The Bookman's Tale: A Novel of Obsession

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9780143125389: The Bookman's Tale: A Novel of Obsession
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A mysterious portrait ignites an antiquarian bookseller’s search through time and the works of Shakespeare for his lost love. Charlie Lovett’s new book, The Lost Book of the Grail, is now available.

Guaranteed to capture the hearts of everyone who truly loves books, The Bookman’s Tale is a former bookseller’s sparkling novel and a delightful exploration of one of literature’s most tantalizing mysteries with echoes of Shadow of the Wind and A.S. Byatt's Possession.

Nine months after the death of his beloved wife Amanda left him shattered, Peter Byerly, a young antiquarian bookseller, relocates from North Carolina to the English countryside, hoping to outrun his grief and rediscover the joy he once took in collecting and restoring rare books. But upon opening an eighteenth-century study of Shakespeare forgeries, he discovers a Victorian watercolor of a woman who bears an uncanny resemblance to Amanda.
 
Peter becomes obsessed with learning the picture’s origins and braves a host of dangers to follow a trail of clues back across the centuries—all the way to Shakespeare’s time and a priceless literary artifact that could prove, once and for all, the truth about the Bard’s real identity.

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About the Author:

Charlie Lovett is a writer, teacher, and playwright whose plays for children have been seen in more than three thousand productions worldwide. He served for more than a decade as writer in residence at Summit School in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. He is a former antiquarian bookseller, and he has collected rare books and other materials related to Lewis Carroll for more than twenty-five years. He and his wife, Janice, split their time between Winston-Salem and Kingham, Oxfordshire.

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

Praise for The Bookman’s Tale

PENGUIN BOOKS

Charlie Lovett is a writer, teacher, and playwright whose plays for children have been seen in more than three thousand productions worldwide. He served for more than a decade as writer in residence at Summit School in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. He is a former antiquarian bookseller, and he has collected rare books and other materials related to Lewis Carroll for more than twenty-five years. He and his wife, Janice, split their time between Winston-Salem and Kingham, Oxfordshire.

 

Praise for 'The Bookman's Tale'

About the Author

Title Page

Copyright

Dedication

Epigraph

 

Hay-on-Wye, Wales, Wednesday, February 15, 1995

Ridgefield, North Carolina, 1983

Southwark, London, 1592

Kingham, Friday, February 17, 1995

Ridgefield, 1984

Southwark, London, 1609

London, Friday, February 17, 1995

Ridgefield, 1985

Kingham, Saturday, February 18, 1995

Westminster, London, 1612

Ridgefield, 1985

Kingham, Saturday, February 18, 1995

Ridgefield, 1985

Kingham, Saturday, February 18, 1995

Wakefield, Yorkshire, Northern England, 1720

Ridgefield, 1985

Kingham, Sunday, February 19, 1995

London, 1856

Hay-on-Wye, Wales, Sunday, February 19, 1995

Ridgefield, 1985

London, 1875

Hounslow, England, Monday, February 20, 1995

London, 1875

Ridgefield, 1985

Cornwall, Southwestern England, Monday, February 20, 1995

Ridgefield, 1985

London, 1875

Cornwall, Southwestern England, Tuesday, February 21, 1995

Ridgefield, 1986

London, 1876

London, Tuesday, February 21, 1995

Ridgefield, 1986

Kingham, 1876

London, Tuesday, February 21, 1995

Ridgefield, 1986

Kingham, 1876

Ridgefield, 1986

London, Tuesday, February 21, 1995

London, 1877

Ridgefield, 1987

Oxfordshire, England, Tuesday, February 21, 1995

Cambridgeshire, England, 1878

Ridgefield, 1988

Kingham, Tuesday, February 21, 1995

Kingham, 1878

Ridgefield, 1988

Kingham, Tuesday, February 21, 1995

Kingham, 1879

Ridgefield, 1994

Kingham, Tuesday, February 21, 1995

Kingham, 1879

Ridgefield, 1994

Kingham, 1879

Kingham, Wednesday, February 22, 1995

Kingham, Friday, June 23, 1995

 

Acknowledgments

Author’s Note

An Excerpt from 'First Impressions'

 

Hay-on-Wye, Wales, Wednesday, February 15, 1995

Wales could be cold in February. Even without snow or wind the damp winter air permeated Peter’s topcoat and settled in his bones as he stood outside one of the dozens of bookshops that crowded the narrow streets of Hay. Despite the warm glow in the window that illuminated a tantalizing display of Victorian novels, Peter was in no hurry to open the door. It had been nine months since he had entered a bookshop; another few minutes wouldn’t make a difference. There had been a time when this was all so familiar, so safe; when stepping into a rare bookshop had been a moment of excitement, meeting a fellow book lover a part of a grand adventure.

Peter Byerly was, after all, a bookseller. It was the profession that had brought him to England again and again, and the profession that brought him to Hay-on-Wye, the famous town of books just over the border in Wales, on this dreary afternoon. He had visited Hay many times before, but today was the first time he had ever come alone.

