It’s a Mystery: Funeral Music, by Morag Joss

Funeral Music

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Funeral Music is the introductory volume to the Sara Selkirk Mysteries. Sara is a world renowned cellist who has lost her will to perform following the sudden death of her husband. But that is not the mystery in Funeral Music. Sara’s well meaning friend and accompanist, James, cajoles her into playing a charity concert at Bath’s famous Pump Room, after which she makes a horrifying discovery. Someone has stabbed to death the museum curator, dumping his corpse into the Roman baths, and Sara is the first to find him. He wasn’t a very popular or principled individual, and there are any number of possible suspects. The investigation falls to Sara’s cello pupil, DCI Andrew Poole. The plot thickens when Andrew falls for her, and when James becomes a suspect.

This is a simple enough plot with enough interest to permit its competition with the setting, the spectacular city of Bath. Each of the main suspects is given his or her own chapters, and it doesn’t become clear who did it until very close to the end. Along the way, a couple of imaginative yet believable alibis liven things up, but one of those alibis proves to be a cover. I was truly surprised when the murderer was finally revealed. Will Sara return to the concert stage? The answer to that question is left a bit unclear.

A genuine mystery, a cast of engaging (and not so engaging) characters, and an appealing protagonist make this book a quick and pleasant way to spend a few evenings.

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It’s a Mystery: The Haunting of Maddy Clare, by Simone St. James

The Haunting of Maddy Clare

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

England, in the aftermath of The Great War. Few soldiers who fought in France returned unscathed, and Alastair Gellis and Matthew Ryder are no exceptions. Deeply affected by their experiences in the killing fields of France, they have decided to make a study of death and the afterlife by researching and writing about spirit manifestations. Their current case involves trying to rid the Falmouth House barn of its angry, often violent ghost, that of a servant girl, Maddy, who hanged herself there several years ago. Because of some girlhood trauma, Maddy cannot abide men, so Alastair arranges to hire a female assistant. Sarah Piper ekes out a living as an employee of a temp agency, so when she’s sent to interview with Alastair, she cannot resist the chance for a bit of adventure, not realizing that much more will be required of her than simple transcription.

Simone St. James’s description of Sarah’s first encounter with Maddy is atmospheric and chilling, and she spins out this tale in an effective Gothic style. The ghost hunting team quickly recognizes that, before they can hope to calm Maddy and send her on her way, they must ferret out the source of her terrible rage. Interestingly, each of the three comes to encounter her in very different ways, and by comparing their experiences, they begin to tease out the truth. The author enlivens the remote country village setting with good period detail and an array of very English characters, ranging from the new owner of the manor house to the suspicious inn keeper to the surly churchyard sexton. Having recently read, enjoyed, and reviewed Bellman and Black, in which crows play a prominent and symbolic role, it was pleasantly surprising to me to encounter crows in this book as well, fulfilling an even more active function. Maddy’s ghostly behaviors are anything but trite, and while Sarah’s budding romance (I won’t say with whom) could easily have detracted from the book’s central theme, it was well integrated into the plot as a whole. Alastair, Matthew, Sarah, and Maddy herself emerge from their brief but intense relationship quite changed.

The Haunting of Maddy Clare is an impressive debut novel. If it has an outstanding flaw, it is that some of the characters telegraphed their implication in Maddy’s mystery. But the overlying ghost story maintained its appeal, and readers who enjoy modern Gothic will probably enjoy this book.

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Intriguing Nonfiction: The Hermit in the Garden, by Gordon Campbell

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Sometimes it really is true that fact is stranger than fiction. You know those little men in the pointy hats that we generally refer to as garden gnomes? They now have a history. You know those classical little “folly” buildings that dot the stately English garden landscape? Well, it turns out that some of these were not strictly decorative.  Gordon Campbell, a Professor of Renaissance Studies at the University of Leicester, has published The Hermit in the Garden: From Imperial Rome to Ornamental Gnome , the first book to describe the phenomenon of the ornamental hermit in Georgian England.

