Friday, 5 June 2015

Charles Jessold, Considered as a Murderer by Wesley Stace



published 2010


Charles Jessold 1


[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.

 
Charles jessold 2


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:

 
charles jessold 3Charles jessold 4


-- 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.










15 comments:

  1. Normal service has been resumed again today, I see.....not feeling it I'm afraid

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    1. Too much to hope there'd be two on the run Col.

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  2. What a fascinating context for a mystery, Moira! Folk singing! That got my attention right away, and I like the fact that Jessold is a composer. I suppose it's the music part of me that feels drawn to that. Oh, and I agree with you about the US cover; just from the snippet you've shared it looks a better 'fit' with the story. This one really is intriguing, and sounds like a good story underneath as well.

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    1. It was an excellent story, Margot, a real cross between a literary novel and a murder mystery.

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  3. Thank you for this - I'll certainly seek this book out (although any mention of folk-songs always sends me pinging back to the madrigals scene in Lucky Jim). Have you read 'by George'?

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    1. Yes indeed, Lucky Jim, a book that I think would make me laugh on my deathbed. For years my greatest fear that I would be asked to sing on my own at a similar event where I was pretending to sight-read.
      Yes, I loved By George, I think it's a fabulous book, it made a huge impression on me. I must read it again. Have you....? I've never met anyone else who read it, despite having given it as presents to many people the year I read it.

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    2. No, I haven't read any Stace at all - your blog post is a revelation!

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  4. Moira: Is the rest of the book as condescending to rural society?

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    1. A very fair question Bill! The pedantic answer would be that he is distinguishing between 'real' country people, and those who have a different background but are showing a sentimental interest. And also he is an unreliable narrator. But it is a very city-based book, and he is certainly very satirical about the folk-music movement....

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  5. Gesualdo's reviver and biographer, Philip Heseltine/Peter Warlock, is usually thought to have killed himself. However, his son, Nigel Heseltine, claimed in his memoirs that he was murdered by another composer, Bernard van Dieren. For merely mercenary reasons, unfortunately.

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    1. That's extremely interesting, thanks Roger. I think someone better-informed on music than I would have seen parallels with Warlock in the book. I have always been intrigued by the idea of someone changing his name to that...

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    2. The usual reason given was that Heseltine's own music criticism was so savage that he didn't dare to compose under his own name for fear of the responses. Heseltine/Warlock's friend and first biographer, Cecil Gray, thought that Heseltine killed himself because the alterego Warlock was taking over. An interesting prospect for a horror novel or film.

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    3. That is one amazing story - as you say, asking to be made into a film....

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  6. I think this novel would be too deep for me. Although the alternate versions of an event sounds interesting.

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    1. It does resemble a crime story, with clues and hints....

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