The Secrets of Blythswood Square

Sara Sheridan

Hodder & Stoughton, £16.99

“Gentlemen and their desires? Don’t you know it’s the stuff of the world?” asks Grace Sutherland, star of the Victorian stage, of aspiring photographer Ellory Mann as they discuss a racy photo session which might net them both a tidy sum.

The eroticisation of women’s bodies, and the denunciation of those enterprising, desperate or bold enough to cater to it, are among the burdens borne by the two central characters of Sara Sheridan’s captivating new novel, along with an oppressive church that polices the morals of its congregation but refuses to be held accountable for its own lapses.

Ellory Mann and Charlotte Nicholl are two independently-minded Scottish women from very different backgrounds, brought together by their mutual friend, lawyer Murray Urquhart, in 1846. The orphaned Ellory was raised in poverty in Edinburgh’s Cowgate, shunned by the respectable side of her family, before landing a job as assistant to photographer David Octavius Hill at his Calton Hill studio.

Charlotte, by contrast, grew up in a Glasgow townhouse with servants, and is having to come to terms with her father’s sudden death and her new status as mistress of the house.

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When a philanthropic businessman sees talent and ambition worth nurturing in Ellory, and gives her 20 guineas to start her off, she relocates to Glasgow (with Hill’s maid Jane tagging along), intent on starting her own photographic studio, where she will abandon the ponderous, painterly portraiture of Mr Hill for a freer, more spontaneous style. Tasked with helping Ellory to find premises, Murray is bowled over by her creativity, technical skills and determination to succeed in a man’s world.

Murray is soon shuttling back and forth between his new heartthrob Ellory and his childhood friend Charlotte, advising the latter on her estate. Then Charlotte makes two shattering discoveries. Not only has Murray been keeping a vital clause in her father’s will secret from her, but there’s a hidden cupboard in her house containing her late father’s extensive collection of erotic art. Quite apart from the shocking revelation of Mr Nicholl’s secret proclivities, how can the collection be disposed of without causing a scandal?

The Herald: Victorian GlasgowVictorian Glasgow (Image: free)

With her Free Kirk neighbours pressuring her to marry (preferably Murray), as a woman in control of her own destiny is surely a breeding ground for sin, Charlotte falls even further in their estimation by attending a lecture by the freed American slave Frederick Douglass. Ellory, meanwhile, is coming to the conclusion that producing saucy pictures of her assistant, Jane, is the only way to keep her photography business afloat.

It’s a long, slow-burning novel, but there’s never any sense of time being wasted. Sheridan meticulously fills out her characters, charting Ellory’s increasing self-confidence and decisiveness and Charlotte’s realisation that she must reinvent herself or else surrender all control of her life to her Free Kirk tormentors.

Her depiction of Victorian Glasgow is another of the book’s strengths, as Ellory and Jane respond with delight to its newness and vigour – it is “perpetually in motion” – and the social mobility it offers compared to the stratified, moribund Edinburgh they’ve left behind.

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Having got us properly invested, Sheridan can let things get complicated and build up the tension until there’s an almost unbearable sense of imminent catastrophe. As Ellory puts up, upon meeting the sexually confident Grace Sutherland, “This feels out of control, like a child rolling down a hill.”

Still, despite its focus on misogyny and male desire, The Secrets of Blythswood Square is a positive, optimistic novel that never gets quite as dark as it continually threatens to.