“In the sudden darkness, she felt alone…”

I admit, the image shown below is not a good photograph. It’s one of many I took when I was walking through the Shell Grotto in Margate (if you want to see some really beautiful images of it, I recommend that you go to their website, or, even better, visit it in person. It’s astonishing).

I went to the Shell Grotto because my Victorian tourists visit it in The Widow’s Confession, set in 1851. It’s a mysterious place: an underground grotto decorated with thousands of exotic shells in strange and intriguing patterns. Discovered by two children in 1835, no-one knows who made it, or why, and it has been a Margate tourist attraction ever since.

The locations I chose for my Victorian tourists to visit shaped the scenes that take place in the book, something which happened almost completely below the level of my awareness. The chapter set in the Shell Grotto turned out to be an important one. It forced my characters to descend from the bright sunshine of their seaside holiday into subterranean gloom. They have become entangled in a series of deaths, and the Grotto’s darkness brings these shadows into their consciousness. As Delphine walks along the uneven passage into the heart of the complex, she realises:

 She was in the midst of the party, but in the sudden darkness, breathing in the unfamiliar scent of the saturated air, she felt alone.

In fact, even today, with electric lighting rather than gaslight, the Grotto is a deliciously spooky place. In the book the visitors are startled by a cat jumping out at them, something which happened to me on our visit (another reason for really experiencing a place – it gives you details you could never dream up at your desk).

The Grotto also does something else. It forces my characters into close physical proximity with each other. These are true Victorians, papering over their feeling with etiquette, trying to be prim and proper, but there are many feelings seething below the surface. The strangeness of the Grotto, its enclosed space, and the stark relationship between daylight and darkness, loosens their inhibitions, just slightly:

The shells offered texture to the eye – but it was still cold, and dark. In most areas the gaslight offered little relief, but there were also apertures from which light fell and uncoiled, like white liquid, on the floor….

They moved around the rotunda, and Delphine looked up at a great shell-pocked blister of daylight, bluish-white to her eyes. She blinked, suddenly disorientated, and took a faltering step back.

She felt someone’s hands on the tops of her arms, hesitant, steadying her. The touch was such a gesture of intimacy that she thought it must have been Julia. But glancing back, she found Theo there, his face barely two inches from hers.

The photograph shown here became that moment for Delphine: a moment of disorientation, when she realises that many things are going on beneath the surface that she doesn’t yet understand.

Shell Grotto

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