In the library of Sherborne School is a 16th century manuscript, The Book Of Shadowborne, giving a history of Sherborne which suggests an alternative origin for the town’s name, a different reason for Aldhelm’s appointment as bishop and a new explanation for the siting of the Bishop’s palace. Grindlay, the school librarian, is impressed by age of the manuscript and by its apparent author, the Abbess of Shaftesbury. He believes the signature to be false – the ideas are hardly those of the Head of a powerful religious house – but is struck by a curious intelligence in the writing.
Among Grindlay’s colleagues is Austin Kelynack, member of the X-Club, where he rubs shoulders with Huxley and Wallace and other leading lights of the new agnosticism. Kelynack’s ambition is an Oxford fellowship and the book he thinks will win it for him is a new History of England, without the church. In Kelynack’s version, the church represents a distraction to the real source of the nation’s greatness, a Darwinian aristocracy of talent, whose origins he traces to the Indo-European tribes who brought to the island bronze weapons and iron implements and whose presence is indicated by the amber in their burial mounds. According to local legend, such a mound was flattened by the builders of the Bishop’s palace and Kelynack decides on an excavation beneath the ruined keep.
The party of excavators includes Timmins, ex-pugilist, a gifted Sherborne boy called Louis Yeoman, the former wife of the Headmaster, Isadora Magdalensky, an elegant and unpredictable Russian woman, and her maid Françoise. A house is rented in Castleton, local labourers are hired to dig, and on the first day, the burnt remnants of a young woman are found. Medieval, says Kelynack, but why there, under the Tower Keep? The deeper they dig, the more surprising the finds … and the more tense the relations between the excavators.
The Book Of Shadowborne contains an oddly coherent explanation for these matters and a sinister premonition of the events that follow, but the Sherborne Constable has an alternative version which, if true, would send Isadora to the gallows.
Roger writes: “Shadowborne will be a thoroughly Sherborne book, in a sense like no other fiction since John le Carré’s A Murder of Quality. The title is based on a quite interesting etymology for the town’s name which you will learn in due course. With Shadowborne on the cover it will be a Sherborne book in a quite unmissable way.”