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.
Well, maybe I do have a taste for supernatural fiction after all – just so long as the frisson is a gentle one. As I have said before on here, I just hate to be made to jump out of my skin. This novella is a late Victorian classic, has so many elements that I love to read about, all densely packed within 150 widely spaced pages, and, apart from some wild coincidences, no shocks, just a creeping sense of unease. It reminds me in style and effect of another favourite tale of the supernatural, Margaret Irwin’s Still She Wished For Company.
Falkner’s output of fiction is slender, and with this novella I’ll have already reviewed two thirds of it. Quality certainly makes up for quantity in his case. John Meade Falkner (1858-1932) had an extraordinarily varied career, ending up as Chairman of the armaments firm Armstrong-Whitworth. After Oxford, he became tutor to the sons of a director of the firm, was offered a lowly post and worked his way to the top. Alongside his business career, he pursued research interests in many antiquarian fields, and wrote three pieces of fiction in his long life. The supernatural novella The Lost Stradivarius was his first work of fiction, followed by his best known novel Moonfleet (ripe for a reappraisal, I feel, after the mauling it has recently received in its latest TV adaptation), and finally his most fiercely loved novel (by its aficionados) The Nebuly Coat, that I have reviewed on here with wild enthusiasm.
The Lost Stradivarius is in the form of a narrative written for a young nobleman, Sir Edward Maltravers, to read on reaching his majority, an account by his aunt and his guardian of the wreckage of his father’s life by supernatural forces and the curiosity they engendered, the reason why Sir Edward has been orphaned since he was a baby. The longer narrative belongs to his Aunt Sophia, Sir John’s loving sister, powerless to prevent the dissolution of her beloved brother’s life. This is followed by a note from William Gaskell, Sir John’s bosom friend and Edward’s guardian. To sum up the story, this is what he has to tell:
When I first knew [Sir John] at Oxford he was a strong man physically as well as mentally; open-hearted, and of a merry and genial temperament. At the same time he was, like most cultured persons – and especially musicians, – highly strung and excitable. But at a certain point in his career his very nature seemed to change; he became reserved, secretive, and saturnine. On this moral metamorphosis followed an equally startling physical change. His robust health began to fail him, and although there was no definite malady which doctors could combat, he went gradually from bad to worse until the end came.
What a splendid example of the world-view of a respectable, unimaginative Victorian gentleman. Sir John Maltravers and William Gaskell were contemporaries at Oxford, fast friends. William was at New College and John at Magdalen Hall, as befits a young nobleman, in the best set of rooms in the college. The turning point for Sir John is at the beginning of his final year, on the return of his friend William from a trip to Italy. He brings to Sir John’s set an 18th century album of music by the 17th c Italian composer Graziani. Their great pleasure is playing together, William at the piano and John on violin. One suite catches John’s imagination, a set of dances headed ‘L’Areopagita’. When he practises it, he unmistakably hears someone sit in a whicker chair in his room, and leave it when he finishes. Later, when they play the piece together, William senses something too, and has a strong imaginary vision of dancers in another age and place, but shies away from a supernatural explanation. From then on, this sense every time they play it that the music is conjuring a figure from the past grows stronger and stronger for John, until he sees the shade, who points the way to a hidden cupboard containing the eponymous Lost Stradivarius. From then on, his fate is sealed. That will do for exposition, as the story unfolds from there in such unexpected and ingenious ways that all I can do is recommend strongly that you read it.
The novella bears some of the marks of a first attempt at fiction, but by someone who had a marvellously instinctive grasp of storytelling and pace and the ramping up of tension. Characters hardly hold conversations, they address one another in speeches, particularly William, who has a very orotund way of speaking. He is John’s faithful friend, and a man of great goodness, but the unwitting cause of the tragedy that befalls his friend, by bringing that music into that room and reuniting it with the lost Stradivarius. There are strong and intelligent female characters in his sister Sophia, Constance his wife, and his mother-in-law Mrs Temple; strong and intelligent they may be, but are rather frustrating to the reader because they know their Victorian place – Sir John is the head of the house, and they appear to be powerless to withstand or prevent the gradual wreckage of his life and health, but remain loving and stoical however wicked and irrational his behaviour.
However, a rich haul of pleasures in the story make it most alluring, especially to me. As with Falkner’s other works, that means erudition lightly worn, and a wonderful melding of past and present, near and far. His novels are strewn with clues and lines of enquiry, and his admirers love chasing them. I’ve set out to find Magdalen Hall and this haunted set of rooms. I chased the piece of music ‘L’Areopagita’ and found that Falkner had borrowed one of three possible composers and wished this imaginary piece on him. In the process I came across a splendid website where Falkner admirers swap their discoveries. I must root about on there!
If you love, as I do, Oxford as a setting with a lively presences, this novella is for you. If you love 18th century bad boys, dabbling in necromancy and neo-platonism with the Hell-Fire Club, there’s one here too. If you love landscapes affectionately and accurately drawn, you’ll relish the scenes set in Dorset, and in Italy around Naples. If you love, as I do, novels with a musical setting, this is perfect. Finally, if you love a mystery which seems to become obvious in its unravelling, but stays tantalisingly out of reach until the very end, this is brilliantly realised. Only one quibble – there is a massive cliffhanger that is never resolved, but is left to the nice but (comparatively) dim William Gaskell to speculate about at the end in a nice but dim way. I found myself shouting at the page ‘Surely, SURELY you want to know what REALLY happened?!’ So, though there are some clunky technical matters in The Lost Stradivarius, it a superbly plotted, richly detailed and highly original tale – with a sense of unease that gradually ramps up until I felt prepared for the dénouement. I can cope with that.
There are several editions of this work. Mine is:
John Meade Falkner: The Lost Stradivarius. Edinburgh: Soft Editions, 2004. 164pp
ISBN 13: 9781843500810
As The Lost Stradivarius is now in the public domain, it is also available online via Project Gutenberg.