Tuesday, 28 April 2015

Cecilia de Noël ~ Lanoe Falconer

Lanoe Falconer was the nom de plume of Mary Elizabeth Hawker (1848~1908), one of the most accomplished writers of the 1890s. She was born in Inverary, in Aberdeenshire, but grew up in Hampshire. Following her father's death in 1857, her mother remarried and the family lived for a time in France and Germany. Apparently, Hawker received little education, but she was always an avid reader. She began writing at a young age, and a few of her stories were published in magazines. But it was with her novel Mademoiselle Ixe, published in 1890, that she became a success. It was an instant bestseller in Britain and abroad, selling more than 40,000 copies of the English editions, and it was translated into French, German, Dutch, and Italian. She was read by Gladstone, Henry James and Virginia Woolf. Her writing career was cut short by chronic illness and the death of her mother, an emotional blow from which she never recovered. Hawker died from rapid consumption on the 16th of June 1908.

Cecilia de Noël was published in 1891 by Macmillan and Co. My copy used to belong to the Fasque library, hence the label stuck to the front cover.* 

Weald Manor has the reputation of being a haunted house. But it's owner, Sir George Atherley, does not believe in ghosts. One evening after dinner, Sir George is busy explaining to his wife and Mr Lyndsay, the narrator, that 'There is no revelation but that of science', when Lady Atherley hears a howling sound coming from the servants' quarters. It turns out that Ann, the kitchen maid, is in hysterics because Mrs Mallet, the cook, has seen a ghost. Sir George, ever the rationalist atheist, considers the ghost to be nothing more than a bogey.

A doctor is called, and he views the ghost as nothing but a symptom. All events, he explains, must obey the laws of nature and, by that token, no event can be supernatural. He does not believe in God or the possibility of an afterlife. He believes the best that can be hoped for is that the misery of this existence is ended by death.
'Either there is no God, and we shall still be at the mercy of the blind destiny we suffer under here; or there is a God, the God who looks on at this world and makes no sign! The sooner we escape from Him by annihilation the better.'
Lyndsay and Lady Atherley pay a visit to Mrs Mostyn, who claims to have seen the ghost. For her, the apparition served as a warning that her soul was in danger and resulted in her eventual conversion. She believes in heaven and hell... salvation for some, the fires of hell for all others.

Uncle Augustus, a Canon, pays a visit and is told about the resident spectre's doings. He is of the opinion, like the doctor, that all events are governed by natural law, and that apparitions and miraculous performances are a load of old phooey. This natural law does not, however, apply to the revealed truth of Christianity; that is entirely beyond doubt as far as the Canon is concerned. But a nighttime experience shakes his faith and undermines his conviction that ghosts are all nonsense.

Mr Austyn, the curate of Rood Warren, is the next visitor to spend the night at Weald Manor. He does not object to the idea of ghosts, being a man who considers his religion to be founded on the supernatural. For him, the ghost is a lost soul, a being forced to exist in eternal separation from the Divine Being.

Mrs Lucinda Molyneux is the next to arrive at the manor. She knows people who converse with spirits as easily as ordinary people converse with each other. She goes to bed hoping to see the ghost... and then does, and wishes she hadn't. She asks for Cecilia de Noël, Sir George's cousin, whose visit and account of the ghost is the last in the story.

This book is more about the nature of belief or non-belief in the supernatural than it is about the ghost itself. The religious and irreligious alike interpret the spectre's appearance according to their own character and beliefs. Ultimately, no character has a better grasp of the nature of existence than the next. Parts of the book make you think, others make you laugh. Sir George in particular is an amusing character; a decided atheist, he gets all the best lines. The absence of a distinctly Christian message led the rather prolific writer Charlotte Mary Yonge to say that it was 'a pity that so fine a book as Cecilia de Noël should be injured by the entire absence of Christianity'. ** Personally, I think that Cecilia de Noël is a very enjoyable and entertaining book.

A fine copy of the first edition costs about £150 at the moment (that's about $230). But fine copies don't come along all that often. Dodo Press published a paperback version in 2007, but I've not personally read that edition. That costs £4.99 at the moment. As far as I'm aware, there is no Kindle edition.
*  Fasque House, by Fettercairn in Kincardineshire, was the former home of William Ewart Gladstone, four-times British Prime Minister. The Gladstone family owned the house until 2007.
**  March-Phillipps, Evelyn, Lanoe Falconer, Nisbet 1915.

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