Edward Westray is a young architect sent to the former seaport of Cullerne by his employer to oversee the repairs to the Minster, St Sepulchre. Westray is a conscientious young man, intent on making his way in his profession. On his first visit to the church he meets the pompous rector, Canon Parkyn & the organist, Nicholas Sharnell. Sharnell & the Rector have little sympathy with each other & have very different ideas about the church. Westray also hears the story of the Nebuly Coat, the coat of arms of the Blandamer family, which is represented in the stained glass windows & monuments. The Blandamers are the local landowners although they’ve taken little interest in the church & its structural problems for some years. The current Lord Blandamer has been abroad & hasn’t been seen for some years.
Sharnell offers to find Westray a room at his lodging house, a former inn called the Hand of God. The house has been renamed Bellevue House & is rented by a respectable but impoverished gentlewoman, Miss Euphemia Joliffe. Miss Joliffe lives frugally & is pleased to offer rooms to Westray. Her niece, Anastasia, lives with her & helps out with the work. Anastasia’s father, Martin, had recently died & his life was a wasted one. He had become obsessed by the idea that he was the rightful Lord Blandamer & pursued his genealogical researches to the exclusion of all else. His mother, Sophia, had married Colonel Joliffe some years after Martin’s birth & he never knew who his father was. The Colonel loved Martin as his own son but he was never satisfied. Even after Sophia abandoned her family to run away with a soldier, the Colonel indulged Martin above his own daughter, Euphemia.
Martin left his daughter with his sister for years at a time & returned only to sponge & run up debts before wandering away once more. His health suffered & he died still claiming that he was close to finding the proof that his mother had been married to Lord Blandamer & the current Lord had no right to his title & lands. Martin was taunted & laughed at for his fancies but his friend, Sharnell, indulged him & there were hints that there was more to his story than just imagination. Sophia had dabbled in painting & one of her pictures, a hideous still life of flowers & a caterpillar crawling along the bottom of the frame hung in Martin’s room. Why should a London art dealer write to Miss Joliffe offering to buy the picture for £50? Who was the stranger who came to the house several times before Martin’s death offering to buy the picture? Nobody but Martin saw this man so was he real or a figment of a sick man’s imagination? Could there be a clue among Martin’s jumble of papers?
Martin leaves the papers to Sharnell & he gradually became almost as obsessed with the quest as his friend. Sharnell drank heavily & his career had been blighted by drink. He told Westray the story of Martin & of his own strange fancies of being followed by a man holding a hammer. Is this reality or something supernatural? Lord Blandamer arrives in Cullerne after a long sojourn abroad & immediately offers to fund the church restoration, including the repairs to the bell tower that Westray has been urging. Blandamer befriends Westray & calls on him at the Hand of God where he meets Anastasia & hears of her father’s obsession. Blandamer’s motives are unclear as he pursues a friendship with Anastasia & seems to be searching for answers to questions of his own.
It’s hard to say too much more about the plot of The Nebuly Coat without spoiling it. There are several ambiguities in the story that I’m still puzzling about days after I finished reading it. I read Falkner’s The Lost Stradivarius a little while ago & this novel has similar elements of the supernatural. However, they’re harder to fathom. Sharnell’s man with the hammer could be real or could be a ghost or could just be a figment of a drunkard’s imagination. St Sepulchre’s is atmospheric enough without any supernatural additions. The building has a life of its own as it creaks & groans. Westray imagines he hears the arches of the tower whispering to him & Sharnell locks himself in to the organ loft when he practices alone at night.
I loved Euphemia Joliffe. She is loyal to her wastrel brother & loving to her niece who she has to support on very little. Keeping up appearances is everything. She is determined to pay his debts after his death but hesitates to sell her mother’s awful painting because her mother painted it & her brother hung it in his room. She even paid to have the Hand of God inn sign painted over as she thought it blasphemous to live in a house with such a name, even though the old name keeps showing through. Cullerne is a melancholy place, full of lost souls. Once a thriving port, its glory days are long past as the channel silted up & destroyed business. The Blandamers have paid no attention to it for years & the church is in danger of falling down. Martin Joliffe’s obsession is the catalyst for change for several people & I’m still puzzling over the meaning of the ending.