The Secrets of Blythswood Square by Sara Sheridan – 20 Books of Summer 2024

The Secrets of Blythswood Square by the Scottish author Sara Sheridan is one of my 20 Books of Summer reads, and it was a really good one.

The book begins at Calton Hill in Edinburgh in 1846. Rock House stands right at the base of the hill and it’s owned by David Octavius Hill, the pioneer in photography. A lot of the photography work is done by two young women, cousins Jessie and Ellory, with Ellory being very much the underdog. It’s a tough life. When a philanthropist makes it possible for Ellory  to set up on her own she immediately takes herself off to Glasgow where she plans to open up her own photography business. She has far more business sense than the stuffy Hill, and has more talent and flair for artistic composition. She’s determined to make a go of it.

Meanwhile in Glasgow Charlotte has just lost her father, a wealthy businessman, and is now alone in the world with only her father’s servants for company.  When she meets Ellory the two are drawn to each other, despite the difference in status. It turns out that Charlotte isn’t as well off as she had expected, there’s a mystery to what has happened to a large investment that her father had made, and according to his will she’ll have to share half of what money there is with whoever lives in Helensburgh House, wherever that may be. But it seems that there’s very little actual money available, Charlotte thinks she’ll have to sell her family home and get rid of the servants.

This book involves the infighting of the Church of Scotland factions which had split up into the Free Church – The Great Disruption – and the protests that went on when the one time slave Frederick Douglass was giving lectures in Scotland and elsewhere, and trying to shame the churches to hand back the money which they had been given by slave owners over the years, something that they never did.

Sara Sheridan weaves actual historic people into her fiction books, such as the escaped slave Frederick Douglass, and her historical notes at the back of her books are not to be missed. I enjoyed this one just as much as the only other book by her that I’ve read, The Fair Botanists.

I must admit that when I read the title of this book I had assumed that the story would involve the notorious Victorian Madeleine Smith who lived there and was accused of poisoning her ‘gentleman friend’ so it was a nice surprise to discover that the storyline was completely different.

The Glasgow Tenement House

After we visited the very grand Pollok House in Glasgow a couple of weeks ago, we decided to go to the other end of the National Trust properties in Glasgow – the tenement in Buccleuch Street in Garnethill, not far from the Art School. Sadly I wasn’t able to take any photos of it, this is something which drives me round the bend as I can’t see a down side to people taking photos in NT properties. Obviously the camera’s flash could be turned off if they are worried about ancient tapestries that would be damaged by the light.

You can see a few photos of the tenement flat which are online here and here.

Miss Agnes Toward lived in the flat for about 50 years and in that time she doesn’t seem to have changed anything, even having gas lighting up until the 1960s. So it’s a bit of a time capsule, the flat has just one bedroom in it but the kitchen and the front room (parlour) both have a bed recess and box beds fitted into them.

Sadly there seem to be no photos of the bathroom online. It has a lovely basin in the shape of a shell with the water coming out of a smaller shell instead of a tap, and more shell shaped grooves for the soap and whatever.

It was all very familiar to me as I was born in a Victorian Glasgow flat, although it was a larger one with ornate cornicing and ceiling roses. In fact Jack did mention that the glass lemon squeezer on display in the kitchen is exactly the same as the one which we still use, there were quite a few things there which we have in our home.

The Tenement House is well worth a visit, it’s a wonderful glimpse back for anyone interested in social history.