Have you ever considered your connection to graveyards? These are places we may pass every day, have varying relationships with – all the way from sensations of fear, to feelings of creative freedom and escape. Considering the fascination of graveyards and their contradictory peculiarity, 'These Silent Mansions' is the latest book by the award-winning poet Jean Sprackland, published with Jonathan Cape earlier this year.

In this article, Dr Emma Liggins (Senior Lecturer in English at Manchester Metropolitan University, and also of Manchester Centre for Gothic Studies) and Emily Oldfield, consider Jean's latest book and lead an interview with the author below. 

Image By Dr Emma Liggins

Far from being weighted with macabre and gloomy images, These Silent Mansions is a celebration of the graveyard and what it can offer; a place for quiet and reflection, nature and nurture, as well as commemoration and contemplation. The book considers themes of liminality – how graveyards become a kind of border between the living and dead – as well as individual stories, the past, and the importance of memory and remembering.

Discovery is a key element of the book, touchingly so, as the reader joins Jean’s personal journey through her own life, revisiting graveyards in towns and cities where she has lived and worked. Consideration of the stones and inscriptions within, beautiful imagery, and a perceptivity to place, make These Silent Mansions an emotive meditation on life, death and the potential for connection in an increasingly accelerated world. Informed by a poet’s eye and a passion for exploring our relationship with remembrance, every page is an opportunity for exploration. This unusual memoir is also a fascinating history of changing attitudes to death, burial and burial practices, examining epitaphs and angels, changing religious beliefs and the movement towards ‘natural’ burial grounds.

Jean is no stranger to exploring human relationship to place; after all, her first non-fiction book Strands: A Year of Discoveries on the Beach, winning the 2012 Portico Prize, impressed readers through its encounter with objects found on the estuarial beaches of Ainsdale Sands. Her writing, both fiction and non-fiction, infuses the everyday with a sense of enchantment, expanding on passing details to allow for reflections on beauty, celebrating nature and the over-looked. Jean is also the author of five poetry collections: Tattoos for Mothers Day (Spike, 1997), Hard Water (Cape, 2003), Tilt (Cape, 2007) – recipient of the Costa Prize, Sleeping Keys (Random House, 2013) and Green Noise (Cape, 2018). Jean is also a Professor of Creative Writing at Manchester Metropolitan University.

Haunt Manchester spoke to Jean to find out more…

'These Silent Mansions' is a focus on graveyards and burial sites – why were you particularly drawn to these otherworldly places?

"I’ve been haunting these places since I was a child, when the local churchyard served as a kind of playground. Later I got interested in the names engraved on the headstones, and the stories that lay behind them; graveyards are archives, recording events and lives which have been forgotten, altered or erased elsewhere. Of course they have other powerful meanings, too: they remind us of our own mortality, and they provide a physical location for mourning and commemorating the dead, something I find interesting and touching although it is not part of my own experience at all. Another role the graveyard plays – perhaps more important than ever in these times – is as a green space, often akin to a nature reserve. Its gates are open and anyone can walk in and enjoy the peace and the opportunity to observe its wildlife.

Some of your previous works such as 'Strands' and 'Green Noise' seem to take a key part of their focus as our relationship with the natural world… yet graveyards, in contrast, are man-made places. Did this difference in focus alter your writing, do you think?

"That relationship underpins this book too, I think. Every graveyard had a previous existence, as a meadow or a wood or a farm, and traces of that existence are still there if you look for them. But as man-made places, they are charged with complex and powerful meanings, and I wanted to explore those too – to look without averting my gaze, even if it became uncomfortable, or confronted me at times with my own grief or dread. I realised that to write about this subject, and to follow its threads of memory, identity and story, I would need to follow those threads through my own life too. So I decided to journey back through my own past, and to revisit the graveyards that have been important to me – I think of them as ‘otherworlds’ which have helped me make sense of this world."

Below - Image of Southern Cemetery, by Dr Emma Liggins. Read her account of 'A Tour of Southern Cemetery' here

Southern Cemtery By Emma Liggins

Many people have challenging relationships with graveyards, whether that’s painful personal connections, fear, squeamishness, distance. Yet do you think it is important to readdress this?

