A Moment of Silence – Part Five

Italian Opera

Daniel had one good pair of trousers, and one new enough jacket which Sam had bought him for his own wedding. Once dressed he thought he looked the part of a gentleman. A man about to embark upon married life, he reminded himself. It all felt like a dream still. The pragmatism that had been literally beaten into him by his own father, God rest his soul, told him that until the register was signed Celine could still reject him.

The trio travelled from Belgravia to Regent’s Park together on that Thursday evening. Jean had gone to visit Celine earlier in the day as he was supposed to be escorting her back to Paris on the Friday. The Harpers had not been told anything of Daniel, only that he was a renowned actor at the Olympia and a friend of the McCarthys. Mrs Harper, not originally an advocate of Mrs McCarthy, had been won over by her in past weeks as the friendship between her charge and Maria had deepened. She had agreed instantly to issuing the formal invitation to the dinner party. Daniel felt nausea rise as they passed the park. The sun may have been high in the sky, beaming golden sunlight down upon the rows of large houses, but he felt a heavy cloud of foreboding weigh heavily.

‘Come along now,’ Sam chivvied him from his dark mood. ‘What is the worst that could happen?’ Then, as his wife began to answer, ‘Hush woman! I promise you, if anything goes wrong my carriage will be here. We shall spirit Celine away to Belgravia and send for her baggage tomorrow.’

‘This is going to be a disaster.’ Daniel stepped heavily from the carriage and looked up at the Harper’s house. ‘We should not have done this.’

Sam ignored him and ran sprightly up the steps before pulling the doorbell. It was answered by the butler, a man who was well trained enough to only give Daniel a brief second glance as he admitted them. Celine ran out into the hallway to greet them, her hands shaking as she let Daniel kiss them.

‘My things are packed,’ she told him quietly. ‘I think that we should leave now.’

‘What is wrong, my dear,’ Maria asked, checking that no one had followed Celine.

‘They know who you are,’ she said looking at Daniel, then Maria, with tears in her eyes. ‘Mr Harper invited a man from his club at the last minute. A Mr Garrison. He has already told Mrs Harper that she should refuse to admit you. He called you a – a savage.’

Sam swore, apologising profusely before cursing again. Daniel and Celine stared at him in amazement but Maria’s face had paled.

‘He’s a friend of the man that I was supposed to marry before Sam rescued me,’ she explained. ‘He hates us and no doubt has already poisoned our hosts to us before we have had a chance to persuade them.’

‘We should go.’ Daniel made up his mind. ‘Can we have your things sent on or should we collect them now?’

‘I can…’ Celine began to answer but too late, as footsteps were heard behind them. She whirled around to see the Harpers, together with the newcomer, Garrison.

‘Ah, our unwelcome guests have arrived,’ Mr Harper said loudly, waving a quieting hand in the direction of his mortified wife who had tried to talk first.

‘So it is true!’ Garrison shook his head. ‘I hoped that you had better taste than this Adelaide. A disowned heiress, a darkie and a man who some say daren’t set foot on American soil while his father still lives.’

‘Slander me like that again, Garrison, and you shall live to regret it,’ Sam growled as Garrison laughed, showing rat-like teeth, sharp and discoloured.

‘Celine, come here,’ Mrs Harper ordered her.

‘No,’ came the reply, almost too quiet to hear.

‘Excuse me? Do as you’re told girl. These so-called friends of yours have brought embarrassment to our door. You will say goodbye and I doubt you will see them again.’ Mr Harper waited for her to comply.

Celine cleared her throat and summoned her courage. ‘Mrs Harper, Mr Harper, I apologise that you are embarrassed but I must leave you now.’

‘Leave? Your ship does not leave until tomorrow. Jean has made the arrangements.’ Mrs Harper looked to the named man as he sidled through the gathering crowd of guests.

