Monday, 1 September 2014

The Nebuly Coat by J Meade Falkner

published 1903







[Afternoon service in the Minster at Cullerne]

The stranger lifted the cord from its hook, and sat down in the first reserved seat, as if the place belonged to him. Clerk Janaway was outraged, and bustled up the steps after him like an angry turkey-cock. “Come, come!” he said, touching the intruder on the shoulder; “you cannot sit here; these are the Fording seats, and kep’ for Lord Blandamer’s family.”

“I will make room if Lord Blandamer brings his family,” the stranger said; and, seeing that the old man was returning to the attack, added, “Hush! that is enough.” …

The choir, who had been interested spectators of this conflict of lawlessness as personified in the intruder, and authority as in the clerk, rose to their feet as the organ began the Magnificat. The singing-men exchanged glances of amusement, for they were not altogether averse to seeing the clerk worsted. He was an autocrat in his own church, and ruffled them now and again with what they called his bumptiousness. Perhaps he did assume a little as he led the procession, for he forgot at times that he was a peaceable servant of the sanctuary, and fancied, as he marched mace in hand to the music of the organ, that he was a daring officer leading a forlorn hope.




observations: I can’t remember where I first heard about this book, but I do remember my reaction: ‘Nebuly coat! I wonder what kind of coat that is? Never heard of it, should make a blog entry.’ As it turns out, the nebuly coat is a coat of arms, but this was happy ignorance on my part, because I am SO GLAD to have found the book. It is a 5-star read.

It is at once easy and hard to describe: a young-ish architect arrives in a small forgotten town around the middle of 19th century: he has been assigned to oversee repairs to the crumbling Minster – the town used to be a port, and much more important. He takes lodgings with an elderly lady and her beautiful niece – both come down in the world, and with a mystery or scandal in the background. His fellow lodger is the organist: drunk and disappointed, and busy with papers concerning the mystery.

There is a lot about ecclesiastical architecture, and church bells, and church music. Trollope and Hardy are often mentioned in reviews of the book, along with the Dickens of Edwin Drood – there are echoes of all of them, but there’s a lot more to it than that. It is very atmospheric, and mysterious, with a hint of the supernatural. It’s very very funny, and suspenseful too. At the end I had to read fast to find out what was going to happen (although not everything is tied up at the end of the book). And the characters are wonderful – he had a Chekhov-like ability to describe minor or apparently unsympathetic people in a paragraph and make them come alive, and like Chekhov you felt he could see everyone’s failings, but he looked on them in a kindly and forgiving manner.

I could quote from it endlessly. When the heroines of the book fall on hard times, the younger one – ‘every girl in her teens knows that there lie hidden in the recesses of her armoire, the robes and coronet and full insignia of a first-rate novelist’ – tells her aunt ‘I will earn some money. I will write.’

Her aunt replies
“How will you write? Who is there to write to?” Miss Joliffe said, and then the blank look on her face grew blanker, and she took out her handkerchief. “There is no one to help us. Anyone who ever cared for us is dead long ago; there is no one to write to now.”
I loved that combination of simplicity and sadness and comedy, which struck me as most unusual.

This is another book that’s going to need another entry to do it justice.

The picture, from the Athenaeum site, is Interior with an Organist and a Procession by Alphonse Legros. It is important to the plot that the organist is far removed from any such procession, tucked away in his tower, but the picture was ideal in other respects, so I decided to use i
t.

 

12 comments:

  1. Moira, I enjoyed both the blurb and your observations, particularly the fact that the book is atmospheric, mysterious, supernatural, funny, and suspenseful — what more can a reader ask? — as well as the comparison to Trollope and Hardy whom I like, one for his classical style of writing and the other for his intensity of prose and plot.

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    1. I know - it's got everything. And if you like those authors then I think you would love this.

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  2. Moira - This does sound like a very engaging read. I like the way that Falkner weaves both wit and sadness into the dialogue; that's not easy. And the descriptions sound effective without being overdone. The characters sound nicely done too.

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    1. I think it's a very clever and lovely novel, and one of those rare books that make you think the author must have been a really nice man....

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  3. Moira: Your post made me think about Western Canadian churches. As our provinces were settled in the late 1800's and early 1900's the churches, especially in smaller communities, are rarely of stone. Whether brick or wood few are dark inside. There are lots of windows. Very few are crumbling as they are too young!

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    1. Starting building later is also key! Wait till the world has learned how to make big edifices. It is a joke (but true) that if ever you are looking round any large English church or Cathedral, a good conversation starter is 'so when did the central tower fall down?'

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  4. Sounds wonderful Moira - thanks for that, I'll see about getting a copy.

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    1. And free on Kindle Sergio! We all have different tastes, but this one is definitely worth a punt if you like the sound of it.

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  5. I keep trying to resist, but as it is free and short, and sounds intriguing, I have gotten myself a copy.

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    1. I do hope you like it, but at least you aren't paying for it!

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  6. Not feeling the love for this I'm afraid. BTW - fairly sure the author was also featured on UC on Monday - do the researchers read your blog?

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    1. Yes you're right - I thought that epi was designed for me. Moonfleet (the book they mentioned) coming up on the blog soon.

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