Virginia Barton

Mystery in moonlight

Catholic Herald, 18 May 1990         


Review: Theo and Matilda by Rachel Billington (Macmillan, £13.95)


books-theo-and-matilda-0The dust-jacket of this book suggests gothick ruins, a leafless tree, two figures etched in moonlight, a mysterious golden key: awash in lurid tones of mauve and purple. And that’s only the front.

Jackets sell books. This one might well prevent you even picking it up – which would be a pity. It’s peopled by real characters walking and talking in perfectly believable surroundings.

The novel centres on Abbeyfields, around which the stories of several Theos and Matildas revolve. Abbeyfields begins life as a small monastery in the eighth century, transformed as the years roll by, to its 20th century destiny of 25 new homes.

The reader is witness to this metamorphosis through the peep-holes furnished by the author in medieval, Tudor, Victorian and modern times. Each epoch has its Theo and Matilda and other recurring themes and symbols – some obvious and contrived, others more subtle and cunning.

As a psychiatric hospital threatened with closure, Abbeyfields is a shadow of its Victorian grandeur. As a Tudor manor-house, Abbeyfields echoes the house of prayer described at the beginning of the book.

And the name-sakes of the title share with their predecessors common yearnings and experiences, which, for me at least, makes very good sense of history. The delightful eighth century Theo, singer of songs and conscript monk, is just recognisable in the Theo of 1980, a loveable crazy given to “flying” out of trees stark naked.

Most of the characters call upon the reader’s indulgence and sympathy, which one is fully prepared to give because one’s interest is engaged. The whole is leavened with genuine humour, a bonus not usually associated with “historical” novels.





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