“Down in a desolate part of the South of England, bordering on the celebrated “Romney Marsh” and between that and the sea, there is what we should call a village, but its inhabitants dignify by the name of a “town”. Miss Balmaine’s Past (Croker, 1898, p.1)
‘Horton’ a thinly veiled New Romney is the setting for Bithia Mary Croker’s 1898 novel Miss Balmaine’s Past. Bithia Croker (c.1848-1920), a successful novelist, was born in Ireland and known mainly for her army stories set in India. She moved to Sandgate with her husband, a retired lieutenant colonel in 1897 and lived at 10 Radnor Cliff, until at least 1911.1 It was there that she gained inspiration for her novel.
The novel paints a dismal portrait of Horton, where there was “no shopping, no lending library – not even a clothing club.” (p.8); very different from the present-day New Romney which has a supermarket, library and charity shops. The countryside and the marshes around the town, however, provide a wild and romantic location for Rosamund Balmaine, who runs “with hasty, elastic steps over the green turf across “the Marshes.” To meet, of course, a young man.”
Bored of her stultifying existence at home with grandma, “knitting a good piece of the old lady’s stocking, taking up dropped stitches, and reading aloud Rasselas or the “Old English Baron,” which she almost knew by heart..”, Rose arranges to meet Ronald Gordon, a solid sensible young man of 27, who is surveying the marsh for a new railway and who had only a week earlier rescued her from the clutches of a tramp who tried to kiss her on the marsh. Ronald is amazed to find “a high born looking maiden, with a purely classic profile, wandering alone on the Marshes of Horton”. (p.17) and in equal measure horrified that she should be “buried in this social graveyard!” (p.19) When he meets Rose’s grandmother who is gradually slipping into senility, he realises the plight of the young woman and the couple begin to meet regularly in secret.
After the death of her grandmother, Rosamund marries Ronald, before her mother, a negligent and cruel woman who lives in India, can prevent the match. A honeymoon in Paris, where Rosamund is affronted by a man at the opera, is followed by a separation. Ronald sets off to New Zealand to make their fortune, leaving Rosamund sitting “for hours in her own room, or on the high shingly beach watching the wintry sea, the outgoing steamers, and weep unrestrainedly.” (p.50)
When her mother, step-father and step-sister return from India, Rosamund is swept off to London where she lives unhappily under their roof hiding her marriage from her parents. When her step-brother, Ted, turns up she recognises him as the man at the opera and he tells her parents that Rosamund was running around Paris with a known roué. They convince her that Ronald is dishonourable and that her marriage is a sham. Rosamund gives birth to Ronald’s child, but to protect her honour her family farm the child out, telling Rosamund that the baby boy is dead.
Meanwhile, Ronald has been shipwrecked and is eeking out an existence on a remote island; it is four years before he can return to England. On his return, he discovers that his cousin has died and he has inherited the title of Lord Airdrie. He rushes to Horton where nothing has changed: “There were apparently the identical people standing in their doorways, the same cocks and hens and dogs promenading the High Street, the same venerable white horse in the ‘bus and the Marshes were precisely as he had last seen them.” (p.110)
However, his wife, whom he is searching for, is missing, reputed to be engaged to a rich lord. On seeing Tommy, a village urchin, and hearing rumours that he is Rosamund’s abandoned child, he adopts him knowing him to be his son. Bitter that she should abandon his child, he decides to discover what sort of woman she has become and rents an estate in Sandshire, near where she is living. He finds her more worldly than when he left and imagines resentfully that she has forgotten him. It is only when his son Tommy has a riding accident and Rosamund helps nurse Tommy that Ronald wonders how a heartless mother who has abandoned her son, can show so much compassion to a small child. He wrestles with his conscience whether to reveal himself to his wife and begins to ask her many probing questions about her character and past, hoping that she is still at heart the same wild Rose of the marshes whom he had married four years earlier. She describes Horton to him as “The houses are three or four hundred years old, and the people seem to match them in their ideas. The place is surrounded by miles of pasture and shingle; indeed half the parish consists of beach, the other half reclaimed marshes covered with flocks of sheep.” She continues that she is a marsh-bred girl and the area will always be beautiful to her. Still unsure whether to reveal himself, the words remain unsaid, and Rosamund remains ignorant that Lord Airdrie is her long-lost husband.
The arrival of Rosamund’s stepsister at Balmaine Court spells trouble as Mrs Crosse’s vindictive hatred of Rosamund encourages her to spread rumours about her “past” and Sandshire society begins to shun the once-popular young woman. Things take a turn for the worse when her step-brother tries to blackmail her, asking for £1,000 to buy his silence. When Ronald sees her in church, he notices a change in her, and observes her place flowers on an unmarked grave of a child with a tear in her eye, saying “for the sake of another grave, upon which no one ever lays a flower.” (p.247) He doesn’t immediately realise that she believes her child to be dead, but when she reveals that her “past” has been exposed and that she has become the gossip of the county, he says that he knows her history. She is shocked to hear that he knows her past, not realising that it is Ronald and says that a gentleman should not boast about knowing a woman’s secrets. She vows not to talk to him and rides off. He determines to tell her mother and step-father the truth about their marriage.
Rosamund, who is still in the dark about her husband, is accosted by her step-brother whilst out on a walk; he is determined to blackmail her into marrying him for her money. Ronald who is riding by, sees the pair arguing and comes to her rescue, much as he did when she was affronted by Ted at the opera in Paris. However, this time, Rosamund is much more self-assured and able to rebuff Ted’s advances and resents Ronald’s intrusion.
Rosamund determines to go to Horton to avoid the public gaze that is now upon her, although her mother begs her not to go saying: “Why it’s enough to drive anyone to suicide, with those miles of marsh and shingle, and dreary grey sea, with an occasional body on the beach.” Ronald sets off after her, although he has to ask directions of Colonel Brice’s butler who is “an uncommonly clever fellow at Bradshaw” (Did Croker forget that Ronald had surveyed the area for the railway!) and he arrives to stay at the Merry Sailor. Ronald decides to visit the church with its spire “as good as a lighthouse” and spots Rosamund in the graveyard. He follows her and tells her the truth and the couple are reconciled. Ronald says he will take her away from this bleak spot never to return, but she says that she can never forget the marshes as this is where she met him and gave birth to Tommy, and this is where they were both returned to her. She also admits that her dog Roy is fond of the place, and who can ignore a dog’s wishes!
Mrs Croker described New Romney and the Marshes as timeless and tedious, but also as a place where her characters could be themselves, free of the trammels of society and where love could blossom, where a rose could be wild, not like a hot-house flower despatched to Covent Garden. The wilds of the marshes offer the potential for secret but chaste love, a purer love than the formalised setting of Sandshire and London.
Bithia Croker continued to write until she died in 1920, although she returned to her much-loved themes of Anglo-India. She wrote at least 16 novels whilst in Sandgate.2 Other noted Sandgate writers at this period include Florence Warden and H.G.Wells.
This article was published: 4 December 2021.
Croker, B. (1898) Miss Balmain'e Past. London: Chatto and Windus.