‘Yes, we are booked on the afternoon boat back to France.’ He nodded slightly and Daniel picked up his meaning. Jean had to act as though he were ignorant of their scheme or his hopes to marry Emilie would be dashed.

‘I am truly sorry to both of you,’ Celine continued. ‘If I thought that my father would be reasonable then I would not have to take this action, but I have fallen in love with Daniel and we are to be married.’

A gasp rippled along the hallway, her admission creating a wave of shock and disbelief like a stone thrown into a pond. Daniel reached down for her trembling hand.

‘We must go,’ Sam announced loudly. ‘Enjoy your evening, won’t you?’

They as good as ran back outside to the waiting carriage, Celine holding back the tears until they were on their way back to Eaton Square.

‘We tried,’ Maria told the sobbing girl. ‘And they know where to find you if they wish to make amends.’

‘But what if they come and try to send me home?’ Celine cried.

‘I have friends in Edinburgh who will put us up for a week or so. There you shall be easily married,’ Sam told her. ‘I had an inkling that this may happen and so procured us tickets on the first stagecoach tomorrow morning. My coachman will drive us to Islington to meet it there just in case they are wise enough to check the city departures.’

And indeed, they evaded their pursuers only due to Sam’s clever plan. By the time the Harpers had checked all possible departure points in central London, the McCarthy party were halfway to Islington and then onwards to Scotland. When Celine and Daniel returned to London a fortnight they were husband and wife, safe from the wrath of Monsieur Martin.

Hidden London – Clapham South Deep-Level Shelter

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The last of 180 steps leading into Clapham South deep-level shelter

Last Sunday was a nice warm summer day, Clapham Common was packed with picnickers, families and people playing football. What better to do than head eleven stories underground for a tour of Clapham South deep-level shelter??

The excellent London Transport Museum operate several tours as Hidden London: 55 Broadway (London’s first skyscraper) and Euston station’s lost tunnels are now sold out for the foreseeable future but there are still tickets for Down Street (Churchill’s secret station) and for Clapham South.

It was in 1940 as the German bombing campaign intensified that the British government made the decision to look into building the deep-level shelters. The public had taken to using tube stations as substitute shelters of their own volition, and it wasn’t really safe to have so many people sleeping on platforms etc. As well as Clapham South there were another nine shelters planned, though a couple were shelved due to flooding. The other shelters were built at Belsize Park, Camden Town, Goodge Street, Stockwell, Clapham North and Clapham Common. Basically, all along the Northern Line as the original plan was to use them after the war as part of a Crossrail type project of high-speed rail (the post-war depression put paid to this). Each was designed to hold 12,000 people, though this was decreased to 8,000 per shelter before they opened, and in reality they never housed anywhere near this number.

Although the shelters were ready by the end of 1942 they did not see real use until the summer of 1944 when the V1 and V2 flying bombs were unleashed on the city. The Clapham South shelter opened that July, yes with the aim of saving lives, but this was also propaganda. The London public was terrified and the government had to be seen to be acting in the best interests of the population. There are cheery photos that went into papers: happy mothers and children setting up their bunks; volunteers serving in the canteen; even people dancing underground!

Our group was assembled outside the tube station(group size is max 22) before walking from the main entrance to a nondescript door two minutes walk along Balham Hill. It may look a lot different these days but this is one of the original entrances, now redeveloped so it looks just like a normal part of the street. From here it is 180 steps down a spiral staircase into the shelter. Back in 1944 if you needed to shelter from the air raids you would make your way to one of the two concrete ‘pillbox’ entrances, one of which we used. We also saw an exit leading up to the station which wasn’t in official use but there is anecodotal evidence that mentions parents using it to leave the shelter for work.

CS - sections

There are signs everywhere to make sure people didn’t get lost.

