‘In the antechamber of death, hate was more powerful than love.’ – The Anatomy of Ghosts by Andrew Taylor

April 19, 2011 at 2:05 pm (Book review, books, Historical fiction, Mystery fiction)

  The year is 1786. John Holdsworth, bookseller, has written a book himself. It’s called The Anatomy of Ghosts and in it, he debunks the idea of the existence of those spectral beings:

His theme was that stories of the dead revisiting the living could not be taken at face value. Some of them, he wrote, were nothing more than childish superstitions that only children and uneducated women were likely to credit. Others were misunderstandings and delusions, perpetrated in good faith, but now increasingly explicable as natural science  revealed more and more of the truth about God’s universe.

Holdsworth had an intensely personal reason for penning this treatise. When his son Georgie accidentally drowned, his distraught wife became obsessed with what she claimed was Georgie’s ghost. Eventually she too died, worn out with grief and obsession.

At this very low point in his life, John Holdsworth receives an unexpected summons from a wealthy aristocrat, Lady Anne Oldershaw. Lady Anne has read Holdsworth’s book, and she has just the commission for him; namely, to find out what has befallen her son. Frank Oldershaw is a student at Cambridge’s Jerusalem College. He claims to have seen the ghost of a recent drowning victim, a young woman named Sylvia Whichcote. This sighting seems to have engendered a kind of madness in Frank,who is currently under the care of a local physician. Lady Anne is not well enough to travel; she needs an emissary who can report back to her on just what is going on in Cambridge. She firmly believes that John Holdsworth is the man for the job. For his part, Holdsworth could use the generous retainer offered by Lady Anne. And wouldn’t it be a good thing to get away from his house by the River Thames, with its bitter memories?

And so Holdsworth journeys down to Cambridge. Once there, he finds himself confronted with a fiendishly complicated set of circumstances. He must speak to many people to try and get at the truth of the matter. Yet these same people proceed to tell him half truths or even outright lies, misrepresenting their own actions, and even more so, their true motivations.

Holdsworth finds Frank Oldershaw in the care of a Dr. Jermyn. Not only in his care, but lodged in his premises. Jermyn believes that this is the best arrangement for his disturbed patients; there are others dwelling there besides Frank. Holdsworth gets an opportunity, albeit brief and carefully controlled, to observe Frank’s treatment in this sort of ad hoc asylum. The young man and his fellow patients are under guard at all times; any sign of undesirable  behavior meets with harsh reprisals in the form of withheld food or even physical punishment. Frank has been provided with a limited amount of reading material, and he’s required to perform manual labor. Dr. Jermyn explains that these conditions are imposed in an effort to help the disturbed individual regain full use of his faculties.

Holdsworth is skeptical. He’d like to talk to Frank alone. The good doctor will not allow it. But Holdsworth is about to display a resourcefulness and determination that more than justify Lady Anne’s faith in him. In other words, he is not about to take no for an answer.

While carrying out his investigation, Holdsworth lodges at the home of the Reverend Dr. Carbury, Master of Jerusalem College. Dr. Carbury is a stolid, unimaginative type, but his wife Elinor is cut from an altogether different cloth. While not beautiful, she is spirited and intelligent. She is also trapped and restless. Holdsworth notes all of these qualities – and more….

The Anatomy of Ghosts is peopled by a large cast of characters. One of the most diverting was Harry Archdale, a well-meaning undergraduate whose list of peccadilloes seems endless. Then there’s Philip Whichcote. It was Philip’s wife Sylvia who had died and whose ghost bedevils Frank Oldershaw. You would think that  this would make her widower an object of sympathy. But Philip Whichcote is one of the least sympathetic characters in the novel. He presides over  an entity  called the Holy Ghost Club. It is comprised of undergraduates, eager and foolish young men who in return for a certain sum of money, are instructed by Whichcote in “…the vices of a gentleman.” These are mainly comprised of drunkenness and gambling; in addition, there is one particular membership rite that is truly revolting. Reading about the depravity and debauchery that ran rampant in that assemblage, I felt as though I were face to face with real evil.

