THE JOHN MEADE FALKNER SOCIETY
Founded 8th May 1999
NEWSLETTER No. 15
8 May, 2004
Since the last Newsletter in January, the Society has welcomed three more members.
Michael originally e-mailed me to say that, although he had copies of Moonfleet and The Lost Stradivarius, he was unaware of The Nebuly Coat until he had read A.N. Wilson’s piece in The Daily Telegraph. Michael, who lives in Powys, subsequently joined the Society.
Better known to the reading public as A.N. Wilson, he is a successful journalist and author of acclaimed biographies (on Scott, Milton, Belloc, Tolstoy and C.S. Lewis, for instance) and award winning novels. My wife has just chosen his The Vicar of Sorrows for her reading group! His latest novel is entitled My Name is Legion (published by Hutchinson @ £16.99), which The Daily Telegraph called “one of his most acerbic works.. not one of those soft-centred satires that ducks the issue”.
Royd found us, like so many other recent members, on the Internet. He was “googling for a feasibility study for a ‘Companion’ reader for Moonfleet”. Since retiring from teaching he has been pursuing ideas for virtual reality websites as well as working on his self-build house. Royd lives in East Yorkshire.
Reprint of The Nebuly Coat
The Ash Tree Press of British Columbia, Canada, who specialise in supernatural and mystery fiction, are planning to bring out The Nebuly Coat in their Classic Macabre series later this year. Mark Valentine, a member of this Society, has written the introduction for the reprint, which will be in paperback. Mark brought JMF to the attention of readers of the Book and Magazine Collector back in December 1995 and, more recently, was responsible for the excellent introduction to the Tartarus Press publication of The Lost Stradivarius with A Midsummer Night’s Marriage and Charalampia.
It was good to get a card from Robin Willis at the end of January, starting “we are here in Burford at the Royal Oak and plan to visit the Church again”. Robin is one of our American members so, like Giselle last year, she certainly shows her interest in JMF by travelling to the town and church he loved so well.
We have had further good news from Burford. Fenella Pearson, the Hon. Secretary of The Friends of Burford Church, informed me that the major building work on the church had started and that it was agreed with the architect that a completely new lighting system would be included. Under the proposed scheme all the main features in the church will be lit, including the altar frontals donated by JMF and the Lady Chapel reredos.
I have sent the Friends a cheque for £200 as originally agreed by us when we met at Burford
Thanks to members’ generosity a further £125 was raised towards lighting the altar frontals after my appeal in the January Newsletter. We have agreed with the Friends that a small plate will be placed near to the frontals to record our support. It will probably read
The improved lighting of the Italian Altar Frontals,
given to the Church by John Meade Falkner
in 19??, was supported by a donation from
The John Meade Falkner Society in 2004.
Once this has been costed, what money remains from the £125 will be given to the Friends. I am very grateful for the ready generosity shown by you all.
The Ad Majorem Collection of Psalter Chants
I now have a copy of this rare publication.
Ken Warren mentions it in his biography of JMF - “At one time... Falkner spent the afternoons, Sunday by Sunday in the [Durham] organ loft, compiling his Ad Majorem Psalter - which despite its name, was essentially a book of chants. He hoped it might come into use for congregational singing, had it published by Novello, and was generous in distributing copies to friends among the clergy. By 1923 it was already into a third, enlarged edition.”
It is inscribed “Collected by John Meade Falkner, who asks that R.L.O. will accept this copy. 1 Oct. 1913”. Alan Bell suggests that the initials belong to R. L. Ollard, later a canon of Windsor (and father of Richard Ollard, the biographer of A. L. Rowse)
Steady but slow progress is being made on this. The tardiness is my fault as the disc on which I transcribed the poems has developed a fault in it. I am hoping I can recover the material from the bowels of my old computer! Thanks to Michael Daniell, 17 of the pages have been reformatted and the result looks highly professional. Michael has also been quoted just over £1000 for printing and binding 300 copies of an A5 format booklet of 96 pages, on cream antique laid paper with a 4 colour, gloss laminated cover. As soon as I can solve my computer problem, I will send Michael the rest of the poems. Two members have already sent in finance for copies which puts further pressure on me.
They will be published!
Life in the shadows of a crumbling church
A decade that produced Nostromo (1904), Kipps (1905), The Old Wives Tale (1908) and the three late master pieces of Henry James could surely make a claim to being the great age of English fiction. With such mighty rivals, John Meade Falkner’s The Nebuly Coat (1903) could strike the careless reader as no more than a curiosity, a bit of amateur work. Yet this would be a mistake.
