Premium

These Silent Mansions by Jean Sprackland, review: the secrets of England's graveyards

3
The grave of zookeeper George Wombwell at Highgate Cemetary 
The grave of zookeeper George Wombwell at Highgate Cemetary  Credit: VW Pics

A poet’s idiosyncratic tour  of England’s cemeteries takes  in flora, fauna – and finger-wagging, says Lewis Jones

Jean Sprackland is a poet (Hard Water, Tattoos for Mother’s Day) adept at teasing stories out of objects and arranging them in suggestive and intriguing ways. Her first non-fiction book, Strands (2012), about a year on the wild beaches between Blackpool and Liverpool, among barnacled wrecks, beached whales and buried cars, shared the preoccupations of her poetry: the flux of time, loss and renewal, mutability and transformation. Inspired by her lifelong fascination with graveyards, These Silent Mansions is its sequel and companion piece. 

Growing up in the North, then moving around England for study, work and love, Sprackland has haunted graveyards wherever she has lived. They are “the otherworlds which have helped make sense of this world”. She remembers playing in one with other children, aged seven or eight, and singing the superbly macabre Hearse Song: “The worms crawl in and the worms crawl out/ They crawl in thin but they crawl out stout.” 

Quiveringly alert to the partial and fictive aspects of memory (and of history), she found that over time her remembered graveyards had “intensified, grown larger than life and thickened into myth. The shorter my association with a place, and the longer ago, the more it had that unreal and thickened quality.”

A few years ago she moved from the coast to London (“edgeless and seething”), where she found a grandiloquent inscription on a marble tomb, bidding “WHOE’ER THOU ART THAT VISITETH” to “HERE PAUSE”. She did, and having done so decided to revisit all the graveyards she had ever haunted.

The result is an extraordinarily mixed book, combining memoir, pilgrimage, meditation, psychogeography and historical investigation, all of it thematically arranged by season and time of day. The prose is highly wrought, with a tendency to fragmentary stream-of-consciousness, dense with significance and bursting with implication, of just exactly what it is not always easy to tell. Meaning is manifold and elusive, to be strained after only in the moment, as the narrative flits and flickers between the richly poetical and the cat-throwingly mad.

Sprackland’s fierce gothic yearnings are well suited to her subject, but it seems to me that in These Silent Mansions her fascination with raw distress has been artistically compromised by her historical perspective, which is basically that of an indignant social worker, or Mike Leigh; and much as I enjoyed her vivid observations and witty conjunctions, I was annoyed by her habit of tutting complaint.

A photograph from These Silent Mansions

In Oxford, home to many of England’s more romantic tombs and memorials, she revisits the dismal district of St Ebbe’s, where she once briefly worked in a department store. Ignoring St Æbbe the Elder (an Anglian abbess and noblewoman) and Jude the Obscure, she homes in on its Victorian history as a cholera-ridden slum, its corpses traded for dissection at the Radcliffe Infirmary. The Anatomy Act of 1832, she reminds us, gave the authorities the power to confiscate for medical research the bodies of paupers who died in workhouses and hospitals: “Poor relief was reimagined as a loan, mortgaged against the body.” Oh dear. Thomas Browne’s Urn Burial this most definitely ain’t.

At St Cosmus and St Damian at Blean near Canterbury, where she was a student, she considers Agnes Gibbs, said to have been secretly buried there one night in 1850, aged two but supposedly only 16in tall and weighing a mere 4lb. Sprackland learns that Agnes Gibbs was exhibited in freak shows as the Fairy Queen, and sternly observes that it was not until 1900 that the showing of children under 10 for profit was prohibited. Quite right too.

In the graveyard of St Mary’s, Stoke Newington, where foxes rear their young, and the “lower branches of a holly tree languish exhaustedly… like the thin arms of a girl over her books”, she finds the grave of Elizabeth Pickett, whose stone records:

Died 11th Dec 1781 Aged 23 Years
in consequence of her Cloaths taking Fire
the preceding Evening

She dutifully re-memorialises poor Elizabeth Pickett, and deplores her hazardous living conditions, and… well, one doesn’t like to be brutal, but, yeah, and? For generations her Methodist family has practised cremation, so for Sprackland graveyards are “not personal”. To remedy this lack, “I knew I must find a family grave.” She found it at Manor Park Cemetery in east London, which proves her most shocking visit. Ethelind, her mother’s paternal grandmother, was buried there in 1902, aged 28, in a pauper’s common grave, together with “two babies, two children, a 43-year-old gas stoker, the wife of a cabinet-maker, and a tailor with a violent criminal record”.

There is now, she notes, a Green reaction against cremation, “because of the environmental price to be paid for all that burning, all those emissions”. The “natural death movement” eschews embalming and coffins, unless of cardboard or willow, and favours the medieval practice of “whole-body burial, wrapped simply in a shroud”, in a “natural burial ground”, possibly in a field or wood, without clergy or undertakers, and with ceremonies devised to taste.

Sprackland’s progress is dotted with brief and diverting essays, on angels, fog, lichen, the cemetery-haunting holly blue butterfly. My favourite was on nostoc, a cyanobacteria or “luminous gunk”, often occurring on tombstones, traditionally assumed to have fallen from the sky. Paracelsus charmingly calls it the “pollution of some plethoricall and wanton Star, or rather excrement blown from the nostrils of some rheumatick planet”.

These Silent Mansions is published by Jonathan Cape. To order your copy for £14.99 call 0844 871 1514 or visit the Telegraph Bookshop