7 June 2012

Forgotten Book: THE HOUSE OF STAIRS, Barbara Vine

For many of my contributions this year to Pattinase's Friday's Forgotten Books  I am focussing on the books I read 20 years ago in 1992. By then my reading diet was almost exclusively crime fiction.

In early 1992 I "discovered" Ruth Rendell (see my Forgotten Books post earlier this year) and by mid year  I had read about 15 titles. In mid year I discovered her other persona, Barbara Vine. I do remember that it wasn't generally understood that they were one and the same person. I remember the excitement of that discovery.

I began with THE HOUSE OF STAIRS which had been published in 1988.

Synopsis from Fantastic Fiction
I hope the synopsis does not reveal too much of the plot for you.

Writing as Barbara Vine ( A Dark-Adapted Eye ), Ruth Rendell adds dark, psychological elements to her novels that elude easy categorization as straightforward mysteries.

Early on here, she establishes a knot of unknowns: Who is the sad, reflective narrator and what illness might she have? What hold does the tall dark woman called Bell have on her, and what happened at the carefully described House of Stairs in London that sent Bell to prison? The answers are revealed as gradually as an intricate knot is untied.

The narrator is middle-aged novelist Elizabeth Vetch who, since she learned of her grim heritage at age 14, has lived under the threat of inheriting fatal Huntington's chorea, which she refers to as ''the terror and the bore.'' Years before, in the late '60s and early '70s, she and Bell and a roster of other beautifully realized people lived in the House of Stairs, owned by Elizabeth's recently widowed, newly Bohemian aunt Cosette.

The tale begins when Elizabeth sights Bell in the street and, being as drawn to the woman as she had been before, feels compelled to understand her own reawakened emotion as well as the events that accompanied their parting and caused both Cosette and Elizabeth untold pain.

With specific references to its underpinning of Henry James's The Wings of A Dove , Rendell's story is dark and portentous, overly so in the early part, where ominous and significant references drag the action. But soon Elizabeth, with her uncertain future and brave effort to pin down her painful past, takes over. She is, in the end, along with the considerably satisfying mystery connecting those who lived at the House of Stairs, profoundly memorable.


I haven't always understood why Rendell created her Barbara Vine alter-ego and have thought it was something to do with getting more published. The Wexford novels were always Rendell, but sometimes Rendell titles, particularly the more recent stand-alones can also be dark and psychological. Anyway between both sets of books there is some fantastic reading to be had.

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