Archive for January, 2015

The Skull and the Nightingale by Michael Irwin

According to the cover blurb, The Skull and the Nightingale, set in England in the early 1760s, is:
‘A chilling and deliciously dark tale of manipulation, sex, and seduction.
When Richard Fenwick, a young man without family or means, returns to London from the Grand Tour, his wealthy godfather, James Gilbert, has an unexpected proposition. Gilbert has led a fastidious life in Worcestershire, but now in his advancing years, he feels the urge to experience, even vicariously, the extremes of human feeling—love and passion, adultery and deceit—along with something much more sinister. He has selected Fenwick to be his proxy, and his ward has no option but to accept.
But Gilbert’s elaborate and manipulative “experiments” into the workings of human behaviour drag Fenwick into a vortex of betrayal and danger where lives are ruined and tragedy is always one small step away. And when Fenwick falls in love with one of Gilbert’s pawns and the stakes rise even higher – is it too late for him to escape the Faustian pact?’
Well the novel certainly created ‘extremes of human feeling’ in the nine hardy souls who congregated in The Barrels on a freezing January night. Reactions ranged from ‘I absolutely loved this book,’ to ‘I loathed it’. Nothing new there, then!
Martin gave the book the alternative title of ‘A Rake’s Progress without artistry’. He writes:
There are enough descriptions both factual and fictional of the hypocrisy and misogyny displayed by Victorians without inventing yet another episode with a mild titillation for the emotionally challenged. I am most of the way through and have got to the murder of Mr Ogden and I’m wondering if it will be covered over or finally be his come-uppance and if I care either way. There must have been Victorian men who actually earned a living by working without inheritances and benefactors, who’s presence seem to be a sure fire recipe for moral decline. I expect there were some tender and loving relationships since the large families and absence of television seems to imply that procreation had some fans, possibly enthusiastic ones. The godfather getting vicarious thrills is barely credible but boring. The portrayal of Mrs Ogden as a prim matron suddenly launching into a languid description of her husband undressing then raping her can only be to appeal to the lower orders of Sun readers. Jane Austen’s characters were just as hypocritical but at least they were authentic.
Not worth the expenditure of paper and time.
In contrast, another member loved the way this ‘novel of ideas’ made them consider philosophical questions about the divide between ‘the Skull’ – the body and all things physical and sexual, and ‘the nightingale’ – the mind, spirituality and emotions. It captured the questioning ethos of the Age of Enlightenment and depicted it through the complex and interesting characters of Richard Fenwick and his godfather James Gilbert. She particularly liked the complex and self-aware Richard Fenwick, even though he was not always likeable.
Gwyneth was less convinced about the two main male characters; she disliked both and found Richard shallow and ‘too clever for his own good’. She did, however, think the book was erudite but with perhaps too many literary references at times.
Paula enjoyed the authentic evocation of the 18th Century, particularly the observations of the Age of Rationality, such as the research into Optics. However, she found the misogyny hard to take, even within the context of the story. We discussed the portrayal of the female characters. The ‘second tier’ characters such as Kitty Brindley and Mrs Hurlock were thought to be well-drawn, but Sarah Kinsey, the woman Richard loves, is not given much space by the author and so does not offer a compelling alternative to Richard when he makes his final choice to continue to work for James Gilbert. Paula pointed out that Richard is also repelled by the idea of the child Sarah will give birth to – the son or daughter of the man he murdered.
I thought 18th Century England, particularly London, was well-portrayed. The descriptions of the pubs, the masques, the drawing rooms were vibrant and entertaining. I also liked the Dickensian opening, which reminded me of Great Expectations, but this narrative quickly becomes much darker. I liked the way that Richard’s character has been shaped by his need to please (in order to survive). He’s always watching himself and judging how others might see him. However there is also a hardness and cruelty in him from the start. Most of the male characters are misogynistic, with women, in the main, the more sympathetic characters. I found the tragic story of Mr Quentin the poet/suicide and his wife Mrs Quentin, with the bad teeth, particularly affecting. The ending reminded me of a very different story, the film The Hurt Locker, where an American bomb disposal expert becomes so traumatised by his work that he cannot settle back into civilian life but signs up for another tour; he has come to need the danger and the adrenalin. I liked the idea that Richard determines to take on his evil godfather and maybe give him a taste of his own medicine, but I don’t think his intentions were all noble. A part of him enjoys the corruption. A cleverly written portrayal of the corruption of a young man that leaves the reader with no false hope and a somewhat jaundiced view of humanity.

Finally, we discussed our Christmas reading. Recommendations from the group included:

The Lunar Men by Jenny Uglow
Beyond the Wind in the Willows by William Horwood
The Old Ways by Robert Macfarlane
H is for Hawk by Helen McDonald
The Wake by Paul Kingsnorth
Stoner by John Williams

Ann Coburn


About the book group

The Berwick Book Group meets on the first Tuesday of every month at the First Class Passenger Lounge on the platform of Berwick Train Station at 6.30pm.

If you would like more information about what the group is reading, please visit

January 2015
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