Monday, May 28, 2012

The Anatomy of Ghosts

This was another of those random, impulse reads from the library; I was attracted by the cover and the blurb.  Andrew Taylor, by the number of books he’s written, should be a good writer—in general, people seem to have been impressed by this book, which I would categorize as a historical novel with some mystery thrown in.  That is, it a lot more literary than Absolution by Murder—it’s clearly something standalone; I can’t see John Holdsworth investigating any more conundrums.  I found it very entertaining, though the final revelation was like a shocking, icy trickle down the neck.  It’s a novel set  in the late 18th century at the fictional Jerusalem College at Cambridge, and as such contains a lot of Stuff I Like.  I’m not a huge one for Hellfire Club rip-offs (any interest I had in that was cleansed of my system by reading The Adventuress of Henrietta Street and listening to Minuet in Hell)  but as this focused on the economic repercussions of such activities as much as the more scandalous dealings, I found it much less sensational.  It is also, of sorts, a Ghost Story.  

I like the way it looks at characters from all different classes—from Tom Turdman, the night-soil man, to Lady Anne Oldenshaw—but keeps the necessarily 18th century divisions in place, as the characters would have known them.  We have sympathy for characters like Augustus the grubby footboy and suffocated hussy Tabitha Skinner, but they are only as good or bad as their environment allows them to be.  Harry Archdale is one of the more memorable characters, changing a good deal in the course of the novel, and yet he can never extend more than pity toward struggling, penniless sizar[1] Tobias Soresby.  Mrs Phear is the delightfully Dickensian illustration of her name; in fact, the novel combines the Fielding-esque and the Dickensian in its rogues’ gallery.  Gyp[2] Mulgrave could only be played, as far as I’m concerned, by Ron Cook.  The main character, author, bookseller, and widower John Holdsworth delighted me as I tried to pin an actor down to play him; in the end I gave up and just enjoyed his character.  His love interest, Elinor Carbury, is less sympathetic yet seems wholly of her time:  she’s a young woman married to an aging, decrepit Cambridge Master, dependent on others for her financial support.  

The Anatomy of Ghosts is also the title of Holdsworth’s book, written to debunk spiritualism before it was spiritualism after the death of his young son.  I like the skewed perceptions of the book.  It could have easily turned into Holdsworth fancying himself some kind of psychic detective, and the scandal of the Holy Ghost Club could have quickly reached outrageous proportions.  However, the thick fog around Jerusalem College, and Holdsworth’s feet planted firmly on the ground, make this quite an unusual book that will keep you guessing til the last page. 

[1] Student studying on scholarship.
[2] A kind of college servant.

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