As well as being a rattling good read, Sabine Baring-Gould’s bloodstained historical romance Cheap Jack Zita is full of coincidences that make me feel rather possessive about it. It’s set in Ely for one thing, and so am I – admittedly not quite the Ely of 1816, though reading the book, it’s surprising to see how little the place has changed in the past 200 years.
Zita, the cheapjack of the title, is a pedlar, and I’m a licensed street trader myself. As the story opens, she is crying her wares at the annual Etheldreda Fair outside the cathedral – something I do every year, up against the railings of the Bishop’s Palace, between Mr Tilly’s coconut shy and the thrills and spills of Roll-a-Coin. But while Zita is a chestnut-haired temptress of 17, armed with a wooden flail to deter the local lads from mounting the tailboard of her waggon and claiming kisses, with her sick father lying curled up inside, my partner Nora and I tend to lean against our leaky stall armed with nothing more lethal than bacon sandwiches, wondering how much we dare to ask for a retro Fifties teapot.
Sabine Baring-Gould, the wealthy and eccentric parson and polymath who wrote this period page-turner with a social conscience, was born at Exeter in 1834, near to where he died ninety years later. Chronologically as well as literarily he bridges the gap between the death of Sir Walter Scott and the first flowering of P.G. Wodehouse. His novels, histories and other works (including The Lives of the Saints, 3,600 of them) are scarcely real today, though some of his hymns such as ‘Onward, Christian Soldiers’ are still stars on Sundays, and at one time he had more titles in the British Museum library catalogue than any other living English writer.
While serving his curacy at Horbury in Yorkshire, at the age of 30 Baring-Gould met and fell in love with Grace Taylor, a slip of a girl sixteen years younger than himself who worked in a local mill. He spen
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