Pamela Haines' novel, "The Kissing Gate," opens in 1820 in a small village in Yorkshire. Parlormaid Sarah has rescued the squire's nasty, sniveling son, Charles Ingham, from drowning. As a reward she is given an education and grows up to marry the Bibletoting son of a well to-do rope factory owner, Sam Rawson. They produce four children. During the Irish potato famine, one son, Ned, reluctantly saves Kate, a 4-year-old child who is dying of starvation. Kate becomes the fifth Rawson child, treasured by both families.
The characters' involvements start getting muddy here. For instance, when Kate grows up, Ned marries her, not knowing that Kate loves Richard Ingham, Charles' son. Granddaughter Sarah, Kate's niece, loves Richard too, and Paul also has a short-lived affair with Nicholas, who seduces him and then leaves him. Paul marries Nicholas' sister Rose and eventually finds out that he loves her.
It is not the gaudy intricacies of the Inghams' and Rawsons' relationships that feed the reader, but rather how the two families respond to their disappointments and carry on with the remainder of their unhappy lives. Pamela Haines places her characters in a pool of homosexuality murder, rape and illegitimacy, where they float quite gracefully. It is the reader who is sucked under into the morbidity of the families' lives, while the Rawsons and the Inghams cope quite well, thank you.
True to form for a proper Victorian novel, the list of characters is endless (brothers, sisters, cousins, friends, friends' cousins) and the plot is complicated and intertwined, occasionally relieved by discussions of religion, flora, fauna and the weather.
The theme is a common one: Landowning money versus earned money. The Rawsons -- typical England produced following the passage of the Reform Bill -- are neither aristocracy nor flashy new rich. But because their earnings are "in the trade," they are not thought to be equals by the neighboring Inghams. The Rawsons fall in with their rivals with ease, but there is always an underlying tension of social inferiority.
Perhaps it is this basic distrust between the two families that Haines manifests in a series of unnatural and untimely deaths, paced one after the other in gloomy succesion: suiicide, childbirth, skating accident, bloated intestines, paralysis, hanging, fever, carriage accident, train accident, consumption, broken heart, alcoholism and vengeful ax murder. Each death is presaged by a visit to the Kissing Gate, about which village superstition says, "Them as swings on t'Gate, swings on t'gibbet." Or as Squire Ingham explains: "We have the 'gate' -- or 'way' -- that they used to carry the kist, the coffin, along. And the gate too that they must pass through to reach the church . . . "Kisting Gate" was its first name. Only -- folks don't like death, do they . . . Kissing -- that sounds much better, does it not?"
Haines' preoccupation with the gate as an omen is awkward. It provides no meaning for the deaths, and it holds no particular place in the novel. Some of the characters do quite well having passed through it, and others are not so fortunate. So it is only a sketchy omen at best.
It must be said, though, that Haines understands emotional complexities and has a good ear for Yorkshire dialect. The few outbursts or confessions given are muted to avoid sensationalism. And she has strenuously avoided turning the story into a popular historical novel. There are no lengthy descriptions of physical beauty, torrid sexual encounters, frilly clothing, carriage or estates. And Haines had intentionally omitted reference to any pertinent historical event -- the death of Prince Albert, the Crimean War, the publication of Darwin's "The Origin of Species" -- to emphasize the insularity and incestuousness of her small Yorkshire village. t