Prior to the outbreak of the First World War, Pearl Gibson begins her post as a lady’s maid to Lady Ottoline Campbell which takes her away from London. Restricted by her working class background, Pearl wants more out of life and she is hoping her new position will give her the opportunity to travel abroad and experience the luxuries she could never afford herself.
Pearl discovers her new employer is rather unconventional as Ottoline treats her more as a companion than a lady’s maid but Pearl soon starts to enjoy their shared confidences and the enchanting new world into which she is being drawn. At Delnasay, the summer estate in Scotland, Pearl is introduced to Ottoline’s cousin, Ralph, a sensitive artist, and it isn’t long before the two are embroiled in a love affair. However, their romantic cocoon is shattered when war is declared and Ralph enlists.
It is far more sombre family that returns to Northumberland as Ottoline frets for the welfare of her sons who have both enlisted and Pearl fears for her mental wellbeing. However, when Pearl discovers she is carrying Ralph’s child, she desperately needs Ottoline and the two women concoct a story where Pearl has suddenly married her erstwhile sweetheart who has gone to the Front. Keeping up the pretence, the two travel alone to the estate in Scotland where they claim Pearl’s daughter was born prematurely.
Ottoline and Pearl bond over the child and their shared secret, however tragic news breaks Ottoline’s spirit and she becomes increasingly erratic. Pearl, worried for the welfare of her daughter, leaves her job and returns to London where she learns Ralph has been killed. Heartbroken, Pearl attempts to pick up the pieces of her life for the sake of her daughter but nothing can ease the memories of her time at Delnasay. As Pearl despairs her life will never be the same, there are some surprising revelations around the corner and Pearl finally learns the truth behind her own illegitimate birth.
The Echo of Twilight is the fourth novel Judith Kinghorn has published, and I have read all of them apart from The Snow Globe which has taken forever to be released on Kindle. The Echo of Twilight is a return to the First World War era which Kinghorn explored so well in The Last Summer, however this book isn’t quite as hard-hitting. One of the things I loved the most about The Last Summer was the way Kinghorn portrayed the pre-wars days by imbuing them with a dream-like hazy quality, only for them to be brutally shattered by the harsh realities of war. Kinghorn does the same in The Echo of Twilight as the Campbell family are ensconced on their country estate in Scotland where they are sheltered from all the talk of war. That feeling is intensified when Pearl and Ralph cocoon themselves in his cottage and they live in their own private bubble for a few weeks.
Again, when war is declared, the family’s idyllic way of life is shattered forever and no one is spared the harsh realities of war as husbands, brothers and sons fall on the famous battlefields which still resonate today. Apart from that, the rest of the storylines are sadly predictable with unplanned pregnancies, mental illness and tragic losses. The story sags somewhat in the middle, especially after Pearl leaves the Campbells, and it just seems like the author is stretching the story out until the war ends and the timing is right to spring her next revelation.
The characters are likeable enough but there really isn’t much conflict between them, not even with Ottoline and Pearl’s fracturing relationship which could’ve been exploited more. Pearl is a pleasant enough narrator but it gets annoying when you realise everyone who meets her seems to become reliant on her presence. In the same way, everyone who guesses the truth behind Pearl’s fake marriage and the illegitimacy of her child chooses to turn a blind eye which doesn’t really ring true for the period. I also found it hard to believe the upper classes would talk to Pearl as quite as easily as they did given her position as a lady’s maid.
The most interesting character was definitely Ottoline but just as the truth behind her behaviour is starting to be revealed, Pearl leaves and the rest of the blanks are filled in much later which is a great pity. The fact Ottoline inadvertently engineers a meeting between Pearl and her real father is also a tad contrived, mainly because the mystery behind Pearl’s parentage has been left as a footnote throughout much of the novel and it was never intriguing enough to be interesting on its own merit.