Tag Archives: images

“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


“It is not a dead thing…”

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.