Another turn of the (20th) century novel. You know how much I love work from this period. Written in 1903, this interesting and poignant work, possibly because of its rather formal style, common of writing of that period, was compelling in a way that is seldom found (at least by me) in today’s modern offerings.
It is the story of an old, deteriorating church and its awkwardly built bell tower, the architect in charge of restoration, the aristocratic family who is responsible for the upkeep and maintenance of the church, and the churches officials and townspeople.
The seaport of Cullerne was once a bustling place, but silt closed the harbor, the marshes overtook the beaches, and the town found itself stranded rather more inland than was useful, the young people moved to other parts, and the town was left to sleep away its days. The great church of Saint Sepulchre dominated the village square. The first part of the building was erected in 1135, and its Norman arches supported an overburdening weight of the bell tower which was added on several centuries later.
When young architect Westray is sent by his firm to inspect the building and oversee what little restoration the church has money for, he notices an ominous crack in the tower, and is reminded of the old architectural saw, “The arch never sleeps”, meaning that when an arch is forced to support too heavy a load, it eventually will shift.
We meet the old, broken down organist, a fine musician, forced to make do with a decrepit organ and barely passable singers for his choir. Westray takes lodgings in the same poor establishment as the organist, and they become friends.
The old Lord of the area has died, and his son and daughter-in-law drowned in a boating accident, and the remaining family member, the grandson, has been traveling and living abroad for twenty years, and even before the old guy died, he could not be induced to spend a penny on the church, the townspeople are not very prosperous, and so the building has been sinking into decay for decades.
The title of the book refers to the coat of arms of the aristocratic family, the Nebuly, which is a bunch of clouds. A lot of the plot revolves around this coat of arms and around the chain of inheritance of the family manor and money.
So, anyway, the church’s officials cannot put off the repair of parts of the roof any longer, and have contracted to have the work done at last.
But lo! and behold! The young grandson returns home, and what is great about this novel is that at every turn where you think you know where it is going, it isn’t. It does something completely unexpected, so I am not going to tell you any more of the plot, except to say, the arches never sleep.
The enjoyment of this book is not just in the plot. It is in the various side trips of musings on the life of those in lodgings, of single men, of decaying gentry, of poverty and penury, on the workings and maintenance of the great church organs, and of course, on the various points of architecture.
Side note: In the lodgings lives the niece of the landlady, who is an avid reader and aspires to someday be an author. At one point, she is reading when the doorbell sounds.
She had thrust a pencil into the pages of “Northanger Abbey” to keep the place while she answered the bell….
hahaha She is reading Jane Austin. I love it.
Meade wrote two other novels, The Lost Stradivarius, and Moonfleet, written in 1898, a tale of adventure, and which was made into a movie. If you wish to read The Nebuly Coat or the other two books, they are free on Project Gutenberg.