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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.

22 Comments

  1. moira @ Clothes in Books
    June 9, 2015

    Oh great selection Chrissie. We have a few books the same, and a shared author. I was pretty sure we’d discussed Nebuly Coat in the past! I read a lot of Pamela HJ in the past, I must look this one up…

    Reply
    • Christine Poulson
      June 9, 2015

      I think yours is great too. I thought The Nebuly Coat would be there and amused to see that you’d chosen my other favourite Barbara Pym. Interesting that neither of us chose Edwin Drood, one of the most famous cathedral novels.I am going to try some of the authors we didn’t share. Francesca Kay sounds good.

      Reply
  2. Sarah Rayne
    June 9, 2015

    Can I suggest an addition to this excellent list… Andrew Taylor’s ‘Broken Voices’, which is a novella, set mostly in an East Anglian cathedral, and beautifully atmospheric.

    Reply
  3. Christine Harding
    June 9, 2015

    I was going to leave a comment for Moira saying ‘Why no Trollope?’, but I thought I would nip over here first and, lo and behold, you have him! Hurrah! He would be top of my list as well. And you have JL Carr’a A Month in the Country, which is wonderful. Interesting to see the two of have selected different Pyms. I’m not sure I could come up with a list of eight books set in cathedrals or churches.

    Reply
    • Christine Poulson
      June 9, 2015

      Thanks, Christine. I did wonder if I could chose eight, but in the end it wasn’t so difficult. I could even have added Penelope Lively’s Judgement Day and of course there is Dickens’s Edwin Drood.

      Reply
  4. Martin Edwards
    June 9, 2015

    Excellent list. Glad you included Close Quarters. I was slightly disappointed with The Black Seraphim, toough only because I judged it by MG’s very high standards, but that debut novel is fantastic.

    Reply
    • Christine Poulson
      June 9, 2015

      Thank you! I reread Close Quarters just the other day and enjoyed it greatly all over again. I like The Black Seraphim, though as you say, not his best.

      Reply
  5. Susan D
    June 9, 2015

    Oh by all means Fenchurch St. Paul. I just picked up The Nine Tailors last night for a reread, along with rewatching the tv production (Ian Carmichael IS Peter Wimsey).

    Reply
  6. Susan D
    June 9, 2015

    fyi: I couldn’t get the above link to clothesinbooks to work. Maybe it’s wrong? I went there directly to find it.

    Reply
  7. Les Blatt
    June 9, 2015

    Fine list(s), and I see both you and Moira included two of my favorites – The Nine Tailors and Holy Disorders. Let me suggest one more which actually takes place in a convent rather than a church – “The Religious Body,” by Catherine Aird, the first of her Calleshire Chronicles mysteries featuring Inspector C. D. Sloan. Thanks to you both for the other suggestions!

    Reply
    • Christine Poulson
      June 9, 2015

      Thank you for this kind comment, Les. The Catherine Aird will be for another day as Moira and I have decided to treat nunneries and monasteries separately. I should have mentioned that.

      Reply
  8. Lyn
    June 9, 2015

    Terrific list. I love books set in cathedrals & I’m glad to see that you’re contemplating another list for nunneries & monasteries. Lots of favourites there – Carr, Pym, Trollope, Crispin, Sayers. I also enjoyed Kate Charles’ series of mysteries called the Book of Psalms (just reprinted by Marylebone House). I’m looking forward to reading Moira’s list.

    Reply
    • Christine Poulson
      June 10, 2015

      Lovely to hear from you, Lyn. Yes, there is something fascinating about cathedrals. In fact, Ely cathedral features in my new – as yet unpublished – novel. I also once set a short story in a cathedral and it was the most popular one that I have written.

      Reply
      • Lyn
        June 10, 2015

        A new novel? Lovely, something to look forward to. Is there a publication date?

        Reply
  9. Jane Mackay
    June 10, 2015

    I couldn’t decide which blog to comment on, but you won … narrowly … for Michael Gilbert and the Pamela Hansford Johnson. Those three, and ‘The nine tailors’ and the Barsetshire novels, and the Barbara Pyms are all frequent re-reads of mine. One suggestion: one of Jim Kelly’s splendid crime novels set in Ely (sorry I can’t remember which one) features a body found high up on the cathedral behind a pinnacle.

    Reply
    • Christine Poulson
      June 11, 2015

      Thanks, Jane. I am flattered! It’s very nice to know that you also reread these books – one of the great things about the online reading community is discovering that other people love the same books that you do. I know the Jim Kelly that you mean, but I can’t remember the title either. Incidentally Ely cathedral also figures in the novel I’ve recently finished writing.

      Reply
  10. Susan Bird
    September 25, 2015

    Hi Christine,
    Here are some other novels featuring churches/church communities:
    Elizabeth Goudge The Dean’s Watch; Fred Secombe Chronicles of a Curate; Jan Karon’s Mitford series; Phillip Gulley’s Harmony series; William E. Barrett’s Lilies of the Field.. Sorry- no mysteries here.

    Reply
    • Christine Poulson
      September 26, 2015

      Thank you! I did try the Goudge and didn’t get on with it.It is certainly a fruitful area for writers.

      Reply

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