Let’s Talk of Graves, of Worms, and Epitaphs by Robert Player

published 1975

[A Tractarian reading party in an English country house in 1854: the game of croquet has been introduced]

Yes, indeed, croquet was lax.

The sounds of the game, the gentle voices, the rare touch of colour in dress or bonnet, these were the only positive notes in this scene of English peace and English security…

The older ladies, all in black, if not actually in crepe, did not in any case play games. That would never do; so many were in perpetual mourning, if not for their own departed, then certainly for the crucified Jesus. Some of the more youthful also wore black, even if touched with white or purple. Three or four among them, including Flo Nightingale, wore curious hoods, insignia of an Anglican sisterhood. But if many were sombre, others wore marvellous dresses, huge sweeping crinolines below tight bodices. The clergy moved among them like so many thin black lines threading their way through fleecy summer clouds.

observations: A summer-y entry for July.

This is a murder story set in Victorian times featuring an Englishman who becomes Pope, so wholly imaginary. It seems very possible to guess at the genesis of the plot: one can only assume that the author was reading about the life of Cardinal Henry Manning, perhaps in Lytton Strachey’s Eminent Victorians, a book which also features the abovementioned nursing pioneer Florence Nightingale (Strachey's appearances on the blog can be tracked here). Famed and loved in his day, Manning was a prominent Church of England cleric who converted to Roman Catholicism and eventually became a Cardinal, the leader of England’s Catholics, and was involved in endless politics and controversy during his life. As it happened, he had married when a young CofE curate, but his wife died shortly afterwards without having had children. He rarely mentioned her again, and allowed her grave to fall into disrepair: the awkward truth is that her death was very convenient for him, as a living wife (or children) would have blocked his progress to seniority in the Catholic church.

It is pretty clear that our author, Robert Player, idly wondered to himself: suppose an ambitious churchman in Manning’s position did have a living wife? And children? And possibly a mistress and a bastard? There is of course no possible thought that this was true of Manning, but the main character of the book, Barnabas Barbellion, later Pope Pashcal IV, has all these things, and is described in the first line (by a somewhat unreliable narrator) as a murderer. Yet he manages to smooth his path to very great heights indeed – there are also traces of Frederick Rolfe’s splendid Hadrian the Seventh, about another fictitious English Pope.

The book is great fun, though it is helpful to have some idea of the framework behind it. A lot of real figures appear - important then in the complicated politics of the Oxford Movement and the Catholic Revival, but now forgotten – and the book has many parallels with real life. The murder plot has almost too much going on, but it is all very enjoyable. Not nearly as good as Player’s marvellous The Ingenious Mr Stone, here on the blog, but still worth reading.

The croquet picture is by Winslow Homer and is part of the Google Art Project. The black and white photograph is of the real Cardinal Manning.


  1. Moira - What interesting speculation! What would such a family be like? That's the sort of thinking that writers really enjoy doing. Well, this one, anyway. And it sounds as though this presents an interesting portrait of that part of the Victorian Era too. And I like what you've shared of Player's writing style.

    1. I love a writer who takes an idea like that and plays with it, and shows so much imagination. And yes, he's very witty too.

  2. Not one for me.
    Old Manning seems a right comedian, I bet he just couldn't stop cracking the jokes from dawn til dusk.
    A bit of useless trivia, my senior school was Cardinal Newman in Luton. Our house names were Heenan, Manning, Vaughan, Griffin and Wiseman. There were 3 others I can't remember

    1. Yes, cheery Christian face that one isn't it?
      In Liverpool there were lots of Cardinal schools: Newman, Allan, Godfrey (all boys's schools) and now there's a Heenan too.

  3. I think I might be confused by all of this. This author seems to have written some strange crime novels. I remember your review of The Ingenious Mr Stone.

    1. He's so obscure - I'm always hoping I'll find someone else who has read him!


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