At a really busy time at work in December I found the best way to switch off to get to sleep at night was losing myself completely in The Clockmaker’s Daughter by Kate Morton. I have long been a fan of the worlds Kate Morton creates (see my blogs on The Lake House and Kate Morton) and this one was one of my all-time favourites. It is centred around Birchwood Manor, a mysterious house on the banks of the Thames on the Oxfordshire-Berkshire border, and the lives of those who lived there.
The book moves backwards and forwards in time, but chronologically it starts in the 1860s, when the house is rented by Edward Ratcliffe for a summer of painting with his Bloomsbury group type artists’ set ‘The Magenta Brotherhood’. His muse is the clockmaker’s daughter. She was abandoned by her father as a child when he left to seek his fortune in America, having fallen on hard times, taken to drink and taken up with the wrong friends. She is taken in by Mrs Mack to be trained as a pickpocket on the streets of London. Her nickname Birdie is given up when she takes the name of one of Mrs Mack’s deceased working girls – Lily Millington. Lily is the backbone of the book, and introduces a cast of characters, all of whom are connected to Birchwood Manor.
Ada Lovegrove is the next character to live in the house in 1899. Born in India to parents living and working there, she is dumped in an English boarding school and misses her home desperately. The school is Birchwood Manor, set up by Lucy Ratcliffe, Edward’s younger sister, who inherits the house when Edward dies. Ada hates the place, her fellow students bully her, and a trip on the river ends in disaster.
In 1928 the house is then lived in by Leonard Gilbert, a soldier who survived the first world war and who is student working on a dissertation about Edward Ratcliffe, attempting to uncover the mystery of what happened one summer at Birchwood Manor when Edward’s fiance was killed.
Juliet, who first visits Birchwood Manor in 1928, briefly meets Leonard. She then returns to the house on honeymoon, and again in 1940 when she and her children Tip, Freddy and Beatrice are evacuated from London during the second world war after the death of her husband and the total destruction of her home in the Blitz. She is a columnist for a London newspaper, tasked with writing witty columns about wartime life in the countryside.
Lauren Adler, the famous cellist, then visits Birchwood Manor in the early 1960s with an American violinist friend on their way back from a performance in Bath, wanting to see where her mother Beatrice had spent life during the war as a child. She is killed in a car accident on her way back to London.
And finally, to Elodie, who appears first in the book, and who works as an archivist in a London basement, and who is the daughter of Lauren Adler. Whilst going through a box at work she finds what turns out to be Edward Ratcliffe’s satchel, complete with sketchbook, showing a drawing of a house she recognises from being told a bedtime story as a child. This takes Elodie on a quest to find the house and to uncover the history of her family and their connection to the place.
The Clockmaker’s Daughter is a cleverly written book, weaving these stories together and slowly uncovering the mystery of the house, its secrets and its history.