I’m a pretty big fan of historical fiction, and I love a good mystery, so when I get my hands on a historical mystery, well watch out. And this one also employs one of my favorite techniques, the unreliable narrator. Wait, what’s that you say, multiple unreliable narrators? Stop it, you’re killing me!
The main action of An Instance of the Fingerpost takes place in 1660s Oxford, after the Restoration of Charles II to the throne. I say “main action,” because the story is told in four parts, with four different narrators, viewing the events from a distance of many years. The quadruple-recounted tale centers on the death of Robert Grove, a college Fellow, and the subsequent trial and execution of a young woman named Sarah Blundy for his murder, because being poor in 17th Century England totally sucked.
In Part I, we meet Marco da Cola, a gentleman from a Venetian merchant family who recounts how he came to Oxford on business and soon became involved with Sarah Blundy and her ailing mother. Cola, who has studied medicine, offers his aid to the Blundys when Sarah approaches Grove for help and is harshly rebuffed. Through Cola’s narrative, we learn that Sarah has been. . .um. . .”romantically” involved with Grove, her former employer, and that Grove subsequently dismissed Sarah from her position to protect his own reputation. When Grove is found dead, and a witness claims to have seen Sarah leaving his rooms the night before, she is naturally suspected of the crime. In addition to being a servant, she’s also an outspoken woman who can read and who comes from a family of instigators, so she might as well be walking around with a scarlet A on her chest for all the sympathy she’s going to get. For his part, Cola comes off in his narrative as pleasant and respectable, if a bit pompous. Depending on whose word you want to believe in the chapters that follow, Cola may actually be a a kindly man, a fool, or the devil incarnate, though the remaining narrators all seem to agree that he is a godless Papist.
Parts II through IV comprise different characters all responding to Cola’s version of events. While Grove’s murder and the investigation remain central to the narrative, each narrator has his own focus based on his own (selfish?) motives. In Part II, Jack Prescott, son of a treasonous father, uses his pages to describe his ultimately successful attempts to clear his family’s name. In Part III, Oxford professor John Wallis voices his deep loathing for Cola and sets out to prove that everything in Cola’s manuscript is a lie, in between insisting that he (Grove) is a better mathematician than Isaac Newton.
I don’t think it is much of a spoiler to reveal that in Part IV, historian Anthony Wood shines a light on the story and helps the reader distinguish truth from fiction. The title of this quattro is the same as the title of the novel and is taken from Sir Francis Bacon’s Novum Organum:
When in a Search of any Nature the Understanding stands suspended, then Instances of the Fingerpost shew the true and inviolable Way in which the Question is to be decided. These Instances afford great Light, so that the Course of Investigation will sometimes be terminated by them. Sometimes, indeed, these Instances are found amongst that Evidence already set down.
As Part IV begins, we are told that not only are we going to see the truth, but much of the evidence is already before our eyes and just needs to be understood, as in any great mystery.
This was the first novel I had ever read by Pears, but it remains my favorite even beside other excellent and well-regarded novels like The Dream of Scipio, Stone’s Fall, and Arcadia. All great books, but in my opinion none combine such grandeur of language with intricacy of plot (I’d argue that Dream of Scipio has the former and Arcadia the latter). Pears excels at historical fiction: nearly all the characters are based on historical figures, and even those who are fictional (specifically Jack Prescott and Sarah Blundy) are inspired by stories of real people. For those of us who may not be Jeopardy-ready in the area of Restoration England, Pears provides a chronology of historical events and a Dramatis Personae at the end of the novel to guide us.
As mysteries go, this novel is full of them, and the murder of Grove may even be the least interesting. There is so much court intrigue and individual drama that the death of one Oxford Fellow pales in relative importance. For me, the question of why Wallis hates Cola so much was the most intriguing. Is Cola as evil as Wallis claims? The answer to that question was supremely satisfying to me, especially knowing that Wallis never really learned the truth. Some readers may balk at the fate of Sarah Blundy, but I would urge them to remember that the outcome of her story was inspired by a real woman whose name I’m not going to tell you, because I don’t want you to Google it and spoil it for yourself.
This is one of those novels I am tempted to re-read the minute I get to the last page so I can spot all the inconsistencies, lies, and misunderstandings that I overlooked the first time around. It’s a novel that I enjoy knowing is on my book shelf, waiting for a re-visit in years to come.