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Eight novels set in cathedrals or churches

ED 232Time for another list! My good blogfriend, Moira at http://clothesinbooks.blogspot.co.uk/and I are sharing our choice of eight books set in churches or cathedrals. I don’t claim that mine are the best books, but they are all books I’ve loved and read more than once.

My first would have to be Trollope’s Barsetshire novels: all six, beginning with The Warden (1855) and ending with The Last Chronicle of Barsetshire (1867). By the time you get to the end, you know all the characters so well: the flawed but loveable archdeacon, the gentle and unworldly Reverend Harding, the wonderfully insufferable Mrs Proudie. I love Trollope for his sympathetic understanding of human nature.

Barbara Pym, A Glass of Blessings (1958). One of her very best, I think. The church is the Anglo-Catholic church, St Luke’s, in north London. It does play an important role in the novel, though this is really a sparkling comedy of errors rather than any sort of depiction of church life. It begins with Wilmet, the rather naive protagonist, hearing a phone ringing in the middle of a service (long before mobile phones)and ends with the induction of a new vicar at another church. It’s funny and touching. I especially like the jumble sale.

Pamela Hansford Johnson, The Humbler Creation (1959). I don’t think she is read much these days, and that’s a shame, because she was a very good writer. This also features a London church in the 1950s, but the tone is altogether more sombre, perhaps even a little Chekhovian. Maurice is the vicar of St Lawrence’s and is married to the idle and narcissistic Libby. With them live Libby’s ailing mother and Libby’s widowed sister Kate (who runs the household) and her two sons. Maurice is resigned to the situation until Alice Imber moves into the neighbourhood . . .

Edmund Crispin, Holy Disorders (1946). Churches make very good settings for crime novels. They are closed communities, there’s the contrast between godliness and human frailty, and ideas about sin and judgement are ready to hand. Murder and mayhem of course follow the redoubtable Gervase Fen’s arrival at the clergy house of Tolnbridge Cathedral.Great stuff. I must read it again and soon.

Dorothy L Sawyers, The Nine Tailors (1934). A classic. Fenchurch St Paul is a magnificent East Anglian wool church. The delightful Reverend Venables is its vicar, his wife Agnes the power behind the throne. Lord Peter Wimsey fetches up there when his car runs into a ditch on a snowy New Year’s Eve. The church is almost a character in its own right and plays a part in a mysterious death in ways I won’t describe just in any case there is anyone who hasn’t read it.

Michael Gilbert, Close Quarters (1947)  and The Black Seraphim (1983). I’m sneaking two crime novels in here, but with some excuse as these are set in the same cathedral close. Close Quarters is very much in the Golden Age mode. It even contains a map and a crossword puzzle. The setting is Melchester Cathedral, which also figures in The Black Seraphim thirty-six years later. Dark deeds in the cloisters: both are hugely enjoyable reads.

J. Meade Faulkner, The Nebuly Coat (1903). A young architect goes to the remote town of Cullerne to supervise restoration work on Cullerne Minster. There is a mystery surrounding the claim to the title of Lord Blandamer, whose coat of arms in the Minster’s great transept window is the nebula coat of the title. The story comes to a most tremendous climax. I’ve read this twice, the second time while staying in the cathedral close at Salisbury: a perfect combination of book and place.

J. L. Carr, A Month in the Country (1980). It’s 1920 and a shell-shocked young man arrives in the Yorkshire village of Oxgodby to uncover and restore a wall painting in the local church. A marvellous novella that I have already reviewed here: http://www.christinepoulson.co.uk/category/a-month-in-the-country/

So that’s it. I can’t wait to see what Moira has chosen – and here it is: http://clothesinbooks.blogspot.co.uk/. Do please add your own suggestions to our comments sections.

This novel made me laugh out loud

Posted on Nov 19, 2014 in J. L. Carr, The Harpole Report | No Comments

Unknown‘Mrs Grindle-Jones in a very emotional state this morning. She stormed into my study and clapped down her register, hissing that “Those Widmerpools are away again, every one of them . . . Her eyes were brimming and her neck was a peculiar mottled red. . .

At the time I was in the middle of giving an infant the Schonell Diagnostic Reading Test. Despite the storm breaking around him, he went on stolidly reading, t-r-e-e- . . . s-i-t . . . b-u-n – etcetera. Eventually he reached his limit at i-s-l-a-n-d, pronouncing it as it was spelled and looking baffled. ‘Issland, i-s-s-l-a-n-d,’ he kept repeating, as I explained to Mrs Grindle-Jones that I also deplored the way the Widmerpools milked the state . . ‘

After reading A Month in the Country, I decided to read J. L. Carr’s other books. The Harpole Report has gone straight onto my list of favourite novels. It is never entirely clear who is compiling the Harpole Report, which through journal entries, the school log, letters, and other means gives an account of the hapless George Harpole’s first term as acting Deputy Head at a primary school in the Fens. It is set  in the 1970s and though some things have changed  in education, George’s tussles with bureaucracy, with difficult parents, and above all with with his ill-sorted crew of teachers and caretaker are timeless. Carr spent his career as a primary school teacher and head and it shows. The book has important things to say about education, and it’s a bit of love story, but those are incidental: above all, it is just very, very  funny.

Is there a more perfect novella . . .

images. . . than J. L. Carr’s A Month in the Country? Earlier this week I took my friend Sue Hepworth (writer of excellent romcom novels) out for a birthday treat. We went to see an adaptation of A Month in the Country performed in the upstairs room of a local hotel by North Country Theatre. This magnificent little company performs a different play every autumn in village halls, arts centres and the odd theatre all over the north of England. It is run on a shoestring. Nobby Dimon is the artistic director, writing, adapting, acting and directing. On this occasion the small cast were fed and accommodated by one of my neighbours. Sue and I sat on the front row and lapped it up. It was so skilfully adapted, so well acted and there was something magical in being so close to the actors.

Afterwards I went home and reread the novella. In the summer of 1920 two men meet in the depths of the Yorkshire countryside. Tom Birkin is a shell-shocked survivor of WWI, who has come to uncover a medieval wall-painting in the church. Charles Moon, also a ex-soldier, traumatised in a different way, is engaged in an archeological dig in the neighbouring field. It’s a story then about the effects of war, but also about love, memory, community, religion, the power of art and of landscape and the changing seasons. It is a little bit Hardyesque, but it’s funny, too, and all in around 100 pages.

Find out more about North Country Theatre and where you can catch a performance at Northcountrytheatre.com. And do visit my friend Sue’s blog at suehepworth.com.