[Music critic Lesley Shepherd and his friend the composer Charles Jessold are attending a provincial music festival in the early 20th century]
[Local shepherd and folk singer] Harold Marsh was in competition with seven other singers, all of whom gave us very pretty Kensington drawing-room apologies for unaccompanied folk-song, heavily abridged Mountebank versions of ‘Oh No John’ or ‘Hodge and Molly,’ sung as if the songs had no more to say than Lo, here the gentle lark. The women were dressed prettily in white or cream, giving the impression that they had dropped in on the way to their own weddings. The men clutched a lapel, stood uncomfortably straight, tent pegs waiting to be buried, and dug their heels in for additional masculine authority. These good men and women gave of their best, with a certain amount of unnecessarily distracting gesticulation apparently favoured by the teachers of the Four Towns. As a kindly judge, I should have given them all eighty marks to ensure them of their desideratum (a printed certificate signed by Mme Jessold) but no more. Marsh was the last competitor, presenting, even before he opened his mouth, as total a contrast as possible to all that had gone before. He had arrived in the back of his father’s trap with Rip [his dog], who was present, noisily bemoaning the lack of sheep.
observations: This is the third of Stace’s book that I have read: I wasn’t greatly taken with Misfortune, the first, but I loved By George, a novel set (weirdly) round the world of ventriloquism and music hall. Stace has another career as a singer/songwriter, and has produced a large amount of folk/pop music under the name John Wesley Harding.
His protagonist here, Charles Jessold, is a composer of classical music, but with a career tied up with the revival of and interest in English folk music at the beginning of the 20th century. The book starts with the information that in 1923 – just before his most important work was about to be produced – Jessold murdered his wife and her lover, then committed suicide. The book takes the form of a memoir by his great friend, the critic Shepherd, and is in two parts. The first half is the official version, the second half tells a lot more of the truth of what was going on.
These are the US and UK covers, for interest – I like the US one (on the left) much better:
-- but what’s helpful on the UK one is the quote from Sarah Waters – she says ‘Beneath its sparkling surface there are some very murky depths. A wonderfully disquieting read.’ If Sarah Waters says that about a book, you can be sure that there is something sinister and disturbing about it, and indeed there were times when it reminded me of blog favourite Ford Madox Ford’s The Good Soldier.
Stace has taken the (true) story of Carlo Gesualdo, a 16th century Italian composer who killed his wife and her lover, and linked it with the anglicized more modern version Jessold. It is cleverly done: the details of the music world of 100 years ago are very entertaining, and it is very funny when not chilling the blood. I enjoyed the book very much – it was in the tradition of a certain kind of historical pastiche with a strong plot and a mystery at the heart, similar to, exactly, some of Sarah Waters’ work, and also the AS Byatt novel Possession. Wesley Stace has written a new book (2014) about more modern music, Wonderkid, which I will certainly read soon.
The pictures – giving a general impression of music entertainment in the era - are from a collection of programmes for the Boston Symphony Orchestra.