Now, as the cold ache in his extremities crept toward his core, he saw not a grand adventure but only an uncomfortable setting, a stranger, and the potential for shyness and unease to descend into anxiety and panic. Anticipation brought cold sweat to the back of his neck. Why had he come? He could be safe in his sitting room with a cup of tea right now instead of standing on a cold street corner with a sense of dread settling into the pit of his stomach.

Before he could change his mind, he forced himself to grasp the door handle and in another second he was stepping into what should have been welcoming warmth.

“Afternoon,” said a crisp voice through a haze of pipe smoke that hovered over a wide desk. Peter mumbled a few syllables, then slipped through an open doorway into the back room, where books lined every wall. He closed his eyes for a moment, imagining the cocoon of books shielding him from all danger, inhaling deeply that familiar scent of cloth and leather and dust and words. His rushing pulse began to slow, and when he opened his eyes he scanned the shelves for something familiar—a title, an author, a well-remembered dust jacket design—anything that might ground him in the world of the known.

Just above eye level, he spotted a binding of beautiful blue leather that reminded him of the calf he had used to bind another book—could it have been nearly ten years ago? He pulled the book from the shelf, reveling in the smooth, luxurious feel of the leather. Taking a closer look at the gold stamping on the spine, Peter smiled. He knew this book. If not an old friend, it was certainly an acquaintance, and the prospect of spending a few minutes between its covers calmed his nerves.

An Inquiry into the Authenticity of Certain Miscellaneous Papers, by Edmond Malone, was a monument of analysis that unmasked one of the great forgers of all time, William Henry Ireland. Ireland had forged documents and letters purporting to be written by William Shakespeare, and even the “original manuscripts” of Hamlet and King Lear. Peter turned past the marbled endpapers to the title page: it was a copy of the first edition of 1796. He loved the feel of heavy eighteenth-century paper between his fingers, the texture of the indentations made on the page by the letterpress. He flipped a few pages and read:

It has been said that every individual of this country, whose mind has been at all cultivated, feels a pride in being able to boast of our own great dramatick poet, Shakespeare, as his countryman: and proportionate to our respect and veneration for that extraordinary man ought to be our care of his fame, and of those valuable writings he left us.

Peter smiled as he recalled reading “those valuable writings” from an actual copy of the First Folio, that weighty 1623 volume of Shakespeare’s works in which many of his plays were printed for the first time. He was calm now—all sense of dread and panic banished by the simple act of losing himself in an old book. Remembering how that First Folio, given the opportunity, always fell open to the third act of Hamlet, he spread the covers of the Malone and let the pages fall where they would. The book opened to page 289, revealing a piece of paper about four inches square. The brown foxing on the pages between which the paper had been pressed told Peter it had been there for at least a century. Out of habit more than curiosity he turned the paper over.

The sharp pain that stabbed his chest almost made him drop the book onto the dusty floor. He thought he had outrun that pain, that he could escape it with distance and distraction, but even in the corner of a bookshop in Hay-on-Wye it had found him. Knees suddenly weak, he slumped against a bookcase and watched, as if in a dream, as the paper fluttered to the floor. The face was still there; he closed his eyes, willing the face and all that went with it to retreat, willing his pulse to slow once more and his hands to stop shaking. He took a deep breath and opened his eyes. She lay there calmly, serenely, looking up at him, waiting. It was his wife. It was Amanda.

But Amanda was dead—buried nine months ago in the red earth of North Carolina, an ocean away. A heartbeat away. And this painting, so much older than Amanda or her mother or her grandmother, could not possibly portray her. But it did.

Peter leaned over to retrieve the paper from the floor and examine it more closely. It was an expert watercolor, almost imperceptibly signed with the initials “B.B.” He looked again at the book from which it had fallen, hoping for a clue to the watercolor’s origin. On the front endpaper was a penciled interlocking “EH,” the monogram of some long-forgotten owner. The description printed on a card inside the cover made no mention of a watercolor, only the price: £400. He had seen copies cataloged for half that. Copies that didn’t hide a century-old painting of his dead wife.

On the shelf in front of him was a shabby copy of Dickens’s unfinished final novel, The Mystery of Edwin Drood. The original cloth binding was worn at the corners and spine, the hinges were broken, and a few pages were loose, but nothing was missing. He could easily restore it to be worth two or three times the asking price.

Glancing around, he found himself still alone in the room. His hand trembling, Peter slipped the watercolor into Edwin Drood. He could not leave Amanda here, so far from home. He reshelved the Malone and tucked Drood under his arm. Twenty minutes later he had purchased a stack of books, including the Dickens, and was walking toward the car park on the outskirts of town, two heavy bags hanging at his sides.

The drive from the Welsh border to Peter’s cottage in the Oxfordshire village of Kingham took just over two hours. Peter’s cottage was down a narrow lane from the village green and, like the rest of the village, built of golden Cotswold limestone. It was in the middle of a row of terraced cottages, but in five months of residence, Peter had yet to meet either of the neighbors with whom he shared the thick stone walls.

