“Deep shadows were gathering in the valleys between the hills, and the slanting rays of the setting sun illuminated Wenlock Edge, some miles distant.” – Appointed To Die, by Kate Charles

January 29, 2011 at 8:28 pm (Anglophilia, Book review, books, Music, Mystery fiction, Poetry)

Appointed To Die is the second in the Book of Psalms series by Kate Charles. The protagonist, Lucy Kingsley, is an artist. Although living in London, she’s frequently in Malbury where her father Canon John Kingsley serves as priest at Malbury Cathedral. (Charles locates the fictional Malbury near the actual cathedral city of Hereford, close to the Welsh border.) One is immediately apprised of the tension and discord arising among the individuals and groups attached in various ways to the cathedral. For instance, Rowena Hunt, head of Friends of the Cathedral, has her eye on architect Jeremy Bartlett. But Jeremy has eyes only for Lucy Kingsley. Then there’s Subdean Arthur Brydges-ffrench, who aspires to fill the vacant post of Dean of Malbury Cathedral. Brydges-ffrench is a known quantity at Malbury, and deeply respected. Yet it is doubtful that his dream will become a reality. In conversation with Lucy, Jeremy Bartlett partially illuminates the difficulty with this assessment of the man:

‘He has an utterly perverse antiquarian mind. You know the sort I mean–adores crossword puzzles and obscure theological riddles. He was a chorister here himself, back in the thirties. And if he had his way, we’d all do things exactly the way they were done then.’

It did not take long for This Reader to experience a distinct sensation of deja vu. Why, we’re in Trollope country! Sure enough, the first allusion appears on page 21. When Jeremy tells Lucy that he’s a cellist, she responds, “Shades of Barchester….Mr. Harding and his cello.” Anthony Trollope’s Chronicles of Barsetshire consists of six novels: 

I’ve read Barchester Towers, Doctor Thorne, and Framley Parsonage. They were all three wonderful. It’s been a while, but I recall  Framley Parsonage as a delightful comedy of manners, Doctor Thorne as an engrossing love story, and Barchester Towers as…well, a work of genius, right up there in the pantheon of the great Victorian novels of nineteenth century Britain.

As in days of old, so it is in Malbury: gossip and innuendo abound in the claustrophobic world of the cathedral close. Still, it’s just business as usual until Stuart Latimer, the newly appointed Dean, makes his grand entrance, attended by his tony, well-connected wife – she who refers to the local people as “rustics!’ –  along with various other London luminaries. Then the level of conflict and intrigue is ratcheted upward toward the stratosphere!

One bone of contention in Malbury concerns a music festival recently put on by the cathedral community. This impetus for this event was provided by Canon Brydges-ffrench; as Jeremy explains, “‘He’s never been able to stand being excluded from the Three Choirs Festival.'” I was delighted by this mention of a festival that has intrigued me ever since I learned that Ralph Vaughan Williams was there in 1910 to conduct the premiere of “Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis.” I was about to start rhapsodizing on the otherworldly gorgeousness of  this  music, its quintessential Englishness…but, well, just listen, while you feast your eyes on Devon’s River Torridge and its wildlife:

I was struck by the essential integrity of this beautifully written novel:, in the believability of its characters, with their all-too-human mix of good intentions and perverse impulses, the sense of impending crisis that keeps the reader fully engaged in the narrative, the unceasing war between spiritual aspirations and the baser instincts, the striving for beauty in art, music, and worship – just the sheer depth of feeling that resonates throughout.

When the untimely death of one of their own shocks the cathedral community, its grief-stricken members look to Canon John Kingsley for consolation. Ina stirring and eloquent sermon, he gives them what they crave. Afterward, Lucy asks him how he knew just what to say, and he responds:

‘…the best way I can describe it is like a gramophone record, with God at the center. The center is still, but the record spins around, and  the farther you are from the center the faster you spin. That’s what I was doing earlier, spinning around the outside of the gramophone record, trying to make sense of it all on my own terms. But when I got up to speak I let God carry me toward the center, and the nearer I got the more certain I was the He was in control. There’s tremendous peace in letting go like that.’

Appointed To Die came out in 1994, but in this passage Canon Kingsley’s diction seems antiquated, belonging to an earlier era. The analogy to an LP record put me in mind of John Donne’s poem “A Valediciton Forbidding Mourning:”

AS virtuous men pass mildly away,
And whisper to their souls to go,
Whilst some of their sad friends do say,
“Now his breath goes,” and some say, “No.”

