The Anatomy of Ghosts, By Andrew Taylor

Potent mix of history and mystery

Andrew Taylor returns to his alma mater for this absorbing story set mainly in 18th-century Cambridge, where the fictitious Jerusalem College is the setting for a strange tale. Frank Oldershaw, a junior member, has become so insane that he has been placed in an institution run by a doctor who claims to cure mental illness. Frank's chief delusion is that he has seen the ghost of a woman who haunts the college grounds. To investigate his illness, his rich but fearsome old aunt employs a down-and-out writer, John Holdsworth, who has just published a savage denunciation of the existence of spirits.

Holdsworth is haunted by inner demons: his wife and baby son have drowned in the Thames. His grief is re-awakened when he takes up residence in Cambridge, for the "Jerusalem ghost" is believed to be that of a woman recently drowned in the college pond. She was a close friend of Elinor Carbury, wife of the bullying Master of Jerusalem, who keeps her own secrets.

One of Taylor's special qualities is a particular sensitivity towards women's lives. The degrading existence that even an upper-class lady might be forced to suffer is evoked with impressive understanding. Taylor is also superb at creating the creepy ambience of an enclosed world: nights spent listening to strange sounds, figures glimpsed through trees and mists, and he perfectly evokes the extraordinary university atmosphere of the 1780s.

Although Holdsworth finds the Fellows of Jerusalem preoccupied by college politics, questions of the mind, including considerations of after-death existence, were, as Taylor describes, often discussed among the educated classes. As for the students, they were divided into the few genuine scholars, mostly poor boys having to earn their living as servants while they studied, and the gilded youth who indulged their pleasures to the full. Some of these, as Holdsworth discovers, were deeply sinister.

Holdsworth's investigations also reveal how the "lunatics" are treated by a harsh regime. He manages to get young Oldershaw away into gentler care, where he responds by revealing part of the truth. The whole truth emerges as a cruel story of mistreatment and helplessness. For Holdsworth, it is also a voyage of self-exploration that helps him through his own grief.