The Hopkins Conundrum: A Tragic Comedy About Gerard Manley Hopkins and Five Shipwrecked Nuns

The Hopkins Conundrum: A Tragic Comedy About Gerard Manley Hopkins and Five Shipwrecked Nuns

by Simon Edge

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Tim Cleverley inherits a failing pub in Wales, which he plans to rescue by enlisting an American pulp novelist to concoct an entirely fabricated 'mystery' about the mysterious poet, Gerald Manley Hopkins, who composed 'The Wreck of the Deutschland' nearby. Blending the real stories of Hopkins and the shipwrecked nuns he wrote about with a contemporary love story, while casting a wry eye on the Dan Brown industry, The Hopkins Conundrum is a highly original blend of historical fiction and contemporary satire.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781785630392
Publisher: Eye Books
Publication date: 05/25/2017
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 272
File size: 2 MB

About the Author

Simon Edge has written for The Daily Express, Attitude, and Private Eye, as well as working as a spin doctor and a publicist for the Green Party.

Read an Excerpt

The Hopkins Conundrum

A Tragic Comedy About Gerard Manley Hopkins and Five Shipwrecked Nuns

By Simon Edge

EyeStorm Media

Copyright © 2017 Simon Edge
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-78563-039-2


Florida, the present day London, 1876

Two men called Barry each read a communication on a Monday morning in May, and each of them frown. They don't know one another, because they have been born a hundred and twenty-nine years apart, one in the old world, the other in the new, which means the two Mondays are separated by five thousand miles and fifty thousand days. And because of this gap in time, only one of the men actually thinks WTF? But the other effectively thinks it too.

It is certainly the spirit of Father Aloysius Barry's reaction as he slits open a slim envelope, addressed in a tangled, coiling hand to his employer, at their cramped fourth-floor offices in Davies Street, Mayfair, and unfolds the manuscript it contains. Father Aloysius is used to opening submissions of little merit and is well versed in the various tactful phrases that can be employed when he returns the unwanted material. But this offering is on a different level. Written in the same hand as the envelope, the text looks instantly peculiar, because it is spattered with bizarre dashes and ellipses of a kind he has never seen before. The lines are neatly arranged and legible enough, but the words do not convey meaning in any conventional sense, and no amount of reading and re-reading makes them any clearer, which Father Aloysius is certain is not for want of education on his part. The effort to make something of it causes his head to spin, and it comes as a relief when he gives himself permission to stop trying. Even to his own relatively inexperienced eye, this submission is not just unpublishable: it verges on the insane. And considering the address the package has come from, that could be a matter of more than just literary concern. It will certainly need more careful handling than the usual polite refusal.

Father Aloysius sighs, puts the manuscript at the bottom of his pending pile, and hopes something will come to him by the time he reaches it. Perhaps his editor will know what to say.

For Barry Brook, author of The Poussin Conundrum, there are no syntactical thickets to negotiate, no obscure vocabulary or wild system of notation in the message he reads on his iPhone at his large, Mexican-style canal-side home in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. It's just an ordinary tweet among the many from fans who remain enthralled, nine years on, by his murderous conspiracy thriller tracing the bones of Jesus Christ to a cave in southwestern France, and who don't seem as perturbed as he is by his failure to produce a follow-up. They assume he is toiling away on a new masterwork of even greater complexity and have no idea that he sits at a blank screen day after day, month after month, transfixed by a terror that the global sensation which astonished no one more than himself was an unrepeatable fluke. He scrolls through the notifications to see if there's anything particularly complimentary he can retweet to keep his profile up and maintain the illusion he's still in the game.

One message stands out. It comes from a sender called @Wreckileaks, a name that seems to be making some kind of point, although he doesn't quite understand what. It's mildly abusive, but there's nothing remarkable about that. Over the years he has become familiar with invective in all its forms, and at times has been so mesmerised by it that he counts himself a connoisseur. He has managed to offend the religious and the non-religious, the literate and the illiterate, the French (for setting his book in their country) and the non-French (for not setting it in theirs), and he inspires extraordinary creativity in the imaginations of those who wish or threaten on him a violent death, with a strong correlation between goriness and religious fervour (and a touching faith among all who suggest it that they are the first to think of ramming one of his precious set-squares far up his rectum). Whatever his analyst may say, there is something oddly flattering about this frenzy of hatred among people he has never met. It makes him so much bigger and more important than they are, in their sad little bedrooms spewing impotent bile into their keyboards. It makes him feel more secure, not less – although he has naturally spent a small fortune on electronic and other fortifications for his property, just to be on the safe side.

In the present case, the rudeness is pretty mild. It's the content itself that intrigues him. The message reads: @barrybrook if you want to know the real secrets of the Vatican you cynical bastard think shipwrecks not geometry. Interested? More soon.

Maybe he needs to get a life, but he is interested and he does want to know more.


North Wales, 1875

Hopkins woke sweating in the ice-chill small hours, long before the pipes had begun their slow clank into what passed for life. He could tell without striking a light that there was at least an hour to go before the caller did his rounds, opening every door along the corridor to shout "Deo Gratias" and not budging until he received the same sleep-slack answer. Usually it was an effort to rouse himself but now, in this unaccustomed wakefulness, he lay staring up at the dark shape of the crucifix on the wall opposite the narrow window, fearful of returning to his dream.

