The oldest son of a clergyman, Falkner was born in 1858 and died at age 74, in 1932. A big man, he stood an impressive 6 feet 6 inches tall. After graduating from Oxford — for which his father somehow scraped together the money — he started his working life as a tutor in the household of Sir Andrew Noble, a partner in Armstrong Whitworth, one of the world’s top three armaments manufacturers (along with Vickers and Krupp). Through social skills that Davenport-Hines likens to those of a Renaissance courtier, Falkner soon made himself into his employer’s indispensable right-hand man, commuting daily to the company’s mammoth industrial park at Elswick in Newcastle-Upon-Tyne. After Noble’s death in 1915, Falkner was elected to succeed him as chairman, overseeing Armstrong Whitworth during World War I before retiring in 1921.
While Falkner never stinted his day job, he occupied his offtime with writing and antiquarian research. He loved old churches and achieved considerable renown as an expert on ecclesiastical architecture, liturgical music and medieval manuscripts. He also penned rather melancholy occasional verse — much of it quoted by Davenport-Hines — and produced pioneering travel and topographical guides to Oxfordshire and Berkshire. For pleasure, Falkner might reread “The Odyssey” in Greek. In later years, he served as the librarian of Durham Cathedral and passed many happy months at the Vatican Library poring over its medieval English missals and breviaries.
Even this wasn’t all.
In 1915, Prime Minister Herbert Asquith toured Elswick along with his daughter Violet Bonham-Carter. The young woman found herself standing next to a middle-aged gentleman whose name she hadn’t caught. Soon, the two began to discuss favorite novels and Bonham-Carter enthused: “There is one book you really must read. I cannot tell you why because its quality is indescribable — it is called ‘The Nebuly Coat,’ ” to which the arms manufacturer replied, “I wrote it.”
In fact, John Meade Falkner published three novels: “The Lost Stradivarius” (1895), “Moonfleet” (1898) and “The Nebuly Coat” (1903). Each was composed in the late evening after an already tiring day, mainly as a form of relaxation. That suggests a possible amateurishness, yet Falkner’s books are actually virtuosic masterpieces of their respective genres — the supernatural tale, the adventure story and the gothic romance.
In “The Lost Stradivarius” a sensitive young baronet named John Maltravers acquires a violin that once belonged to an exceptionally decadent member of the 18th-century Hellfire Club. Before long, Maltravers is ignoring his heartbroken wife and spending increasing amounts of time in a villa at Naples, where he plays over and over the same ecstatic piece of music. There, too, he studies various esoteric manuscripts and lavishes nervous affection on a pale Italian boy. Rumor spreads that the villa — which once belonged to the violin’s original owner — has again become the temple of pagan rites and unspeakable vice. Has Maltravers been possessed and corrupted — or spiritually liberated and freed to become his true self?
Somewhat similar to Robert Louis Stevenson’s “Kidnapped,” “Moonfleet” is set in the 18th century and recounts the adventures of young John Trenchard after he teams up with the daring smuggler Elzevir Block. The nonstop action embraces ghosts and secret codes, the search for an accursed diamond, murder charges, impossibly thrilling chase scenes, wrongful imprisonment and descriptions of storms at sea that Joseph Conrad would envy. Falkner’s breathless, breathtaking tale of revenge and self-sacrifice sweeps the reader irresistibly along, like the deadly undertow at Moonfleet Beach.
As for “The Nebuly Coat”: Imagine an amalgam of the churchy mysteriousness of Dorothy L. Sayers’s “The Nine Tailors,” that pervasive feeling of wrongness one finds in M.R. James’s “Ghost Stories of an Antiquary” and the plot complexities — and sardonic humor — of Wilkie Collins’s “The Woman in White.” An architect named Westray arrives in Cullerne to restore its medieval cathedral but soon experiences an unshakable sense of foreboding. The cathedral’s organist claims he is being pursued by a shadowy figure with a hammer. The original name of a boardinghouse turns out to be The Hand of God. Questions surround the charming and chilling Lord Blandamer: Is he the rightful heir to his title? Ambiguity and undecideability flourish. Meanwhile, inside the cathedral Westray imagines he hears the stone buttresses shifting, murmuring: “The arch never sleeps. They have bound on us a burden too heavy to be borne.”
All three of Falkner’s richly atmospheric novels are readily and cheaply available. Not so Davenport-Hines’s elegant biography. Published by the Roxburghe Club, it must be ordered from the London bookseller Maggs, something which only passionate Falknerians are likely to do. Still, libraries should buy it. Anglophiles, especially, will revel in its author’s delectably learned and tangy prose: “Meade Falkner savoured quaint failure, historic redundancy and the pensive charm of dereliction. Abandoned wharfs and backwaters put him into the same temper of mind as Gibbon hearing the barefoot friars singing vespers in the temple of Jupiter.” Because Falkner left few personal letters and confessional documents, Davenport-Hines compensates for their lack with anecdote-rich asides about 19th-century Oxford, eccentric dons and sharp-tongued clerics, regional history, naval ordnance, masculine friendship and much else, not least a lively pen portrait of the Athenaeum Club. For me, “John Meade Falkner: Abnormal Romantic” deserves the supreme accolade: I’d happily read it again.
Michael Dirda reviews books each Thursday in Style.
JOHN MEADE FALKNER
By Richard Davenport-Hines
The Roxburghe Club/Maggs. 334 pp. $110