Once in the shelter the scale of the project is striking. There are two levels with connecting stairs at either end. On arrival each temporary guest would have been allocated a bunk in a particular section – these sections were named after naval officers at Clapham South. Our first stop was at the medical post. The tiles from the sink splash-back  are still visible which help indicate the room’s use. People with medical conditions had priority and there was no charge for treatment which, in this pre-NHS era, was a big draws. We then moved into one of the tunnel sections, the lights turned off until we were all gathered at one end. When the lights were turned on we saw the view below (more impressive when you’re suddenly confronted with it from darkness).

CS - tunnel

One of the sections with the bunks removed to show the scale of the tunnels

The bunks were pretty crammed in and bedding was not provided. People had to carry everything they needed overnight down into the shelter and then be back up 180 steps by 7am the next morning, most of them with kids in tow as families were given priority.

CS - bunks

One of the bunks made up as it may have looked during the war

So people had beds and medical supplies but what about food and drink? What about the basic necessity of a toilet? Well, there were canteens set up, mainly by volunteers. The canteens were outside of rationing so you could buy as many sandwiches or cakes as you wanted as long as you had the money to pay for them. Generally prices were around twice those of above ground but once in the shelter people had little choice if they had not brought their own supplies. For the loos the situation was considerably sophisticated. We went into one of the gents’ and could see where the urinals were by marks left on the walls. Behind those would have been stalls. Human waste was emptied into a hopper at the end of the room and then  hydraulically pumped up to a sewer near the surface.

The shelter was only open for a brief period during the war but that was not the end of its use. After the war when Jamaicans came over on the Windrush, enticed by the promise of guaranteed jobs, many had nowhere to stay when they first arrived. A labour exchange was set up at on Coldharbour Lane in Brixton and so it was fairly convenient for men to stay in the deep-level shelter for a few days until they found proper lodging. Conditions were not ideal and jobs were plentiful so the longest tenant was a week, most only staying a night or two.

The Festival of Britain in 1951 marks the last occasion that people stayed overnight in the shelter. On the centenary of the hugely successful Great Exhibition of 1851, a moral boost to a country that had survived years of war and depression, the Festival was a huge event with millions of visitors arriving from all over. There weren’t enough hotel beds in London, and with austerity still in full force many people couldn’t afford such luxuries. At Clapham South one could stay underground for a low price.

CS - exit

The disused exit up to Clapham South tube station

There was a fire in the Goodge Street deep-level shelter in the 1950s and it was decided then that the tunnels were not safe enough to house people overnight. For a long time Clapham South was used as an archive, but after the contract ran out a few years ago it has been possible for the public to go down and explore. This is a fascinating tour and there are still available dates for this summer.

Check out the London Transport Museum website for more details.

Clapham South tours  operate five days a week until 21 August, then 2-26 March 2017 and cost £35 per person (ticket also gives you half price admission to the museum if presented within one month of taking the tour).

Books – The Secrets of Wishtide by Kate Saunders

secrets

Kate Saunders is perhaps best known for her recent children’s novel Five Children on the Western Front, a tribute to the stories of E. Nesbit which won the 2014 Costa Children’s Book Award. I heard Kate speak about 18 months ago while I was at the Faber Academy and she mentioned that she was writing a series for Bloomsbury about a Victorian lady detective. Finally the first instalment of the Laetitia Rodd mysteries is available.

Mrs Laetitia Rodd is the impoverished widow of an Archdeacon, living modestly in Hampstead with her landlady Mrs Bentley. She is also a private detective of the utmost discretion. In winter 1850, her brother Frederick, a criminal barrister, introduces her to Sir James Calderstone, a wealthy and powerful industrialist who asks Mrs Rodd to investigate the background of an ‘unsuitable’ woman his son intends to marry – a match he is determined to prevent.

