The blurb for Luke Devenish’s novel The Secret Heiress promises “a tale of dark shadows and extraordinary deception” amidst the 1886 Australian countryside. Saturated with gothic stalwarts including a grand mysterious mansion, a handsome yet possibly devious lover, a crass and brooding valet and the enigmatic death of a beautiful heiress, the novel revolves around inexperienced young Ida, who lands her first job as a servant at Summersby house in colonial Castlemain, Victoria.
More known for her curious mind and inquisitive nature than for her house-keeping skills, Ida was unexpectedly employed by Miss Matilda Gregory, mistress of the rambling Summersby mansion, who dies a sudden and unexplained death and is survived by her fiancé Samuel Hackett. When Miss Gregory’s testament reveals that her twin sister Margaret is alive and interred at a mental institution, and is hence the surviving heiress of the Summersby estate, Samuel Hackett, his irreverent valet Barker, and Ida set off to nearby Melbourne to bring Margaret home. The plot thickens when the testament reveals an identity swap between the twins, hinting at some dark and dangerous secrets held by the inhabitants of Summersby house.
The concept of an Australian gothic novel sounds appealing, and some of the intricate plotting of The Secret Heiress is worth its while – however, the novel is burdened by overtly stereotyped depiction of the scheming dandy Samuel, ueber-villain Barker, and Ida herself, who seems clumsily naïve and whose internal monologue is represented with slightly melodramatic overtones and school-girl like questioning. The narrative structure uses Ida’s monologues and her habitual listening behind doors and reading of letters that she conveniently finds lying around as a way to reveal the ever twisting and turning plotline.
Tinged with a distinct feel of “upstairs, downstairs”, the ideas behind the novel are genuine enough, and if you can suspend disbelief and just go with the implausibility of the characterisations and their motivations there is probably some suspenseful reading to be had in this novel. As an experienced playwright and scriptwriter for TV drama series such as “Home and Away”, author Luke Devenish’s flair for melodrama seems well-honed and his choice to experiment with creating an Australian gothic is commendable – it will be interesting to see whether he chooses to develop this theme further in his future writing.