It had started as a pageant of obscene torment. There was a boy from school who had taught him the first of many lessons in disappointment; then a friend's younger brother, running goose-flesh naked during the summer vacation; a coalman's boy, randomly glimpsed during an afternoon walk and preserved in the photograph of his memory, the forehead smudge of grime completing the sense of angelic fall; and finally Dolben himself, not handsome exactly, but captivating, with the promise of a romantic interior world for anyone privileged to enter – and condemning anyone else to a miserable exclusion. In the dream they were on the meadow together, walking beside the Isis as they had done on one of those three perfect, never-to-be-forgotten days; but nothing held its form for long and the scene mutated to some lewder river where Dolben announced his intention to swim. Hopkins himself had also meant to bathe, but when he tried to undress he was thwarted by a stubborn collar stud, buttons that popped back through the hole he had just pushed them out of, knotted laces that were beyond untangling; and all the while Dolben was stripping. The dreamer's depraved subconscious had been more than ready to supply the detail for a body that he had never seen in life: milky white shoulders, surprisingly broad (odd that you could be surprised by something your own imagination had invented, but it seemed you could); a wisp of hair at the middle of a plate-flat breast; a mole on the tender skin at the top of the left arm. Running towards the water, this gangling boy-nymph presented a dimpled haunch and musky cleft, as his observer continued to struggle with his wretched trousers. Hopkins' apparel twisted itself with Gordian spite and he could only look on as Dolben plunged into the lucky pool – alone at first, but then there were two of them. His imagination knew with certainty – because it had invented the likeness – that this was his undeserving rival.

The pair of them splashed together with a feigned innocence, but then the rival was there no longer, ordered away by whatever part of the brain was in charge of this sleep-show, and Dolben was alone in mid-stream, suddenly choking and gasping for breath. There was only the dreamer to watch, helpless from his bed-bound, sheet-wound river-bank, as the water closed over poor Dolben's head. That was the moment when reason had taken mercy and reminded him that waking was possible. He had pushed gratefully off the muddy bottom of his dream and broken the surface of his lonely little cell, as drenched as if he had really been in the river.

As his breathing slowed, Hopkins inserted an exploratory hand beneath his nightshirt. He was relieved to find that those earlier scenes had not caused any emission. But his pillow was sodden with sweat. He turned it over to use the dry underside. His nightcap was also damp. He peeled it off and flung it aside, pulling the rough counterpane up around his ears, then pushing it away again. Physical discomfort was the only remedy for the desires that had produced that revolting tableau. Forcing himself out of bed, he padded shivering along the oblong of threadbare carpet to his washstand and winced as he splashed water from the ewer onto his forehead. He had a fantasy vision of plunging his whole face into the bowl, holding it under to match poor Dolben, and losing himself to an oblivion where such dreams would never trouble him again. It was of course a sin to contemplate it. Even if it wasn't, he doubted he was brave enough to endure the cold.

And then he remembered that more recent set of drownings, the event everyone had been talking about the day before. The terrible account that Kerr had read from the newspaper, shocking them all because it came so soon after the Schiller tragedy, must have put the notion in his mind, and his own wanton fancy had supplied the rest. He shook his head, as if that would dislodge the memory of the dream, and splashed a little more water from the bowl, welcoming its icy jolt now.

Still not striking a light, he ventured off the carpet onto the cold tiles. He lifted the lid of his window seat and groped for the familiar rope handle. They had been told as young novices that any more than twelve strokes was vain-glory. He pulled his nightshirt over his head and knelt at his prie-dieu, below the dark square that would lighten into a portrait of Savonarola, his medieval hero, as the sun came up. With a wild flick, he flung the knotted chords over his shoulder. For a first effort it was feeble – the ropes barely tickled. He put more strength into the next stroke, getting a better reach so that one of the knots whipped round to nick his flank. His breath quickened and he warmed to the task as the force he put into each stroke pushed back the cold of his room and gave his bare skin something else to tremble about. Never. Again. Must these. Filthy. Visions. Come.

He was sweating again as he reached the point of vain-glory, and continued well beyond.


Bremen, Germany, 1875

They were not just expected, which was perfectly natural considering they had written ahead to book their passage. They were actively awaited. The company had grasped that they were coming unchaperoned, and someone had written a note next to their names saying that they should be made as comfortable as possible. It was kind, but also a little alarming. Henrica would have preferred to travel with less fuss and less attention. Perhaps that was always going to be a vain hope.

"There's no need to go near steerage," said the clerk in the offices of the shipping line. He lowered his voice with a theatrical glance at the rougher queue beside them tailing out of the door. "The working man can be boisterous on the crossing. Drink is the culprit. But the purser will do all he can to keep you undisturbed. In first-class we could of course have guaranteed your comfort, and in second-class we can only try. But it's lucky the ship is so empty. One of you will have a cabin to herself, instead of having to share with a stranger."

