The Haunting, by Alan Titchmarsh

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[Spoilers]

Anyone expecting Woman in Black-style paranormal creepiness in Alan Titchmarsh’s romantic novel will be disappointed.  There may be a ghost, an unquiet spirit, but it is a small element, and not necessary to the story.  The haunting here is much more about the influence of the past, as shown in the intertwining of families in a small area near Winchester over a period of two hundred years, and how, to quote the oft-repeated words of Harry, one of the main characters, ‘the past informs the present and enables us to place our lives in context.’

The action alternates between 1816 and 2010.  In 1816, Anne Flint, a fifteen-year old maid in a large country house in Hampshire, yearns for a better life, and ignores the love shown for her by Sam, the stable boy.  She is given the opportunity to have the sort of adventure she has read about in the romances which are obligingly lent to her, but it brings disaster.  Having been befriended by Eleanor, the youngest daughter of Lord Stockbridge, who happens to live nearby, Anne becomes embroiled in Eleanor’s elopement to a dashing young blade, Roderick Lavallier.  The girls, about the same age, change clothes to avoid suspicion as Anne is riding behind Lavallier, but Eleanor has a fatal accident.  Anne is spirited away, leaving behind the mystery of her whereabouts, and why Eleanor should be wearing her clothes.

In 2010, Harry Flint is a history teacher on the cusp of middle age, battered by divorce after a brief marriage, who decides to buy an old decrepit cottage that was once part of a water mill.  Jaded by teaching bored teenagers, he is about to quit his job and occupy his time until something else turns up by researching his family history.  His next door neighbour in the mill house, Alex, is a widowed single parent with her own past miseries.  The attraction between them develops, but each has baggage that may derail their fragile relationship.  Harry’s new interests, house renovation and romance, lead him to neglect his interest in genealogical research, but then he learns most about the past when he is not really looking.

While Titchmarsh is unlikely to win any prizes for technique, the parallel timeframes alternate briskly and come together in a satisfying conclusion.  However, the 2010 strand holds no surprises and is a straightforward romance with a predictable ending.  That set in 1816 is more satisfyingly rendered because more complex, but it lacks the texture of fiction written in the period.  Its ending is surprisingly downbeat, which gives it more weight than the blander 2010 element.

Nor is the characterisation in either period notable.  Harry and Alex are standard individuals who have been damaged by circumstances offered a second chance at happiness.  Alex’s daughter Anne is a precocious sweetie (having two different characters with the same name would normally be considered poor style, but here it shows how names can be passed down generations as a commemoration, even when the original significance is lost), Harry’s teaching colleague and best friend Rick is bluffly extravert, Harry’s opposite.  In 1816 young men are either good-hearted or rakes, and while employers may be outwardly stern, they are compassionate: pregnant Anne fares better than does Fanny Robin in Far from the Madding Crowd in similar circumstances, even if her fate is the same.  Being penniless in Portsmouth and finding herself in a brothel is the novel’s major bit of grittiness: meeting Old Phoebe in the street is reminiscent of Florence’s encounter with Good Mrs Brown in Dombey and Son, but with worse consequences than having her clothes stolen.

Added to the cardboard characters, coincidences are introduced to power the plot, though as part of the book’s message is that we are connected in a pattern that we cannot always discern it is not surprising that the pattern, working out some form of destiny, should manifest itself in ways that seem unlikely.  Or it could be that Titchmarsh found it the easiest way to work out the plot.  For example it is a surprise that when Anne is in moral peril in the house of ill repute, the son of her employer should happen to visit and discover her there.  The only reason is so that he could, having obtained the story of Eleanor’s death from her, spin a partially true version to Eleanor’s father, one that unravels to reveal the truth.  There was no reason why he should have said anything at all.

By the end the missing pieces are more or less slotted into place for Harry (though the reader is already privy to events in 1816 and knows the details) by the good fortune – or deus ex machina, whichever is preferred – of Rick happening to present him with a diary which had been sitting long-unread in his grandfather’s trunk.  Most conveniently, it was written by one of Rick’s ancestors, once owners of the mill, covering the key events of 1816, and a bit of unspecified internet searching by Harry does the rest.  If that sounds glibly done, it is.  However, with all its faults The Haunting is a pleasant undemanding read, perfect for the beach or a wet afternoon, but with a misleading title that may disappoint those expecting something more overtly supernatural.

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