A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.
If you have read a book by John Meade Falkner, the chances are it is Moonfleet, that stirring tale of smuggling and growing up. Or else, you’ll have seen the film, on a wet Saturday afternoon, and marvelled that someone as handsome as Stewart Granger could ever have lived. Apart from Moonfleet, Falkner wrote a History of Oxfordshire, travellers’ guides to Oxfordshire and Berkshire, a book of poems, and two more works of fiction, the novella The Lost Stradivarius and this novel, The Nebuly Coat.
His working life he spent in the armaments business, becoming Chairman of Armstrong Whitworth during the First World War. After retiring, he pursued his scholarly interests in and around Durham and its cathedral. If ever Vulpes Libris has a theme week of works springing from unlikely backgrounds, Falkner would be one of my choices.
The Nebuly Coat is back in print now, but for many years it was a hidden treasure, grudgingly shared by its admirers with others who might give it the acclaim it deserves. So, I’m sharing it with you, and not at all grudgingly – I am delighted to see it widely available again. It is an idiosyncratic, complex and excellent mystery novel. At the heart of it are the interlocking stories of the fate of a building, and the fate of a family.
The setting for the novel is the dying, silted up port of Cullerne Wharf (or just Cullerne), now inland from the south coast – think Winchelsea, or Lydd – surrounded by the marshes that take the place of the sea, now that the estuary is choked with silt, and the mouth of the river is now two miles away, taking the prosperity of the town with it. The town is dominated by a magnificent but crumbling Minster, an architectural and ecclesiastical gem. The protagonist (hero may be a rather strong word for a character who is actually not treated very well by the author), Edward Westray, the architect charged with the restoration of its roof, steps inside the building for the first time, and hears the stones whispering to him. As he stands under the crossing, he hears ‘The arch never sleeps, never sleeps. They have bound on us a burden too heavy to be borne. We are shifting it. The arch never sleeps.’ The building is in terrible trouble – it may be in its death throes, and Westray knows that mending the roof and the choir vault is a pointless endeavour.
The great family of the town and its surrounding countryside is that of the Lords Blandamer. The signs of their influence are everywhere, from the name of the inn, the Blandamer Arms, to the heraldic glass in the minster, the Nebuly Coat of the title, barry nebuly of six, argent and vert. But the family is decadent, uncaring and neglectful. The old lord has recently died, his son was killed years before, and his grandson, the new Lord Blandamer, has been living abroad, alienated by his wicked grandfather. Over the whole family there hangs a mystery about the title, a mystery that is wonderfully spun through the book, and most satisfactorily unravelled at the end.
Westray lodges with an impoverished spinster and her niece, Euphemia and Anastasia (Anstice) Joliffe, much of their wealth wasted by the father of Anstice in pursuing a chimera that he is somehow connected to the Blandamers – but he dies as ignorant of how that might be as we, the readers, are. The other lodger is Sharnall, the embittered, failed, alcoholic organist of the Minster, who tries to solve Michael Joliffe’s mystery. Westray falls for Anstice, in an anaemic, Methodist, water-drinking sort of way (I told you he’s not much of a hero, poor man).
Into all this, the new Lord Blandamer arrives, to take up his position as the Cullerne magnate. He is cultured, handsome, and he starts to do good from the moment of his arrival, making amends for his family’s neglect of their home and community. He assumes the cost of complete restoration of the Minster, and works closely with Westray. The rest of his amends would be too much to give away, so I’ll leave it there.
There are pleasures to be got from this novel over and above a superb and highly original mystery. Falkner has a wonderful sense of atmosphere, allied with a feeling for topography. His landscape can be mapped and illustrated. He describes the Minster as well as Pevsner would. The Minster community is as finely drawn as in a Trollope novel, so it appeals to my taste for Barchester Chronicles, and at the same time, while completely unlike the works of Dorothy L Sayers, I get the same sort pleasure from this novel as I do from hers. That pleasure derives from revelling in erudition lightly worn, an antiquarian, Anglican appreciation of church bells, church music and liturgy, church architecture, and the community that sustains it all. Add to that history, heraldry and a nostalgia for Oxford, and I’m in seventh heaven.
Enthusiasts for the novel take great delight in decoding it – working out which elements of great English cathedrals make up Cullerne Minster; which elements of the Sussex coastal landscape go into Cullerne Wharf itself. It really is one of the most beguilingly mysterious settings for a novel that I know, wreathed in fog, damp and darkness. In Horatio Sebastian Fynes, Lord Blandamer, like Jeremy Fox in Moonfleet, Falkner creates another flawed but immensely alluring man of mystery at the heart of the novel. Falkner’s output is so slim, but each of his three works of fiction is a gem of originality (read The Lost Stradivarius too). I for one am grateful for his work, and would not wish there to be any more of it to spoil the aura of what he left us (although there is a story of a manuscript of a fourth novel, lost on a train. Perhaps he wasn’t happy with it – would any author fail to know exactly where his manuscript was, at any given moment, if he truly cared for it?)
John Meade Falkner: The Nebuly Coat. Steve Savage, 2006
ISBN 9781904246220 pp 255 (First published 1903).