I was surprised by Andrew Taylor’s depiction of late eighteenth century Cambridge. I refer to both the town and the university, neither of which come off especially well in this novel. In the passage quoted at the beginning of this post, John Holdsworth makes mention of the scientific advances of the era that should be putting to rest irrational beliefs and superstitions. (You can read about those advances and the people responsible for them in Richard Holmes’s terrific book, The Age of Wonder.) To judge by the ossified curriculum in use at Jerusalem College, you would not know that anything of note in the contemporary world was going on. Students were still almost exclusively studying the ancients, some of whose names are now completely unfamiliar. Andrew Taylor elucidates in an author’s note at the end of the novel:

The eighteenth century was not a glorious period for English universities….At Oxford and Cambridge, individual colleges followed their own idiosyncratic paths with little to guide them apart from their own statutes, which were at least two centuries out of date, as were the syllabuses that the universities prescribed for their students to study.

Moreover, there seemed to be precious little actual studying going on, with gambling, drinking, and carousing generally taking precedence. I know – you’re thinking, so what else is new? Still. one does have a certain image in mind of the two above named institutions of higher learning, and the goings on described in Taylor’s novel do not fit in with that image.

As for the town, it comes across as little better than a cesspit:

Holdsworth plunged into a dark and narrow street running to the south. Out of necessity he walked slowly. There were fewer people here and fewer lights, but the buildings pressed in on either side and the air seemed no cooler. The alley was cobbled, with a gully running down the middle. The stench was  very bad. Heaps of refuse oozed across the footpath. There was a constant pattering and scuffling of rats, and every now and then he glimpsed their scurrying long-tailed shadows.

As you can see from the above, Andrew Taylor does a marvelous job of evoking the time and place of which he writes. I’ve often said of both histories and historical fiction: Transport me there! This the author has done, in a convincing and compelling manner.

I always feel that detailed descriptions of specifics are a great aid in making the past come alive. That’s particular true where food is concerned:

Dinner on Sunday was a lengthy affair, and one that had an air of celebration. They began with fresh salmon boiled and garnished with fried smelts, anchovy sauce and shrimps, with a calf’s head. chicken pie and a chine of roast mutton. The second course involved a haunch of venison with gravy sauce and currant jelly. There were also collared eels, a green goose, lobsters and tarts.

Well, gosh….Perhaps we should add gluttony to the list of besetting sins of the era.


When I finished this novel, I called out to my husband: “I just loved this book!” I then realized that it had been quite some time since I’ve felt that way about a contemporary work of fiction. This is one of the reasons I’ve  been reading so much new nonfiction. In fact, I’ve just started Laura J. Snyder’s The Philosophical Breakfast Club. This work is subtitled, “Four Remarkable Friends Who Transformed Science and Changed the World.” These four were William Whewell, Charles Babbage, Richard Jones, and John Herschel; they formed their club in the early nineteenth century, when they were students at…you guessed it: Cambridge. So I’m having a pleasant feeling of appropriate follow-up as I once again encounter terms first seen by me in The Anatomy of Ghosts. Two examples that come to mind are “sizar” – defined in Wikipedia as “…a student who receives some form of assistance such as meals, lower fees or lodging during his or her period of study, in some cases in return for doing a defined job”- and “fellow-commoner.”   (A map and a list of the main characters are provided  at the front of this novel; a glossary would have been similarly helpful.)

From what I’ve read thus far, I gather that one of the aims of the Philosophical Breakfast Club was to rectify the just the sort of curricular backwardness alluded to above.


Our tour group is scheduled to meet with Andrew Taylor next month at Speech House in the Royal Forest of Dean in Gloucestershire. Ron and I met him at that same venue during our 2006 Smithsonian Tour. In this picture below, I am bemoaning to the author the fact that the novels in the acclaimed Lydmouth series are not in print in the U.S. (As far as I can tell, this situation has still not been remedied.):

In preparation for the upcoming trip, I just reread the first Lydmouth novel, An Air that Kills. I liked it even more this time around.


Here’s a promotional video for The Anatomy of Ghosts:

My final word: this is the best historical novel I’ve read since Wolf Hall. A wonderful book by a wonderful writer.

1 Comment

  1. Barbara said,

    I guess one more book will have to be added to my TBR pile now. Sounds so interesting!

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