The City Lies Four-Square by Edith Pargeter


To begin with, Pargeter is perhaps better known as “Ellis Peters”, author of the Brother Cadfael mysteries, but fans of those books might not find this one appealing: the setting’s quite different

Julian Sears and Margaret Godber are engaged to be married; while exploring the endearing village in which Julian is to join a medical practice, they find an interesting book of poetry in a curio shop and a cottage to which both of them are strongly attracted. Julian purchases the cottage, intending for the two to live in it after marriage, only to discover that the cottage is haunted by the poet whose book they purchased that day. Not surprisingly, Julian reacts fearfully, rejecting the spirits he senses in the house, not knowing if they mean him harm though sensing their intrinsic sorrow and need for companionship. Not surprisingly, Margaret is disturbed to see her fiance deteriorate through fear and lack of sleep, though she does not understand why, and fears he is rejecting her. Despite the rejection, the spirit remains in the house, figuratively haunting Julian until he seeks advice from the parish priest.

I’m not sure what the Anglican stance in the late ’30 was on haunting, ghosts or spirits. In the case of the book, the priest assumes (rightly in this case) that this is not a malicious spirit which intends harm to a living person, but rather the soul of a person who’s died but remained tied to a location that meant something to it rather than passing on to its just reward in the afterlife. The priest suggests that Julian view the ghost as a patient to be healed emotionally; he should reach out to it in friendship the more easily to find out what is haunting the haunt itself: why is it still here? rather than gone on to its reward?

The ghost appreciates this effort, being lonely and bereft of companionship, since previous occupants of the house had fled in fear of the unknown; Julian is the first to stand firm and investigate the situation. the ghost tells Julian his story: Peter Maundy loved Damaris, but lost her to his friend; he was somewhat reconciled to this, thinking she preferred the friend’s hand in marriage for pragmatic practical reasons, of which there would have been many for a woman at the time, but yet held a love for him. After his death following a horse accident, his spirit remained behind, awaiting Damaris’ death that their souls might arise to heaven together. He discovered upon her death in childbirth evidence which appeared to him to indicate she had no soul capable of love, giving instead what she had to the man she married in life. Having missed his chance to enter heaven in the moments following death, and therefore rejecting the eternal love of God for the worldly love of the living, he is therefore left adrift to haunt the living.

Thankfully, there’s a happy ending: the living find proof that not only did Damaris love Maundy in life but preceded him to heaven, where she presumably has spent the intervening century praying for permission for him to join her there. Shortly after befriending the ghost of Maundy, Julian takes on a (living) patient who proves to be the grandson of Damaris, who fortuitously is still in possession of his grandmother’s journals. At first Julian and Peter are distraught to find that the journal seems to indicate that Damaris truly did not care for Peter as he believed she did, though they can’t help but notice that six pages are missing. They conclude that she removed them after Peter’s death in order to conceal something from her husband, though they can’t be sure what until they find them–is it a declaration of her love for Maundy or something less appealing? Ultimately, they find the missing pages in a concealed drawer of Damaris’ desk, wrapped in the scarf she used to mop his brow as he lay crushed by the horse who fell upon him, and yes: they clearly indicate that not only did Damaris love Peter, she believes in an afterlife and prays that she and he will be reunited there after her inevitable death in childbirth due to an overburdened liver1. Peter vanishes in a puff of theology and the house is left clear of all occupants for Julian and Margaret to begin their married life together.

It’s not a terribly plausible plot, once all’s said and done, though I appreciate Pargeter putting forth the theory that ghosts hang around pestering the living because they’re lonely: turn to befriend them and the troubling aspects unravel. I have to wonder just how Julian explained all this to Margaret in the end; the priest seemed to take this in stride, but Margaret seems only to have guessed that there was something figuratively haunting him. The prose is purple, to say the least–it was originally published in 1939, and I don’t know how typical the writing style is of that time–but after subtracting 80% of the adjectives and emoting, we’re left with a mildly interesting ghost story, with a distinctly different style than Pargeter’s later creation, Brother Cadfael. Forty years make a difference in writers’ technique and readers’s expectation. For further reading, the best I can suggest is/are Elizabeth Goudge’s work, simply because it’s written at more or less the same time, and had approximately the same sense of the numinous.

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