I’ve been thinking a lot about treasure troves. We are Friends of the British Museum, and when the magazine arrives there’s an unseemly tussle as @LitAgentDrury and I vie for first glimpse, which in turn leads to a lot of covetous ‘Ooohing’ and ‘Ahhhing’ and general admiration of the treasures of times past. We both particularly enjoy the stories of discovery – how an unprepossessing lump in the ground turned out to be hiding a barrow containing the remains of a Viking longship and appropriate horde, or the tomb of an Egyptian pharaoh was spared from looters because it had been buried beneath workmen’s huts…
Treasures don’t have to be gold or silver (or cursed), of course: we all dream of discovering that spectacularly ugly vase that Great-Great-Aunt Dorrie left us is in fact made of rare Murano glass, or that dusty black and white picture we bought from the junk shop specifically for the frame turns out to be an original Virgil Finlay, or the carpet offcuts in the trunk in the attic are hiding a complete run of Weird Tales…
And it’s the heart-pounding excitement of discovery that makes this weekend’s editing so dear to my heart*, for this particular book very nearly never existed … so I am enormously thankful to John and Caítlin Matthews, Penny Billington, Helen Jones, David James and Peter Buckman that it does.
So now the book has been edited and is off to the typesetter, here’s the story I’ve been promising you.
Caítlin and John Matthews are experts in the fields of Arthurian legend and the Dark Ages in general. They met John James, the author of Votan and Not for all The Gold in Ireland† through a mutual interest in the Arthurian cycle (the study of which is known, rather poetically, as the Matter of Britain). They were all attending a performance of The Birth of Merlin, or, The Child Hath Found his Father, a Jacobean play attributed to William Rowley (or Francis Beaumont and John Fletcher ‡ – oh, and William Shakespeare, of course, who is believed by a significant number of experts to have written virtually everything published in the sixteenth and seventeeth centuries; that’s obviously what we in the trade call a marketing ploy!).
At any rate, the play drew John, Caítlin and John to a Welsh theatre and as they sat on the grassy sward, drinking ale and discussing the Dark Ages, Arthurian literature and Celtic Magic (as you do), James told the Matthews, both great fans of his writing, that he had another novel, nearly completed, called The Fourth Gwenevere.
They were, as John said, full of anticipation, but the years rolled on and when John James died in 1993, there was no sign of the book.
Two decades later, the Matthews were discussing the merits of John James with their friend Penny Billington, a Druid and writer (her fiction includes a series of books featuring the Druid detective Gwion Dubh) and they happened to mention the plot of The Fourth Gwenevere. Penny got very excited – until they admitted that as far as they knew, the manuscript had vanished into thin air. They’d long ago lost touch with James’ family – his widow had died in the intervening years – and so that was that.
Except that it wasn’t. Perhaps inspired by her own Druid detective character, Penny started to do some investigating herself, and finding the James’ family became something of a personal quest. Anyone who’s ever tried to track down something specific with little actual detail to work from will have quickly realised that the Interweb is not always as useful as you might think; putting in ‘John James’ family’ today gave me 111,000,000 possible entries…
But the old gods were obviously on Penny’s side, for she eventually found a photograph of James’ gravestone – and now the game was on. She called the cemetery to find out if anyone was still maintaining his grave, which led in time to Helen Jones and David James, his children, and an exchange of letters as she enquired about the manuscript.
And finally an expedition was mounted to the far reaches of the James’ family’s attic, where several boxes of their father’s effects had been stored, and (I really feel we need a racing crescendo here, culminating in a wonderfully timpanic drum roll): they unearthed a collection of dusty, long since obsolete 5¼-inch floppy discs§ that had not been in use for twenty years. They were labelled The Fourth Gwenevere.
Penny, wildly excited, called John and Caítlin, and together they persuaded the family to pack up the discs and take them – personally, by hand! – to a company in Cornwall that specialises in retrieving the contents of such ancient discs. John said the wait for the material felt like years, but they were able to collect the Word-friendly files in just a few weeks.
And what they found was what appeared to be more than two-thirds of a book…
And here’s the BUT you’ve been awaiting:
But: the chapters were not numbered! Not only that, as well as the individual chapters, there were shorter sections, written in a different voice to the main story, that were obviously supposed to fit in between – and at first glance Caítlin and John could see neither rhyme nor reason to their intended sequence.
After Penny’s sterling efforts to find the manuscript, there was no way the Matthews were going to admit defeat. They settled down to reading and rereading the pages, studying them closely until, slowly, they began to make sense of the jigsaw, and John James’ final novel began to take shape in front of them. It took months, but to their delight they discovered that the book was much more complete than they had at first thought.
Finally, with the whole story clear, they started on what they both said was the hardest part: filling in the missing pages. It might have been only a handful of the interludes, and both John and Caítlin had spent years reading and re-reading James’ work, but there was nonetheless a certain amount of trepidation as they set to work.
Finally, they had a complete manuscript, the full approval of the James family and literary agent Peter Buckman, and, after a negotiation hampered by torrential rains and flooding which took out the phone lines in central Germany (where I was on tour with my choir), I finally managed to get my hands on The Fourth Gwenevere.
You have to be patient until this summer, but I promise you that that extraordinary work by Penny and Caítlin and John was well worth it. This is the culmination of the Arthur legend, the final piece in the story, for which we have been waiting for hundreds of years, told with wit and earthy charm. And I defy anyone to find the joins: this is the novel John James wrote, and whilst I regret that he won’t be here to see it published, I am thrilled that it will at last get to see the light of day, for this is true treasure, unearthed from a dusty attic and polished to perfection.
*Of course it should go without saying that all my Beloved Authors are dear to my heart.
† Soon to be available in omnibus as a Gollancz Fantasy Masterwork
§ An ancient form of disc used for software storage back in pre-Mac days