Ringing in books
How often do new ringers - or any ringers, if it comes to that - try to seek out accurate portrayals of ringing in general literature? Few of us get much further than Dorothy L Sayers' "The Nine Tailors", in which it turns out that Lord Peter Wimsey is not only the younger brother of a duke, a man about town, book collector, shell shocked survivor of the first world war and amateur detective, but an able bell ringer. He turns his skill and knowledge to account to solve the mysteries of the Wilbraham Emeralds, and of a body found unexpectedly in a grave.
But there are other books to feature ringing, to various degrees of accuracy, and with various degrees of importance to the plot of the book. The Suffolk Guild library contains 15 different titles of fiction and social history, but not all of these are in print or readily available second hand - I have limited my review here to books which can be obtained for £10 or less. Contributors to the ringing-chat list also kindly made suggestions of books which might be of interest.
"The Nine Tailors" is not the only crime novel to feature ringing: Ray Harrison's "A Season for Death" is set in Victorian London. The Dean of St Paul's is covering to Stedman at the cathedral when he falls victim to a flying rope. The police investigate - and there are more deaths. There are also suspicious deaths in "The Dying Light" (US title - The Bell Ringers), a 2009 political thriller by journalist Henry Porter. A lawyer and former spy returns to Britain for an inquest. Why has her former lover - once the head of the Joint Intelligence Committee - left her most of his possessions and a most unusual letter, and £125000 to the Marches Society of Bell Ringers? Like many novels involving ringing, the ringing is very much a subplot, but what there is is accurately described.
Bell ringers are not the only people to die in Connie Willis' "Doomsday Book" which won the Hugo and Nebula awards for science fiction. It's the story of a historian from mid 21st century Oxford, sent back in time to explore the fourteenth century. Meanwhile, back in the future, bell ringers are visiting an Oxford under quarantine for a mysterious 'flu. Unlike Porter's book, ringing is fairly important to the plot; also unlike Porter, the description is infuriatingly inaccurate. So we find that by the mid 21st Century, Carfax in Oxford has gained a carillon, and handbell ringers bob up and down while ringing methods. But maybe Willis gains points for noting that a little thing like being quarantined will not put ringers off their planned tour. There are few deaths in Chico Kidd's "The Printer's Devil", a fantasy, with a highly fictionalised Fabian Stedman, magic, opera and College Youths, and some rather uncomfortable themes around sexuality. Modern day bell ringers explore some mysterious 17th century documents; back in the 17th century, a printer's apprentice finds his fellow ringer using powers to make life apparently more comfortable than it might be. The two storylines eventually intertwine to one.
Caroline Graham's "Faithful unto Death" probably fails to be of interest to ringers on all counts. A Midsomer Murders novel, it is not "Ring Out Your Dead" (that one, where leading members of the Oxford Diocesan Guild are defeated in a striking competition by three actors who have clearly never seen a bellrope before, was written as a television script) and ringing is not only peripheral but misunderstood - the ringers are asked to ring a peal of Oranges and Lemons, and their ropes are made of red, white and blue hemp.
Moving on from crime and death, bell ringing is prominent in a number of romances. John Meade Falkner's "The Nebuly Coat" was a period piece when it was published in 1903, being set in the 1860s. A young architect comes to supervise the restoration of a once great church in a once great port. Over more than two years, the mystery of the heir to the Blandamer fortune comes to a head, and a peal is rung. Of all the books I've reviewed here, "The Nebuly Coat" seems to generate the strongest feelings - it is very unlike Falkner's better known "Moonfleet", and various amateur reviewers on the internet write quite heatedly in praise or (more surprisingly) in criticism of it.
Georgina Lewis' "The Winter Tree" from 1983 is also rather gothic. A bell ringer adopts his orphaned niece, and tragedy ensues when she cannot be with the man she loves. Bell ringing plays an important part in setting the background, and is accurately described (including the tip for knowing whether to go in quick or slow in Stedman). But it's a little surprising to find such a vigorous method ringing community in Cornwall, generally seen as one of the strongholds of call change ringing. Lillian Harry (who writes under a number of pseudonyms but is, apparently, a ringer) shows a better grasp of local style in "The Bells of Burracombe". A Devon village welcomes a new schoolteacher in the run up to the Festival of Britain. Among the local celebrations will be a striking competition.
Also a period piece is Jean Chapman's "The Bellmakers". In mid 19th century Leicestershire, a girl takes on her late father's trade, arriving to sell goods at a village on the day the church bell is being removed for recasting by the handsome bellfounders. Will she find happiness with one of the founders? Well, what do you think?
Reginald Arkell's "Trumpets over Merriford" is perhaps best described as a rural idyll. Published in 1955, and set more or less contemporaneously, it tells of the American Air Force arriving in the small English village. When the air force put a beacon on top of Merriford church, they find rot in the bellframe. How will the problem be solved?
Problem solving is also a theme in "Mr Pettigrew and the Bellringers", a 1976 children's book by Leonard Clark. Country vicar Simon Pettigrew faces a number of problems with his ringers and the bells - but they're all resolved to the vicar's satisfaction, even if it wouldn't leave the ringers terribly happy.
Perhaps inevitably, children's books have dated. "Milly" by Pippa Goodhart is set on New Year's Eve 1999: Alice is looked after by her grandfather while her mother gives birth. Grandfather is a bellringer, and Alice gets to see the ringing for the new millennium. It's a good story for its age group - but it will be a while before we welcome another millennium. Even more dated in their feel are John Escott's "Alarm Bells" (1981) and "Bell Rescue" (1983) which revolve around handbells. I gather that H E Todd's character Bobby Brewster had a (mainly accurate) adventure with bell ringers in "Bobby Brewster's Lamp Post" (1982) but the cost of this out of print but collectable book means that I haven't seen it.
Finally, moving on from fiction, are two works of oral history. In 1969, Ronald Blythe published "Akenfield: Portrait of an English Village", an oral, anonymised social history of life in rural Suffolk, looking at how life had changed from the time between the wars and the late 1960s. Interviewees include a local ringer, and a local but internationally prominent tower captain. Perhaps less well known but just as interesting is George Ewart Evans' 1956 "Ask The Fellows Who Cut The Hay", based on interviews with the old people of a different Suffolk village, the last generation to remember rural life before mechanisation. In a time when many people never left their parish, the bellringers might have visited more than 200 towers.
Ringing is not widely represented in general literature - but there is more out there than would appear at first glance. Taken together, the picture they give of bell ringers is not totally inaccurate, although the view from any one book would (surely?) not reflect what any of us would see in our home towers.