It is true that, on one level, the novel is no more than a version of a Hardy novel, penned by an ecclesiastical and heraldic obsessive. The Nebuly Coat of the title is not a garment. Nebuly or Nebulé is an heraldic term for a wiggly line. It is a coat of arms, a silver coat with green nebuly markings, which runs like a musical motif through the whole story. It is there in the centre of the great window of Cullerne Minster, the splendid medieval church that is (in a way) the chief character in the novel. It is there peeping mysteriously through an oil painting in Miss Jollife’s lodging house, known to some of the inhabitants of Cullerne by its old inn name as The Hand of God.
The story is a simple melodrama. Miss Cullerne’s late half-brother Martin, known by the local roughs as Old Nebuly because of his aristocratic obsessions, believes that although raised with the yeoman Jollifes, he was in reality Lord Blandamer, and heir to the local great house. After a long series of fairly improbable comings and goings, this obsessive belief, which he passed on to his half-sister’s lodger, an inebriated organist, is vindicated. We discover that his late daughter, Anastasia, was indeed of aristocratic line; a fact that is tacitly recognised by the present Lord Blandamer, who marries her.
So much for the outlines of the plot, but it is not this story-line that we remember when this novel has entered our consciousness, our very flesh. The framework of the narrative is a church restoration. This grand old fane, whose massive Romanesque arches recall those of Durham, and whose magnificent Early English choir boasts some of the finest tracery in the kingdom, is under threat. Westray, the young architect sent down as clerk of works to save the building, can see that the tower, added just before the Reformation, is too heavy for the building and that the inevitable collapse is, eventually, going to occur.
Westray, who lives as Miss Jollife’s lodger for the duration of the works, also falls in love with the beautiful Anastasia, and it is through this device that we come to learn the true story of her ancestral entitlement to the Nebuly Coat.
What makes the book addictive, though, is not its melodramatic plot, but its atmosphere, its whole perception of existence. It would be much too heavy to read it as an allegory of England, its faith and its aristocracy on the verge of collapse. If not an allegory, however, it is certainly a mirror of these things. It is more an extended elegy, an elegiac poem, than it is a novel. Someone in the book says that architecture is poetry in stone, and so is The Nebuly Coat itself.
In some ways the best character in the story is the drunken organist, Sharnall. Like other figures in the imagination of John Meade Falkner, he is a wastrel. His early promise - when he wrote a musical version of the Cathedral service - Sharnall in D flat - and made studies of the Fugue - has been swallowed up in cynicism, alcoholism and despair. One of the most striking scenes is when the bishop comes to conduct a confirmation in the Minster and rather than lunching with the preposterous rector, he comes to the lodging house to eat with Sharnall, his old college friend from Oxford. They ate an “Oxford lunch” - cold mutton and mint sauce, followed by triangles of Stilton. The bishop, remembering their days of rambling and church-crawling 40 years before, implores Sharnall to lay off the bottle.
Anthony Powell, a great fan of the novel, always thought that there had been a more than romantic attachment between the two men in their youth. But whether or not you place this bishop in the company of the new bishop of New Hampshire, there is a strong whiff, as there is in Falkner’s other masterpiece, The Lost Stradivarius, of regretful emotions, perhaps forbidden ones. It is through the two emotional inadequates in the tale, the organist and the architect, that we appreciate all the wonderful church lore that breathes through the book.
This is echt Anglicanism, with the building’s memory of older monkish times, with Sharnall’s fondness for the old 17th-century English service books (he even deplores Bach, he loves English music so much); with the clock bells chiming to hymn tunes (New Sabbath, Bermondsey, Sheldon and Mount Ephraim), with the ancient curate Noot (a name borrowed by the television series All Gas and Gaiters), taking the afternoon services and with regret and nostalgia and suppressed emotion coming through the very stones of the damp, precarious church.
A. N. Wilson
[© Telegraph Group Limited, 2004]
This article first appeared on Monday, 5 January 2004, in The Daily Telegraph, in that paper’s End Column where A. N. Wilson’s World of Books is a regular feature.
[I would like to thank both Andrew Wilson and The Daily Telegraph for permission to reprint it.)
Journal Number 5
I am delighted with the response for articles for this summer’s Journal. Contributions will include Falkner as a Book Collector by John Coulter, with a note by Godfrey Smith; Shooting the Past (on a JMF link with Derbyshire) by Peter Davey; A Berkshire Holiday by Kenneth Warren; and Chronology and ‘The Nebuly Coat’ by Arnold Hunt. I am always on the look out for more, so please send in further material. If it cannot get in this year’s it will be first in the queue for Journal Number 6!
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