Dark shadows fall across the golden summer of 1886. Naive country girl Ida Garfield longs to escape the farm. When Miss Matilda Gregory, the elegant mistress of Summersby House, offers Ida employment as a housemaid, Ida leaps at the chance. Yet it’s not for her servant’s skills that she’s wanted. It’s her inquisitiveness...
Miss Gregory is found dead before Ida starts her first day. Fearing her one chance of bettering herself lost, Ida comes to the funeral, hoping that someone else from Summersby will still want her. Someone does. Handsome blond Englishman Mr Samuel Hackett is the late Miss Gregory’s fiancé. He expresses a keen need for a housemaid – and a friend.
But Miss Gregory’s will brings to light an extraordinary deception and a terrible wrong from the past. Summersby has a secret heiress, whose name is also Matilda Gregory. A strange, ethereal girl with an irrevocably broken memory...
Who is this mysterious heiress, and why is Ida bound forever to the truth?
Listen to me talking about The Secret Heiress on Radio 3CR's Published or Not here.
The first seed of The Secret Heiress was planted in a somewhat unlikely place: Manila, in the Philippines. I was working for a local TV network for a month, running story-generating sessions with writers of telenovelas. In a previous life I used to write for the Australian early-evening soaps, so creating addictive stories is something I know about. The road from my hotel in Makati to the TV station in Quezon City was always choked with traffic. A lot of the passing scenery was, to put it bluntly, a bit hideous. In an effort to distract travellers from these grim displays the Pinoys had thoughtfully lined their unmoving boulevards with mile after mile of gaudy, glorious billboards, many of which were advertising (what else?) telenovelas.
In my daily crawl to work I kept passing one billboard for a show I was unfamiliar with because it was made by a rival network. I was struck by the image being used to sell it: a stylish, older woman with a distinct air of malevolence about her, hovering above a group of blissfully oblivious children. The name of the show was Munting Heredera. My command of Tagalog was only one step removed from being an insult to the locals, so it was a while before I got a translation for it: Little Heiresses.
To this day I have no idea what the plot was (and it’s probably best that I never do), but I am grateful to that billboard for two things. First, it gave me an image that burrowed deep inside my imagination and couldn’t be stopped from turning into a story. Second, it (sort of) gave me the title. While the heiress I ended up creating is in some ways ‘little’, at least in stature, if not in personality, this is not her defining characteristic. My heiress is defined by what is not defined about her; she is a mystery and a secret, even to herself.
The other seed of The Secret Heiress was the place where my partner and I decided to ‘treechange’ ourselves, when we abandoned Melbourne for Castlemaine, Central Victoria. This part of the world is thick with colonial history. To walk down the streets is to be immersed in a not-so-vanished age; the 19th Century clings to every stone. Our first house in town was built in the 1860s, and in our big back garden were the ruins of a pub that once sold rum to the prospectors. At the height of the gold rush there were ten thousand people camped on the paddock next door, panning our neighbourhood creek.
The past is a place I like to be. I liken the experience of discovering history to peering through a telescope only to encounter a mirror. People might have lived very differently in centuries gone by, but they were still people. To uncover the past is always to reframe the present. My new home town got under my skin. When I came back from the Philippines with an image that was becoming a story, and a title that was morphing in my mind, I found that both things wanted to situate themselves in Castlemaine – not the town as it is now, but the town as it was back when the Australian nation was still very new.
The Secret Heiress is Australian Gothic—or my interpretation of it. The gloomy moors and stormy nights of traditionally Gothic tales are out of place in our environs, so I didn’t go there. Instead I went for bronzed hills and ancient eucalypts; the look of Arthur Streeton and Frederick McCubbin paintings; perpetually golden summers. Sun-drenched this story might be but for all the light there is shadow; dark deeds are being done in the reader’s peripheral vision. The story elements are as Gothic as I could make them, however. There are identical twins and memory loss; there is a scheming butler and a handsome bounder; there are innocents at the mercy of the utterly unscrupulous.
This story has two heroines, Ida and Biddy, both young servant girls, separated by a distance of seventeen years in time. They are connected but I’ll let the reader discover how. Circumstances see each girl working at the same great house, Summersby, a fictional mansion inspired by real houses in the region. With Ida in the late 19th Century, and Biddy in the very early 20th, there are two ‘presents’ in the book, each informing the other. Part of the intrigue, I hope, is in discovering how questions asked in Ida’s chapters are unexpectedly answered in Biddy’s—and vice versa.
I don't mind confessing that I slaved on this book, written as it was on commuter trains and snatched weeks of precious summer holidays. It evolved across three drafts in as many years, the first two of which were plotting nightmares of my own making for being unnecessarily complicated. Fortunately, everything coalesced with the third. In my previous Ancient Rome-set novels the body count numbered in the dozens. For this novel, dedicated as it is to my two much-missed, late grandmothers, and therefore guided by their moral compasses, I reduced the number of corpses on the floor—but hopefully not the fun.
Readers' reviews on GoodReads:
'My God! This book! ❤ This is the kind of book you sit at work thinking about itching to get home to read, the kind of book that keeps you up well past your bedtime. I enjoyed this immensely and feel sad it is now over.'
'For lovers of country-house drama and mysteries, here is one with that Aussie twist - cheeky servants and people who won't stop asking questions! This plot twists and twists again, and even when we've sorted out who the Secret Heiress is, there's still another surprise in store.'
'Loved this book, couldn't put it down. Intrigue, drama, deceptions, family secrets through generations are all wound together in a great story.'
'With so many layers to the story, did not see the final secret reveal coming until quite late in the story, which makes my reading experience all that more enjoyable. A highly recommended read, particularly for those who love the family secret, mutli-layered, historical Gothic novels. Looking forward to more great reads from this author. Proudly supporting Australian authors.'
'Talk about suspense - this book has it in spades! All the pieces of the puzzle seem to appear before you, but putting them together is always just tantalisingly out of reach. When it all finally comes together, it dawns on you slowly and then all of a sudden you are confronted with the terrible reality of what has happened in this mysterious house.'