KATHARINE TIERNAN grew up surrounded by her ancestral portraits, their eyes following her every move. As an adult with three successful historical novels behind her, she decided that it was time to return their gaze, and plunged into researching the family history that provided a framework for her latest book.
In 1745, Elizabeth Cresswell is a child living in her family’s Northumberland manor house when she first hears of the White Lady who haunts the seashore near by. This spirit, and the old statue of the Virgin Mary, Stella Maris, in the village church become nurturing feminine presences that sustain her at difficult moments in her life.
Elizabeth marries at 28, late for the period. Her wealthy husband started life as a common sailor, and ends up as a shipping magnate with an estate, a house in prestigious Bedford Square, London, and a close business relationship with the local noble family, the Mulgraves. Marriage to a wife from the gentry opened doors to him in a society that worked on patronage and contacts, but a chance discovery in the National Archive revealed that some of his money came from licensed piracy during the Seven Years’ War.
Tiernan’s previous trilogy (Books, 28 June 2019, 17 July 2020, 27 November 2020); dealt with the Dark Ages, a period from which little documentation survives. In this book, the dry bones of family archives, shipping records, and newspapers provide a wealth of background detail to flesh out the story; and contemporary portraits mean that she knows how her characters look. But she makes the same intelligent use of conjecture to fill in gaps and imagine a late-flowering love for the widowed heroine.
Told from Elizabeth’s point of view, in slightly 18th-century prose that is elegant but never heavy, this is both an absorbing piece of fiction and a fascinating insight into a slice of Georgian life.
Fiona Hook is a writer and EFL teacher.
Star of the Sea
Sacristy Press £14.99
Church Times Bookshop £13.49