Professor Campbell believes that during the Reformation, the ancient custom of religious persons, sometimes called hermits,  choosing to shut themselves away from the world for constant prayer and meditation came to an end with the dissolution of the great religious houses.   During the 18th century, it became fashionable among the educated and the elite to be “melancholy”, devoting time to the admiration of nature and the study of philosophy. Gradually, some began constructing small rustic cottages, to use as retreats for deep thinking, or, in many cases, to impress visitors with their erudition. It wasn’t long before the wealthy began to  hire men to live in their garden “hermitage”, pretending to be a reclusive but romantic part of the landscape. Although this book is a serious and impressive work of research, Professor Campbell injects threads of humor where appropriate, as when he describes the difficulties inherent in finding men willing to don rough robes, go barefooted, allow their hair, beards, and nails to grow, and, perhaps hardest of all, remain silent, for a period of seven years.

Much of the book is a survey of historic and modern “hermitages” in England, Scotland, France, and parts of Europe, many of which are illustrated. There are numerous extant sites that can still be visited, though they’re no longer inhabited; health regulations prohibit! It ends with some speculation about how the ornamental garden hermit morphed slowly into the ornamental garden gnome, helped along by Disney’s Grumpy, Sleepy, et al.

It’s probably safe to say that there is no  more extensive compilation of information on this topic than The Hermit in the Garden. It’s a valuable addition to the field of garden history, and has much to say, or imply, about Western Civ.

Now I must search out the perfect gnome for my own garden.

Gothic Fiction: Bellman & Black, by Diane Setterfield

Years ago, offering career advice, my aunt Jean said you couldn’t go wrong providing food or funeral services, since we all need to eat and all have to die. Though I did not follow her words of wisdom, they came drifting back to me while reading Bellman & Black, Diane Setterfield’s second novel. This author is well known for her much praised The Thirteenth Tale, which I agree was spell binding, and many reviewers complain that this new book is nothing like the first. It is different for sure, but such an intricate and beautifully written novel deserves to be judged upon its own merits.

B&B chronicles the life of William Bellman, the disinherited  grandson of a wealthy English textile manufacturer. The novel opens with a vignette from his childhood, when, showing off for his buddies, Will thoughtlessly kills a rook with his slingshot. The boys examine the bird and are mesmerized by the subtle colors that shimmer within the blackness of its plumage, while the other rooks, generally so raucous, observe them in silence. A sense of guilt causes Will a troubled night. Because of this incident, however, he will grow up with a fine sense of color in all of its variations, and will serve him well when his uncle invites him to join the family business. Will rises to manager and then mill owner, marries and has several children, and life is good, until a series of deaths decimate his friends and destroy his family. Distraught and depressed, he decides to kill himself too, but is stopped by the presence of a mysterious stranger dressed entirely in black, who, in a very few words, inspires Will to start a new business, the production and sale of all things funeral related.

Bellman and Black, running only to 300 and some pages, is a great big chocolate trifle of a novel. Even the title has multiple layers of meaning. Even the rooks interject their own voices. The reader follows the wide parabola of Will’s life with a sense of helplessness, as the once sociable young man becomes an obsessive, ascetic workaholic, riddled with guilt and descending into a sort of living death. And while the trope of death is always present, the book is filled with metaphors that slip seamlessly and quietly into the narrative, most of them deriving, once you think about it, from that fateful introductory vignette. B&B’s ending, which some find tragic, is actually quite apt and beautiful, peaceful in its own way.

B&B owes allegiance to such authors as Dickens, Poe, and Charlotte Bronte, but it is definitely Ms. Setterfield’s own impressive creation. Read it thoughtfully, and you’ll never regard birds of the crow persuasion in the same light again.

