Friday, October 12, 2018

Ins and Outs of Time

I suspect that the general public doesn’t often think of historians as detectives. Detectives in fiction, on television, and in the movies can be rumpled or sexy, old or young, male or ever more often female, but their lives are usually exciting. They hunt down clues, they pursue criminals in the flesh, they place themselves in physical danger and not infrequently risk their lives. In real life, the job tends to involve more grunge work and fewer thrills, but it still confers respect.

Historians are more likely to be viewed as stuffy. Professors in fiction hardly ever act like real scholars, but unless chasing their students or engaged in similar acts that would raise eyebrows at most universities (which is different from saying they never happen), professors fall into detection only by accident, like any other fictional crime solver.

But that assumes that the only detection that counts involves stopping present-day criminals in the act. In fact, scholars of all sorts love mysteries. That’s one of the reasons people become scholars in the first place: to answer unanswered questions, big and small. How does the universe work? What combination of proteins will defeat cancer? Why did Richard III lose at Bosworth Field?


It’s this kind of detection that forms the background to Kate Morton’s new book, The Clockmaker’s Daughter, released on October 9. The novel opens in the summer of 1862, when a young experimental artist invites a group of friends to his home, Birchwood Manor. The house party ends in tragedy, although it will be the end of the book before we discover all the details.

Instead we shift forward 155 years, to London in the summer of 2017, where Elodie Winslow, an archivist (a profession generally and just as undeservedly considered even more boring than history), discovers an old satchel hidden in a desk. The satchel contains an initialed leather journal and a woman’s photograph, among other items, and is labeled with the name James W. Stratton, a reference to the prominent Victorian businessman and philanthropist to whom the archive is dedicated.

Elodie, like any good archivist or historian, is immediately hooked. Who is the woman in the photograph? Who kept the journal, and why does it contain a sketch of a house that Elodie remembers from childhood stories? What connects the satchel with James Stratton, and why was it hidden for so many years?

Even though she’s supposed to be preparing for her wedding to a wealthy businessman of her own, Elodie can’t resist trying to answer these questions and the many more that appear as soon as she answers the first set. In the process, she—and we—uncover a considerable amount about her family’s past and its previously undisclosed connection to Birchwood Manor. As a historian myself, I loved every minute of it.

But that’s only one thread of this remarkable and compelling novel. Although I looked forward to talking with Kate for New Books in Historical Fiction, I recognized as soon as I got into her book that it would be difficult to discuss the novel without giving away crucial elements of the story. So when it turned out that scheduling one more event into an already daunting three-continent book launch wasn’t really feasible, I had mixed feelings. On the one hand, I felt certain that it would have been an interesting conversation; on the other, dodging so many unmentionable plot points seemed like a challenge and a half. Writing this blog post instead solved that problem.

Because that summer house party has consequences, as well as a history of its own. And while it would be impossible for Elodie to discover everything about those events no matter how much effort she put into her research, we as readers do get that chance. At the heart of the story is Birdie, the clockmaker’s daughter of the title, whose fate is more entwined with the whole than Elodie can even imagine.


Find out more about this and Kate Morton’s other novels at her website.

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