Mystery at the Minster

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Readers take something of a risk if they go back to a book they have much enjoyed but not picked up for thirty or forty years. As a bookseller, I was constantly reminded of such favourites because I could recommend them to friends, either new or second-hand. During that period John Meade Falkner’s novel The Nebuly Coat spent several years out of print but it appealed to small imprints as a reprint, and a reappearance was always welcomed. I probably read it for the first time in the admirable World’s Classics edition. Only in the last few weeks, inspired by my rereading, have I reminded myself about Falkner himself in the judicious introduction by G. M. Young and the personal note contributed by Sir Edmund Craster, a close friend from Northumberland.

The biographical details are unusual. As a young man from a clerical family in Wiltshire, Falkner was recruited after Oxford as tutor to the children of Sir Andrew Noble, a Newcastle manufacturer of armaments. He graduated to becoming Noble’s secretary and, soon, to the Board of Sir W. G. Armstrong & Co., later Armstrong-Whitworth. There, fascinated by the international dealings of the company, he rose to become Chairman. In his retirement he lived in the cathedral close at Durham where he was appointed Honorary Librarian. He became a familiar figure, slightly dishevelled, to be seen carrying musical scores across from Divinity House, where he had settled, to the privacy of his library.

Scholar and antiquarian, he wrote two Murray county guides, to Oxfordshire and Berkshire, and a successful history of Oxfordshire. He was extremely tall with large, melancholy brown eyes; although he married, there were no children and it was said that he had a natural vocation as a bachelor. For his time, he left a considerable fortune, probably in bequests to his old Oxford college, the Bodleian Library and Durham Cathedral.

G. M. Young listed Falkner’s main academic interests, outside his full-time

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About the contributor

In a way characteristic of his life as a bookseller, John Saumarez Smith remembers J. M. Falkner’s nephew as a contemporary and colleague of his own father when they worked for the diocese of Salisbury. John was already a keen visitor to Beech’s bookshop up the road from their office.

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