Christmas Traditions: Wassailing

Here we come a-wassailing
Among the leaves so green,
Here we come a-wand’ring
So fair to be seen.
Love and joy come to you,
And to you your wassail, too,
And God bless you, and send you
A Happy New Year,
And God send you a Happy New Year.

Here we come a-what? Wassailing is the practice of going door-to-door singing Christmas carols until paid to go away and leave the occupants in peace. (The term also refers to the practice of singing to trees in apple orchards in cider-producing regions of England.) The word derives from the Anglo Saxon, pre-1066 toast, wæs þu hæl, “be thou hale” — i.e., “be in good health”, though it was not associated with Christianity at that time.
The practice as we know it has its roots in the middle ages, as an exchange between the lord of the manor and his peasants as a form of recipient initiated charitable giving, to be distinguished from This point is made in the song Here We Come A-Wassailing, when the wassailers inform the lord of the house that “we are not daily beggars that beg from door to door but we are friendly neighbors whom you have seen before.” The Lord would then give food and drink to the peasants in exchange for their blessing and goodwill, singing, “Love and joy come to you, And to you your wassail too; And God bless you and send you a Happy New Year”.

Wassail bowls, generally in the shape of goblets, have been preserved. The Worshipful Company of Grocers made very elaborate one in the seventeenth century, decorated with silver. It is so large that is must have passed around as a “loving cup” so that many members of the guild could drink from it. Then they wondered why everyone caught colds! Anyway, the drink was either punch, mulled wine or spicy ale. The larger, elaborate bowl below is from Wales.

 

If you’d like to whip up a batch of wassail for your own celebrations, Old Farmer’s Almanac has a good recipe here .

Happy New Year! Waes pu hael!

 

revised 12/30/14

Ditch the Garden Gnome and Get a Hermit

Too bizarre, but, according to Atlas Obscura , very true. You know those little men in the pointy hats that we now refer to as garden gnomes? They now have a history.  You know those classical little “folly” buildings that dot the English garden landscape? Well, it turns out that many of these were not strictly ornamental. Gordon Campbell, a Professor of Renaissance Studies at the University of Leicester, has published The Hermit in the Garden: From Imperial Rome to Ornamental Gnome , the first book to describe the phenomenon of the ornamental hermit in Georgian England. During the 18th century, it was the fashion among the elite to hire men to live in their gardens, pretending to be a rustic part of the landscape. Rather than write about what he’s discovered, I’ll allow Professor Campbell speak for himself in this video .

As Campbell  explains, whether this method of earning one’s living was irksome or ideal would depend upon the candidate’s own particular outlook on life. “Recruiting a hermit wasn’t always easy. Sometimes they were agricultural workers, and they were dressed in a costume, often in a druid’s costume. There was no agreement on how druids dressed, but in some cases they wore what we would call a dunce’s cap. It’s a most peculiar phenomenon, and understanding it is one of the reasons why I have written this book.” An employment ad referenced in Sir William Gell’s A Tour in the Lakes Made in 1797  states that “the hermit is never to leave the place, or hold conversation with anyone for seven years during which he is neither to wash himself or cleanse himself in any way whatever, but is to let his hair and nails both on hands and feet, grow as long as nature will permit them.” Often symbolic props such as a skull, a book, and an hourglass were used to help convey to the visitor the image of melancholy, a state of mind much admired by the upper class.

The garden hermit fad began way back in ancient Rome and extended to the end of the 1700’s. It’s speculated that the custom of religious persons shutting themselves up for meditation and prayer devolved into a sort of paid profession.

 

article-image(via Wellcome Library)

The garden hermit custom began way back in ancient Rome and extended to the end of the 1700’s. It’s speculated that the custom of religious persons shutting themselves up for meditation and prayer devolved into a sort of paid profession. While the custom died out around 1800, the roots of the plastic garden gnome, which is alive and well today, may very well spring from those of the hermit himself.

article-image
An 18th century hermitage that survives in Manor Gardens Eastbourne, East Essex (photograph by Kevin Gordon)