A widow in her 50s, Letty Rodd is a gung-ho Miss Marple. She enters Sir James’ home, the grand family seat of Wishtide, in the disguise of a governess to his two daughters. In this role, neither quite upstairs nor quite downstairs, she manages to quickly gain the trust of most of  the people she encounters.  The ‘unsuitable’ woman in question is a young widow, Mrs Helen Orme, who lives quietly in the nearby village with her sister-in-law. At first the problem seems to be a simple blackmail plot: some unknown person has written to Sir James claiming to be Mrs Orme’s first husband. From her first meeting with Helen, Letty is convinced that she is keeping a secret but is also sure that she means no harm. It takes only a little effort to discover the truth, at least as far as Helen Orme herself knows it. But then there is a brutal murder…

What seems at first like a simple mystery evolves into something far more entangled and satisfying. We travel with Letty from great houses in the Lincolnshire countryside to a dodgy inn in Wapping, into Newgate Prison in search of a murderous blackmailer. Although not a challenging puzzle, nor using the most original of plot devices, this was an enjoyable read and most definitely a page turner. Victorian London was well-drawn, equally as well as the country scenes in town and at Wishtide. Like the very best Victorian mystery novels there are a couple of lucky coincidences which help Letty along the way, and I am sure this was the author doffing her cap to the writers of the period.

This is a novel whose plot relies on the social norms of the day. It focuses on the idea of reputation and how vital that was to women of a certain class at that time. While Sir James is appalled at the idea of his son marrying a woman who has been married before, he is happy to keep his mistress in London while his wife remains at Wishtide. In fact, this is such an unremarkable situation that he even lives with his mistress and has Letty call at her house for a meeting! There are other examples that I cannot disclose without spoilers, but Letty does reflect on the unfairness of the various situations on more than one occasion.

I found this book hugely enjoyable, a light read that kept my attention and was such a page-turner that I read it in one day. I’m already looking forward to the follow-up.

A Moment of Silence – Part Four

Italian Opera

Dawn brought no ready solution to Daniel’s problems, only a head that ached. When he went down to breakfast, a note was lying by his place at the table. It was from Jean, confirming his visit for midday. Daniel briefly shared the conversation that he had had with Jean the previous evening with Sam and his wife.

‘I presume that he means to bring Celine with him,’ Maria said. ‘In which case I shall remain at home to act as chaperone. We do not need salacious gossip to put paid to your plans before they can be effected.’

‘Thank you, Maria.’ Daniel nodded his gratitude.

Daniel was still not sure whether he liked his friend’s wife, nor in fact whether she approved of him. One thing in her favour was her assistance in bringing him together with Celine. She had acted as chaperone, messenger and confidante to Celine on several occasions over the past few months. Perhaps she saw something of her own past situation in the younger woman. He knew that her marriage to Sam had been more of convenience than of love. Her own father had been of the same mould as Celine’s – viewing his daughter as a mere chess piece rather than a person in their own right, to be loved. Sam knew this and had not minded. Marriage suited him and in the four months since their impromptu wedding he already seemed more content.

Sam left for the Olympia at eleven o’clock and the Harper’s carriage pulled up outside the house promptly an hour later. Maria ordered the housekeeper, a formidable woman named Mrs Shanklaw, to bring tea to the morning room as Celine and Jean were shown in. Daniel could tell in an instant that Jean had disclosed his plan to her already. Her eyes were filled with hope as she smiled and let him place a chaste kiss on her cheek, squeezing his larger hands in hers.

‘Jean, would you join me for a moment? There is a book upstairs in the study which I am sure would be of interest to you.’ Maria beckoned and he followed dutifully behind her.

‘We must be quick,’ Celine sat and patted the seat next to her for Daniel to sit. ‘Jean told me that you know everything. My father has already written to the Harpers. The letter arrived this morning. He has made arrangements for me to travel back to Paris on Friday.’

‘So soon!’ Daniel was dismayed. It was already Wednesday.

‘He has already promised my hand in marriage, though I am not considered worthy to be informed as to who my suitor is.’ Celine looked down at the floor, silent as she waited for Daniel to speak.

