This was another of the books included as part of the Reclaim Her Name project, which republished a collection of works by women authors who had had to use a penname because of negative attitudes towards women, but now puts the author’s real name on their work. Originally, A Phantom Lover was published under the name Vernon Lee.
Though it’s actually fairly short in length, that doesn’t stop it from being a really delightful gothic novel. It’s told in the first person by a portrait artist who has been invited to the Okehurst estate in order to paint a woman named Alice Oke, who lives there with her husband, William Oke. The artist becomes really quite obsessed with Alice, because he finds her to be intoxicatingly beautiful in a rather unconventional way. But his fascination with Alice soon evolves beyond an interest in her appearance, as she reveals herself to be a very aloof, enigmatic and mysterious woman who is practically obsessed with the actions of one her long-distant ancestors. Strangely, she also looks identical to the painting of a lady from her family’s past too. Soon it becomes clear that there are serious problems in their relationship – the artist even stays longer than necessary just to observe then with a kind of morbid curiosity.
The three main characters are all very well developed, from the curious (yet detached) artist, to the melancholy Alice whose head is in the past and William, a fairly silly man who takes himself too seriously. Their lives are then set against the backdrop of Okehurst – a very vivid setting which really helps to bring the story to life, you can really see the creepy old estate. It’s such an enjoyable tale, that I am surprised it’s fallen into relative obscurity. I really enjoyed it and hope that more people will have the opportunity to discover it soon. There’s so much mystery and intrigue throughout the story and you’ll find yourself wondering what’s actually going on – most likely, you won’t guess and the ending will catch off guard, because that’s what happened with me and I found the whole experience very enjoyable.