One of the enduring staples of fiction is the English country house. They are centerpieces of many novels, from Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day to Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited. Kate Morton puts one such house at the center of The Clockmaker’s Daughter.
The house, situated on the River Thames, is Birchwood Manor, with staircases that turn at odd angles and “wall panels with clever concealments.” The house also conceals a secret inhabitant: a ghost who once went by the name Lily Millington and who now spies on guests who periodically drop by.
Lily first came to Birchwood in July 1862, when aspiring artist Edward Radcliffe invited fellow anti-establishment types to the house for a summer of painting. He couldn’t have predicted the fateful night to come, a night that featured “[t]wo unexpected guests. Two long-kept secrets. A gunshot in the dark.” That gunshot took the life of Fanny Brown, Edward’s fiancée.
Cut to 2017, when Elodie Winslow is working as an archivist, caring for the former belongings of Victorian banker James Stratton. One day, she discovers a waxed cardboard box containing a document case belonging to Stratton and a sketchbook of Edward’s. Among the drawings is one of Birchwood Manor.
It turns out that the house has relevance to Elodie’s family. What follows is an intricate tale that involves an 8-year-old girl who grows up in Bombay before her English parents abandon her at Birchwood in 1899; a 1920s historian researching the story of Edward Radcliffe; and a present-day journalist in search of a gem known as the Radcliffe Blue.
The Clockmaker’s Daughter is overstuffed with incident, but readers who enjoy a symphony of voices and multiple storylines will find much to like here. Morton builds considerable drama as she unveils the secrets behind Fanny’s death, the gem and more. It’s an imaginative tale for fans of historical fiction.