The Perilous Gard Read-along Week 2: Chapters 3-5

The Perilous Gard Read-along

Hi everyone! Welcome back. Last week we talked about some of the contexts we can place The Perilous Gard in, and looked at the first two chapters. This week, we’ll be diving into the early part of the book as Kate adjusts to her new life at Elvenwood Hall.  Please feel free to follow along and add your own thoughts as we go! 

Chapter 3: The Young Man at the Window

This chapter opens with Kate waking up in her new room the morning after arriving at the Perilous Gard (aka Elvenwood Hall) with Sir Geoffrey. I love the way the room is described, and especially the way it points out that what we think of as ancient was once considered brand new. 

We also meet some of the key members of the household at Elvenwood Hall: Dorothy, the late Anne Warden’s nurse, Master John, the steward of the house, and a mysterious man who will turn out to be Sir Geoffrey’s younger brother Christopher. 

Pope does a fantastic job of showing the dynamics of the household, which are quite tense and complex. It is not Sir Geoffrey’s home, having been in the Warden family for generations, and he associates it with a double loss and largely just wants to get away. Dorothy is almost a stereotype of a devoted family servant, with a slightly sinister edge. Master John and Christopher are more complicated and we’ll talk about their reactions and motivations later. (I am unhappy with the fatphobia that’s pretty consistently in evidence in Master John’s description, for whatever that’s worth.)

I’ve mentioned Pope’s descriptions last week, and I just love this line that we get as Kate goes through the house: “where they went solemnly through one beautiful, empty room after another.”

My favorite moment of the chapter comes when Dorothy is gossiping to Kate. It’s a scene where Pope takes Kate’s expectations and sets them slightly on end, as Dorothy turns out to be devoted, not to the Herons who she despises as soft, but to the Warden family. Pepe builds tension throughout the scene by layering in these conflicting perspectives and emotions, and then brings it to a head by having Sir Geoffrey walk in and overhear the gossip. It’s quite something

We also get an important plot point late in this chapter, as we learn that Sir Geoffrey is going away but will return “sometime after All Saints’ Day,” which is November 1. 

Overall, this is another introductory chapter that gives us a sense of some of the minor characters. I do love this moment of Kate’s internal dialogue, which gives us a good insight into her general approach to life:

She had often heard her father quote that proverb; he said it was invented by fools to save them the trouble of thinking. “Don’t meddle in what you can’t mend,” he would growl at her. “And how do you know it’s past mending? There’ll be time enough to meddle after you’ve looked into the matter. At least you could try to satisfy your mind first.

Chapter 4: The Holy Well

For me, this chapter is where the story really hits its stride. We get the introduction of another key setting within the bounds of the Perilous Gard, Kate being extremely wonderful, and the first real interactions between Kate and Christopher. 

Early in this chapter we get a description of the history of the Warden family which will become relevant later:

They had not gone crusading; they had somehow contrived to stay out of the wars of the Roses; the unending aristocratic struggle for power, rank, office, court favor, and advantageous marriages appeared to have passed them by…They stood almost as aloof from the world as if they were members of some religious order–but there was no sign that they had ever been religious; they did not even keep a household chaplain of their own, like other noble families.

Throughout this book, Christianity, folk beliefs, and rational/scientific thought will intertwine in interesting and often complicated ways, sometimes aligning and sometimes sharply diverging. I’ll be pointing out some other ways that Christianity and older pagan customs are depicted as we go along. 

Unfortunately for Kate, she’s at Elvenwood Hall as a ward of Sir Geoffrey, and no one there likes Sir Geoffrey. Pope depicts this with an almost Shirley Jackson-esque sense of isolation and outsider status. “She was only quietly and deftly shut out of the life of the castle…Elvenwood Hall was a community in itself; but Kate was almost as alone as though she had actually been chained up to the wall in the black dungeon of Alicia’s imagination.” 

Eventually, she goes exploring, down to the cliffs where pilgrims come to visit a Holy Well. (When Kate asks about which saint is its patron, Dorothy is shocked at the very idea of saints being involved.) I’ve mentioned Pope’s descriptions several times already, but I can’t resist highlighting this line, which is so beautiful and evocative of the place and of her loneliness at the same time: 

It was a gray cloudy day, smelling of wild places, with the promise of rain in the air. The only living thing in sight was a hawk circling and soaring on the wind above the cliffs.

SMELLING OF WILD PLACES. What a perfect phrase! Who writes that?! And then the image of the lone hawk!

It’s at the Holy Well that Kate encounters the mysterious man who she saw at breakfast on her first morning and who turns out to be Christopher Heron. The Heron brothers, it appears, have an extremely tragic backstory: their mother died when Christopher was born and their grief-stricken father avoided Christopher to the point of neglect. Geoffrey mostly raised Christopher, and they were very close until Geoffrey met and married Anne Warden. They had a daughter named Cecily before Anne died, and Cecily is the child who was lost, supposedly fallen down the Holy Well while in Christopher’s care. Everyone, including Christopher himself, blames Christopher for Cecily’s death and Geoffrey has avoided him and Elvenwood Hall itself ever since. 

Kate and Christopher establish an immediate connection of what I can only describe as intense bickering. Christopher wants so badly to mope around the landscape being a tragic figure straight out of the Romantic Poets (yes, a few centuries too early) and Kate just has no patience for it at all! As we’ve seen, she has an intensely practical and pragmatic streak and I really enjoy watching her pull Christopher up short whenever he is trying to go into a Decline. At one point she even says, “I am utterly at squares with this childish dealing” to which my notes read, “Ahhhhh ilu.”

