to know him intimately as the novel progresses: his background, dreams, and past sorrow. He’s carefree and nurturing, but unlike Mrs. Fairchild, his attention toward Nathan is a progression of romantic interest, not just friendship. What’s going on here is so much more than a simple “Friends to Lovers” trope. This is Fated Love, soul-mate territory. And I ate it up!
Interestingly, Peter’s sexuality isn’t cut and dry from the start. I had to take a step back from my assumptions that this was a straightforward gay romance written thoughtfully in the context of sexually repressive, even dangerous times. The reluctance to express sexual and romantic authenticity is explored in the novel, but not at the expense of tenderness. By staying true to the gentleness of the love story, Finch doesn’t blight the romance or the novel’s ambiance with too much harsh, homophobic reality.
You could say the way many embrace this non-traditional romance, even aid in its flourishment, is hard to swallow, considering the homophobia of the times, but I say, who cares! Finch writes the characters that support this relationship with a quality of personality and a profound adoration of these two men that would brook no other option but to embrace love is love.
In Violet Reverie, Finch utilizes same-sex desire, emotional connectivity, the battle for authenticity, and even jealousy to enrich his narrative with passion and intrigue. And he never loses sight of the romanticism. Yes, I’m a fan.
Violet Reverie is available for purchase at amazon.ca and amazon.com. For more information about this author, follow Talbot Finch on Instagram & Facebook. Also, visit his Website.