Competition published on March 10, 2017.
Academic and bibliophile Arthur Prescott finds respite from the drudgery of his professorship in the Barchester Cathedral Library, where he devotes himself to researching the Holy Grail and writing his long-delayed guide to the history of the medieval cathedral. His peaceful existence is shattered by the arrival of a young American academic named Bethany Davis, who has come to digitize the library’s ancient books. Arthur’s initial hostility towards Bethany turns to affection as he discovers a kindred spirit who shares his interest in the Holy Grail and his devotion to literature.
Together, they mount a search for the Book of Ewolda, an esoteric tome that could reveal long-forgotten secrets about the Cathedral, the Grail and their connections to King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table. As Arthur and Bethany delve further into the past, the secret history of England – from the Norman invasion to the Civil War, the Industrial Revolution and the Blitz – is revealed.
A thrilling adventure that will appeal to all bibliophiles and lovers of history, Charlie Lovett’s The Lost Book of the Grail is also an enchanting ode to the joys of reading.
**We have 3 copies of The Lost Book of the Grail to give away – scroll down for your chance to win!**
Phil Ramage reviewed:
I recently read Charlie Lovett’s 2013 debut The Bookman’s Tale and was impressed by his successful combination of a passion for books with an adventure genre novel. His latest, his third, is a much quieter work but once again this ex-antiquarian bookseller makes a love for old books a central theme and ends up with a novel every bit as entertaining.
He has taken the brave step of setting it in the cathedral town of Barchester, a fictional location familiar to Trollope fans but by bringing it to the present day there are merely echoes of those classic novels. Central character Arthur Prescott is the main reason I enjoyed this. A frustrated English lecturer at the University, with a penchant of PG Wodehouse he is a man without religious beliefs who attends church services a number of times a day. From a child he has been obsessed with Arthurian myths and the legend of the Holy Grail and his grandfather suggested there could be links with these and their home town. Arthur’s life changes when another Grail devotee, an American woman, arrives to digitize the cathedral’s manuscripts. dilemma over the future of our important works is a fascinating theme of the novel and would create much discussion for reading groups.
In many ways this book is the antidote to the Dan Brown-type adventure novel suggested by the title. There’s no globe-trotting, the puzzles are intellectual and carried out in the Cathedral library. We are teased throughout with moments in history where the keepers of Barchester’s secrets overlap and with sections from a Guide Book Arthur is writing about the cathedral.
If this sounds a little too restrained there’s the delights of Arthur, at odds with changes in modern academia and his group of code-busting pals, the Barchester Bibliophiles who keep the momentum going in this inaction action quest novel. I ended up enjoying this even more than his slightly more genre-aware debut. Reading about a genuine love for books is always a delight.
We asked Phil to come up with some questions for Charlie Lovett to investigate further…
PR: An important aspect of your writing which has become very evident in your first two novels is your love for books and book collecting. How has that influenced The Lost Book Of The Grail?
CL: The Lost Book of the Grail certainly continues the bibliophile tradition of my previous novels. Having set a novel partly in a university rare book library The Bookman’s Tale and one partially in libraries of stately homes in First Impressions I thought it would be interesting to set one in a cathedral library. The setting and some of the books existed in my mind before the characters did. Many of the books Arthur encounters are real and many of the medieval manuscripts in the library he loves were inspired by pieces I saw in various cathedral libraries.
I’d like to know more about the decision to set the novel in modern-day Barchester, a location which would certainly resonate with Trollope fans?
I knew I wanted the book to be set in a cathedral city, and I also knew I wanted the freedom to invent most of the history of that city for myself (the historical bits of my novel go back as far as the sixth century). But I wanted my fictional city to have a ring of authenticity about it. Setting the book in Barchester seemed the perfect solution—it seems real, especially to lovers of English literature, but I can invent its history for myself. I did include many references to Trollope: character names, details of the local geography, and so on. Arthur even lives in what was once (in The Warden and Barchester Towers) Hiram’s Hospital (now converted to modern flats).
Central character Arthur Prescott is a delight, set in his ways, full of procrastination and contradictions and bewildered by academia. In many ways a contemporary Everyman. How did he develop as the unlikely hero of the novel?
For me Arthur started first and foremost as a book lover, and I rapidly began to realize that his ability to interact with books far exceeds his ability to interact with human beings. His small circle of friends is comprised of other bibliophiles and he is happiest alone in the cathedral library. With the common image of the grail hunter being an adventurer on horseback, like Indiana Jones, I wanted to create a grail hunter whose adventures would be more of the mind, yet just as exciting.
In your work it is easy to appreciate the obsession with the search for a rare book. As an antiquarian bookseller what was your greatest ‘find’?
I got called out to a house one time that was little more than a shack in the woods—four small rooms. Inside were over 6000 books, including many classics of modern fiction in perfect condition in their original dust jackets. I ended up buying most of the books and it took me months to sort through them all. I didn’t sell paperbacks at my shop and I was about to pitch a couple of paperback volumes on to the 25¢ pile when I realized they made up the two-volume first edition of Lolita. I sold them with a phone call for a lot more than 25¢.
Tension is established in the novel when Bethany arrives to digitize the cathedral library with its collection so dear to Arthur. There’s a dilemma between books being special and becoming demystified by the process of having them readily available. As someone who made a living with rare books what are your feelings about the physical versus the digital?
I believe a lot of what Arthur says when he argues with Bethany, but I also believe a lot of what Bethany says. That’s why those scenes were so much fun to write. I think there is, and will always be, room in the world and in the marketplace for physical books. Most people I encounter prefer to read them, and they are a proven means for safely storing information for hundreds of years without the need for electricity or infrastructure. However, digitization has been a boon to me as a researcher. The online British Library Newspaper archive, for instance, allows me to access information that it would have taken me years working away in Colindale to find the old fashioned way.
I can tell that church buildings have a great appeal to you. How did that come about and is there a particular church/cathedral which has a special place in your heart?
I visited my first medieval English Cathedral in 1980 when I was a seventeen-year-old school-boy on a study abroad program. (I just looked up in my journal and discovered it was Ely Cathedral on January 23). Since then I have been a frequent visitor to medieval ecclesiastical buildings of all kinds in the UK. In 2000 I wrote a book called Sparrow Through the Hall, about a pilgrimage I took from Iona to Canterbury, visiting many cathedrals along the way. I never ceased to be impressed by the majesty of these buildings. I have many favorites—Durham, Salisbury, Wells, Norwich—but the one most closely connected to my novels is Winchester. Jane Austen (who features in First Impressions) is buried there, as is William of Wykeham, whose grave is robbed in an early scene in The Bookman’s Tale. I even wrote a parody of a monument in Winchester as part Arthur’s attempt to write a guidebook to Barchester in The Lost Book of the Grail.
What’s next for Charlie Lovett?
I’ve been working on a book for children ages about 8–14. This past summer my wife and I accompanied a group of children from our church who were singing with the choir in residence at Canterbury Cathedral for a week. Each night after Evensong and dinner, we would read aloud to them from this work in progress. Their excitement motivated me to finish the book when we returned home and they insisted on hearing the ending.
We have 3 copies of The Lost Book of the Grail to give away – for your chance to win simply fill in the form below:
About the author
Charlie Lovett is a writer, teacher, and playwright, whose plays for children have been seen in more than three thousand productions. He is a former antiquarian bookseller and an avid book collector. He and his wife split their time between Winston-Salem, North Carolina, and Kingham, Oxfordshire.
The Lost Book of the Grail by Charlie Lovett, published on 23 March, 2017 by Alma Books, in paperback
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