It’s the summer of 1851 and visitors are beginning to arrive in the seaside town of Broadstairs, Kent. Among the new arrivals are a young American widow, Delphine Beck, and her cousin, Julia Mardell; two women surrounded by an air of mystery. What is the scandal in Delphine’s past that has led her to flee New York and become estranged from her family? Why has Julia decided to accompany her and why does she keep her face covered by a veil?
Another newcomer is Edmund Steele who has come to Broadstairs to escape from a failed love affair. He is staying at the parsonage with his clergyman friend, Theo Hallam, who is himself trying to move on after a personal loss of his own. Then there’s the artist Mr Benedict, who is planning to spend the summer painting the Broadstairs scenery while his family are staying in nearby Ramsgate, and finally there’s Miss Waring, a nervous woman in her fifties who is visiting with her beautiful young niece, Alba.
All of these people are brought together by Theo’s aunt, Mrs Quillian, who arranges a series of picnics, walks and sightseeing excursions for them. But despite her enthusiasm, there is a lot of tension within the little group and it seems that almost everyone has his or her own secrets to hide. When the body of a young girl is washed up on the beach – and more suspicious deaths follow – it appears that one of the summer visitors could be to blame. Can they put their differences aside and work together to identify the murderer?
The Widow’s Confession is Sophia Tobin’s second novel. Her first was The Silversmith’s Wife, a book I haven’t read and probably won’t now be reading as I found this one quite disappointing. I’m sorry I didn’t like it more as it did sound like the sort of book I would usually enjoy. There were some aspects I enjoyed – the setting, the portrayal of Victorian society and the way the relationships between the characters were developed so carefully – but otherwise the book was just not what I’d expected it to be. Maybe I was misled by the front cover, which gave me the impression the story would be more suspenseful and gothic than it actually was.
I felt that the mystery surrounding the dead girls was ignored for very long stretches of the novel, to the point where I no longer really cared who had killed them or why. I was more interested in the characters themselves, in their tragic pasts and in what had brought each of them to Broadstairs. As a slow-paced, atmospheric study of character and of 19th century life, I thought the novel worked quite well.
What I did love about this book was the setting. Broadstairs was a popular English seaside resort in Victorian times and a favourite holiday spot of Charles Dickens who wrote David Copperfield there (while staying at a house on the cliff which became known as Bleak House). The characters also visit some of the surrounding tourist attractions, all of which are vividly described; I particularly loved reading about their visit to the Shell Grotto in Margate.
For the right reader, I think The Widow’s Confession would be an interesting and worthwhile read, but I have to admit I was pleased when I reached the end and could move on to something else.