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

  • By Robert Player
  • First published: UK: Gollancz, 1975

Rating: 2 out of 5.

Had this been published a decade before, it might well have been registered on the Index Librorum Prohibitorum. “It is not every man whose father was both a pope and a murderer,” it begins.

The pope in question is Paschal IV, fictitious successor to Pius IX; in private life, Barnabas Barbellion, an Anglican clergyman who converted to Catholicism. But Barbellion is a Pope in the Borgia tradition: unscrupulous and ambitious, cruel and megalomaniacal, he kept mistresses and fathered illegitimate children. That, of course, was before he became Pope; as pontiff, he cannot sin, or so he believes.

But to become pope, he is believed to have sins far more mortal than fornication: the poisoning of his wife, Emily, and the murder of his mistress Phillippa’s husband, the Lord-Lieutenant of Gloucestershire. They were obstacles to his entering the Catholic priesthood, and to his lofty dreams of a tiara. (Barbellion was based on Cardinal Manning, a Victorian clergyman whose conversion to Rome caused a scandal at the time. History does not record if he committed any murders.)

Barbellion’s son Augustine narrates his father’s fall from virtue and rise to pontifical power. The prologue outlines the whole scandalous affair; the rest of the book develops it, at great length. The magisterial prose and quasi-historical detail compel admiration, but the telling is slow, self-indulgent, and long-winded. Although a mere 204 pages, it is as exhausting to read as a triple-decker.

Millions may have devoured Dan Brown’s thrillers about Catholic conspiracies, but Player’s story is hardly a page-turner. It is almost an exercise in style, and rather devoid of excitement. While there are some splendid set-pieces – an English croquet party; European royalty gathered for the proclamation of the Dogma of Immaculate Conception – the novel is all too easy to lay aside. Laying out the plot in the prologue kills dramatic tension; not every author is a Ruth Rendell (see A Judgement in Stone, 1977). Moreover, the combination of sanctimony and casual cruelty – stern Victorian fathers threatening their children with hellfire, old men put into workhouses for digging their garden on the sabbath – is oppressive.

Player makes sport with the notion of papal infallibility; qui ex Patre procedit. The twist in the last chapter, relying on an unreliable narrator, is effective; the twist in the last paragraph is unconvincing.

“Robert Player” was the pseudonym of Robert Furneaux Jordan (1905–78), a distinguished architect and architectural historian.


Blurb

1975 Gollancz

“It is not every man whose father was both a pope and a murderer.” With this sensational opening sentence, Robert Player launches another of his astounding stories, a very fitting successor to Oh, Where are Bloody Mary’s Earrings?, The Homicidal Colonel and The Ingenious Mr. Stone. But though the plot turns upon the mystery of a double murder, his new novel has a spacious Victorian quality – a tale of leisurely life at an English rectory, strawberry teas, croquet on the lawn, and of quiet clerical intrigue in and around the Vatican.

It’s the story of a distinguished Anglican clergyman who in 1855 enters the Roman Catholic church – a conversion which, said Gladstone, was a blow under which the nation staggered – and who later achieves the Papacy as Paschal the Fourth. Yet not only was Barnabas Barbellion married, with two children; for years, also, he was having a secret affair with the wife of his neighbour, Harold Gatsby. And when Gatsby died, very suddenly, in the midst of a garden party, and was found to have been poisoned, Phillippa stood trial for her husband’s murder. The trial, described very fully here, was a cause célèbre; even the Archbishop of Canterbury was called in as a witness. Moreover, Barbellion’s ailing wife had also died rather suddenly. But no one dared to put two and two together, except his son Augustine…

We must not reveal the surprises that Robert Player has in store; they are highly intriguing, and leave us with much to puzzle over. Mr. Player is again on top form in this splendid mixture of literary quality, suspense, and his own particular brand of bizarre humour.


Reviews

The Guardian (Matthew Coady, 27th February 1975): Black comedic mix of Barchester Towers and The White Devil traces lust-and-poison littered progress of Victorian archdeacon from parsonage to Papacy, believe it or not. A wafer self-indulgent but heady as incense and, behind the sonorous tone, wickedly funny.

The Daily Telegraph (Violet Grant, 20th March 1975): Robert Player has invented a wicked 19th-century Pope in Let’s Talk of Graves, of Worms, and Epitaphs, an ambitious Anglican clergyman who sees greater glory for himself in the Church of Rome, but who is hindered in his plans by the fact that he’s married, with two children by his wife and a third by the wife of a neighbouring squire.

However, the squire dies suddenly and the widow is convicted of his murder, followed soon after by the death of the parson’s own wife, which leaves the way ahead clear for the future Paschal IV. The period to recreated with great elegance, but I’m not convinced that such blatant tampering with history is legitimate.

The Sydney Morning Herald (Edward Warre, 21st June 1975): An exceedingly ingenious and well-written extravaganza appropriately dedicated to “the faded memory” of Cardinal Manning “without whom this entirely fictitious story could never have been written”. As the reader will indeed perceive for himself. What more promising opening line for a novel than “It is not every man whose father was both a pope and a murderer.” The narrator’s father was an Anglican clergyman who entered the Roman Catholic Church and in due course became Pope Paschal the Fourth. And a Pope with a pretty scandalous background as it turns out. Well, read on…

Sunday Telegraph: Given a Victorian clergyman of such overpowering ambition that he decides to become Pope – in spite of being Anglican, having a rich wife, two legitimate children, one bastard and an ever-present mistress – anything can happen. Anything includes one poisoning at a croquet party for clerical climbers, another during Christmas at the vicarage, and a sensational murder trial.

The Times: A copy should repose in every guest bedroom in the land.

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