‘What, after all, was a priest but a licensed magician?’ – Midwinter of the Spirit by Phil Rickman

April 11, 2011 at 1:45 am (Book review, books, Mystery fiction)

It’s been some months now since I spent time with Merrily Watkins, a newly trained – and somewhat reluctant – Church of England deliverance minister, and her teen-age daughter Jane. Being in the presence of these two is mostly a pleasure. Mostly, but not always. Jane can be quite the firebrand, especially when she’s excoriating her mother concerning the latter’s chosen profession:

‘…the church has always been on this kind of paternalistic power trip and doesn’t want people to search for the truth. Like it used to be science and Darwinism and stuff they were worries about, not it’s the New Age because that’s like real practical spirituality. And it comes at a time when the Church is really feeble and pathetic, and the bishops and everybody are s–t scared of it all going down the pan, so now we get this big Deliverance initiative, which is really just about…about suppression.’

This rant, though slightly incoherent, is nevertheless enough of a broadside that Merrily has to struggle to defend herself against it. It is not easy to be held in contempt by  your own child. Many of us have been there, albeit briefly. And Merrily is already plagued by uncertainty and doubt regarding ability to carry out the duties of this new and strange ministry. She’s got problems of a more personal nature as well. But despite what you just read, Jane is not really one of them. Yes, she can be difficult and defiant, but she’s also at bottom deeply loyal to her mother and staunch in her defense.

Merrily may have issues with the Church hierarchy and those who administer it, but her faith is genuine. Several times in the course of the novel she feels the impulse to pray that is so urgent, it drives out all other needs. This is a truly religious soul, in search of the succor and acutely aware of the same need in others.

As I mentioned above, I read this novel a while back and thus have very little recollection of specific plot points. As a remedy, I offer the following, from the back cover of the paperback edition:

When offered the post once styled ‘diocesan exorcist’, the Reverend Merrily Watkins – parish priest and single parent – cannot easily refuse. But the retiring exorcist, strongly objecting to women priests, not only refuses to help Merrily but ensures that she’s soon exposed to the job at its most terrifying.

And things get no easier.

As an early winter slices through the old city of Hereford, a body is found in the River Wye, an ancient church is desecrated, and there are signs of dark ritual on a hill overlooking the city.

There’s more, but I’ll stop there. In point of fact, one thing I do remember is that there was a great deal going on and a multiplicity of characters concerned  in the proceedings. I found the plot a bit hard to follow, nor were the various plot strands equally compelling. In addition, there were times when the pacing suffered. Clocking in at 537 pages – again, I refer to the paperback – the novel ran long; at least, it did for this reader.

That said,  I do want to praise Rickman for writing realistic dialog and lyrical descriptive passages, for creating such engaging characters, and for bringing Hereford and its surroundings to such vivid life. I was delighted by this description of the city’s famous cathedral:

They passed the central altar, with its suspended corona like a giant gold and silver cake-ruff. On Saturdays, even in October, there were usually parties of tourists around the cathedral and its precincts, checking out the usual exhibits: the Mappa Mundi, the Chained Library, the John Piper tapestries….

Hereford Cathedral is on the itinerary of next month’s trip. Oh joy! This is what I go to England for, why I love the place so much.

Hereford Cathedral

Hereford Cathedral's Mappa Mundi dates from about 1300

Phil Rickman and photographer John Mason have assembled a beautiful book called Merrily’s Border: . In it, one learns something of the mysterious and intriguing places that abound in the area known as the Welsh Borders (also known as the Welsh Marches). Fascinating people like Alfred Watkins, Nick Drake, and Ella Mary Leather are profiled.

Highly recommended.

A key element in the plot of Midwinter of the Spirit involves the newly revived custom of choosing a Boy Bishop. Here’s how Merrily explains it to Jane, helpfully embedded in a succinct history lesson:

‘In the thirteenth century, apparently, it was a fairly widespread midwinter ceremony in many parts of Europe. Sometimes he was known as the Bishop of the Innocents. It was discontinued at the Reformation under Henry VIII. The Reformation wasn’t kind to the cathedral anyway. Stained glass windows were destroyed, statues smashed. Then there was the Civil War and puritanism. In most cathedrals, th Boy Bishop never came back, but Hereford reintroduced it about twenty-five years ago, and it’s now probably the most famous ceremony of its kind in the country. The basis of it is a line from the Magnificat which goes: He hath put down the mighty from their seat and hath exalted the humble and the meek.

To all of which Jane offers this instant rejoinder: ‘That’s crap…I don’t know anybody my age who is remotely humble or meek.’ (You said it, Kid; we didn’t!)

By some miracle of synchronicity, an article on the Boy Bishop ceremony appeared in County Life Magazine just as I was reading about it in this novel. Here’s the accompanying photograph:

On balance, I liked Midwinter of the Spirit, although not quite as much as the one other entry I’ve read in this seriesThe Remains of an Altar. That novel had a special appeal for me in that Edward Elgar appears in it – or rather, the ghost of Edward Elgar. In Merrily’s Border, Rickman explains that this came about because he wanted to set the novel in the Malvern Hills, a place he knew he could not write about without mentioning Elgar.

Rickman concedes that he knew very little about the composer beyond the stiff-upper-lip, there-will-always-be-an-England stereotype. But when he looked deeper, he found someone altogether different:

Ed, the Worcester piano-tuner’s son who married above his class. Ed, the paranoid perfectionist, insecure, depressive, often in despair over his work. A man who actually loved the country more than The Country. Who wrote brilliant music but is too often associated with words he didn’t write. Whose high-Catholicism was sometimes challenged by an instinctive paganism. Whose friend and confidante, for some years, seems to have been his daughter’s white rabbit, Peter.

(I wonder where he got that last bit….) The piece that really affected Rickman was the Cello Concerto. This work was playing on the gramophone as Elgar lay dying. He struggled to whistle part of it, then said to a friend who was keeping watch: “If ever you’re walking on the Malvern Hills and hear that, don’t be frightened…it’s only me.” Rickman quotes those words in Remains of an Altar, and I was amazed to find out that Elgar had actually spoken them, while on his deathbed.

Rickman adds, “And it is him. He haunts those hills.”


Our tour group is scheduled to have lunch with Phil Rickman when we’re in Herefordshire next month. I’m greatly looking forward to it.

Phil Rickman

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