Post Road Magazine #11

THE LOST STRADIVARIUS, MOONFLEET and THE NEBULY COAT: The Abnormal Romances of John Meade Falkner

Wesley Stace

In 1915, Lady Violet Bonham Carter went to Armstrong, Whitworth Co., "the greatest and most famous of Victorian armament makers," in Elswick near Newcastle. After her tour of the machinery of destruction, she found herself beside the Chairman, and they started to talk about books. She told him he had to read The Nebuly Coat. To her surprise, the Chairman, The Master of War himself, answered, "I wrote it."

John Meade Falkner (1858-1932), whom Hugh Walpole described as an "abnormal romantic," was the author of a small number of antiquarian travel books (A History of Oxfordshire, Bath: In History And Social Tradition), some privately printed poetry, and three novels: The Lost Stradivarius (1896), Moonfleet (1898), and The Nebuly Coat (1903).

I have only read these three novels-his 4th novel, nearly completed, was either lost or stolen on a train and he vowed to write no more-but they are all entirely different and, in entirely different ways, masterpieces, so good that I am forced to consider finding A History of Oxfordshire so I can read that too. To put this into perspective (by pigeonholing each book in an entirely undesirable way), it is as if one author's entire novelistic output consisted of The Fall of the House of Usher, Treasure Island and Barchester Towers.

The Lost Stradivarius is the tale of the occult. Told from two distinct points of view, one sensitive, the other analytical, the novel details John Maltravers' possession by the spirit of an eighteenth century necromancer by means of a piece of violin music, the Gagliarda: "as he played the opening bars, he heard behind him a creaking of the wicker chair." Moonfleet, on the other hand, (V. S. Pritchett's Falkner of choice) is a breakneck adventure story of smuggling on the south coast of England, full of the truly thrilling (an auction's nerve-shredding climax as a needle, whose fall signals the end of the bidding, teeters in a melting candle) and chilling (the narrator's night spent with the corpses and the coffins in the church vault). Thrilling? Chilling? They're easy words to throw around, and generally, like Baroque (complicated?) and Gothic (dark?), the reader will be disappointed when he tries to apply the description to his own reading of the book. I am not thrilled by thrillers, and rarely chilled by chillers, but when that candle was burning down to the needle-"No; the pin had not fallen, there was a film that held it by the point, one second, only one second."-

I swear I was on the edge of my deckchair. (As perhaps was Fritz Lang, who made a film of Moonfleet starring Stewart Granger (now available only on an imported DVD as Les Contrabandiers de Moonfleet) though the film changes more of the plot than it keeps, and its main character doesn't exist in the original.)

The Nebuly Coat is the finest of the novels. (The Oxford paperback edition has an excellent introduction by Christopher Hawtree, from which much of my information about Falkner is taken.) Set in Cullerne, which is both Barchester and Wessex (not to mention Edwin Drood's Cloisterham), the plot concerns a young architect sent to oversee the restoration of the Minster. The novel certainly combines elements of Trollope and Hardy, but this tells less than half the story, for though The Nebuly Coat is many things (and few critics seem to agree on its precise genre), it is partly a novel of psychological suspense, featuring one of fiction's most ruthless, attractive and seductive villains in Lord Blandamer. His is the epitome of Orson Welles' description of the perfect Star Turn: the character everyone talks about before he finally appears for a second before the interval, prior to taking over in the second act. "Since the death of his grandfather, the new Lord Blandamer had been a constant theme of local gossip and surmise. No one had seen him since he came to man's estate; it was said he had not been in Cullerne in twenty years." Blandamer's effect is the same on the reader as it is on the villagers. On his first calling at her house, Anastasia puts aside her reading. After he has identified himself, she tries to pick it up again:

She. . .took the pencil out of Northanger Abbey and tried to transport herself to Bath. Five minutes ago she had been in the Grand Pump Room herself, and knew exactly where Mrs Allen and Isabella Thorpe and Edward Morland were sitting; where Catherine was standing, and what John Thorpe was saying to her when Tilney walked up. But alas! Anastasia found no readmission; the lights were put out, the Pump Room in darkness. A sad change to have happened in five minutes; but no doubt the charmed circle had dispersed in a huff on finding that they no longer occupied the first place in Miss Anastasia Joliffe's interest. And indeed, she missed them the less because she had discovered that she herself possessed a wonderful talent for romance, and had already begun the first chapter of a thrilling story.

