Published in 1976 – around the time I was borrowing my mother’s copies of Mary Stewart’s The Moon-Spinners and My Brother Michael and reading them voraciously – I had never read Touch Not the Cat until now. Like all Stewart’s novels, there is adventure and romance with a slice of the supernatural. I can’t think of any other novels like them. The Ashley family in Touch Not the Cat own Ashley Court and have an unusual gift running through the generations: they are telepathic with each other.
Narrator Bryony is working at a hotel in Madeira when she receives a telepathic message from her anonymous ‘lover’ to go to her father who is staying at a clinic in Germany. When Bryony arrives her father is dead, killed in a hit-and-run road accident. His last words to a friend, who wrote them down verbatim, are a warning to Bryony. ‘Tell Bryony. The cat, it’s in the cat on the pavement. The map. The letter. In the brook. Tell Bryony. My little Bryony to be careful. Danger.’ She returns home to Ashley Court in England to look for the answers but finds surprises and danger. I found the beginning an odd introduction to the Ashley family, the house, the history, coupled with a diary excerpt at the end of each chapter, dating from the nineteenth century. The significance of this becomes clear later, but for a long while I read it without getting a lot from it. There are a lot of mysteries, lies and contradictions to unravel. Even Bryony is not certain of the identity of her telepathic lover, though she knows it must be a blood relative so guesses it is one of her three cousins; twins Ellory and James, or their younger brother Francis. As Bryony unravels the meaning of her father’s warning, she realises the twins are not beyond committing murder in order to steal her inheritance. Could one of them be her telepathic lover?
The title of the novel is an old Scottish motto which Stewart gives to the fictional Ashley family. The cat is relevant but I didn’t guess the significance until the very end. A well-written novel; old-fashioned in that it starts slowly and builds gradually, but deserves patience. It includes gothic features such as churchyard scenes, shadowy figures, storm and flooding; which Bryony mocks, ‘Robed nuns and ancient houses and secret passages, the paraphernalia that Jane Austen had laughed at in Northanger Abbey.’ An unusual romantic mystery that makes me want to re-read all Stewart’s books, including the Arthurian series.
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