The India Fan by Victoria Holt
Doubleday, 1st edition, 1988
Genre: Romantic suspense, historical romance, Gothic romance
Synopsis & Review: Vicar’s daughter Drusilla Delany grows up in the shadow of Framling, a magnificent country manor inhabited by the local family of note, the Framlings. From the age of two she feels a special connexion with the family, when matriarch Lady Harriet’s son Fabian Framling kidnaps her, adopting her as his own child for a fortnight–and he only seven years old at the time. After that occasion, she also finds herself welcomed to Framling as a companions to the younger sister, the beautiful and spoiled Lavinia. When Drusilla is six and Sir Fabian twelve, he commands that she and Lavinia play a game with him. He will be Caesar, and they are his slaves, and as his slaves, they must perform tasks. Lavinia he sends to the haunted Nun’s Room for a silver chalice, and Drusilla is to fetch a fan of peacock feathers. But when her theft is discovered, there is a commotion. the fan belongs to Miss Lucille, a Framling haunted by tragedy. When she was in India long ago, her fiance bought her the feathered fan, a thing of ill omen in that country. When surprising Miss Lucille by enhancing the gift, he was shot and killed. The incident turned Miss Lucille’s mind, and she became convinced that the fan was a harbinger of evil. And since Drusilla has taken the fan, and had it in her possession, the curse will pass to her.
Sir Fabian goes off to school, and Lavinia and Drusilla continue growing up together. Lavinia grows wilder and lovelier and more arrogant, and Drusilla grows clever, but is considered plain by some. When Lavinia’s sensual nature gets her in trouble with a stableboy, the two girls are sent to a fine boarding school, Meridian House. There Drusilla excels in her studies and finds favor with her teachers and fellow students, while Lavinia, stunning but not bright, gets into more trouble, and is asked to not return. Then Lady Harriet Framling arranges for the two girls to be sent to finishing school in France. It is there that Lavinia finds herself in a scrape she cannot bear to confess, extricating herself only with the help of Drusilla, a fellow student Janine, and Drusilla’s old nurse Polly. Lavinia’s secret will shadow her through her debutante season in London, and when she makes an excellent match–with Drusilla’s erstwhile suitor–a murder complicates things further.
Two years later, Lavinia sends for Drusilla, who travels to India to act as a companion to Lavinia and governess to her two young children–while escaping an unappealing but convenient marriage. It is in this mysterious, exotic world, a world troubled by rumblings of mutiny and the end of the East India Company that Drusilla will find love.
Oh man, this was one of the first paperbacks I thieved from my Uncle Jack, but it stands the test of time much better than Nightwalker did. Though at nine I had already had some introduction to historical romance, The India Fan introduced me to a more genteel, history-oriented brand of romantic fiction. And I loved it. I still do, despite its flaws. There is a decided paternalism, a colonialist take on Indian history to be found in The India Fan, but I wonder how much of that is serious. At times, it almost seemed to satirize ethnocentric, imperialistic attitudes even when characters were voicing imperialist platitudes. It’s not my area of specialty (though I have read Said), and I wonder whether others would see this subtext in it. Holt is very good at examining social and class distinctions in Victorian England–and abroad–and this vivid background brings the narrative to life.
Drusilla is a prim, thoughtful narratrix, in a thoroughly Jane Eyrian mold, from the somewhat ironic tone she takes right down to her pithy exchanges with her heartthrob, the forbidden Sir Fabian Framling (FABIAN!). He, however, is less threatening than many of his Gothic romance counterparts; he is never described as “cruel,” and his major flaw seems to be his desire to get it on with Drusilla, whether it be within the legal bonds of marriage or not. And to be fair, as soon as he recognizes his mistake, he apologizes to her. However, he also displays arrogance, making efforts to “protect” Drusilla from threats, such as captivity and white slavery, threats that prove her desirability.
Drusilla’s counterpart Lavinia is all that Drusilla is not: stunningly gorgeous, vain, selfish, feckless, not very bright, and decidedly slutty. Unfortunately, Holt creates two diametrically opposed female figures in Drusilla and Lavinia in order to prove certain facts about femalehood. SPOILER ALERT Lavinia, after a lifetime of not suffering the consequences of her actions, is brutally murdered in an overtly sexual display, for the crime of being sexually unavailable to an Indian inferior. Women may exert independence and control over their lives, dictates Holt, but never in matters of sexual behavior, unless it is to refuse sexuality. END SPOILER However, Lavinia cannot be taken simply as a cipher for sexually incontinent women. The India Fan is also highly concerned with female relationships, and the friendship between Drusilla and Lavinia is worth consideration. Despite their differences, and the very often malicious behavior of both participants, Lavinia and Drusilla manage a strong friendship, one born of equal dependence upon the other for what she feels she lacks. Lavinia acknowledges Drusilla’s cleverness and resourcefulness, and Drusilla seems to find Lavinia entertaining, even generous for her desire for Drusilla to be happy. Despite occasional snags (such as the Dougal incident), their friendship continues, and Lavinia can even be brought to admit that she is as much a pawn of her superiors (in this case, her mother, the indomitable Lady Harriet) as Drusilla tries not to be. When Lavinia apologizes for her part in the affair, it is a moving moment. Wow, I read a LOT into that.
Surprisingly, I don’t think I read any other Victoria Holts after The India Fan, though it has remained a favorite. Over the past few years, one of her other pseudonyms, Jean Plaidy, has experienced a resurgence in popularity for her historical fiction, particularly that about Renaissance queens. While Jean Plaidy comes back into print, Victoria Holt (and another nom de plume, Philippa Carr) fade into obscurity–for now. Though from what I understand, these Gothics are often formulaic, they are also fun, light reads. Maybe I will try more of them soon.
Read also: Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë, The Wideacre Trilogy by Phillipa Gregory, The Marsh King’s Daughter by Elizabeth Chadwick, Banners of Silk and The Golden Tulip by Rosalind Laker
Cover: I bet anything it was that cover that so attracted me to this book as a child. Mysterious lady peeping over an exotic fan? Hells yeah! I like that this cover trope is alive and well.
I had always been fascinated by the big house of Framling. Perhaps it had begun when I was two years old, and Fabian Framling had kidnapped me and kept me there for two weeks. It was a house full of shadows and mystery, I discovered, when I went in search of the peacock-feather fan. In the long corridors, in the gallery, in the silent rooms, the past seemed to be leering at one from all corners, insidiously imposing itself ont he present and almost–though never quite–obliterating it.
For as long as I could remember Lady Harriet Framling had reigned supreme over our village. Farm labourers standing respectfully at the side of the road while the carriage, emblazoned with the majestic Framling arms, drove past, touched their forelocks and the women bobbed their deferential curtsies. She was spoken of in hushed whispers as though those who mentioned her feared they might eb taking her name in vain; in my youthful mind she ranked with the Queen and was second only to God. It was small wonder that when her son, Fabian, commanded me to be his slave, I–being only six years old at that time–made no protest. It seemed only natural that we humble folk should serve the Big House in any way that was demanded of us.
31 October – 02 November