Over the next few weeks I’m going to be blogging about some of the images which have inspired my writing. Looking at pictures, whether photographs, paintings or prints, is a way of unlocking my imagination, and the visual is central to everything I write. When I think of The Silversmith’s Wife, I see the foggy, crowded streets of late eighteenth-century London; when I think of my second book, The Widow’s Confession, it’s the wide open skies and unpredictable seas of the Kent coast.
The Widow’s Confession is set in the summer of 1851, and it centres around a group of Victorian tourists who find themselves entangled in a series of murders. When I started writing I already knew the area, but it was important to visit the places mentioned in the book to try and see them through my characters’ eyes. One such place was Reculver, which is dominated by the twin towers of the ruined St Mary’s Church; seeing it on the horizon had scared and fascinated me as a child. The site has been a Roman fort, an Anglo-Saxon estate of the Kentish kings, and a mediaeval monastery which then became a church. Now, it is dominated by the ruins of the church, at the edge of the cliff, and the King Ethelbert Inn.
We went there on a summer’s afternoon (sadly, the budget didn’t stretch to horse and carriage), and I took the photograph shown at the bottom of this page. That photograph became an important token to me – something I returned to again and again, when I wanted to remember what it had felt like to be there. And Reculver felt: dangerous, remote, beautiful, and charged with all the lives and ceremonies that had taken place there. It surprised me how strongly it moved me, in some intangible way I couldn’t quite grasp. I gave that feeling to my characters; and it became a place where they begin to consider how their lives have been changed by all that they have seen. At least two of them are in love; another two are terrified that the past is going to catch up with them. This place, so strange and wild, gives them the space to consider what will come next.
When I got home, I wrote the following. It’s an extract of a letter from Delphine Beck, one of the main characters in the book, and she is remembering the past:
Of Reculver, I remember the cold – the kind of cold you feel in your bones – the desolation of that spot, even in midsummer, though I do not know whether we found desolation there or brought it with us…
The chill, deep blue of the sea, the grey of the flint towers, the clouds tracking above us, edged with light, hinting at the hidden radiance of the sun behind them…it is all stamped into my memory. And it is not a dead thing, like pressed flowers, or a shell washed clean of its sand; it lives and scintillates, so that sometimes from my chair, I have watched it in my mind, a scene before me, on the canvas of the empty walls of the room.
This small, grainy photograph can take me back there in a moment.