"When I told people I was writing a book about graveyards, it divided opinion down the middle. Half of them made a face and asked why I’d chosen such a grim subject. The other half said ‘Oh, you must see this wonderful graveyard in such-a-place, I’ve been going there for years’. Personal experience comes into it – some people have painful memories of funerals and visiting graves, but I have no such memories myself, as I come from a family of non-conformists, early adopters of cremation who were in any case too poor to afford private graves. But of course I experience some of that fear and squeamishness myself – how could anyone be immune to those feelings, given our humanity, and our awareness of mortality? These are indeed challenging places, where we are brought into the presence of death – that’s part of what fascinates me about them. I’m interested, too, in what happens when we consider them as places in their own right – designed, furnished and maintained by the living in order to house and remember the dead."

Considering that graveyards can be challenging places – did you find this a difficult book to write? Did anything in particular surprise you in the writing process?

"It was difficult at times. As I’ve said, graveyards are not personal for me in the way they are for some people, and this created some distance which was essential to the writing – it allowed me to take a kind of anthropological view, to observe and document what I found. But it wasn’t always easy to keep that distance. Some of the stories I uncovered were quite harrowing, especially those that concerned children. In one case, I found that by thinking and writing I was building a bridge between life in the slums of east Oxford in the late nineteenth century and some of what I saw as a trainee teacher on the slum clearance estate a hundred years later. I felt personally connected – implicated, even – and it made me angry. Then later I tracked down my great-grandmother to an unmarked corner of a London cemetery – she too died in a slum, and was buried in a mass grave.

"There were many surprises involved in piecing together these stories of the forgotten dead. But perhaps the biggest surprise was a change in the way I think about my own death, and the physical legacy it will leave. Thanks to my Methodist upbringing, and its concept of the body as a ‘tenement of clay’, I’d never much cared what would happen to my mortal remains, but having learnt about the environmental costs of our various modern practices I found that I do care passionately after all."

Pictured below - Jean Sprackland. Image credit: (C) Derek Adams 

Jean Sprackland

One of the fascinating aspects of your book is the way in which you reconsider the graveyard space as a green space of tranquillity, a nature reserve with a different character in different seasons, as well as a haunting space. Can you tell us a bit more about the different ways in which the graveyards you write about here become haunted?

"They are places of death, but it’s the living who haunt them: mourners, and people like me who are drawn there for other reasons. I’ve often felt like a restless spirit, under some shadowy compulsion to return again and again to a particular burial site. Others have their own compulsions – somewhere to sleep, to meet, to while away time. You only have to walk through an urban churchyard to see evidence left by those who frequent it by night.  

"They are also full of life of other kinds, too, from the foxes who make their dens in the old vaults, to the dizzying variety of lichens that colonise the stones. They are rich in endangered species, sheltering rare plants and animals driven to the brink by intensive agriculture and urban development. They in turn bring other kinds of haunter: the birdwatcher, the naturalist, the volunteer counting butterflies or fungi."

You also identify the graveyard as an archive, a repository of histories and memories which preserves as well as conceals the secrets of the community. Can you single out a couple of the lost stories you uncovered from your reading of gravestone inscriptions?

"That way of thinking about graveyards – as the repository of forgotten histories – always been important to me. I’m not much interested in ‘graveyard tourism’, or in visiting the resting places of famous people. It’s the anonymous dead I care about – those with lives too ‘ordinary’ to survive the passage of time. Once you start to investigate, they are of course far from ordinary.  

"The graveyards I write about are all located in towns where I’ve lived, and the journey I take to revisit them is held together on a thread of reverse-chronology memoir. It was especially potent for me to go back to the beginning, and revisit the churchyard in the village where I grew up. I used to know it intimately, but returning as an adult I couldn’t find the gravestone I was looking for, and when I did I was propelled into a series of dramatic discoveries I hadn’t expected at all. The inscription tells the story of a seven-year-old boy who drowned rescuing his friend, and there’s an extraordinary memorial lectern to him in the church, carved from a huge piece of bog-oak, which fascinated me when I was a child myself. Through a long process of detective work, I tracked down the surviving boy, now a very old man, and much to my astonishment he told me a completely different account of the drowning. I was used to thinking of the graveyard as a source of information which is not available elsewhere, and the scrap of detail on a gravestone as a way of reconstructing a forgotten story. We speak of ‘hard’ facts, ‘solid’ information, and there are few things harder or more solid than stone. But someone tells the mason what to put there. Someone composes the message. Similarly, there is no single authoritative version of our own histories, and our memories of place are inevitably open to reinterpretation."

