In The Things We Don’t Say, Emma Temple grows up in the late nineteenth, early twentieth century London in a tall house near Kensington Gardens. Stifled by the atmosphere in the Victorian household, yet blessed with a curious upbringing in which her father, a literary biographer and scholar believes in the education of women, but only to the extent that he expects the young art student Emma to be home by four pm every day to serve tea. He also ensures that Emma, like her late mother, is responsible for the household accounts. His nightly tantrums about the family’s financial situation are legendary.
It is to Kensington Gardens that Emma escapes. There, she becomes entranced with the colours, the fresh greens, the lawns that edge the park and are allowed to grow wild. Glimpsing a sense of freedom in the tender landscape in the heart of London, Emma yearns for something more in her life.
She starts drawing and painting, sketching to find something that might lie beyond the confines of her world. She is fortunate enough to be allowed to attend art school in London- her father was a complex man- and she bicycles there, head down, every day as a teenager in London’s notoriously wet weather, no matter what.
At art school she is taught by the likes of John Singer Sergeant, who, head thrown back, composes something marvellous with a few strokes of his brush.
And Emma is studying on the cusp of a new era. The world is modernising, in spite of her father’s, and much of society’s, insistence on living according to Victorian rules. Emma’s brother, Frederick, is at Cambridge, and he and his friends come home during their holidays and talk about concepts that scream of rationality for the young, impressionable Emma- freedom, from the conventions that have restricted people in the nineteenth century.
Their ideas were radical, and based on the philosophies of G.E. Moore- tolerance, and a belief in enjoyment of life with a basis of appreciation of aesthetics.
Frederick and his Cambridge friends’ ideas are the genesis for the creation of Emma’s Circle, and artistic group who live by these philosophies, to which she remains loyal for her entire life…but at what cost?