This novel was thoughtfully provided amongst the books in a Suffolk holiday cottage because of its Walberswick location; I enjoy reading books in their geographical setting, so gave it a whirl. The novel is a fictionalised account of the artist Philip Wilson Steer's time in Walberswick, the setting of many of his paintings (including The Bridge, shown above courtesy of a link to the Tate's collection) and a place where he spent many summers, until the early 1890s when his visits tailed off. In Victoria's Golden Jubilee year, 1887, the fictional Steer comes to know Isobel, the mother of three young girls, spending her summer at the Suffolk resort while her husband continues to work in London. Philip is passionately interested in painting, to the exclusion of everything else, until he encounters Isobel and feels himself in love before they have even spoken; Isobel arrives in Walberswick with a vague sense of dissatisfaction, but consoling herself with that "comforting word", duty, when she considers the less attractive aspects of her marriage. Their relationship, unwittingly brokered by Isobel's little daughter Emma, who craves attention, and fostered by her chaperone Aunt Jude, who likes to see her with friends, grows quickly, and a passionate attachment develops on both sides; however, the climax of their love will be dancing together at a Jubilee fete in Dunwich, once the capital of East Anglia but eroded by the sea over hundreds of years to a handful of cottages today.
The book is very good at evoking the scrutiny under which Isobel and Philip conduct their relationship. They are watched by Isobel's daughters, particularly Emma, who resents their closeness even though she cannot understand it; by Aunt Jude and their social circle in Walberswick; and by their servants and the townspeople. Isobel comes to feel ever more trapped by all the eyes upon her; Philip feels obliged to offer excuses for leaving the town to his landlady, when he seeks to escape the tension of their unresolved love. It also presents a strongly hierarchical Victorian society, in which the gentry take a prurient interest in the lives of the working class, by whose difference they define themselves. After a violent storm, "Mrs Roust and Mrs Arthur moved among the fishermen's wives and, with the insinuation of assistance and sympathetic cluckings and shakings of the head, elicited every detail they could. They turned through the rubble of these women's lives [...] hoarding their finds to pore over again and again in the warm comfort of their homes." The child Emma sees the revellers at the fete as "a great crowd [...] red faces and wide open mouths, arms linked together like a string of fat sausages." Hierarchies are maintained further down the social scale, with Emma routinely oppressed by her older sisters, and Steer's landlady, Mrs Pearce, dominating an ancient servant.
The narrative shifts, in third person, between the viewpoints of several characters, principally Philip, Isobel and Emma. There was a little too much of Emma for me, but her recognition of her mother's affection for Steer is important for the plot. I found Isobel's husband Reginald a slightly cardboard character, driven only by money and intensely materialistic. He is clearly a foil for the passionate and aesthetic Steer, but to some extent they are two sides of the same coin, each relentlessly pursuing his particular vocation.
There is a film of The Bridge and the DVD was also in the cottage, but I failed to get around to watching it - next time.