The Anatomy of Ghosts, By Andrew Taylor

Potent mix of history and mystery

Reviewed,Jane Jakeman
Tuesday 05 October 2010 00:00
Comments

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.

Register for free to continue reading

Registration is a free and easy way to support our truly independent journalism

By registering, you will also enjoy limited access to Premium articles, exclusive newsletters, commenting, and virtual events with our leading journalists

Please enter a valid email
Please enter a valid email
Must be at least 6 characters, include an upper and lower case character and a number
Must be at least 6 characters, include an upper and lower case character and a number
Must be at least 6 characters, include an upper and lower case character and a number
Please enter your first name
Special characters aren’t allowed
Please enter a name between 1 and 40 characters
Please enter your last name
Special characters aren’t allowed
Please enter a name between 1 and 40 characters
You must be over 18 years old to register
You must be over 18 years old to register
Opt-out-policy
You can opt-out at any time by signing in to your account to manage your preferences. Each email has a link to unsubscribe.

By clicking ‘Create my account’ you confirm that your data has been entered correctly and you have read and agree to our Terms of use, Cookie policy and Privacy notice.

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy policy and Terms of service apply.

Already have an account? sign in

By clicking ‘Register’ you confirm that your data has been entered correctly and you have read and agree to our Terms of use, Cookie policy and Privacy notice.

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy policy and Terms of service apply.

Register for free to continue reading

Registration is a free and easy way to support our truly independent journalism

By registering, you will also enjoy limited access to Premium articles, exclusive newsletters, commenting, and virtual events with our leading journalists

Already have an account? sign in

By clicking ‘Register’ you confirm that your data has been entered correctly and you have read and agree to our Terms of use, Cookie policy and Privacy notice.

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy policy and Terms of service apply.

Join our new commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies

Comments

Thank you for registering

Please refresh the page or navigate to another page on the site to be automatically logged inPlease refresh your browser to be logged in