|Name: SOPHIA TOBIN
Author of: THE SILVERSMITH’S WIFE (2014)
On the web: sophiatobin.wordpress.com
On Twitter: @SophiaTobin1
From day trips to directories: researching The Widow’s Confession
The Widow’s Confession is set during a summer season at a Victorian seaside resort. Researching the life of the Victorian tourist with its excursions, shell-collecting, sea-bathing and fireworks was a necessary pleasure, and a provider of many dramatic possibilities.
Having pieced together various visual sources, my documentary research began with reading the newspapers for the period, searching for mentions of Broadstairs. I had prior knowledge of the town – I was brought up there – but the papers gave me the contemporary flavour I needed, historical texture and more information on its maritime culture. Through reading reports of shipwrecks I found descriptions of the sound of the lightships at the Goodwin Sands firing their guns to warn of a wreck, which became a defining motif in the book. Through the newspapers I also learned of events which served to drive some of the action, such as the Ramsgate Regatta, which became a pivotal scene. And when I read, in the London Standard, that Broadstairs was sought out by people who wanted privacy, in a moment I could hear my main character, Delphine, telling me it was ‘the perfect place to hide’.
Contemporary directories and guidebooks were hugely valuable to me, such as W. Kidd’s Picturesque companion to the Isle of Thanet, published in 1840, which described the most desirable shells collected by visitors – including the ‘beauty shell’ which found its way into the plot. As you might expect, the sources sometimes disagree (by 1851, Dickens was complaining that Broadstairs was too loud and busy; a guidebook printed that year described it as ‘very genteel and very dull’) but from such disagreements I could make my own decisions about how I saw the town, piecing together the sources and extracting a sense of atmosphere from them.
Swathes of research never made their way into the book, apart from brief mentions. When Theo describes a book he has been reading on archaeological finds at Reculver, justifying a visit, he is referring to a real book, written by Charles Roach Smith and published in 1850, which I pored over in the stacks of the London Library for an entire evening.
I don’t think you can beat an excursion for research purposes. I can still feel the icy wind whipping at my coat as I looked at the ruins of Reculver. Spending a summer weekend at Broadstairs, I watched the sky transformed by a summer storm, and lightning over the sea. A day later, a thick sea-mist fell, making everything ghostly, so that I could almost hear the sound of horses’ hooves and the creak of the lantern raised at the headland to signal to the boats. The town had given me, in days, a light-show of what I needed for the book. I have to admit, the best part of the research was watching lightning shiver over the summer sky.