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Reviewed by:
  • Mother Leakey and the Bishop: A Ghost Story
  • Tom Webster
Marshall, Peter —Mother Leakey and the Bishop: A Ghost Story. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007. Pp. 323.

Peter Marshall prefaces this study with an unusually frank account of how this work happened, capturing, on the one hand, the pleasure of stumbling across [End Page 257] an interesting case study, initially offered as a conference paper but with greater connections that expanded to a larger piece, and, on the other, a recognition of the strong and far too frequently masked relation between story and history. What emerges is an analysis of the appearance of a ghost in 1636 to a West Country family, an appearance that raised greater interest than might be expected and is eventually connected to the sensational downfall of the ghost's son-in-law, John Atherton, the bishop of Waterford and Lismore, in 1640.

This is an engaging and ambitious work, moving from the particular to the general without losing touch with the former. An effort is made to contextualize the appearance of the recently deceased Mother Leakey in terms of its meanings for contemporaries and in terms of the socio-economic conditions of the family and their environs. As the possibilities of Mother Leakey's purposes emerge, this entails a contextualization of gender relations, marriage, infanticide, and sodomy as well as the religious and political tensions of seventeenth-century England and Ireland. In addition, there is also an effort to unearth something like "the truth" of the ghost in the secrets of the pasts of the Leakeys and the Athertons. As Marshall recognizes, this effort is unsuccessful beyond what he admits are plausible speculations. However, there is still more, in that dual interests take this tale beyond the micro-historical. Marshall traces the recurrence of accounts of Mother Leakey and the bishop both together and separately, from their appearance in the sensational and providential press of Grub Street in the early eighteenth century, through rebirth of Atherton's downfall when Percy Jocelyn, the bishop of Clogher, was arrested for committing sexual offences with a soldier in 1822, on to the interest of Walter Scott in ghost stories, and into the historical politics of Ireland and the tourist promotion of Minehead in the twentieth century. This brings a fascinating examination of how the story changes and how this reveals the appetites and constraints of differing periods, differing people, and the porous boundaries between oral folklore and the more high-brow print. Finally, he is an explicit narrator in his own right in that, as new leads emerge, the reader is invited to share the pleasure and surprise of new lines as they were found. As an aesthetic reflection of the intimate intertwining of story and history, the work is presented with the accoutrements of a more popular press, with "interludes," a cast of characters, and a set of illustrations that for the most part helpfully guide the reader in appreciation of the successive texts.

Perhaps the greatest task is to produce a work that will appeal to the divergent fields of academic history and broader reading without either boring the academic or patronizing the general reader. In this he is entirely successful, something this reader appreciated particularly when the context moved away from my early modern home soil. What is assumed is intelligence rather than familiarity, and for the contexts of the nineteenth century the accounts are elucidative and informative without invoking any sense of inadequacy. Marshall's tone throughout is that of a carefully enlightening guide more than an elderly uncle boring his less enlightened family.

For the first third of the text, the ghost story serves to illustrate very well the opportunities offered by such "curiosities" as the more famous cat massacre as [End Page 258] a way into the world views of early modern people. The middle section, dominated by the career of Atherton and particularly the legal battles fought to renew the finances of his diocese, focuses less closely upon the ghost story per se, although the denouement, with the accusations of sodomy, bring the possible visit of one of Atherton's family back to the centre. However, the ghost appropriately...


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pp. 257-259
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