Following the death of her brother, Alice Elliot finds herself independently wealthy. At the suggestion of family friend and solicitor, Edmund Walter, she decides to come to Cheltenham to consider how she will spend her life from now on. She arrives at the height of the spa season when the fashionable and wealthy come to take the health-giving waters at the springs and spas the town has become famous for.
Aged 32, beautiful but unmarried, Alice has led a sheltered life but she is not alone in the world. Walter and his wife, who are also staying in Cheltenham, take on the role of a kindly aunt and uncle. Alice is quickly befriended by her neighbour, an older unmarried woman with an independent view of life. Her arrival attracts the attention of two opposing forces in Cheltenham society. The charismatic Reverend Francis Cole and his ardent followers have strong views of those who come to the town for the spas and entertainments. He has philanthropic visions of establishing schools for the children of the poor of Cheltenham which Alice’s wealth could help fund. Colonel Buckley and those who surround him, who come to Cheltenham for the pleasures of the Assembly Rooms and gardens, the theatres and the racecourse, are seen by Cole as a blight on Cheltenham. Buckley, with a reputation that may or may not be entirely deserved, is attracted to Alice for reasons not as lofty as Cole’s.
Alice is an intelligent, observant and complex character, drawn in different ways to both men. She approves of Coles’ philanthropic plans but she is tempted by the gaiety of Buckley and his friends and she wishes to experience some of the elements that have been absent from her life so far. Alice’s navigation of Cheltenham society as she discovers her owns strengths and finds her own place in the world make Taking the Waters something of a coming-of -age novel, despite Alice’s age.
Cheltenham is as much a character of the novel as Alice and those she rubs shoulders with. Taking the Waters could be described as a paean to Cheltenham – it is an excellent recreation of the town in all its Regency glory. Beyond the descriptions of the town and its streets, buildings and gardens, there are glimpses of the poverty and unrest of the period as well. Both Cole and Buckley are based on historical figures and some of the major events that occurred in Cheltenham in 1827 are woven into the narrative.
There are tense passages but, overall, this is a gentle novel written in smooth unobtrusive prose – a pleasant escape from the worries and tumults of the present.