Book Review ‘The Shadowing’ by Rhiannon Ward

Today, I’m pleased to share with you my review of another of my Christmas book gifts: a gothic novel published in 2021 by Orion Books.

The Shadowing by Rhiannon Ward is both a captivating read and a learning experience.

I read this book in one evening and it gripped me throughout. Variously described on Amazon as Gothic Romance / Historical Fantasy / Metaphysical and Visionary Fiction, this novel is set in the 1840s and opens up to us the life of Southwell Workhouse, Nottingham (now in the ownership of the National Trust), of Quakers and Primitive Methodists and how society viewed them at that time,  the system of coach travel just before the railways took over, and also the horror of Victorian baby farming.

Hester, the main protagonist, from a Bristol-based Quaker family, has a tyrannical father, a weak mother, and a very loyal, sympathetic maid, Susanna. Hester combines her strong, determined and steely character with outstanding psychic gifts, intensely aware of “the spirits”, especially her dead sister, Mercy, whose mysterious death at the Southwell Workhouse she sets out to investigate.

I learned so many things from this novel. I had previously been aware that the authorities felt threatened by the Quaker movement when it first arose, and I knew early Quakers were imprisoned and treated like criminals, but I hadn’t realised the deep suspicion and distrust with which the ordinary people viewed Quakers and Primitive Methodists even after the practice of their religion had become legal.

The fact that Hester is a Quaker is recognisable by her plain clothing. I wasn’t at first sure why she needed to hide her “shadowings” (spirit sightings) from her father Amos, and also was mystified why her mother Ruth would feel obliged to tell him, if she knew. It intrigued me to discover that some Quakers at that time were quite fanatic and as bad as the most extreme Puritans and members of the Brethren sects – I had always thought the hallmark of Quakerism was tolerance and open-mindedness. This was a revelation to me.

The story begins with the arrival of a formal death notification from the superintendent of the Southwell Workhouse, addressed to Hester’s father. Hester’s sister Mercy, who ran away from home three years ago, has died at the Workhouse.

It then becomes Hester’s task to set off from Bristol to Southwell, and unravel the mystery.

The author’s description of travel by coach before the first railways began to be built in England was vividly described and answered many questions to which I had previously not known the answer. The novel gave me a very good feel for what it would have been like, in all its details, especially for a woman travelling alone.

Hester first arrives at the local coaching inn, run by Matthew, and spends a considerable time there awaiting her hosts, Dorothea and daughter Caroline, who are also Quakers but much more liberal. Matthew is going to play a significant role in this story, though Hester doesn’t know that yet. Finally, her hosts arrive and take her to their home – they are clearly well-to-do and ‘worldly’, a term used several times in this novel in a positive sense, meaning realistic and open-minded.

Hester pursues the mystery surrounding Mercy’s death, and the question of why she didn’t marry the man she eloped with, Mr Philips; why she never returned to her family nor did she, apparently, ever contact them; why she instead turned up at the Southwell Workhouse; why and how she died, and why she didn’t tell the Workhouse authorities that she was a Friend, or Quaker (which would have entitled her to different burial arrangements).

When Hester travels to visit the workhouse, we discover the local people view it with fear and horror; and once inside she learns that pregnant women are put in the dormitories for the “undeserving poor” and “given extra religious instruction” (meaning, as we would now describe it, ‘moralised at’ and ‘psychologically abused’). The more she learns about the system at the workhouse, the more shameful it becomes, exposing a system of callousness, cruelty and inhuman exploitation. Later Hester meets the local parson, and we discover he’s a nasty piece of work as well.

Throughout the story, the feeling of ghostly presences hovering around Hester is very strong, giving urgency to her mission.

The outcome of the story is both surprising and shocking, totally reversing our previous view of quite a few characters; and it will certainly have you doing your own online research about many aspects of mid nineteenth century England.

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Published by SC Skillman

I'm a writer of psychological, paranormal and mystery fiction and non-fiction. My latest book, 'Paranormal Warwickshire', was published by Amberley Publishing in November 2020. Find all my published books here: https://amzn.to/2UktQ6x

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