A sense of place

The next Prime Writer to share an inspiring location is Essie Fox, who tells us about the unique Margate Shell Grotto.

Margate Shell Grotto 2

I’ve written three gothic Victorian novels, and all of them have settings which are often quite exotic. But perhaps the one that inspired me most is found in Elijah’s Mermaid.

waterhouse_a_mermaidThe story has two female narrators. One of them, whose name is Pearl, is saved from drowning in the Thames when she is just a baby, after which she is raised in a brothel until she reaches puberty and is sold to the highest bidder. Her fate isn’t quite what you might fear, but neither is it a happy one, because Pearl then finds herself enslaved as the muse of a famous artist: one whose work I imagined to be in the style of John William Waterhouse.

Obsessed with painting or drawing his ‘wife’ as a water nymph or mermaid, he takes her away to Margate where she poses in the Shell Grotto – lying on a slab of stone that might well be an altar, with her legs wrapped up in lengths of silk to emulate a fish’s tail. In this subterranean temple, the light of candles gleams on walls adorned with exquisite shell mosaics of hearts and flowers,  snakes, and trees. There is the sun, the moon and stars, and while Pearl gazes round at them the artist sits and stares at her …

He says, ‘You are my mermaid.’

The whites of his eyes are streaked with red, the lids around them bruised and bagged. Are mine the same, after all of this upheaval in my life, every night only snatching at drifts of sleep, every day brought back to this grotto, where he pays to ensure no prying eyes, where I am cold and miserable. But he says he must go on with it. He says he must work, or be consumed by the darkness in his heart again, and then he is driven to madness. And what can I say as an answer to that … when this place is nothing but darkness?

So, there we have what could be called some classic gothic elements. The girl as a powerless captive. A setting as damp and cold and dark as any castle’s dungeon.

And best of all, the place is real. You can also visit the Shell Grotto and see its wonders for yourselves – the wonders that might once have been created by Knights Templar, or as an ancient pagan church, or as a secret folly, before it was rediscovered when a nineteenth century farmer’s son fell down a hole in a field one day; when he must have looked around and thought he’d ended up in fairy land.



If you’d like to read more facts about the Margate Shell Grotto, there is an article on my blog, The Virtual Victorian.

essie fox and microphone

Essie Fox


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