I also just have, like, a lot of feelings about the Heron brothers and how they’re trying to avoid the patterns of their family history only to fall right back into them once the fresh tragedy of Cecily’s loss hits them. I think part of the strength of this book is the way it treats Christopher’s very real anguish gently while also allowing Kate to pull him up short when he’s being overly self-pitying. 

Chapter 5: The Redheaded Woman

In the final chapter for this week, it floods and Kate meets some of the villagers while also receiving several Clues. 

I’ve mentioned a couple of times when various characters are compared to people in romances already, but there’s another great moment when Kate thinks of Christopher in these terms:

 He had more likely laid it upon himself to tramp about in the rain…it was all very well for a hero in a romance, like Sir Launcelot, to break his heart and…’run mad in the wilderness’; but in her opinion Sir Launcelot had behaved very foolishly.

This is such a great way to sum up both of them, in my opinion! 

I also just love the atmosphere that Pope paints with the endless rain around the castle, and the way it affects the characters. She does a marvellous job in general of depicting the physical and emotional landscapes. 

Eventually, Kate visits the nearby village, where she discovers that they hate and distrust anyone from the castle even more than everyone from the castle distrusts her. This is a pretty pivotal scene, where the danger of the countryside really makes itself felt. (And again, it felt somewhat Shirley Jackson-esque to me, which is interesting!)

Kate then ends up saving the child of one of the villagers, the red-headed woman of the chapter’s title. The woman is so grateful that she helpfully provides some exposition about the Fairy Folk and the Lady in Green who are said to steal away children. She describes the Lady in Green as the woman who Kate saw on in the forest on the way to Elvenwood Hall, which leads to this wonderful line: 

She could hear Master Roger’s voice discoursing gravely about folly and superstition…but out under the oaks at the edge of the Elvenwood…Master Roger’s voice no longer spoke with the same authority it had had in the Princess Elizabeth’s little parlor. The Lady in the Green was at least a real person–Kate had seen her with her own eyes…

The Fairy Folk are a potent force in this area, unlike most of the rest of England, because “when the cold iron came into the kingdom their power failed them, and wherever a church was built they fled and hid in the caves and woods for fear they should hear the sound of the bells and be withered away.” Their power here is said to be alive and well, and the Wardens and their servants were bound to the Fairy Folk. 

There’s an interesting contrast here with Kate’s line about St. Christopher earlier in the chapter, “But that had been in the morning of the world, when miracles rose out of the wayside grass as easily as larks; it was not to be expected that such a thing would happen again.” She’s still operating in the New Learning, rational world at the moment, even if she also considers herself Christian and believes that miracles once happened. 

On hearing the red-headed woman’s explanation, Kate immediately thinks of heathen gods and goddesses, although with a bit of skepticism: “Forgotten heathen goddesses did not stand about under trees; or if they did, it was not Katherine Sutton who would see them.” But then she realizes, in a wonderfully effective scene, that she’s described “Not heathen gods: heathen people.” That is, people who still believe in the old gods, following ancient patterns and customs. 

I also just love the way Pope describes this moment of realization for Kate, after setting it up vividly with her swirling thoughts: “And then–suddenly, cutting through the confusion–a stillness without word or sound, like a thought taking shape in the depths of her own mind.” 

Overall, these chapters really establish some of the main threads and characters that will run through the rest of the book. Next week, we’ll return to Christopher and Kate and Plot Will Occur. 

1 Comment

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One response to “The Perilous Gard Read-along Week 2: Chapters 3-5

  1. It turned out to be difficult to get my hands on a copy of this book! There’s no ebook version and it’s out-of-print. I had forgotten that when I read it before I’d gotten an interlibrary loan. Finally got an audiobook from the library, so I’m catching up to you! (Had to take a slight detour last week to read The Return of the Thief.)

    Listening to it rather than reading it is an entirely different experience. I quite like the woman reading it; she has a lovely accent, and she really savours those wonderful descriptive passages (I tend to skim description when I read, and that would be a shame in this book!). Sometimes I think she uses the wrong tone or emphasis in dialogue, which trips me up a bit, and I find Kate’s constant questions a little annoying, which I certainly didn’t when I read it before, so it might be the tone the reader chooses for her.

    You mentioned the question of whether this is fantasy or not, which is a fascinating question and really one of the key themes of the book, isn’t it? When I read it before, I read it as fantasy. Listening to it now—with time to notice lines like the one about “heathen people,”—I’m realizing it isn’t, actually. Or not quite? Lovely things going on about belief and faith and story and truth, that I’m sure we’ll get into more as we go along!

    I, too, was unhappy with the way Randal is treated by the text (particularly after seeing how Megan Whalen Turner dealt with Pheris!). He is an archetype rather than a character; he’s like the setting. His disability might sit better with me if this were a fantasy and he was simply cursed. I’m willing to bed that Pope would write him differently if she were writing now. But she treats Alicia rather the same way, and, as you pointed out, Alicia is a bit of an archetype too. And the story is about archetypes, and their power. Interesting stuff going on thematically, for sure!

    I’m glad you’re including so many quotations: that’s another difference with an audiobook—very hard to quote from it!

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