The Woman Without a Name

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The Woman Without a Name
Laurence M. Janifer | Signet Books | 1966 | 124 pages

Poor Penelope Gorden; on her first day as the new governess at Holyoak Manor, her employer, the youthful Sir Jeffrey Wilstoun, begins a campaign of amorous advances. Yet, in some English household variation on the Stockholm syndrome, the “prim-and-proper” young girl from London finds herself smitten with the master of the house.

While taking a walk in the woods and contemplating a possible “bridge between two worlds”, Penelope is confronted by a wild-haired woman standing under the spreading branches of a tree. Although the woman seems to suffer from mental anguish and is unable to even remember her own name, she expresses a fear of Jeffrey and delivers a warning, “Leave Holyoak.” When Penelope presses the crazed woman about her employer, she receives the cryptic reply, “He murdered me.”

Although Penelope attempts to dismiss any suspicions that Jeffrey harbors a dark secret, other events at Holyoak challenge her resolve. While attending to her charges, Jeffrey’s half-sisters Caroline and Harriet, Penelope is disturbed by the children’s ominous drawings of the attic room of the great house. The blackened space in one of the compositions seems to contain a shifting figure, and after Harriet alludes to “The Upstairs” as a source of terror, both children fall stubbornly silent on the subject.

During a visit to town, Penelope has a conversation with a local woman and a barmaid regarding the service staff at Holyoak Manor. The townswomen are convinced that Sir Jeffrey has six servants at his disposal, but Penelope is only able to list five names. She wonders, who is the mysterious sixth servant? And what about the seemingly accidental deaths of Jeffrey’s father and the girls’ mother, caused by a falling branch striking their carriage?

The slender narrative contained in The Woman Without a Name turns entirely around one question: What will Penelope discover when she ultimately climbs the stairs to the attic? She postpones her action to a degree because she fears it will expose Jeffrey as a monster, shattering her romantic aspirations, but the narrative pushes briskly to the final reveal without allowing much time for an atmosphere of dread to build.  More breathing room in the story to ponder the children’s knowledge of the secret, the fate of Jeffrey’s father, or the unusual interest of the townspeople in Holyoak Manor may have helped to offset the quick and somewhat disappointing conclusion—Penelope faces the answer she fears, blacks out, and all is explained by the doctor.

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