As bombs fall on London, the Natural History Museum’s collections are evacuated to the country. Hetty accompanies the mammals to Lockwood Manor, but its haunted halls hold their own threats – to the collection, and to Hetty’s peace of mind…
It’s fair to say that The Animals at Lockwood Manor isn’t my usual cup of tea, being primarily a historical romance. However, it’s a Gothic-infused lesbian romance, which relocates it into territory I’m more regularly found in, although I didn’t know that when I picked it up. So what attracted me to it? Well, partly that I didn’t know the Natural History Museum evacuated its collections during the war and the notion intrigued me – as did the blurb’s suggestion that they are unsettled in their (fictional) home, Lockwood Manor. The combination of a remarkable chapter of history with a promise of ghosts or psychological drama was quite enough to draw me in.
Happily, I have no regrets for indulging my curiosity. Jane Healey’s debut is by turns spooky, enervating and touching (so: ALL THE FEELINGS, just the way I like it). The scene is set with a litany of things that can go wrong in an old house, shared by a narrator who tells us that she suffers from attacks of nerves and a wild imagination (although she does not prove to be the unreliable narrator this implies). Lucy is grieving the sudden deaths of her mother and grandmother, hoping to feel less haunted if Lockwood Manor feels less empty.
Taxidermy may seem an unexpected comfort for a woman of Lucy’s delicate disposition, but she is intrigued by the carefully preserved animals – and by their awkward keeper, Hetty. War has made Hetty’s dream of a tenured position a reality; a tenuous chance to prove herself in a hostile environment. She has spent her life being told she’s not good enough, first by her eternally disappointed mother, later by the men who believe the ladies can be indulged (allowed to donate their labour), but are not to be taken seriously as scientists (let alone paid for their work).
This is the 40s, after all. A good woman knows her place, although some allowances have to be made in wartime.
Being appointed as curator to the Museum in exile is an overwhelming responsibility: any error could end Hetty’s career and limit opportunities for other women. Unfortunately for Hetty, an animal disappears on the very first day at Lockwood Manor. With everyone denying any knowledge, she begins to doubt herself. When other strange happenings occur, her doubts expand from her capability to her sanity, with Lord Lockwood and his staff quick to dismiss her entirely reasonable concerns. Lucy is Hetty’s only ally; an unexpected friend whose tower boudoir (and its drinks trolley) is a refuge and whose company offers a rare balm in an increasingly inhospitable place.
The trick with a (modern) Gothic novel is to inject enough atmosphere without being too obvious about it. Healey capitalises on the natural creepy atmosphere of an old house half-shrouded in dust sheets, where Lucy’s disturbed screams split the night and each creak is probably the floorboards but evokes Lucy’s inherited fears of a devil woman in white. But these Gothic touches are used sparingly. For all its focus on toxic family, The Animals At Lockwood Manor is no Mexican Gothic (nor is it trying to be); rather, it is a tale of two women finding themselves – and each other – in a claustrophobic world of privilege and smothering history.
The result is charming. I enjoyed their slow spiral of attraction as friendship leads to casually intimate moments and what Hetty is far too closeted to recognise as flirting. This was a slow-burn romance I could savour, nicely offsetting my simmering rage at the disingenuous patriarchal bullshit peddled by Lord Lockwood, standing in for an Establishment so interested in keeping Hetty in her place.
Lucy’s father is simultaneously proprietorial towards and yet careless of the Museum collection. He has no care for the its scientific value, he sees it merely as something that can boost his status. This neatly encapsulates his character: able only to see matters as they pertain to him, given to casual cruelty and affairs with younger women he can control. I was looking at him askance from early chapters, wondering about the circumstances in which Lucy’s mother died. He makes for an excellent villain – domineering, belittling, manipulative – and I found myself as frustrated as Hetty by Lucy’s loyalty to him.
The plot circles around the increasingly fraught relationships at Lockwood Manor and the question of who – or what – is messing with the collection. While the Gothic trappings are fun, for me the tension was increasingly derived from whether Lucy could ever be liberated from Lockwood. She cannot conceive of a life away from the Manor – or her father – both of which seem set to destroy everything that Hetty holds dear.
And that leads directly – major spoiler alert! – to my main criticism of The Animals at Lockwood Manor: its villains are telegraphed and its conclusion is unsatisfying in how conveniently it disposes of them.
Specifically (mouse over to read, because I’m going to get right into it for once, since it seems I’m more frustrated by this than I realised):
I was happy hating Lord Lockwood for his terrible on-page behaviours; I did not need him to turn out to be a paedophile, WTF. I was tempted earlier to describe him as the sort of character you long to see die in a fire, but then he does, neatly saving Lucy from having to make the sort of difficult decision she has been shielded from her entire life (which would have made for a far more emotionally satisfying climax).
In the end, I feel perhaps Jane Healey needed to make a clearer decision between period romance or Gothic melodrama. Animals is no horror novel: weighed purely on Gothic scales, it can only be found wanting. Instead, it is at its best when focusing on Hetty awakening to the possibilities that Lucy could be more than merely her friend, or wrestling with the entirely mundane challenges of maintaining her collection in the face of damp, leaks, disinterested servants, malicious visitors, not to mention assault by insects, rodents and the patriarchy. I found the explosive final act – and the extended exposition that accompanies it – undercut that emotional arc, resulting in an awkward ending to an otherwise enjoyable read.
I received a free copy from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.
Content warnings: bullying / psychological abuse; sexual abuse; child abuse