(Critical Guide to British Fiction)

The academic year begins with special challenges for some of the faculty at the College of St. John and the Holy Ghost (which is affectionately called “Spook”), a branch of a major university. The Reverend Simon Darcourt, along with Professors Clement Hollier and Urquhart McVarish, is charged with overseeing the enormously complicated bequest of Francis Cornish, an important art collector. The interests of various institutions, university factions, and research scholars make this task especially sensitive. Arthur Cornish, Francis Cornish’s nephew, heir, and executor, must oversee these proceedings.

Included in Francis’ collection is a cache of manuscripts by Francois Rabelais—a “find” that is bound to make the careers of those entrusted with it. Hollier, who once glanced at these materials, is sure that they will further his own studies as well as launch the career of his prize student, Maria Theotoky. He has promised her that he has something special for her dissertation studies, and he is anxious to come through on his promise. The Rabelais packet is missing, however, and the only hint is a note that Darcourt finds among Francis’ papers indicating that the manuscripts had been loaned to McVarish. Darcourt confronts McVarish with the memorandum, but the history professor disclaims any knowledge of the matter. Darcourt is troubled; Hollier is enraged; Maria is perplexed.

In fact, she has been perplexed with Hollier’s behavior since his return from the summer break. In an ecstasy of mutual admiration and excitement over shared pursuits, they had made love. Maria senses that Hollier is allowing the relationship to cool, and she is not sure of his feelings or just how aggressive she wants to be in rekindling his passion. She believes that she is in love with him, has some confidence in her attractiveness, yet she cannot determine exactly what is needed to test and shape their relationship properly. Soon enough, trouble appears.

The trouble is John Parlabane, a meddlesome, abrasive, down-and-out child of “Spook,” who decides to exploit his old friendship with Hollier and, to a lesser extent, Darcourt. Parlabane tries the patience of everyone, especially Maria. He usurps her work space in Hollier’s offices for his temporary home, pokes through...

(The entire section is 939 words.)