Wednesday, 18 May 2011
"The Anatomy of Ghosts," by Andrew Taylor
Stuff and Nonsense by Amy Cockram is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 2.0 UK: England & Wales License.
I started reading this book with some trepidation. I thought it sounded interesting, but I wasn't sure what the writing style would be like. My trepidation came from the fact that the book is entirely set in 1786, and I was worried that Andrew Taylor might have tried to mimic the style of writers of the period. When I think of eighteenth century writers, my first thought is of Henry Fielding's "Joseph Andrews." When I studied for my degree, it was a matter of pride that I wanted to try and read all the books; I never wanted to be a person who sat in seminars in silence, or who pretended to have read the text of the week. "Joseph Andrews" was the book that broke me; I was never able to finish it. I needn't have worried about Andrew Taylor's writing. His style is very cleverly judged; it is not too archaic, but manages to suggest a different age in its formality and manner. It is close enough to today's style to be read with ease and pleasure, but distant enough to suggest a feeling of period.
Andrew Taylor's hero is John Holdsworth. He was a bookseller and printer, who has fallen on hard times following personal tragedy. His young son, Georgie, drowned in an accident and his wife, Maria, in her grief succumbed to the wiles of a predatory woman who took their money in exchange for spurious messages from their dead son. While Maria frittered away their money in the vain hope of communicating with their dead son, John Holdsworth channeled his anger into writing a small book - called "The Anatomy of Ghosts" - which investigates and rationalises ghostly phenomena. Then, following an argument in which he hits her, his wife is found drowned in the same spot that their son died. It is his treatise on ghosts that leads the widowed and penniless John Holdsworth to be hired by a wealthy widow, Lady Anne Oldershaw. Ostensibly, she wants him to inventory the university library at Jerusalem College to judge if they are worthy to be bequeathed her late husband's library. However, she also wants him to investigate what happened to her son, Frank, a student at the college, who resides in a mental institution after claiming to see a ghost and having a breakdown.
The novel abounds with dead women who haunt the male characters. The novel starts with a ritual of the Holy Ghost Club, in which a girl brought in to fulfill the sexual aspect of the initiation is found dead. John Holdsworth is haunted by his wife, just as Frank Oldershaw is haunted by the ghost of Sylvia Whichcote (who was found dead in the Long Pond at Jerusalem College). The characters are haunted by the spectre of sexual desire, which cannot be articulated in the repressive, restrictive society of the time. Sexuality skulks in the shadows, like the prostitute who is picked up by one of the characters. The ghostly anatomy is gendered as female, and the feminine form, concealed beneath the very proper clothing, haunts the consciousness of many of the men in Taylor's novel.
The novel also plays with the idea of haunting, questioning whether haunting can be a dialogue, and whether it is possible to be haunted by a living person. John Holdsworth finds himself haunted not only by his dead wife, but also by the very alive Elinor Carbury (the wife of the Master of the College, and goddaughter of Lady Anne Oldershaw). Their burgeoning relationship is very well written. They are both interesting, prickly, well-rounded characters, and I found myself becoming invested in their relationship and hoping that they would come together despite the impediments of their complicated lives.
The blurb on the book jacket seems to play up the chilling, creepy aspects of this novel. There are ghostly elements to the story, but this seemed to me to be far more a detective story than a ghost story. Although it is set in the 1780s, the comparison that came to my mind was with a comparatively recent writer: the Victorian Wilkie Collins. I haven't read any of Andrew Taylor's other books, although I have the Alex Jennings narrated audiobook of Taylor's earlier novel "The American Boy" waiting on my ipod, and I liked "The Anatomy of Ghosts" enough to want to seek out more of his writing.
It occurs to me even more than usual that there are so many books in the world, and so little time. Every book that I read, rather than reducing my potential reading list, seems to throw up a list of other related books that I want to read.