The Red Castle Women (Doubleday, 1968) is the last book written by prolific novelist, children’s author, and poet Margaret Widdemer (1884-1978), who shared the Pulitzer Prize for poetry with Carl Sandburg in 1919. This gothic romance is set along the Hudson River north of New York City about 1840, where a small girl and her unconscious mother were discovered by the river ferryman, who took them both in. The ferryman gave Perdita Van Dorn her name and raised her as his adopted daughter near the Red Castle, a huge mansion where the Somerwell family lived. The Somerwells were known for their wealth and family misfortunes. The parents of the current residents, two cousins named Eugenia and Isobel, were killed when their yacht capsized in a sudden storm years ago. Eugenia and Isobel were raised by a distant cousin, who remains with them as one of their few living relatives.
The present Miss Somerwells are also known for their raging bad tempers. In a dramatic fit of anger Eugenia breaks her engagement to her cousin Mark, accusing him of an improper relationship with Perdita. Because of Eugenia’s threats against Perdita, Mark promptly offers to marry Perdita and she accepts, going from nameless foundling to a member of a wealthy and socially prominent New York family in a matter of minutes. This is the basis of a convoluted but briskly executed plot with kidnapping, human trafficking, attempted murder, bigamy, and criminal insanity. In addition, plot threads with the Underground Railroad, a family curse from an Oneida maiden, and a ghost or two ensure this story has a little something for everyone in less than 300 pages.
I read this book in high school and I was enthralled, both with the romance and the mystery. Apparently I looked for crime in my books even then. This one is undoubtedly a love story but has more violence and felonious activity than I remember in other gothic romances of the time. Re-reading it after so many years also gives me a completely different view of events and motives of the characters. For instance, when Mark offers to marry Perdita to protect her reputation, I originally thought it every woman’s dream come true. Who doesn’t want a Prince Charming to marry her in a whirlwind and then swoop her off to Tiffany’s to buy her diamonds? Now my more cynical reaction is that Mark jumped at the chance to avoid marrying an irascible virago and instead quickly married a more malleable girl barely out of her teens before the virago could change her mind. But that’s just me.
This story is a fine gothic romance, and it can easily pass for a cozy historical mystery that’s a little heavier on the love story than usual. A nice change from present-day thrillers and psychological suspense crime fiction.