‘I love you Celine, even though we have only known one another a short time.’ Not long enough to feel at ease about the risks involved though, Daniel thought. ‘If you love me, if you can bear to give up all that you know then tell me now.’

‘Oh, Daniel, you know I love you. I would rather die than live without seeing you again. I cannot marry a man who I know I can never love. Any man chosen by my father will be as cold as he. I cannot, I cannot bear it.’ Her gaze, those blue eyes that were as exotic to him as his dark skin was to her, begged him to ask her the question.

‘Then Celine will you marry me?’

‘Yes!’ She threw her arms around his neck briefly, the footsteps of Mrs Shanklaw on the parquet floor of the corridor prompting a quick return to a neutral position. Maria and Jean returned as the housekeeper placed the tray down, Maria quickly resuming her hostess role and pouring the tea as the servant retreated back down the hall.

‘So?’ Jean prompted as he accepted his cup.

‘Daniel has asked me to marry him and I have accepted.’ Celine beamed, as though this were any ordinary happy proposal, rather than the social equivalent of a naked flame held to a trail of gunpowder.

‘Congratulations,’ Maria sipped her tea. ‘Jean tells me that there is a farewell dinner planned for tomorrow evening Celine.’

‘Yes,’ Celine answered. ‘Mrs Harper wanted to see me off in style.’

‘And so she shall. Please make sure that we are added to the guest list. Your four good friends who have helped make this summer so unforgettable for you,’ Maria instructed.

‘Maria, that cannot be a good idea,’ Daniel warned.

‘We must test the Harpers and check where their loyalty lies. Celine, you may find yourself a pariah when you defy your father but if there is a chance that some of your friends will stay true then we must give them the opportunity to do so. What do you say?’

Celine thought for a moment, then nodded. ‘Mrs Harper has been so good to me, I cannot believe that she would cast me aside like that. She married above her status when she met Mr Harper. She was my governess at one time and he a rich gentleman. Surely she will understand if no one else can.’

And so the test was set for the following evening, Daniel saying nothing despite his grave misgivings.

Books – The Muse by Jessie Burton

The muse

The Muse – Jessie Burton (2016)

The Muse is the much anticipated follow-up to Jessie Burton’s massive 2014 bestseller, The Miniaturist. The difficult second novel syndrome is well-documented and so the big question surrounding this novel was: does it deliver? I quite enjoyed The Miniaturist but didn’t love it, a personal preference as I thought it was well written and covered some interesting subjects. I just didn’t fall in love with the characters. What I wanted from The Muse was an enjoyable read, and a novel which really drew me in.

This is a very accomplished novel. Set in two historical time periods, the dual narratives expertly woven together, Burton has done an immense amount of research and in the main has pulled it off. I was very impressed by how the two stories came together, neither revealing too much before the conclusion, whilst offering hints as to how the mystery could be resolved.

Of the two strands, the first worked best for me, perhaps as it is written in first person. Set in 1967 it is written from the viewpoint of Odelle Bastien, a Trinidadian who is attempting to find her feet in London having arrived five years previously with her best friend, Cynthia. When we meet Odelle she is just about to start a new job at the Skelton gallery, glad to leave her dull job at Dolcis shoe shop on Clapham High Street. She is also feeling a little lonely after Cynthia marries her long term boyfriend and moves away to North London. On her first day at the Skelton she meets Marjorie Quick, the older woman quickly becoming a mentor and confidante. When a long-lost painting shows up at the gallery, Odelle turns detective, curious to discover the secret history behind it, and find out why Quick seems so antagonised by its appearance.

The second strand  was not such an effortless read. It is written in third person and set in Andalucia in 1936, just before the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War. Harold Schloss brings his wife Sarah and daughter Olive there after Sarah has become ill, suffering with depression. Nineteen year old Olive has just won a place to study at the Slade School of Fine Art but hasn’t told her parents. Harold, an art dealer, believes that fine art can only be produced by men and so she paints alone in secret. Local pair Isaac Robles and his half-sister Teresa arrive at the house looking for work and it turns out that Isaac is an aspiring artist. He is also a left-wing activist with links to the local anarchist group. When Sarah commissions Isaac to paint a portrait of herself and Olive as a surprise for Harold, it is the catalyst for a sequence of events that spills over into Odelle’s timeline.

