Book review: The Secrets of Blythswood Square, by Sara Sheridan

Telling the interlinked stories of two women in mid-19th century Glasgow, this is a novel of feeling and intellect, writes Allan Massie

Below the title on the front cover of The Secrets of Blythswood Square, the publishers offer an enticement: “Behand closed doors scandal awaits”. They have also priced the novel at £16.99, cheap these days for a handsomely produced hardback. They clearly expect good sales. They should get them, for this is a rich and compelling story, set in mid-19th century Glasgow.

Up to date in its attitudes, it is nevertheless a very Victorian novel with a strong plot and completely convincing characters, a Dickensian story of great expectations, with a secret at the heart of some of them.

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It has two heroines. The first is Ellery, a young photographer who has come from Edinburgh to set up a studio with only a little capital but much determination. Her expectations therefore are based only on her talent and character. There’s a good deal on early photographic techniques – too much some may think, but necessary and interesting.

The second is Charlotte Nicholl, only known daughter of a rich and highly respected father, James – a benefactor of the recently formed Free Kirk. James, however, has just been found dead in his study. His lawyer Murray Urquhart, whose father is Glasgow’s “finest and most conservative solicitor”, calls to attend to the matter. He is a friend of Charlotte, also, as it happens the lawyer who has helped Ellery establish herself in Glasgow. He will link the two young women’s stories.

The funeral takes place and Murray reads Mr Nicholl’s will to Charlotte. Everything is left to her; she will be a very rich woman. Now she is alone in the big house her father built, except of course for the servants and the bother of zealous Free Kirk neighbors – tiresome but treated as comedy. A mysterious man, Mr Lennox, calls, claiming to have important business with her father. She sends him away.

Then Murray makes a surprising discovery. Mr Nichol was a very rich man, but there isn’t much money. What has happened to the proceeds from railway shares he sold profitably? And then Charlotte makes a disturbing and (perhaps) shameful discovery.

That’s as much of the plot as a reviewer should reveal. It should be enough to entice. It’s enough to say that Sheridan is a compelling storyteller and one who paints a colourful picture of different levels of Glasgow life.

Sara Sheridan PIC: Aleksandra ModrzejewskaSara Sheridan PIC: Aleksandra Modrzejewska
Sara Sheridan PIC: Aleksandra Modrzejewska

In one sense, Sheridan concerns herself with matters fashionably important today: feminism and slavery, the Free Kirk having benefitted from its proceeds. But this is also a very Victorian novel in its evocation of the rapidly developing Glasgow and the attention which Sheridan gives to the city’s low life (not to mention its gay underworld – something which Victorian novelists could rarely do more than hint at). It has the amplitude of the Victorian novel, which often gave more of a voice to women of independent mind than is remembered. There’s a touch of Thackeray’s Vanity Fair to it, also Trollope, whose novels are rich in portrayals of strong-minded women. Then there were women novelists like Susan Ferrier (pre-Victorian of course), one of whose novels we find Charlotte reading, and also George Eliot of course.

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Yet this is in no sense a pastiche Victorian novel. Though it calls that to mind, it is free of tushery, is in no sense an imitation. It’s a novel for our time while calling to mind an earlier one. This is difficult to bring off and Sheridan brings it off admirably. She writes a clean 21st century prose while recovering the past convincingly. It is very well put together. The story is strong, the dialogue with a sprinkling of Scots convincing. In short it’s thoroughly enjoyable, a novel of feeling and intellect which will surely and deservedly be a great success.

The Secrets of Blythswood Square, by Sara Sheridan, Hodder & Stoughton, £16.99

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