Sophia Tobin’s historical mystery, set on the coastal resort of Broadstairs in 1851, recounts what happens when a group of strangers come together – as a series of unexplained murders rock the town.
Broadstairs was, of course, Charles Dickens’s favourite resort, and The Widow’s Confession is a suitably dark and Dickensian journey into a dark heart of repressed Victorian secrets and shifting sands. It’s set in an era where an improprietous look can have disastrous repurcussions.
At Crime Thriller Fella, we’re getting our slovenly maid to set the table for breakfast properly so that we can review the book next week, but we’re delighted to say that today author Sophia Tobin is here to tell us about the inspiration for one of her protagonists. Ralph Benedict is a stand-out character, a mysterious and vain painter, whose unsavoury intentions ramp up the drama — and he’s based on a very real and celebrated figure of the time…
Artefacts and paintings are the first things I look at when I’m researching a novel. They’re a visual way in to a period, recording not just things like contemporary ideals of beauty, but also showing me the items my characters wore, looked at and used every day, from cups to corsets. The most important piece of art I studied when writing The Widow’s Confession, set in Kent in 1851, was a painting by William Powell Frith: Ramsgate Sands (Life at the Seaside), which was displayed at the Royal Academy in 1854, and is now in the Royal Collection.
Ramsgate Sands depicts holidaymakers on the beach at a seaside resort just a little way from Broadstairs, where my book is set. It’s painted from the vantage point of the sea, and there are stories in the faces of everyone present, from the frightened toddler being lifted into the sea, to the widow with her parasol. But it’s not just the content of the painting that is important to the book; the man who painted it became the basis of one of my characters.
William Powell Frith was the kind of celebrity painter whose work was so popular that it had to be protected from the crowds by railings. He had a wife and twelve children, and he drew on his family life in some of his paintings, such as Many Happy Returns of the Day, which depicts the perfect domestic scene of a child’s birthday party.
But, as with so many Victorian lives, his life was not everything it seemed. Frith maintained a secret family a few streets away from his family home – a family comprised of his former ward and the seven children she bore him. One can only imagine at the strains of such a life on all concerned. Every year, Frith took his ‘legitimate’ family to Ramsgate for the summer. I couldn’t help but wonder whether Frith stayed with them all the time, or slipped away, perhaps to somewhere quieter – like Broadstairs.
Hence, Ralph Benedict, painter and wild card, was born. I didn’t want to play fast and loose with the life of Frith himself – using his name would mean limiting the ideas I had in my mind for the character, and I’d be hampered by the guilt of hijacking a ‘real’ life for my own purposes.
But the framework Frith’s circumstances gave me allowed to create the changeable, magnetic Benedict, who cannot quell his impulses; a wonderful painter, an attractive man, but also an unstable character prone to drama. Benedict is only one in a cast of characters who come together in the summer of 1851, and become embroiled in a series of murders – but thanks to Frith, he is a painter, whose complex personal life comes to define him.
The Widow’s Confession is out now, in all the usual formats.