So let us melt, and make no noise,
No tear-floods, nor sigh-tempests move ;
‘Twere profanation of our joys
To tell the laity our love.

Moving of th’ earth brings harms and fears ;
Men reckon what it did, and meant ;
But trepidation of the spheres,
Though greater far, is innocent.

Dull sublunary lovers’ love
—Whose soul is sense—cannot admit
Of absence, ’cause it doth remove
The thing which elemented it.

But we by a love so much refined,
That ourselves know not what it is,
Inter-assurèd of the mind,
Care less, eyes, lips and hands to miss.

Our two souls therefore, which are one,
Though I must go, endure not yet
A breach, but an expansion,
Like gold to aery thinness beat.

If they be two, they are two so
As stiff twin compasses are two ;
Thy soul, the fix’d foot, makes no show
To move, but doth, if th’ other do.

And though it in the centre sit,
Yet, when the other far doth roam,
It leans, and hearkens after it,
And grows erect, as that comes home.

Such wilt thou be to me, who must,
Like th’ other foot, obliquely run ;
Thy firmness makes my circle just,
And makes me end where I begun.

**************************

One of the reason that I chose the quotation in this post’s title is that there is a song by Ralph Vaughan Williams entitled “On Wenlock Edge.” I did not know what Wenlock Edge actually was, but as usual, Wikipedia enlightened me: “Wenlock Edge is a limestone escarpment near Much Wenlock, Shropshire, England.” (Click here for the complete entry.)

Jack Mytton Way, near Rushbury, Wenlock Edge, Shropshire

The composer took for his text this poem by A.E. Housman, from the cycle of poems, A Shropshire Lad:

On Wenlock Edge the wood’s in trouble
His forest fleece the Wrekin heaves;
The gale, it plies the saplings double,
And thick on Severn snow the leaves.

‘Twould blow like this through holt and hanger
When Uricon the city stood:
‘Tis the old wind in the old anger,
But then it threshed another wood.

Then, ’twas before my time, the Roman
At yonder heaving hill would stare:
The blood that warms an English yeoman,
The thoughts that hurt him, they were there.

There, like the wind through woods in riot,
Through him the gale of life blew high;
The tree of man was never quiet:
Then ’twas the Roman, now ’tis I.

The gale, it plies the saplings double,
It blows so hard, ’twill soon be gone:
To-day the Roman and his trouble
Are ashes under Uricon.

I know the Severn is a river, but I did not know that it is Great Britain’s longest. (There is also a Severn River in Anne Arundel County Maryland, just east of where we currently reside.)

I was well and truly puzzled by “Wrekin” and “Uricon.” The Wrekin, Shropshire’s 15th highest peak, turns out to be a distinctive landmark with a fascinating history. (The BBC has more on this subject.) “”Uricon” was harder to find. The word is actually a variant of “Viroconium Cornoviorum,” which is the name of an old Roman town found in Shropshire.

Finally, here is Ian Bostridge singing and discussing “On Wenlock Edge” and “Is My Team Ploughing?” (the latter also based on a poem from A Shropshire Lad).

 

 

4 Comments

  1. Kate Charles said,

    Many thanks for the insightful and generous comments about my book. Glad you enjoyed it.
    As you may have realised, I love the Barchester Chronicles, and I love Vaughan Williams. And I love the Shropshire countryside. When I wrote this book, many years ago now, I couldn’t have imagined that one day I would end up living in Shropshire, just a few miles from the fictional Malbury and from Wenlock Edge. Life is strange.

    • Roberta Rood said,

      Kate, I am delighted to hear from you. As you can no doubt tell, I love Britain very deeply. I have from time to time thought about moving there, as it the place is so dominant in my mind and heart. But I shall content myself with frequent visits, at this point. Reading your bio & your lovely novel made me realize that you & I have much in common. I plan to be on the tour “From Brother Cadfael o Lydmouth” in May. The itinerary calls for us to be joining you for tea on Monday May 16. I am greatly looking forward to it!

      • Kate Charles said,

        Roberta, I’m delighted that you’re coming on the tour and I’ll have the chance to meet you. I know we’ll have any things to talk about! As you say, much in common.

  2. Laurel L. Anderson said,

    Roberta,
    I have been a fan of Kate’s novels for a long time, but it was not until I read your marvelous review of Appointed to Die that I truly understand their depth. I am going back to all five of Kate’s David and Lucy series. I will reread them with a much greater understanding of their meaning and importance, thanks to you. You have a wonderful way with words and an incredible insight into their meaning. Thanks so much for sharing this with me.
    Laurel

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