Sunday, January 15, 2023

Through a Darkening Glass by R. S. Maxwell, a gothic-tinged mystery set in 1940s Lancashire

In summer 1940, Ruth Gladstone, an English literature student at Girton College, Cambridge, evacuates with her grandmother to the Lancashire village of Martynsborough after an unexploded bomb lands on the campus. While staying with her great-aunt Vera, from whom her Gran (Edith) had been estranged for years, Ruth gets pressed into dreary administrative work and delves into a local ghost story – which she glimpses firsthand.

A young woman garbed in white has been seen lurking around the fields and lanes, calling to mind a tragedy from 30 years before, when a woman’s body was seen floating in a lime-kiln pond on the grounds of Wolstenholme Park, a crumbling old manor.

The story begins as everyone’s already on edge from potential German bombings and amps up the tension with a gothic subplot. Furthermore, Ruth’s seeking an exit strategy from an unwanted engagement to a soldier who writes her embarrassingly crude love letters from overseas, and she worries he’ll come home and expect an impromptu wedding. The stage is set for a tale where suspense and dread build from multiple directions.

What transpires, though, feels more atmospheric than spooky or horrifying; this ghost story is pretty low-key. There is some mystery about whether the white apparition is Elise, wife of Ruth’s coworker Malcolm, a Frenchwoman who became mute and dissociated from the world after a brain injury. From the villagers, depicted (with a few exceptions) as stereotypically insular, emerges the feeling that the evacuees in their midst have stirred up the wraith, but Ruth doesn’t buy that explanation.

On the hunt for a subject for her first novel, Ruth decides to research the history of the hauntings in Martynsborough, which goes over about as well as you’d think. With an occasionally brusque manner, Ruth sometimes feels closed-off and distant, although she does earn the reader's empathy. Her growing rapport with Malcolm makes for an awkward “forbidden romance” scenario, since his wife is very much alive, and it’s unclear how mentally present Elise is.

While all of the mystery threads (including the surprising reason behind Vera and Edith’s falling-out) are sufficient to hold interest, Through a Darkening Glass functions better as a portrait of country life during wartime, showing people’s day-to-day experiences and their adjustments to new circumstances as the war trundles on much longer than anyone expects or wants.

Through a Darkening Glass was published by Lake Union/Amazon Publishing in January 2023; I snagged it from NetGalley. It was also an Amazon First Reads pick last month.


  1. Anonymous2:20 PM

    Wow ! sounds like an interesting read, I love your commentary about how the book functions better as a "portrait of country life during war time". I will definitely be putting this on the TBR thank you.

  2. Sophie Datt2:24 PM

    Thank you for this overview of this book ! It sounds very interesting, I love how you said "portrait of country life during wartime" I will definitely add this to the to be read stack I have