Two Victorian mediums battle for the spiritualist market, while a journalist meets a community of "church-crawlers", in this month's recommended reads
The Other Side of Mrs Wood by Lucy Barker (Fourth Estate, £14.99)
Lucy Barker's debut novel explains the mechanics of spiritualist demonstrations, such as "table-turning"
In essence, the plot of Lucy Barker’s debut novel is a pretty standard one. A businesswoman has been at the top of her profession for years. But then along comes
a younger, more ruthless rival who, by satisfying the public’s insatiable desire for the next new thing, is soon poaching her customers. And so as one rises, the other falls.
The twist here, though, is that the businesswomen are 19th-century mediums battling it out in the surprisingly cut-throat world of spiritualism among London’s fashionable classes.
The first is Violet Wood, who’s achieved the rare feat of operating as a medium for 15 years without being exposed as a fraud. Nor has anyone ever discovered that her background is by no means as respectable as she claims.
But now, approaching 40, she’s starting to wonder if her monthly Grand Séances are becoming a bit old hat—not least when she’s shocked to hear one attendee stifling a yawn.
Meanwhile, her ferociously ambitious protégé, Emmie Finch, is about to raise the stakes by manifesting her spirit guide in physical form, and not just through voice alone…
"The businesswomen are 19th-century mediums battling it out in the surprisingly cut-throat world of spiritualism"
As somebody with a master’s degree in Victorian Studies, Barker clearly knows this world well, writing about it with infectious relish and a great eye for arresting detail.
She also lets us in on the tricks of the trade, such as how to make a séance table rock (with a pulley attached to the medium’s foot, since you ask)—but acknowledges, too, the genuine solace that spiritualism provided.
Best of all, she populates the world in question with a large cast of characters who, rather unexpectedly, given the circumstances, prove highly relatable.
At times, Barker perhaps plonks a 21st-century feminist thumb on the scales, with references to “the patriarchy”, an early suffragist saying, “I need to do this. For me”, and a general reluctance to blame women for anything they do, however villainous.
Nonetheless, this is a wildly entertaining novel which plunges us deep into a fascinating part of history that most of us won’t have known about before—but which never fails to keep the storytelling bowling along in a way that’s both emotionally engaging and thoroughly gripping.
The Other Side of Mrs Wood is published by Fourth Estate, £14.99
Steeple Chasing: Around Britain by Church by Peter Ross (Headline, £22)
Church-crawlers hunt for clues of a long-gone past in buildings like Southwark Cathedral, London
At Southwark Cathedral in London, you can hear the same bells that Shakespeare paid for to be rung at his brother’s funeral. In the Yorkshire village of North Grimston, 21st-century children are baptised in the same font as those of a thousand years before.
“Churches,” writes Peter Ross, “hold within them Britain’s history, national and personal”—not just architectural wonders, but touching and enduring monuments to the countless numbers of ordinary people who’ve had some of the most important moments of their lives there.
Like many “church-crawlers”, Ross is no longer a religious believer himself. Nonetheless, going into an old church always feels to him like “a homecoming”. Or, as he words it elsewhere in the book: “You are entering a building, but really it is entering you.”
He meets everybody, from experts in the unexpectedly rude church statues (known as Sheela-na-gigs), to monks who’ve taken vows of poverty and celibacy (“I sometimes think it would be quite nice to have a wife,” muses a monk, before adding, “or even a pair of socks”).
Yet, while Ross’s tone is unfailingly warm, the book is also tinged with melancholy. Many churches, he reminds us, are disappearing and most that do remain are in obvious decline, with dwindling congregations and insufficient funds to maintain the heritage they so powerfully represent.
All of which, I’d suggest, will only make anybody who reads this beguiling and beautifully written book even more likely to get down to some serious church-crawling before it’s too late.
Here, Ross is in Norfolk where John Vigar, a church-lover (another non-believer, incidentally) introduces him to St Lawrence’s in Harpley…
"Churches hold within them Britain’s history, national and personal"
"Standing in the porch, about to try the door, is always a nervous moment. Will the church be open, which is a rush? Or will it be locked, a deflating snub?
Most Norfolk churches are open every day, but not everywhere is so blessed. Too often there will be the troublesome business of phoning up the vicar for the key. Certain parishes, even entire counties (‘Nottinghamshire,’ John tutted) are notorious for poor access.
Now, in the porch of St Lawrence’s, he tried the handle. It turned with a satisfying clank and we stepped inside.
Over the last few months I had spoken with several church-crawlers, many of whom had delighted in recollecting the sensuous pleasure of that moment when the door gives. ‘I get excited just thinking about it,’ a young priest in London confessed.
The expression ‘church-crawling’ appears to have been coined by either John Betjeman or his friend, the artist John Piper. Certainly, Betjeman used it in a 1948 radio broadcast, and then expanded upon this in an article of that name the following year.
‘The instruments you need for church-crawling,’ he informed his readers, ‘are (1) a notebook in which you can sketch and write remarks; (2) opera or field glasses for viewing roofs and stained glass; (3) a map; (4) most important, an unprejudiced eye.’
"The smell often hits first, that odour of damp stone, mouldering prayer books, beeswax and bat"
It isn’t just about what you can see, though. Church-crawling engages the other senses. The smell often hits first, that odour of damp stone, mouldering prayer books, beeswax and bat so closely aligned with the overall feel of a church—that impalpable somethingness—because both are created by the long passage of time.
One crawler told me that he enjoys walking into a country church on a very hot day, after cycling for miles through the lanes, as the cold damp air offers a sudden smack of relief.
There is, too, the exhilaration of those summer evenings when swifts come screaming out from the eaves.
Inside St Lawrence’s, John drew my attention to the north-west window. What he wanted me to see was low down in the right-hand corner, but I still had to stand on a stone bench to get high enough. A clear glass diamond pane appeared to have something scratched into it.
‘Can you make out what it says?’
Not at first, but then, yes, I could. A name—Joseph, perhaps?—and a word that, even on such a warm day, provoked a shiver: ‘Hanged.’
This man, being a criminal, wouldn’t have merited a memorial, but someone who cared for him had scratched his name into the glass with the jewel in a ring as an act of remembrance and, for hundreds of years, the sun had shone through it into the church.
This graffiti is not mentioned in any guidebook, but John had found it according to his unvarying method—careful loving patience—and thus someone’s tragic fate was brought once more into the light.
‘The more you look,’ he said, ‘the more you see.’"
Steeple Chasing: Around Britain by Church is published by Headline for £22
Read more: Books you need to read this May
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