Overall I really enjoyed The Muse. The plot worked brilliantly, and the conclusion was satisfying. One little niggling criticism is with some of the dialogue. A little of Olive’s was a little speech-like and unnatural, especially towards the second half of the book (or at least that’s when I began to really notice it). I also think that written dialect can be a difficult device to pull off, especially when it is used so sparsely that it throws you out of the story to read it. Burton uses this technique whenever Odelle speaks to her friend Cynthia and whilst I appreciate that she would have spoken more casually to a friend, I found reading ‘Ah’ for ‘I’ annoying, though the rhythm of the words worked. In the Spanish section there was also a LOT of history as the political situation worsens. Most was related to the characters which I enjoyed but there was almost a whole page of unrelated general facts which I admit to skimming over. I did  feel a little removed from the characters in Spain generally compared to Odelle’s story. Perhaps it was the move from first to third person narration, but I did want to feel move moved by the events that brought this strand to its climax.

I recommend this book to anyone interested in modern historical fiction. For the most part the research is excellently incorporated so that it feels genuine to the reader without highlighting how much work has gone into it (there is an extensive bibliography at the end as proof!). There is some clever use of language, with only a few metaphors striking me as over thought. Burton has done really well writing a character from a different culture to herself and I believed in Odelle and found myself rooting for her. My final verdict is that The Muse was a joy to read and a fantastic follow up novel.

Samuel Coleridge-Taylor

S C-T

Samuel Coleridge-Taylor

Samuel Coleridge-Taylor was born on 15 August 1875 in Holborn, son of a Sierra Leonean doctor and an English mother. It is thought that his father had already returned to Sierra Leone before Samuel’s mother, Alice, knew that she was pregnant (the couple were not married) and so he never knew he had a son in London.

Alice named her son for the poet, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and the pair moved to Croydon where Samuel grew up and lived his life. Details of his early life are unclear but certainly he received violin lessons and showed such promise that he entered the Royal College of Music on a scholarship, later moving his interest to composing. It has been reported that Coleridge-Taylor’s career was dogged by racism, but it is known that he had great support at the RCM and won the Lesley Alexander composition prize two years running. Doubtless his success resulted in jealousy, and what easier attack on an enemy than a racist insult.

Certainly racism did affect Coleridge-Taylor in many ways. He married Jessie Walmisley, a fellow RCM student, in 1899 and they had two children, Hiawatha and Gwendolen (who later changed her name to Avril), who followed them into musical careers. Avril later recounted her father’s response to the racist comments locals would make to them: ‘When he saw them approaching along the street he held my hand more tightly, gripping it until it almost hurt.’

Avril

Avril Coleridge-Taylor

Coleridge-Taylor’s most famous work is Hiawatha’s Wedding Feast, composed in 1898 from the Longfellow poem. The score was published ahead of the premiere by Novello & Co. and the performance was well-attended, the London papers calling it a masterpiece. He may have been a genius composer, but Coleridge-Taylor did not have a head for business. He sold the rights to his great work for a mere 15 guineas, though thousands of copies of the score were later sold. He wrote two related pieces which helped found his reputation but were not as popular.

With little information about his own father’s background, Coleridge-Taylor sought to learn about his heritage. His learning was mainly influenced by the American diaspora and he travelled to the USA three times to tour. He had many supporters there as black American musicians were struggling to have their own music held in such high regard as Coleridge-Taylor’s was in the UK. For him, he enjoyed feeling comfortable around people who treated him as themselves instead of always filling the role of the talented outsider.

