Book review: ‘The Cathedral’ by Hugh Walpole

“We translate more easily than we know our gratitude to God into our admiration of ourselves.”

Hugh Walpole’s 1922 novel The Cathedral is one of the best works of this, now sadly and unjustly neglected, author. Regular readers of the Grammaticus blog hopefully haven’t missed the December 2022 release of his short ghost story The Snow, available here as a free e-book.

Hugh Walpole (1884-1941)

One of the things these two titles have in common is that, like many other of Walpole’s works, they are both set in the fictional English town of Polchester: an out-of-the-way, somewhat isolated locale sitting on the river Pol, dominated by the large cathedral in its very centre. The other commonality is the gloomy atmosphere—less pronounced in The Cathedral due to differences in genre, but still strongly felt throughout. 

Ghosts populating this novel are of a different kind. It’s the things that come to haunt the haughty and the arrogant, echoing the biblical ‘how are the mighty fallen in the midst of the battle’ (2 Sam. 1:25). The arrogant one, in this case, is the mighty Archdeacon Brandon, a conservative, somewhat tyrannical, churchman who single handedly controls the affairs of the cathedral, and by extension, the town. A deeply devout man—at the same time deeply self-absorbed—he lives in complete assurance of his wife’s devotion, his children’s respect, and his peers’ unquestioning loyalty; last but not least, he trusts in God’s personal favour.

The year is 1897 and the town, much like the rest of the country, prepares for Queen Victoria’s Jubilee. Brandon, however, has little cause for celebration: somehow he finds himself on a downward path, his clout and reputation crumbling by the day. His family implodes under the weight of betrayal and adultery; his position in the church gets undermined by the arrival of Canon Roper and the rise of opposition to his rule over church matters. Within six months, Brandon’s whole life is upended: nothing is as it was; nothing was as it seemed. He becomes but a shadow of his previous self.

Even though Brandon’s role is central to the narrative, there’s a reason why the book is titled The Cathedral. His rise and ultimate fall are both inextricably connected to the church, and the Polchester cathedral in particular. Things Brandon did were in loyal service to it, his personal sacrifices a glad offering. His demise, while the product of human machinations against him, seemed to have been willed by the Cathedral as a conscious, supernatural entity of its own.

Some have asserted that the characters in The Cathedral are too stereotypical and one dimensional. My impression is the exact opposite: the way characters develop and reveal themselves, seen from different angles and perspectives, makes them quite complex. The motivation driving their choices is equally interesting: Walpole masterfully shows just how thin the lines are between devotion and hatred, stoicism and despair, sanity and madness. He is also very good at pointing at the complex web of external influences that make us do what we do, even when we falsely believe to be in full control of our own volition.

Apart from various themes explored in the book (dysfunctional family dynamic, late 19th / early 20th century church controversies, oppressiveness of small-town isolation, and others), it’s Walpole’s writing style that made this book a page-turner for me. Sometimes described as dated and anachronistic, I thought it wonderful and very much contributing to creating a proper 19th century mood. Walpole’s discrete addition of gothic elements, with just a touch of the supernatural, was just the ticket!

A map of Polchester, as shown on the dust jacket of Walpole’s 1935 novel The Inquisitor

The novel has left me wanting to visit Polchester, roam its streets, explore its old bookstores, go to the town fair—and, of course, attend Evensong at the Cathedral. I can’t wait to read more of this exceptional writer.


Grammaticus Pinterest board dedicated to Hugh Walpole

The Cathedral (free e-book downloadable in different formats)

Cover photo: the interior of the York Cathedral, England, by Anne Morris on Unsplash.

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