Victoria Holt – The Devil on Horseback (1977)

Review by Justin Tate

Victoria Holt is a polarizing figure. Her Mistress of Mellyn (1960) created such a buzz that it was largely responsible for inspiring thousands of Gothic paperbacks during the 1960s and ’70s. Some (including me) consider this era a renaissance for the genre. Others, however, feel Holt and those like her cheapened Gothic literature by replacing the bombastic ingenuity of classics like Frankenstein and Wuthering Heights with plots that are, more or less, trifling romance.

I happen to believe Holt’s critics tend to be those who’ve never read her, but I also see their point. It would be disappointing if The Devil on Horseback was the first Gothic novel to appear in someone’s head over, say, The Mysteries of Udolpho. Just as it would be disappointing if Alex Cross was the first literary detective that came to mind over Sherlock Holmes or C. Auguste Dupin. Even still, for pushers of Gothic like me, I’m okay with any gateway drug. Especially if it inspires someone to try the “hard” stuff, like Horace Walpole, Ann Radcliffe and Matthew Lewis.

The Devil on Horseback is a perfectly enjoyable novel. Not great and far too long, but well-written. Even memorable, perhaps, for its effective use of the French Revolution as a backdrop. The romance is indeed trifling, but satisfying in a pseudo-Gothic way. The Comte Fountaine Delibes is a fearsome creature, vaguely satanic, prone to witty bickering, not shy about his mistresses, and may have killed his wife so he can properly propose to the wholesome eighteen-year-old Minella. With so many red flags, he seems like a horrible choice of mate. And yet Minella cannot deny her growing love for him. He says he loves her in return, but can one trust a man like him? What would her mother say?

Like much of Gothic literature, including the classics, it is the story of a girl who must decide between her heart and what society expects. When the world wants women to stay home and stay mum, Gothic novels tend to emerge with heroines who pursue education and danger. Certainly in 1977 it was met with enthusiastic reviews. Most agreed it was better, or at least “spicier,” than previous Holt novels. Here’s a small sample of interesting reviews I uncovered while browsing newspaper archives:

Associated Press, Dudley Lehew, October, 1977: There’s a quality about The Devil on Horseback that seems to put the reader back in another time. That is, reading this novel is a lot like reading something that was written 30 or 40 years ago. It is a Gothic novel, and it has a rather interesting storyline. But it just seems to be from another era, sort of out of step with today’s style. Perhaps it can best be compared to reading your older aunt’s favorite childhood novel.

Calgary Herald, Alberta, Canada, March 18, 1978: Victoria Holt is one of the best known and most successful of the romantic suspense writers. She didn’t invent sex, of course, but its startling appearance in The Devil on Horseback makes it seem almost as if she did […] Our heroine, Minella Maddox, falls madly in lust with another woman’s husband the first time she sees him. His wife — poor dear — is frigid. His daughter — soon to be an unwed mother — is a sex-pot. And our heroine Minella has her own terrible case of the hots.

Palm Desert Post, Palm Desert, California, October 26, 1978: This is the latest in the string of best sellers by the Queen of the Gothics […] As in many of her books, Victoria Holt has picked a setting equal to her characters, The French Revolution. It’s a most pleasant way to learn a bit of history.

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