He toured, he taught, he composed and he conducted, working incredibly hard to earn the money to keep his family. On the 28 August 1912  Samuel Coleridge-Taylor collapsed while he waited for a train at West Croydon station. He was suffering from pneumonia and died on the 1st September at the age of 37. His untimely death has been attributed to overwork as he struggled to support his family. After a funeral which became a public event, a memorial concert was held which raised £1440 to help his family. Perhaps one of Coleridge-Taylor’s greatest legacies is that, due to the scandal that his family did not receive any royalties from the still vastly popular Hiawatha’s Wedding, his circumstances are said to have added weight to the argument surrounding artist copyright. In 1914 the Performing Rights Society was formed and Jessie Coleridge-Taylor received a Civil List pension of £100 from King George V.

Books – The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry

essex serpent

The Essex Serpent – Sarah Perry (2016)

 

The summer of 2016 is turning out to be a great one for the historical novel, especially those set in Britain. And with real life events growing steadily more depressing, there has never been a better time to retreat to the past, exploring a place which is similar enough to feel familiar, yet just different enough to bring us into another world.

The Essex Serpent is Perry’s second novel, published just a few weeks ago to great acclaim. Set in 1893, this is a book which lives up to the ideals of a time when Darwin is recently published, when medicine and science are on the brink of taking huge strides forward, and social reform is still driven by individuals and volunteers.

Cora Seabourne’s husband has died, leaving her a young widow with an only son, Francis. Although her marriage was not a happy one, she decides to leave London for Essex, hoping to be revived by the fresh air. It is whilst residing in Colchester that she first hears the rumours.

STRANGE NEWS, they’d say, of a monstrous serpent with eyes like a sheep, come out of the Essex waters and up to the birch woods and commons!

It is said that the serpent lives below the surface of the Blackwater, by the parish of Aldwinter not far from Colchester. As luck would have it, Cora’s good friends Charles and Katherine Ambrose know the parish reverend and his family. Before a formal introduction can be arranged Cora unknowingly meets the Reverend William Ransome in an odd encounter involving a sheep stuck in the mud, and the two quickly become fast friends.

The serpent itself may be what draws this cast of characters together in the beginning, but it swiftly fades into the background. This is a novel about love, and at its heart is the intense relationship that grows between Cora and William. The two should not agree on much: he is a man of God, desperate to dispel the rumours of the serpent and sooth the worries of his parishioners; she is sure that the serpent is some strange species of animal and longs to find it, eager to live up to the memory of her heroine, the paleontologist Mary Anning. William is also married, to the beautiful Stella. The hook is not so much the mythical beast, but the everyday ‘will they, won’t they’ of this couple.

It is the friendships that matter most. Luke Garrett, doctor to Cora’s late husband, may be in love with Cora but it is his friendship with wealthy fellow doctor Charles Spencer which ultimately saves him. In his turn, Spencer’s unrequited love for Martha, Cora’s friend and her son’s nanny is what drives him to discover a real happiness. 

This book is a joy to read. The language is clever without becoming overly so. The prose is organically beautiful, its metaphors uncliched. I loved the section where Cora has arrived in Colchester and is discovering the ruins of a building that fell during the Colchester earthquake of 1884, the  most destructive in the UK in the last four hundred years, at the same time as she is learning about the apparent resurfacing of the old mythical serpent.

I have only one criticism of this book, and I almost didn’t want to mention it since it is very small and the rest is perfect. It is the universal problem of endings, and is so subjective that most people I feel will disagree. There were a lot of ends tied up at the end of this book. Most people love a resolution, whether it is what they hoped for or not. The book takes place over a calendar year and all the various strands peaked towards the end of the autumn, meaning that November and December were purely for resolving these. For me, having devoured the novel until this point, I found my attention drifting just a tad.

That one slight criticism aside, this is certainly the best and most enjoyable book I’ve read so far this year. I loved it and very much recommend it.