The acuity of insight, the painstaking way that Falkner spells out the thought processes of his characters (the alcoholic organist; Anastasia, the would-be novelist; and her mother, the downtrodden landlady who triumphs socially) combine to make the novel's climax-and I can't even go into it-unbearably tense: "the man whose fate he must seal was keeping pace with him quietly, step by step." It is a novel whose plot feels minutely planned, just as his characters' motives are dissected for us, yet Falkner, on

being asked if a reader was right in assuming that a certain character was the murderer, answered: "I know less than anyone. He just went his own way. . .I am quite in the dark. . .I don't think he [was]." This makes me like it all the more. Falkner's characterisation is democratic: he successfully empathises with every one of his major characters, yet the world in which they live-its buildings and air, its shadows and light, its small social snobberies and larger injustices-is kept perfectly in focus too.

In Falkner's age, it was through music that the aesthete, the romantic, could hope to be in touch with the transcendental. And the novels are fully musical. God and The Devil share the best tunes, whether it be the Gagliarda that possesses Maltravers in The Lost Stradivarius, The Nebuly Coat's drunken organist's own composition "Sharnall in D Flat," or that same novel's appendix of musical transcriptions of "Tunes played by the Chimes of St. Sepulchre's Church at Cullerne" (presumably presented so you the reader can play along when the tunes are mentioned in the text or at the right time of day). Even the language itself chimes in: Sir Edmund Craster in his "Personal Note on John Meade Falkner" remembered that "[Falkner] talked often of the Latin cursus-that lost art of prose rhythm, the descent of melody in the phrase's end." Of "Sharnall in D Flat":

He held down the D flat note, and the open pipe went booming and throbbing through the long nave arcades, and in the dark recesses of the triforium, and under the beetling vaulting, and quavered away high up in the lantern, till it seemed like the death-groan of a giant.

It is through this sound that Westray the architect enters the fantastical, hearing the arches of the Minster itself speak to him in warning: "The arch never sleeps. They have bound on us a burden too heavy to be borne. We are shifting it; we never sleep."

Introductions and recommendations often try to help you better understand the work by persuading you of deeper meanings and themes, showing how the novel is illuminated by the world in which it was written, and how in turn the work illuminates that world, proving thereby the writer's worth, his place in the great scheme of things. I'd like to do the complete opposite. Not only am I far from qualified to write such an introduction, but it seems to me that Falkner's novels simply don't need the assistance-their worlds are complete. Descriptions of the plots might make the books seem as though they have little new to offer today, that excuses will have to be made, perhaps for their age or quaintness, but Falkner sidesteps clichè: each of the novels grips to the last page.

A bookman called Tony who drinks with my father in his Hastings local The Filo (First In Last Out) gave me my copy of Moonfleet. He thought I'd like it and he was right. That's the kind of recommendation I'm making here. If I had enough copies, I'd pass them out one by one.

*

And next time I'm in Durham, I shall ask Lost Property at the Railway Station if anything, by way of a manuscript left in one of the trains, has shown up recently. Letters written and lost in the First World War are delivered even now, so there is hope. Falkner's fourth novel is something I'd very much like to read. It would be a romance, of course: beyond that, it's hard to say.

In sickness or health, in poverty or riches, through middle age and old age, through loss of hair and loss of teeth, under wrinkled face and gouty limbs, under crow's-feet and double chins, under all the least romantic and sordid malaisances of lie, romance endures to the end. Its price is altogether above rubies: it can never be taken away from those that have it, and those that have it not, can never acquire it for money, nor by the most utter toil-no, nor ever arrive at the very faintest comprehension of it.

-The Nebuly Coat

Wesley Stace is also known as the musician John Wesley Harding. His first novel, Misfortune, was published in April by Little, Brown. He is at work on his second novel and his fourteenth album. He lives in Brooklyn.

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