I recently read Charlie Lovett’s 2013 debut “The Bookman’s Tale” and was impressed by his successful combination of a passion for books with an adventure genre novel. His latest, his third, is a much quieter work but once again this ex-antiquarian bookseller makes a love for old books a central theme and ends up with a novel every bit as entertaining.
He has taken the brave step of setting it in the cathedral town of Barchester, a fictional location familiar to Trollope fans but by bringing it to the present day there are merely echoes of those classic novels. Central character Arthur Prescott is the main reason I enjoyed this. A frustrated English lecturer at the University, with a penchant of PG Wodehouse he is a man without religious beliefs who attends church services a number of times a day. From a child he has been obsessed with Arthurian myths and the legend of the Holy Grail and his grandfather suggested there could be links with these and their home town. Arthur’s life changes when another Grail devotee, an American woman, arrives to digitize the cathedral’s manuscripts. The dilemma over the future of our important works is a fascinating theme of the novel and would create much discussion for reading groups.
In many ways this book is the antidote to the Dan Brown-type adventure novel suggested by the title. There’s no globe-trotting, the puzzles are intellectual and carried out in the Cathedral library. We are teased throughout with moments in history where the keepers of Barchester’s secrets overlap and with sections from a Guide Book Arthur is writing about the cathedral.
If this sounds a little too restrained there’s the delights of Arthur, at odds with changes in modern academia and his group of code-busting pals, the Barchester Bibliophiles who keep the momentum going in this inaction action quest novel. I ended up enjoying this even more than his slightly more genre-aware debut. Reading about a genuine love for books is always a delight.
I recently had the pleasure of interviewing Charlie Lovett about this book for nb magazine (now retitled as nudge books rather than new books). This can be found in the edition which is out now (nb 92). This can be ordered by following this link.
The Lost Book Of The Grail was published by Alma Books in March 2017. Many thanks for nudge for allowing me to interview the author and the publishers for the review copy.
This is the third of Trollope’s “Barsetshire” sequence and even by the author’s admission, takes quite a while to get going. There’s a lot, he informs us, of back story which we need to get to grips with before his plot can unfold. He even apologises “for beginning a novel with two long dull chapters full of description” (that would be the modern publishing deal out of the window then), but Trollope is a master of lighter-than-you-would-expect him-to-be classic fiction and it isn’t long before his characters are winning us over.
Dr Thorne lives with his niece. Her father died in a brawl with the brother of the woman he had got pregnant. A story was told about the baby not surviving and the mother went off to America where she married and had a new family. Few people know of Mary Thorne’s real background.
She is the object of affection for the Squire’s son, Frank Gresham, who needs to marry money if the family’s status is going to continue. Mary Thorne is considered a disastrous match and that’s without most knowing the full details of her parentage. How much should Dr Thorne reveal and to whom?
Trollope handles this kind of social comedy very well and has sparkling characters on the sidelines, including the older heiress lined up for Frank, Miss Dunstable and the drunken reprobate Sir Roger Scatcherd, the killer of Mary’s father.
ITV recently did a good three part adaptations starring Tom Hollander as Thorne and Ian McShane as Scatcherd. They simplified Trollope’s plot to get to the resolution in three hours but it helped keep me moving through some of the legal intricacies and Trollope’s digressions. Thorne is viewed sneeringly by the other local doctors and politics of the time is lampooned when Scatcherd stands in an election against tailor’s son and beau of Augusta Gresham, the pompous Mr Moffat.
After a slow start this ends up certainly on a par with the two earlier book and by choosing to continue the general location and selected themes rather than the characters (other than the odd cameo performance) it would imply that there is much mileage left in his “Barsetshire novels.”
Dr Thorne was published in 1858. I read a free e-book version. There are many print and digital versions available.
Strangely, before these I had not read any Anthony Trollope before but “The Warden” (1855) proved a good introduction to the Chronicles of Barsetshire. It was actually a much lighter read than I was anticipating and also light on the pocket as it was a free book from Kindle. To be fair, not a lot happens and if action is your bag you might think twice about this, but I have to say that not a lot happens very nicely. Main character, Harding, is a vicar who alongside his other work is given an honorary post as warden at an alms hospital with a very healthy stipend. A suitor of his daughter discovers that this was not the intention of the foundation who set the charity up. It snowballs (slightly) from here with Trollope’s tongue in cheek look at honorary posts and the privileges of the Church of England together with the ramifications of challenging those. It’s a perfect winter’s day novel, gentle, readable and with considerable charm.
“Barchester Towers” (1857) is a longer and more thoroughly plotted novel. I did feel, however, that some of the simple charm of the first book was missing and it is more weighed down by the tale of intrigue amongst men of the cloth. It picks up a couple of years after “The Warden”. Vicar’s daughter Eleanor’s happy marriage at the end of the book is no more. She is a widow and open to the attentions of others. There are some new characters which add life and colour to the novel. A new bishop, Proudie, and his formidable wife arrive to take up their (and it is very much their) appointment, bringing with them a chaplain, Mr Slope. He is a man keen on plotting his way to the top by getting the better of the traditionalists sat in his way. The Signora Neroni is Trollope’s best female character I have encountered to date. She is the daughter of a cleric, forced back from his Italian retreat with family in tow, including Bertie Stanhope, the good-for-nothing son and his sister, The Signora, who is unable to walk and needs to be carried everywhere soon has the men of Barchester wrapped around her finger. The characters stir and plot, the job of the warden comes up again, the status and advancement of the local clergy is central as is the question as to whether Eleanor will remarry.
I like both books very much but for different reasons. “The Warden” for its readable charm but “Barchester Towers” is a rich, denser work and so I think it just has the edge. A series which is getting better is very promising.
There are free versions of both “The Warden” and “Barchester Towers” available in e-book. For those who want the real thing there are reasonably priced editions from Penguin, Oxford World Classics and Wordsworth amongst other publishers.