I’ve recently been reading a biography of Emma Darwin, the wife of the famous scientist Charles Darwin; they lost three of their young children to fever. There’s a poignant scene in 1863 when they visit for the first time the Malvern churchyard where their ten-year-old daughter is buried – Emma’s pregnancy had meant that she had to be isolated from the dying child because of the risk of contagion and neither parent attended the funeral. It takes them a couple of days to locate the tomb-stone which they fear has been stolen. Once it is discovered, Emma records ‘it is very much covered with trees and looks so green and old I am sure I looked at it many times thinking it quite out of the question that should be it’. Does this seem typical of the graveyard as a space to get lost in, with a potentially unmappable geography and strangeness? Or of tomb-stones not matching their era? You mention a couple of similarly unsettling searches for specific graves.

"That’s very touching, and familiar too in a way. Some graveyards are not only mappable but thoroughly mapped – when I enquired about my great-grandmother the cemetery authority was able to give me a reference: row, square and plot. However, I was still completely disorientated, since the string of numbers didn’t tally at all with the cemetery plan; it was a common grave, rather than an individual one, and it had been ‘reclaimed’, dug over and built up for new burials long ago. Others are bewilderingly large and crowded, their paths overgrown and their stones illegible. Being lost is the default state, and seems to mirror another kind of lostness – an awareness that no monument, however grand, stands forever, and everyone is forgotten in time. On the positive side, that state of physical and psychological lostness is conducive to the kind of chance discoveries that make up so much of this book."

I was fascinated by your evocative depiction of the secret graveyard the Harkirk and the idea of an ‘unofficial’ place of mourning which is yet ‘undisturbed by mourners’. Could you say a little more about the atmosphere of unofficial burial grounds?

"The Harkirk (Little Crosby, Merseyside) is very unusual, in that it was secret by necessity – at that time, those of the Catholic faith were legally excluded from burial in consecrated ground. If you didn’t know its history, you wouldn’t know there were graves there at all, though there is a little chapel, added many years later. It’s not exactly a secret now, but it is a private and secluded place – I had heard rumours about it for years, and when I finally visited I was powerfully affected by its stillness and sense of sorrow.

"Other burial places are unofficial in a different way – I think of them as ‘accidental graveyards’. As a child I played and picnicked in ‘the crater’, the site of a massive explosion in a wartime munitions store which killed seventy people. It was always an eerie and disconcerting place, though I didn’t understand why until later."

You describe the graveyard as a theatre and a sanctuary, as well as a place which ‘speaks of continuity in a restless world’. Is there a sense that visitors in the twenty-first century increasingly retreat from the restlessness of the contemporary into the rituals of the past?

"There’s a real paradox here, I think. On first thought, it does seem as though an old churchyard is a timeless place, and I think it does speak to us that way. So to slip through that gate and wander among the ancient stones can feel like an antidote to the maelstrom of change which is our everyday lives. But actually when we look closer we find that a graveyard too is an endlessly restless place: memorials crumble and fall, inscriptions weather away to nothing, colonies of small life rise and fall. These are not places which are immune to change – it’s just that it works on a slower pace. The graveyard is always in a state of becoming. It’s easy to forget that the ‘rituals of the past’ which are evident here were only ever practised by the few. A variety of reasons were found – religious, political, social – to exclude people from burial in the approved places, and then of course there was poverty – my own great-grandmother was buried in a mass grave and the family was not able to hold a funeral. So although the graveyard is a repository of history, it is inevitably a partial history, and the gaps and silences we notice there can be eloquent too."

One of the interesting things about the book is the little snippets in between the main chapters, such as the elliptical reflections on the changing seasons, the list of graveyard charms and tributes, the black and white photographs. How important were these elements to the book as a whole?

"I'm a poet first and foremost, and I bring to my prose writing some of the same habits and techniques. The practice of simple observation, without any attempt to know anything, is my first resort in attempting to capture a sense of place, or of what it feels like to be there. It’s what Elizabeth Bishop called ‘perfectly useless concentration’, and it’s as fundamental to me as a writer as it was to her. The short reflections at the start of each section are lifted straight from my notebook – I scribbled them down as an aide memoire, and later I decided to allow some of them into the book itself. They had a straightforwardness and immediacy I wanted."

To find out more about Jean Sprackland and her work, visit her website http://jeansprackland.com/ and These Silent Mansions is available here

By Dr Emma Liggins and Emily Oldfield. Emma has also written for Haunt Manchester about 'Victorian attitudes to contagion',  A Tour of Southern Cemeteryand is the author of  'The Haunted House in Women’s Ghost Stories', which she spoke to Haunt more about here

Image credits 

Image 1: Dr Emma Liggins 

Image 2: (C) Derek Adams 

Image 3: Dr Emma Liggins