Dark truths. Beautiful lies.Bath, England, 1821. Rachel Crofton escapes the binds of her unhappy employment as a governess by marrying a charming self-made businessman. She sees a chance to create the family and home she has so long been without, but her new life soon takes an unexpected turn.Through her new husband's connections, Rachel is invited to become the companion of the reclusive Jonathan Alleyn, a man tortured by memories of the Peninsula War, and tormented by the disappearance of his childhood sweetheart, Alice.Starling, foundling servant to the Alleyn family, is convinced that Alice, the woman she loved as a sister, was stolen from her. Did Alice run away? Or did something altogether more sinister occur? Starling is determined to uncover the truth. Others want only to forget, and will go to extreme lengths to do so.Rachel's arrival has an unsettling effect on the whole Alleyn household, and suddenly it seems that the dark deeds of the past will no longer stay contained. Shattering truths lurk behind Bath's immaculate facades, but the courage Rachel and Starling need to bring these truths to light will come at a very high price
The story is set in the city of Bath in the south of England and begins in 1803 when a small child is found walking alone from the nearby marshes. She is taken in by Alice, a young lady who has a secret past of her own. Alice names the girl Starling, and from that day on, the two are inseparable. The story then skips to 1821, and the wedding day of Rachel and Richard Weekes. Rachel is alone in the world, any fortune that her family had were lost by her father before his death, she is marrying beneath her class, but Richard Weekes appears to love her deeply and she has high hopes for their future together.
Rachel is introduced to her new husband's acquaintances, and it is through these that she meets the Alleyn family and is invited to become the companion of Jonathan Alleyn, a recluse who has suffered greatly since returning from the battlefields and finding that his beloved Alice has eloped with a secret suitor. There is a great mystery surrounding Alice's disappearance. Her faithful companion Starling believes that Jonathan is responsible for her disappearance and that Alice would never have left her behind. Mrs Alleyn, Jonathan's mother will not speak Alice's name and makes it clear that she was a good-for-nothing who was not worthy of her son's love.
Rachel become more and more involved in the mystery surrounding Alice's departure, not least because she bears a striking resemblance to the missing woman, and that in itself sparks suspicion in Rachel's own mind. The story continues to skip back and forth in time, allowing the reader to understand and follow the events that led up to Alice's disappearance.
Katherine Webb has created an absorbing story full of intrigue with apparent ease, her writing is compelling and flows beautifully. The characters are strong and so very appealing and each one of them grows so much as the story develops.
The sights and sounds of nineteenth-century Bath are described beautifully, from the grand houses with downstairs servants, to the back-street ale-houses with the drunks and whores. The snobbery and the hidden shame of the upper classes reveal the darkest of secrets, and the lengths that these people would go to avoid losing face amongst their peers.
Probably the most hard-hitting scenes in the book are when Jonathan Alleyn tells of his time on the battlefields of Spain. Katherine Webb does not hold back in her descriptions of the complete and utter horror that was experienced by the soldiers in battle. These scenes make for hard-hitting, violent and at times very emotional reading, but excellently done.
This is an absolute must-read, an outstanding story that will keep the reader engrossed until the very last word
The Misbegotten was published by Orion Books today, 29 August 2013. My thanks to Emma Dowson from Orion who sent my copy for review.
Katherine Webb was born in Kent in 1977 and grew up in rural Hampshire before reading History at Durham University. A childhood fascination with ruined castles and the secrets of the past has carried forward into her fiction, which incorporates historical story lines and explores how past events can reverberate in the present.
She has since spent time living in London and Venice, and now lives in rural Wiltshire. Having worked as a waitress, au pair, personal assistant, book binder, library assistant, seller of fairy costumes and housekeeper, she now writes full time.