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Book Review – The Secrets of Blythswood Square by Sara Sheridan

Although it begins on Edinburgh’s Calton Hill, Sara Sheridan’s latest novel, The Secrets of Blythswood Square, brings new stories, characters and context to Glasgow, a city whose identity too often seems set in stone. Events take place in the 1840s, and while Glasgow is changing quickly in terms of industry, wealth and global profile (at the time it was often referred to as the ‘second city of the Empire’) the attitudes of many of its denizens are less than enlightened; fuelled, or at least justified, by religion, of course.

The expected roles of women in society are particularly deeply ingrained, and the independent and strong-willed Charlotte Nicholl is determined not to be constrained and defined by those who think they know what’s best for her. Seemingly self-sufficient and wealthy through inheritance from her recently deceased father, she finds that the bequeathal comes with unexpected strings attached, and those strings could destroy not only her father’s good name, but her own future.

Although she has confidantes who are on her side, it is the burgeoning friendship with Edinburgh-raised photographer Ellory McHale which helps inspire and support Charlotte when matters threaten her most. Not only from a different city, but a very different background, Ellory has come to Glasgow to in an attempt to start a new life. Similarly, she finds that expectations, not only of who and how she should be, but even as to the subject matter of her photography, pressurise her to consider options which, like Charlotte’s, are against her nature.

The hypocrisy that exists between the surface of ‘polite society’ and what lies beneath is stark, something which both women have to face and overcome. The best historical fiction speaks to the present day, and The Secrets of Blythswood Square does this in the most smart and stylish manner, investigating themes and ideas which remain all too relevant – including the troubling and terrible effects of Empire, which are ever present.

Sara Sheridan has written a novel which looks to the past, and the past looks straight back at us.

The Secrets of Blythswood Square is published by Hodder & Stoughton

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