The Silent Companions Book Review: A Victorian Gothic for a Cold Autumn Night

the silent companions laura purcell books bordeaux

Gas-lighting or true haunting? Past trauma or mental health condition? In The Silent Companions, we take the bumpy carriage ride with Elsie, a newly widowed pregnant woman, to her isolated estate in Victorian England. We’ll meet the small resentful staff for the first time, and the local villagers who are not all that friendly either. How about we stay inside with our own calm thoughts to keep us company, eh? As you can guess, this does not work out well for Elsie. She finds an antique in her new home, a carved wooden figure, a Silent Companion. After that, things devolve pretty quickly and we learn that everyone has secrets—including the house.

We chose The Silent Companions by Laura Purcell as our spooky book for the Halloween season. The group agreed that while The Silent Companions certainly delivered on creepy, it rarely got into the realm of scary. (We got more scares from Annihilation.) The story is a slow-burn Victorian gothic that, sadly, was marketed hard as scare-your-pants-off horror story. While the book did have its issues, some are due to misled expectations.

Jump to The Silent Companions discussion questions

For this book club meet-up, I made paper dummy boards/ silent companions. They came out pretty freaking creepy! I hid them around the house (and one in the bathroom) for maximum creepiness. 🙂

Spoilers Ahead…

The real struggle we had with the story was the staggering number of red herrings; it was just too many. We felt a good editor would have pointed this out to Purcell. After learning how Harper Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird benefited from the guidance of a strong editor, we appreciate how a story could be tidied up, gently re-directed, or turned in an altogether different direction.

The pacing of the story was well done: the movement between the diary excerpts and the narrator’s plotline keeps the suspense building to excellent effect. Experiencing the same house in different time periods can be overdone, but it was exciting and creepy in The Silent Companions. This is perhaps due to the unexpected depth and attention given to the storyline in the past. To Purcell’s great credit, the Stuart-era history of the house was not nebulous at all, but well-researched and considered.

Wine Selection & Tasting Notes

We drank Witching Hour non-reserve for House of Spines, so we tried out the Reserve for this spooky read!

Witching Hour Reserve. Strong dark fruit fragrance—blackberries, black plums, blueberries, suggestion of tobacco leaf and pine. On the tongue red fruit presents, red plum and red currants, and vanilla warms at the end. Sweeter than the scent suggests. Only just medium-bodied. Slightly tannic.

The Origin of the Unreliable Narrator

The Silent Companions references The Turn of the Screw, which echoes its theme of an unreliable narrator and a gothic Victorian setting. We only have the narrator’s account of any haunting or supernatural activities—can we trust her? This wonderful premise has been emulated so often in movies and literature that we may not realize that this was the source—written by Henry James, a famous British-American author trying to gain traction with American readers in 1898. I learned from this article that James actually dictated to his Scottish secretary for this book, and was frequently disappointed when he didn’t scare him!  

Judge of my dismay when from first to last this iron Scot betrayed not the slightest shade of feeling! I dictated to him sentences that I thought would make him leap from his chair; he short-handed them as though they had been geometry.

Henry James, on writing The Turn of the Screw

How Did We Like the Ending?

Back to our book club book! Some of us didn’t appreciate the ending of The Silent Companions, in that the story may have benefited from the evil being having more of an arc or motivation. I have to admit that

it can be a refreshing change of pace. Also, I have to give a warning…

Get to Know the Author

An interview with the author—Purcell discusses the moment she decided the write The Silent Companions, her challenges with editing, and her favorite writing snacks (lots of tea and coffee). Very relatable and fun to read!

The Silent Companions Discussion Questions

  1. What was your overall impression of The Silent Companions? Did you find it scary? Which elements were more successful and which were less successful?
  2. There are a number of secrets throughout the novel: Elsie’s treatment of her parents, the identity of Mrs Holt’s daughter and questions over who stole the diamond necklace. Discuss whether or not the revelation of secrets does more harm than good.
  3. The novel consists of three narratives: Elsie’s thoughts at St Joseph’s Hospital, the third-person account of her time at The Bridge and Anne’s diary from 1635. Discuss the effect of these multiple narrative voices.
  4. Does society’s treatment of women improve as time moves on?

Sarah took a shaky sip of her tea. “Although I didn’t attend Mrs. Crabbly’s burial. She was awfully old-fashioned like that. She would have turned in her grave to know there had been a woman present at her funeral.

Elsie would rather have changed by herself, but there was no choice. She could hardly tell Rupert’s cousin that she owned a buttonhook–only whores were meant to use them.

Madness, as we call it, manifests itself in many ways. People do not always wail and shriek as you say your mother did. But it does seem to run in families, I have observed, particularly through the female line. Hysteria–womb to womb. Diseased blood will out. There is no hiding from it, I am afraid.

The worst of it was that Greenleaf would never admit the truth. He would not insult her intellect. He would not argue her place. Instead he took up this degrading charade, mimicking chivalry, pretending to object for her own dear sake. Greenleaf went on. “I really see no reason, Livingstone, why your poor sister should be forced to suffer this. No reason at all.

  1. How important is the idea of family and reputation to the characters in both 1635 and 1835?
  2. In The Silent Companions it seems that death is less permanent when murder is the cause. Discuss how the murdered characters haunt those that are still alive.
  3. Was there ever a possibility that the characters at The Bridge could have escaped unharmed?
  4. Discuss the use and significance of fire in the novel.
  5. Ideas of love and protection seem to be behind questionable actions. Did Elsie really protect Jolyon by murdering their parents? Was Jolyon protecting Elsie by having her committed to St Joseph’s?
  6. Discuss the link between pregnancy, evil and the companions.