This rather interesting venture into the world of fictionalised historical reconstruction, somewhat reminiscent of The Suspicions of Mr Whicher, is sadly out-of-print, although secondhand copies can be found on the usual sites. Unlike Kate Summerscales’ book, though, it doesn’t seek to reproduce the investigation, but the events leading up to the murder of Charlotte Spears in the small Scottish town of Kirkfieldbank, near Lanark. In the nineteenth century small-town Scotland was prim in the extreme and on her arrival from Glasgow to keep house for her aunt and uncle, Charlotte quickly finds herself the object of her neighbour’s scrutiny. A young woman of determination and independence of spirit, she nonetheless sets herself up as a music teacher and appointed to take charge of the kirk choir (the detail on the modern, “scientific” approach to music teaching, and its use of tonic solfa, is fascinating). Before long she catches the attention of a young local minister, in whom she quickly recognises a kindred spirit, but she’s also subjected to the attentions of a much less amenable man, the decidedly oily Mr Weir, a member of her choir. And then Charlotte’s cousin Willy comes home from Glasgow to convalesce from a fever, and she, alone in the house while her uncle and aunt attend their draper’s shop, must nurse him during his recovery.
There is a tremendous immediacy to The Flourish, reinforced by the knowledge that
The events in this story are true. The characters all lived. My task as storyteller has been to provide motives, particulars and narrative continuity, always and necessarily convinced that the parts I have imagined are true as well.
The author, Heather Spears, is Charlotte’s great niece, a Canadian poet whose love of language is evident in her handling of nineteenth-century Scottish idiom, which she wields with startling flair. Words which might be unfamiliar to the reader fall naturally into context and become, I suspect, self-evident (and a quick online search will anyway provide the answer to any problematic expressions) while the minutiae of daily life provide an ground bass above which the over-arching story flows:
Charlotte took her early walk in all weathers. The ways still hung with tawdry bits of ribbon over the dykes and among the hedges. Helen’s red sateen had been found not to be fast; when they came to pull it down, the doorstep and some of the roses were spotted from it, which looked very odd. Margaret Tennant scrubbed the porch, and Maddie gathered the affected petals up as they fell, for a pot pourri.
Willy fails to recover, his fevers “returning and returning”. With Charlotte’s murder foreshadowed from the start, there begins to be a dreadful inexorability to the pace, a strong contrast with the lack of event which mainly characterises her everyday life. While she washes the bedlinen and teaches her pupils, moving quietly about the house and village, we know that Charlotte is doomed, that no choices she can make can prevent her terrible end. Even so, you can’t help hoping for some way out. An unforgettable book.