The day darkened... the house came into view...

The Quickening by Rhiannon Ward

[Sarah Ward]

published 2020

set in 1925 

I was delighted to get the chance to read this early – it will be published any day now – because I love Sarah’s books. She is one of my oldest blogging friends and I have watched in awe as she has made such a success of her writing career. We all loved her contemporary police procedurals set in Derbyshire –In Bitter Chill, A Deadly Thaw, A Patient Fury and The Shrouded Path. Now she has gone for something new – which explains the different name: Rhiannon is her middle name and she is using it for a different kind of book.

The Quickening is a standalone – a gothic mystery set in the 1920s, with creepy supernatural overtones. Well that was an easy sell - have you gone off and ordered it yet? Which of us doesn’t love a book like that? The title of this blogpost is only a slight paraphrase of lines in the book: tells you what to expect.

There’s a truly excellent heroine: Louisa was widowed and lost her children in the 1918 Spanish flu epidemic (that we all know so much about now, what with current events) and is now re-married and expecting again. She is a photographer, and is asked to come down to a stately home in Sussex to photograph the contents.

I’ll let Sarah continue the description:
Louisa learns Clewer Hall was host to an infamous séance in 1896, and that the lady of the house has asked those who gathered back then to come together once more to recreate the evening. When a mysterious child appears on the grounds, Louisa finds herself compelled to investigate and becomes embroiled in the strange happenings of the house. Gradually, she unravels the long-held secrets of the inhabitants and what really happened thirty years before… and discovers her own fate is entwined with that of Clewer Hall’s.

The book totally lives up to that description – it’s a great setup and she does the troubled atmosphere very well. It was fascinating, eerie, clever and compelling, and the historical details are very good.

I first encountered Sarah because of our shared love of crime fiction, and anyone reading this will see the clever hints and clues that pay homage to Agatha ChristieThe Hound of Death and Sad Cypress among others.

There’s all kinds of sinister: cats and marble hands and a singing child (that others can’t hear…) and a broken-down cottage. Photographs and photography are used to great effect – though in the end it is Sarah’s writing that creates the atmosphere, not just the props.

There’s proper attention paid to clothes, with mourning and a mourning brooch featured, as well as evening wear:
Helene was dwarfed by her dress, an apple-green crêpe de chine. I couldn’t imagine this woman as a society beauty but then I came from a long line of capable women and found it difficult to identify with lacklustre pallor. Ada had changed into an ostrich feather affair, more flamboyant than her black dress but still of a period a decade or so earlier.

The fact that Louise is pregnant enabled me to look up what a pregnant woman would have worn in the 1920s – Elle magazine produced a fascinating timeline/slideshow earlier this year (thanks EW for pointing it out) which is where I found these pictures. 

And Sarah actually asked me about dressing gowns of the era, as there is plenty of moving round the house in the middle of the night (a great favourite feature of mine in any book), so here are some pictures. 

The Quickening is highly recommended and a complete winner. 

Sarah is multi-talented, and I am sure she will have all the success she deserves with this book.

The painting is by John Collier and is called Sacred and Profane Love. 
Dressing gowns from a schoolgirl annual of the era. 


  1. I'm not at all surprised, Moira, that you liked this as well as you did. Sarah is such a talented writer, isn't she? And it's been fabulous to see how her work develops. I was already looking forward to reading this when it comes out, and now my appetite is thoroughly whetted.

    1. I'm sure you will enjoy it Margot! Very different from her procedurals, but equally engrossing, and her interest in surroundings and landscapes works for both kind of books. It's lovely to see our friend doing so well, isn't it?

  2. The book seems delectable; and what a fascinating picture - there really seems to be ten years between the two womens' dresses. Sacred and Profane Love? Really? I suppose the girl to the right represents profanity then? Whereas the good woman dresses demurely and unfashionably and sits in the shadow (of her husband, no doubt, who is watching them in the mirror). And sacrifices herself daily, as Virginia Woolf said about the Angel in the House. And is not bothered by sexual feelings, as William Acton, M.D. said about "normal" women. I am definitely on the side of the bad girl here.

    1. I love the picture, there's something very compelling about it. Strangely enough, I was looking for a quite different picture with the same title, similar era - it must have been a popular subject. (The other one shows a modern-looking young woman in a railway carriage with a cleric, intriguingly.)
      I wondered if the man in the mirror is a suitor for both the women: the question being will he choose the good potential wife, or will he be seduced into an unsatisfactory life with the other woman?

      Whichever way, picture and atittudes have changed since then so it all has a different meaning.

    2. I couldn't find the railway painting when I googled it, but Collier's painting seems to be based on this one by Titian, no less:

    3. Well that's one fine bit of Titian isn't it? the one I really want is really hard to track down. It is by Gabriel Charles Deneux, but I have just tried again and it doesn't come up on Google.
      But looking it up also reminded me that the subtitle of Brideshead Revisited is The Sacred and Profane Memories of Charles Ryder.

  3. I am very glad to see your review of this. The book has many pluses: photography, the stately home, the time setting. I am not overly fond of gothic, but will be reading this book regardless, and expect to like it. At this time the book is not available here in the US except as a Kindle. I will wait and see if it will be available here or if I will have to get it through Book Depository.

    1. I hope you can track it down Tracy: such a good read, and so many fascinating details. It is a very satisfying book.

    2. I went ahead and ordered it from Book Depository. It should arrive within a week. I don't know exactly when I will fit it into my reading, I already have a lot of reading planned for September. But soon enough...

    3. Yay! Good for you Tracy. I don't think you'll regret it.

  4. Just started it! And I know I am going to be gripped. Love the painting by the Hon John Collier. He specialised in 'problem' paintings, where you are meant to tease out the meaning.

    1. Just before lockdown I went to an exhibition at the National, which was Dutch paintings, Nicholaes Maes, but they made me think of those Victorian problem or story paintings. So I dug up a book about them, and hugely enjoyed reading it. I saw an exhibition of them years ago and loved it, so I did like having a good wallow in those tales of consciences, fallen women and redemption.
      What's your take on this one?
      I find I used him before, a post on Elinor Glyn illustrated with pictures of women and tigerskins...

    2. I think it is interesting that the picture dates from 1919 and the man is in uniform.

    3. Ooh, you tease! What a great point...


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