"Empty?" said Henrica. "Everywhere seems so crowded."

"Crowded?" The clerk laughed. "There's room for eight hundred passengers, but we have barely one hundred today. There are just only six first-class passengers, and twenty-five of you in second."

"Why so few?"

"Nobody likes to travel in December, dear lady, unless they have good reason."

Henrica studied his expression. Was he mocking them? Everyone knew about the 'cultural struggle', as their tormentor called his campaign against them, and it must be obvious from the way they were dressed why they were leaving. But the young man's face seemed innocent enough. "We are much obliged to you," she said. "Thank you, we don't need a porter. We have no other luggage than this."

Until now, the biggest vessels any of them had ever seen were riverboats: massive barges some of them, hauling cargoes across the continent, or passenger liners serving the towns and cities of the Second Empire. But nothing compared to the monster that awaited them, its vast black funnel sandwiched between two towering masts on a deck that stretched as far as they could see. Two of Henrica's companions crossed themselves, and even Aurea stopped her chatter. Everything about the ship asserted its readiness not for a tame inland river, but for the cold, grey sea.

Stevedores were rushing about the quay, dodging between coils of rope as thick as a man's arm, to ferry wooden trunks, sacks of food and bales of cargo into a gaping maw in the iron hull. Departing emigrants gripped relatives in final, grim embraces – tableaux frozen in a different plane to the frantic activity around them. A small boy wound tight in a muffler stopped to stare at a crate of chickens before being pulled protesting away, while just in front of them a liveried youth ushered a black-bearded gentleman in fur-trimmed coat through a rope barrier onto a carpeted stair. Henrica wondered if they were to board here too, but the youth said, "That way, madam," pointing towards the front of the ship without bothering to look at her.

Pressing on towards the far end of the quay, they climbed a ramp that doubled back in a long, gentle incline to raise them to the level of the deck. Henrica had imagined she might feel some pang of anguish at leaving dry land, but the journey from the mother-house had been so complicated – two days by road, with Aurea squealing with excitement all the way and Brigitta gasping at every bump; one night in a rough village coaching inn, and the next in the absurdly plush railway hotel in Bremen itself; the search for their own church in that bewildering, hostile city, so that they could hear their last Mass on German soil; and then the final, short leg to the port by train – that all she could think now was what a relief it would be to find their cabins. Above their heads, rope lines tapered up to the two masts. The sails were still furled on broad yards extending out over the quay. A row of raised skylights, like miniature glasshouses peeping up from the polished pine deck, glinted in the low winter sunlight. Through one of them she saw a vast mechanical wheel, like something from a watermill. An iron bridge straddled the deck at its broadest part, above an engine house built around the funnel. Now they were being ushered away from it towards a doorway that stood proud from the deck, encased in its own hut. Inside was a steep stairway plunging into the ship's innards. Norberta the giantess had to go down backwards, clinging to the banister with one hand and her skirts with the other, with Henrica reaching her bag down after her.

They found themselves in a small chamber, lit by a single small porthole. Trunks and boxes were stacked along the walls and there was an oily smell, seasoned with brine. What hit Henrica most was the din: a steady mechanical roar was punctuated by a regular series of creaks and clangs.

An angular girl in a lace-trimmed cap bobbed to meet them, offering a hand to help each of them down the stairs, and introduced herself as Marta. "Are you all here? One, two, three, four ... ah yes, and the tall lady." She was shouting to be heard. "Don't worry about the noise, you'll get used to that. And if you follow me though this door you'll find it's quieter anyway. I've put you in the last set of berths ..."

The sway of the ship on the lapping tide was more noticeable in the gloomy interior than it had been on deck. They followed Marta along a narrow corridor and through two doors, and found themselves in a tiny lobby serving the compartments where they were to live for the next two weeks. They were four slivers of rooms, taller than they were wide, but not so very tall either. Each cabin contained two bunks built into the wooden panelling, more the size of cots than beds. There was a miniature wash-stand, a shelf, a narrow bench and a row of hooks. A curtain could be drawn along the front of each bunk, and there was another row of hooks above the mattresses, on one of which hung a white hessian life-belt.


Excerpted from The Hopkins Conundrum by Simon Edge. Copyright © 2017 Simon Edge. Excerpted by permission of EyeStorm Media.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents


Florida, the present day, London, 1876,
North Wales, 1875,
Bremen, Germany, 1875,
North Wales, the present,
North Wales, 1875,
North Wales, the present,
Bremen, 1875,
Holland, the present,
North Wales, the present,
North Wales, 1875,
North Sea, the present,
North Wales, the present,
North Wales, 1875,
North Sea, 1875,
North Wales, the present,
North Wales, 1876,
North Sea, 1875,
Manchester, the present,
North Wales, 1876,
North Sea, 1875,
North Wales, 1876,
North Wales, the present,
London, 1876,
North Wales, the present,
Dublin, 1886,
North Wales, the present,
Dublin, 1886,
North Wales, the present,
Dublin, 1889,
North Wales, the present,
North Wales, the present,
Dublin, 1889,
North Sea, 1875,
Dublin, 1889,
North Wales, the present,
About Lightning Books,

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