The next book I read was The King of the Castle (first published in 1967) and I was immediately intrigued by the Cinderella-like plot and heroine. Dallas Lawson has just lost her father, a famous restorer of paintings, art, and buildings. Having worked as his apprentice for so many years, she has no other skills and decides to answer a letter requesting her father’s assistance in restoring several damaged and priceless paintings at the Comte de la Talle’s Château Gaillard in the wine country of France. She decides to show up in her father’s place and either be given the job or immediately dismissed.
Thus, the reader is introduced to D. Lawson as a bright, modern woman, who has a skill set that she could utilize to make a living for herself if only the Comte will give her a chance to work for him. Like Cinderella, D. Lawson’s true beauty shines through as the novel progresses and she begins to restore not only the paintings, but the family to a place of love for one another. As she cleans the years of grime away from each painting bringing back their former glory, she also becomes interested in the broken lives of the people at the Château Gaillard. Dallas begins with the neglected, spoiled, and often violently unpredictable Genevieve the Comte’s only daughter who wickedly locks her in the oubliette – which literally means the forgotten place and can be defined as a type of dungeon accessible only by a trap door in its ceiling. Dallas is later rescued by Genevieve’s nurse Nounou, who holds the key to the mystery that surrounds young Genevieve’s unstable behavior.
As she continues her work, she soon learns that the Comte’s first wife died under mysterious circumstances and that most of the villagers, servants, and wine workers surrounding him believe he killed her, and those that don’t, believe his infidelity drove her to commit suicide. Holt allows these two mysteries to surround the reader while at the same time giving enough clues that the two are connected – Genevieve’s behavior is directly related to her mother’s death. Holt allows a romance to grow between Dallas and the Comte who, by his own admission, was a terrible husband in the past: moody, unfaithful, angry, and often unloving.
Holt adds one more mystery to this mix in the search for the Gaillard emeralds given to an ancestor who was once the mistress of King Louis XV and married into the family at his command. Before she left his court, he presented her with an emerald necklace worth a fortune. Her new husband not to be outdone by the King had a matching bracelet, tiara, two rings, a brooch, and a girdle all set with emeralds of equal value. During the Revolution, they were lost or stolen. However, the family believes they were hidden away somewhere in the castle and periodically searches for them. Of course, it is Dallas who solves this and all mysteries by the end of the book.
Dallas finds out that Comte’s father-in-law, Genevieve’s strange, pious grandfather, fell in love and married a ‘mad woman’. Upon this discovery, he vows to keep her confined in an upstairs room where she can’t hurt herself or others and never have children with her. He breaks his vow and they have Genevieve’s mother who later becomes the Comte’s wife. While she herself is not mad, her daughter Genevieve shows all the signs of the same hysterical and unpredictable behavior found in her grandmother. When her mother learns that she is pregnant again, her father warns her of the madness she is ‘breeding’ and in her already unhappy state she takes her own life. Dallas vows to set the record straight and clear the Comte’s name, but he persuades her to keep silent to spare Genevieve’s already fragile psyche any further trauma.
Thus, Holt’s Cinderella story ends with Dallas becoming the Countess of Gaillard married to a flawed Prince with a daughter in need of care. The reader is not left with the traditional and they lived happily ever after statement; instead, the reader assumes that life will be lived with all of its happy and unhappy moments. Dallas ends the book with a quote that sums up Holt’s twist on a fairy tale ending, ‘I was never afraid of a challenge’ reminding the reader that life is challenging, but that doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be lived.
My next journey with Victoria will be The Time of the Hunter’s Moon.