Bath 1821. Rachel Crofton escapes her unhappy employment as a governess by marrying a self-made businessman. But her new life soon takes an unexpected turn. Reclusive Jonathan Alleyn is a man tormented by the disappearance of his childhood sweetheart, Alice. Starling, foundling child and now servant, is convinced that Alice, the woman she loved as a sister, was stolen from her. Did Alice run away? Or did something altogether more sinister occur?
As with the other two books, this is a dual narrative. Rachel, through the autumn and winter of 1821, is coping with being newly married and being back in Bath, though in far reduced circumstances from when she was there as a child and young woman. Starling’s account starts in 1803, when she is taken in by kind-hearted Alice, whose sudden disappearance not only wrecks her own life – but tips Jonathan Alleyn, teetering on the edge of post-traumatic stress after his horrific experiences during the Peninsula War into a complete mental breakdown.
There are four main characters – Rachel and Starling, who are the protagonists and we see the story unfold through their viewpoints, in addition there is also Alice, the missing girl. Many believe she absconded with a secret lover, but Starling is grimly convinced that something else happened to her – and has been battling to get to the bottom of her fate, working as a servant in the household where she believes Alice’s murderer lives. And the other character who largely features, is Jonathan, a half-mad invalid, who has been shut up in his mother’s house since his return from the War.
As ever, Webb’s attention to detail and her recreation of the historical backdrop to this mystery is pin-sharp and perfect. We can smell and taste 19th century Bath, particularly the walk Rachel is forced to take from her own humble dwelling through the streets to the place of her new employment, or to the shabby tenement where her father-in-law resides… Again, as we’ve come to expect from Webb, the story is layered with secrets and mystery so that almost from the moment I picked it up, it was difficult to put down again.
Rachel and Starling both make strong protagonists – both clever, determined and courageous. I liked them both, although Starling steadily grew on me as the book progressed and I increasingly understood her bitterness. In addition to the main characters, there are also a number of other memorable, well drawn individuals whose story is drawn into the mystery. But the one who sings off the page for me, is Alice, the missing girl. I felt I knew what had happened to her by two-thirds through the book – until I discovered that I didn’t… Webb certainly knows how to create twists.
One of the issues that comes very clearly through the book, is what a grim time it is to be a woman. Once married, all your property belonged to your husband and if you were wronged in any way, justice was chancy and often too late. It isn’t a great time to be poor or elderly and infirm, either. The ending is completely satisfactory and once more, Webb has taken me on a rich, action-packed journey which I am profoundly glad to have taken. While this book doesn’t quite have the magical feel of A Half-Forgotten Song, which for me is one of the most memorable and outstanding reads, ever, this doesn’t mean it is anything other than a really good book and one I highly recommend.