Thursday 5 March 2020

Silent Mansions

In this month's Literary Review, I write about Jean Sprackland's These Silent Mansions: A Life in Graveyards. I pass this on purely because I enjoyed the book so much, and I think many readers of this blog might also enjoy it. And, of course, to encourage everyone to read the excellent Literary Review. Here's a link to the website – and here's the full text of the review...

‘I can remember my life by the graveyards I have known,’ writes the poet Jean Sprackland in the preface to this, her second work of non-fiction prose (following the deservedly successful Strands). Graveyards for her have always been ‘the otherworlds which have helped make sense of this world’. And she finds their mute appeal irresistible: ‘At the church door after a wedding or a funeral, I look for an excuse to detach myself and wander off among the stones I’ve glimpsed over the shoulders of my fellow guests or mourners.’ Other graveyard wanderers – myself included – will smile with recognition at that.
  While Sprackland’s remembered life forms the structural spine of this book, it is only to a limited extent autobiographical. Her graveyard journey opens out into a wide-ranging, unpredictable and refreshingly original meditation on a huge but widely ignored subject – the relationship between the living and the dead. Wandering in a graveyard offers a salutary perspective on life, showing, as the author puts it, ‘how I and everyone around me is part of the inescapable repeating pattern so explicitly demonstrated here.  Born… Departed this life. Touching the stones and reading the chiselled names of the dead keeps me acquainted with reality’.
  In the course of the book, the author visits unexpected, even obscure burial places, such as the Harkirk, an all but obliterated recusant graveyard hidden away in the grounds of Crosby Hall, on the outskirts of Liverpool. Her account of the persecution of recusants (Catholics in protestant England) brings home just how important it was, in pre-industrial times, to be buried among your own dead, in you own abiding community. To be disqualified from churchyard burial was far more traumatic than we can understand today: it was indeed, as Sprackland says, ‘a dispossession’.
  At Rapparee in Devon, Sprackland uncovers a shameful tale of a cargo of slaves hurriedly buried after a shipwreck, and subsequently forgotten in an act of willed amnesia, until the facts became undeniable. In the nonconformist graveyard known as The Rosary, in Norwich, Sprackland finds the grave of the steam circus proprietor John Barker, and takes us on a fascinating journey into the Victorian world of travelling showmen. Some of her most memorable stories, however, are heartbreakingly sad. The churchyard (now a garden) of St Ebbe’s in Oxford is the starting point for a harrowing account of how the bodies of the late-Victorian poor – men, women and children – were considered the property of the state, to be sold to anatomists to recoup some of the cost of poor relief. In the registers of the Radcliffe Infirmary, Sprackland finds the terrible fate of these destitute people scrupulously recorded.
  At Blean in Canterbury, she uncovers the story of Agnes Gibbs, an abnormally tiny child who caught the eye of the Duchess of Kent and, exhibited as the ‘Fairy Queen’, became a sensation in London society – or so local legend has it. The truth turns out to be rather different, and sadder – as is also the case in another story, this time from one of Sprackland’s childhood homes, Tutbury in Staffordshire. Here she investigates the story of a boy drowned in 1936 while saving his friend, and is astonished to find that the rescued boy, now a man in his 90s, is still alive – and that his version of events differs widely from the heroic tale everybody wanted to hear.   
  For all these sad stories – hardly avoidable in a book about graveyards – this is not at all a gloomy book but an exhilarating one, not least because of the author’s evident love of her subject, and her ready response to the abundant animal and plant life to be found among the ‘silent mansions of the dead’. She writes vividly of the beauty and endless variety of lichens and wild flowers, of those snake-like lizards we call slow-worms, of yew trees, foxes and other graveyard survivors. To my delight, I found a whole short chapter devoted to the graveyard-haunting holly blue butterfly. Sprackland even marvels at the revolting substance known as ‘nostoc’, a kind of translucent goo with a habit of appearing in quantity overnight on patios or garden paths, or indeed tomb slabs. Its folk names include ‘star rot, troll’s butter and astral jelly’. Ugh.
  The author, as attentive to the wildlife around her as to the human life and death, celebrates the graveyard’s modern function as a nature reserve, though she has some qualms about the current fashion of ‘natural’ burial, especially when no marker is involved. Burial grounds of this kind no longer serve as ‘repositories of individual stories, places of random discovery. You wouldn’t come to them to study the past; here the past is consigned to the earth, and the earth is allowed to forget.’ If this is to be the future of burial, we should cherish our older graveyards all the more, as precious spaces where the living and the dead can silently commune.
  This is a lovely book: beautifully written, never lapsing into self-conscious ‘poet’s prose’, always a joy to read. I wish I had written it myself.


  1. I wonder, sir, whether you have read Joseph Addison's splendid essay "Thoughts in Westminster Abbey," another mediation on one's walking through a graveyard.

  2. I have not – I shall seek it out. Thanks for the suggestion.

  3. And I have just read it online! A fine little essay, and I was particularly pleased by Addison's critique of the Cloudesley Shovel monument, an execrable piece of work by the dreaded Grinling Gibbons. As he says, the Dutch are so much better at admirals' monuments...