Halloween always seems to be the right time to read a few ghost stories. The Lost Stradivarius was the choice of my 19th century book group &, although I’d read it before, I enjoyed revisiting it at this ghostly time of year. Although, having said that, Halloween is in the middle of spring in Australia rather than autumn with that lovely sense of the year drawing in so it doesn’t feel particularly ghostly. However, my reading focus is mostly toward northern hemisphere writers so I can feel autumnal no matter what the weather.
I think ghost stories work best as short stories or novellas. It’s too much to expect a reader to keep up that suspension of disbelief (if you do, in fact, disbelieve) over hundreds of pages. The Lost Stradivarius is a very tidy 160pp & is in the form of two narratives. The first is by Miss Sophia Maltravers. Sophia is writing to her nephew, Edward, a student at Oxford in 1867, about events that happened some 30 years before. Edward’s father, John, died young & his life was very unhappy at the end. Sophia wants her nephew to understand his father & so decides to tell him what she knows of his life & the strange events that led to his death.
John Maltravers went up to Oxford, to Magdalen Hall, at the age of 19. He loved music & was a violinist of some talent. He especially enjoyed playing duets with his good friend, William Gaskell. Mr Gaskell visits Rome during his vacation to study piano & returns with some manuscript music bound into a volume. The young men begin to play a suite by Graziani for violin & harpsichord & they are pleased with the result. However, John becomes almost obsessed with this suite & they play it every time they meet. One night, when he is practicing the piece alone, John hears a creaking sound, as if someone had sat down in the wicker chair in the corner of his room. He turns around but can see no one. When he finishes playing the suite, he hears a sound as if someone had risen from the chair but again, sees nothing. This phenomenon occurs whenever the piece is played &, one night, John does see the figure of a man rising from the chair & walking through the wall of his room.
At the place in the wall where the ghostly figure disappears, John discovers a secret cupboard & inside it, he finds a violin. The instrument needs restringing but is otherwise in good condition & the label inside proclaims it to be by the great Stradivari. John takes the violin to an expert for an opinion & when the man assumes that the violin belongs to him, John doesn’t enlighten him. This first untruth is the beginning of John’s downfall. John becomes consumed by the violin & becomes possessed by the malignant spirit of the original owner, Adrian Temple. Temple lived in the same rooms 80 years before John, had traveled to Italy to study music & led a dissolute life. He disappeared in Rome in mysterious circumstances & his body was never found.
John falls in love with Constance Temple, a friend of his sister’s &, coincidentally, a member of the same family as Adrian Temple. On a visit to Royston, Constance’s family home, John is so shocked by the sight of a portrait of the man he knows only as his ghostly visitor, that his health collapses. John & Constance marry & John insists on traveling to Italy for their honeymoon. John’s behaviour grows stranger & his obsession with the violin & Rome results in estrangement from Constance. Eventually he returns to live in Rome alone under the malign influence of Adrian Temple, in the very same house Temple lived in at the end of his life. His identification with Temple becomes so strong that his health completely gives way & Sophia goes out to Italy to try to bring her brother home.
The other narrative is by William Gaskell. He attempts to explain the decline of John Maltravers’s health in a more scientific rational way than Sophia who is convinced of the supernatural influence of Adrian Temple. He also explores the events of Temple’s life in more detail & muses on the philosophical influence of certain pieces of music on a susceptible mind.
The Lost Stradivarius is an atmospheric tale with some very shivery, Gothic moments. Constance tells the story as she heard it from her brother as well as from her own observations (her journey to Italy is wonderful as she experiences the strangeness of John’s behavior & the foreignness of her surroundings) & what she discovers afterwards. John Meade Falkner only wrote two other novels. Moonfleet is a story of smugglers & adventure, written for children & The Nebuly Coat, which is a mystery set in Dorset where a young architect goes to supervise some restoration work in the local church. I have copies of both & would definitely like to read them one of these days.