By seven, he had a fire in the grate, a cup of tea in his hand, and the watercolor propped up on the coffee table. Despite Dr. Strayer’s advice, he had boxed all his pictures of Amanda and left them in the attic of the house in Ridgefield. So how could she be here, in what suddenly seemed like her cottage? She had, after all, picked out the William Morris fabric on the sofa and curtains. She had overseen the renovation of the kitchen and the addition of the conservatory. She had spent weekends in Portobello Road buying the Pilkington vases that stood on every windowsill and the Burne-Jones prints that hung in the upstairs hall. She had gone to country auctions to buy the furniture and had found the carpenter who installed the floor-to-ceiling bookshelves in the sitting room. The shelves had been her gift to Peter, the outward and visible sign of her passion for his passion; but everything else in the cottage was pure Amanda. She had never spent a night here, but that Peter could have lived here for five months and actually come to think of it as his cottage seemed silly now that she stood on the coffee table staring at him.

The painting showed a woman seated in front of a mirror, combing a long tress of dark hair. Her shoulders were bare, and her hair just covered her breasts. The dark hair and the pale skin were Amanda’s as were the straight shoulders, and even the insistent way that she gripped the brush, but the most remarkable similarity was in the countenance that stared out from the mirror—teasing and challenging at once. The resemblance was uncanny—the narrow face, the high, pale forehead; and above all the deep green eyes that could laugh and demand to be taken seriously simultaneously. Amanda could do that. Of course the face couldn’t be hers. She had been born in 1966; the watercolor was definitely Victorian. Still, Peter sat staring into Amanda’s eyes, wondering where she had come from and wishing she had never left.

He lost himself in those eyes, and in the past, for a few minutes, then roused himself, stood up, and began pacing the room. Here was a mystery that demanded a solution. During his years as an antiquarian bookseller, Peter had solved his share of bibliographical puzzles, but he had done so with the same emotional detachment with which he solved crosswords. This was different. The mystery of the watercolor’s origins felt deeply personal and Peter could already feel curiosity and grief melding into obsession. He had to know where this painting came from—how a hundred-year-old portrait of his wife, who had been born only twenty-nine years ago, had come to be tucked into an eighteenth-century book on Shakespeare forgeries.

The problem was how to begin. Peter had never worked with paintings before. It took him another hour of staring and pacing to remember what was in the bookcase in the spare room upstairs. He had not set foot in that room since he moved to Kingham. It had been intended as Amanda’s sanctum sanctorum, and though she would never spend afternoons sitting there in the armchair reading her books, it still seemed an inviolable space. Now he opened the door slowly and looked into the stale silence. In the distance he heard the church bell toll nine and he waited until the last chime had died in the wet winter air before turning on the light.

In the bookcase by the window were sixty-five nearly identical volumes—Peter’s wedding gift to Amanda. Because it had been a Royal Academy exhibition catalog that brought them together, and because Amanda so loved her Victorian paintings, Peter had resolved to give her a copy of the catalog for every year of Victoria’s reign—an illustrated journey through seven decades of English art. It had taken him a year to track down all the volumes, but it had taken Amanda almost that long to plan the wedding. Now the books stood patiently on the shelves of the room she would never use.

Peter stood in the doorway for several minutes wrestling with the eerie sense of Amanda’s presence. It wasn’t just that this was Amanda’s room furnished with her books and her favorite chair and the lamp she’d picked out from the antique shop in Stow-on-the-Wold. Peter was used to living with Amanda’s taste. This was different. This was a feeling that Amanda might return at any moment—not the evanescent Amanda who sometimes spoke to him, but the real flesh-and-blood Amanda. It was a feeling Peter longed to embrace, but which he knew he must fight. He felt the same nausea and dizziness he had felt when they first met, and he had to lean against the doorway to steady himself.

“It’s okay,” said Amanda. “You can go in.” She stood at the end of the hall and Peter looked up just in time to see her fade away. Her words gave him the courage he needed, though, and he entered the room, crossed to the bookshelf, pulled out the volume labeled “1837,” and sat gingerly on the edge of the chair. These are just books; these are just things; this is just a room; and that was just my imagination, he told himself. And although he didn’t really believe it, he opened the book and began looking at paintings.

Before Peter had left for England, Dr. Strayer had given him a typed list of things he needed to do in order to move on with life. The second item was: “Establish Regular Eating and Sleeping Habits.” He had been making progress on this—going to bed by eleven, sometimes falling asleep as early as one, and sleeping ...

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Other Popular Editions of the Same Title

9780670026470: The Bookman's Tale

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ISBN 10:  0670026476 ISBN 13:  9780670026470
Publisher: Viking, 2013
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9781846883026: The Bookman's Tale

Alma B..., 2012
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9780670016648: The Bookman's Tale

Viking, 2013
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