The Light Within Us (The Spindrift Trilogy)

Written by Charlotte Betts
Review by Douglas Kemp

Cornwall in the early 1890s. The story centres on a small group of young, and bohemian art students. Edith and Benedict Fairchild are newlyweds. Benedict inherits the substantial property, Spindrift House, from his Aunt Hester. Located near Port Isaac on the Cornish coast, the house was bequeathed to his widowed aunt, who had conducted a long-running secret affair with her married landlord, Jago Penrose. When Penrose died, Hester was shocked to learn that she had inherited the house. After being violently confronted by Jago’s son, who had expected to receive the house himself, Hester dies of heart failure, but only after saying that she did not want to keep the house. Perhaps somewhat unwisely, Benedict, his aunt’s main beneficiary, retains the house and decides to move there with his new wife and their artistic circle. The unconventional coterie meets hostility from the resentful Penrose family. Edith faces an increasing number of challenges as she adjusts to the realities of married life, her initial ecstasy at married domestic bliss with Benedict quickly changing with motherhood.

An underlying theme is the powerlessness and precarity that women experienced in British Victorian society, when their families could threaten to send wayward daughters to an asylum and married females were essentially owned by their husbands. This is an engaging novel, easy to read with the plot rather plodding along, and with characters that are interesting, if perhaps sometimes acting a little unrealistically and overly melodramatically – the novel is peppered with moustache-twirling villains and evil harridans that the reader wants to boo and hiss at from the sidelines. The conversational content and tone, and interpersonal dynamics are not always what one would expect in 19th-century English society – somehow present-day modes, social codes and milieu seem to keep butting in. The novel ends a little suddenly, and indeed Charlotte Betts reveals in her afterword that this is the first volume in a trilogy.