J. Meade Falkner

J. Meade Falkner

J. Meade Falkner, who in the early 1880s was a scholar of the college and since 1927 an Honorary Fellow, was an old member who had always shown a very keen and sympathetic interest in the doings of Hertford. With all his antiquarian interests and his appreciation of medieval architecture, which might easily have drawn him away from buildings so largely Jacksonian, he still placed Hertford very forward in all Oxford recollections, and gave it a special mark of affection in selecting it for the scene of his novel The Lost Stradivarius. From 1901 to 1926 Falkner was a director of the Armstrong, Whitworth Company, but, while busied with business affairs, always retained the interests and many of the habits of a scholar. The following extract, reprinted from The Times, gives some indication of the variety and distinction of his career.

In his long connexion with the Armstrong, Whitworth Company, Falkner made himself specially useful in conducting negotiations with foreign Powers, and he travelled widely on behalf of the firm in Europe and South America. For this purpose he was well fitted alike by his charm and dignity of manner, his gift of languages, and his patience. He was, in short, the chief diplomatic representative of the firm for many years. These business visits were with him always contrived 'a double debt to pay'. 'For,' as he used to say of himself, 'I have a medieval mind,' and he was never happier than in Constantinople, Florence and, above all, in Rome, where he early became a constant frequenter of the Vatican Library, a relationship crowned by the gift to him from the present Pope of the gold medal struck for presentation to a limited number of distinguished scholars, native and foreign.

All sorts of medieval lore appealed to him - black-letter, demonology, and old Church music. He was an assiduous collector of rare books, especially of missals. His whole life had a strange dualism, for this medievally minded humanist rose to his high position as chairman of a great industrial corporation not by favouritism, but on his merits, and as the direct result of their recognition by the creator of the firm and his ablest successor. Falkner's annual statements were models of lucidity, and were marked by a distinction of style that never failed him whatever he wrote.

He wrote beautifully, in every sense of the word, for until he was disabled by writer's cramp, his script, modelled upon that of the best medieval scribes, was exquisitely decorative as well as perfectly legible, and a letter from him was a work of art as well as a revelation of the workings of an original and observant mind. Some of his earliest literary ventures were of an instructive order - his admirable History of Oxfordshire, and his handbooks to Oxfordshire and Berkshire in Murray's series, for which he prepared himself by long bicycle tours of exploration visiting country churches and villages. In fiction he made his mark in The Lost Stradivarius (1895), a romantic ghost story, tinged with mysticism, in which his command of atmosphere and of the 'law of suspense' was strikingly displayed. Moonfleet (1898), a story of the old smuggling days on the south coast, is a more straightforward story, which suggests comparisons with Stevenson in subject, but is written in Falkner's own style, in which every word is right and in the right place. But The Nebuly Coat (1903) is a far higher achievement, and still remains one of the test novels, appreciation of which establishes a curious link of sympathy between its admirers. He had written a considerable part of a fourth novel, but left the only copy in a bag in the train on his daily journey from Durham to Elswick, and never saw it again. His friends often begged him to rewrite it, but he declared that he was too old for the task.

After the War he published anonymously a brief, but most illuminating, study of Bath in its palmy days, and he contributed to Cornhill (December, 1916) the short story entitled 'Charalampia', an entirely fascinating pseudo-historical romance of the Byzantine period. For, while a devout reader of the classics, his studies were not confined to the canon.

There remain his verses, mostly written for private circulation, though a certain number appeared in the Spectator, where they never failed to attract attention by their peculiar dignity and charm, notably the lines entitled 'The Family Pew'. They were almost always meditative and reflective, suffused with a tender regret, and notable for the effective use he made of Latin phrases from the Vulgate or the great Latin hymns. It may be added that his interest in liturgical literature was not confined to missals, but ranged over a much wider field. He filled more than forty notebooks (all in Latin) on the Vatican manuscripts. Apart from the Vatican, he was in close touch with the manuscript section of the British Museum and of the Bodleian. It was largely due to these associations and connections, as well as to his own talents, that he was able to make improvements at Durham (where he succeeded Canon Greenwell as Librarian to the Dean and Chapter), which made the collection probably the first among cathedral libraries in England, and caused it, to his great pleasure, to be visited and consulted by more and more students every year.

To his friends at the Athenaeum and elsewhere Falkner was always an interesting character, full of curious contradictions but equally full of enthusiasms which he was able to impart to others. An element of the unexpected lent attraction to his conversation, for, though consistent enough on many subjects, on others his views were fluid, and it was impossible to anticipate what he might say. Proclaiming himself a recluse, he enjoyed congenial society; in politics, he was one day a Radical and the next a reactionary; while he affected a cynicism which covered much real kindness of heart. He had no intellectual arrogance; he was singularly free from snobbishness or ostentation; he was a most loyal and affectionate friend. The extent of his charities, whether in cash or kind, if it could be known, must have been astonishingly large, while the amount of time he took to comfort the downhearted or ailing must have added heavy burdens to his daily work.

Throughout his life, Falkner, though his remarkable gifts were fully acknowledged by his friends and associates, contrived to keep completely out of the limelight, and never asked for, or received, any state recognition of his services in his own country. He was given decorations by the Turkish, Italian, and Japanese governments, but the honours which he valued far the most were conferred on him as a man of letters, and involved no initials after his name or handle in front of it. Mention has been made of his appointment as Librarian to the Dean and Chapter of Durham, in which capacity he had the satisfaction of showing King Alfonso over the treasures of the Library; he was honorary Reader in Palaeography to the University of Durham; and last, and most treasured distinction of all, was made an Honorary Fellow of Hertford College, Oxford, in 1927.