When the body of Peter Farquhar was found in October 2015, slumped on his couch with a bottle of whiskey beside him, those who knew him were saddened but few were surprised. An inspirational English teacher to generations of pupils, the 69-year-old had grown noticeably feeble. His usually sharp mind had been blunted by age and, it was said, perhaps a little too much drink. The coroner agreed and blamed his death on “acute alcohol intoxication.” His funeral was attended by former colleagues and students and was a sad but affectionate affair. There was talk of his eloquence, his wit, and his glorious passion for teaching. His young partner of recent years, Ben Field, read the eulogy. The Guardian published a glowing obituary, an unusual tribute for a schoolteacher. But if his job was modest, his influence was powerful. Farquhar had taught me for four years when I was a teenager in the mid-1990s, and I can still see his fingerprints on my character and interests more than 20 years later. His death felt like that of a family member. So it was a shock when I began to hear rumors last year that he may not have died a natural death at all.
Farquhar had taught at Stowe School in England, which was founded in 1923. Occupying what was once a majestic, 18th-century, neoclassical stately home of golden stone colonnades and soaring Corinthian columns, it sits amidst hundreds of acres of sweeping lawns, limpid lakes, and wildflower meadows spotted with temples, statues, and other purely decorative follies. Designed by the great landscape architect Capability Brown, the gardens are a master class in concealed artifice. Their seemingly wild expanses are the result of hidden walls, or “ha-has,” that separate the fields and invisible dams that form the lakes. Walking in the school’s gardens is like entering a Renaissance painting. The grounds are what we think nature should be, rather than what it is.
Picturesque as the school was, its faculty-student relations were generally no less frosty than they were anywhere else. And yet there were special teachers who seemed to stand apart. First impressions might not have led you to believe that Peter Farquhar, the owlish head of the English department, was one of them. Short and bespectacled, Farquhar spoke with an Alec Guinness–like nasal drawl and wore gray tweed sports jackets, maroon ties, and brown corduroy trousers. He seemed, in the manner of all teachers, incredibly old, although he must have been only in his late 40s. Farquhar did not suffer fools gladly and could verbally devastate anyone who disrupted his classroom, raising himself onto his toes so that, despite being half a foot shorter than most of his students, he seemed to tower over them.
But beneath this fearsome exterior was an infectious love of literature. Finding a pupil who shared in this love caused him to slough off his terrifying demeanor and become not just a teacher but something like a paterfamilias. I was one of a few students he had collected who were granted access to his study with its hundreds of books, freedom to gossip without reprisal, and the odd glass of illicit sherry.
Occasionally we’d be invited back to his unprepossessing house in the nearby village of Maids Moreton. Over spaghetti Bolognese and red wine, the conversation would veer from Shakespeare to Larkin, Coleridge to Conrad. Farquhar would take us to Stratford-upon-Avon, where we saw Kenneth Branagh’s Hamlet and Toby Stephens’s Coriolanus. He was also a friend of Iris Murdoch and her husband, John Bayley, and our group was invited to take tea with them, over which we asked a series of inane and stuttering questions.
There were insinuations. He was, after all, an older unmarried man. But to hyper-priapic, sexually befuddled, self-centered teenage boys, this oddity was not worth more than the odd innuendo. He certainly wasn’t about to discuss his private life with his students, so we mentally classified Farquhar as a nonsexual being like our parents.
An Evil Force
Farquhar and I stayed in contact, but I didn’t go back for reunions and our e-mails grew further and further apart. I heard that he had retired from Stowe in 2004 after 21 years of teaching there. Farquhar was only 58, and there was speculation that he was bitter about having been passed over for the headmaster’s job. He turned to writing books, his first publication being a roman à clef set at a school not unlike Stowe in which a closeted chaplain’s religion and sense of propriety vies with his emotional yearnings. It seemed very on the nose.
But writing could not fill up all the empty hours. Missing the daily rhythms and camaraderie of school life, Farquhar had begun lecturing part-time at the nearby University of Buckingham and had continued to befriend students of promise. One of these was a charming undergraduate in his early 20s named Ben Field.
I was one of a small group of students granted access to his study and the odd glass of illicit sherry.
Farquhar invited Field to visit Stowe after a discussion on Restoration architecture. Soon they were meeting more frequently, with Farquhar paying a visit to Fields’s nearby hometown of Olney, where his father was a Baptist minister. It was the kind of freewheeling companionship that Farquhar had longed for since leaving Stowe. With another student named Martyn Smith, the three began a group I can imagine was similar to those that I had once been a part of, with discussions of literature over food and drinks at Farquhar’s home.
Farquhar was struggling to finish his second book, and Field helped edit the work. Soon Field was spending so much time at the house that Farquhar invited him to move in. Field even bought Farquhar a dog named Kipling, after one of the older man’s favorite authors. The arrangement was mutually beneficial: Farquhar provided room and board, and Field provided youth and the spark of company. But it also seemed to have meant something more to Farquhar.
As a devout Christian, Farquhar had spent a lifetime repressing his sexuality, but with Field he seemed finally to be breaking free. In March 2014, they held a service of commitment presided over by the Reverend Andrew Foreshew-Cain, the first Church of England vicar to marry a same-sex partner. The ceremony followed the traditional marriage vows. Farquhar was ecstatic: “It is one of the happiest moments of my life,” he wrote in his journal. “Gone are the fears of dying alone.” It seemed that he had finally reconciled his faith with his truest self.
“Gone are the fears of dying alone,” Farquhar wrote in his journal.
Although the union appears never to have been consummated, a domestic warmth now filled Farquhar’s house. He wrote in his journal of the joy of being brought tea in bed by Field, and of discussing their next literary pursuit at the breakfast table. But as the months went by, Farquhar started to notice himself acting in strange ways. He was feeling tired and befuddled. He started falling asleep at the theater, something that had never happened before. On one occasion he began to see insects climbing the radiator in his bathroom. On another he was startled by a loud gunshot that nobody else heard. Formerly a clear and eloquent speaker, his speech became confused and his words slurred. Long able to quote reams of poetry by heart, he now forgot the names and faces of friends and former colleagues. “I spend ages looking for items I mislay, only for them to be found in ridiculous places,” he told his doctor in a letter. He was stumbling about the house and injuring himself. On a number of occasions the falls were bad enough that Field had to call an ambulance. Field, who had worked at hospices in the area, told Farquhar’s concerned friends it was probably incipient dementia.
Brain scans showed everything was normal, but still the incidents kept occurring. Farquhar didn’t feel safe driving his car anymore and became increasingly isolated. Worst of all, he found himself no longer able to read. Not knowing where to turn, Farquhar met with the priest of his local church. He was frightened and reportedly told her that he thought there was an evil force in his house that was influencing his behavior.
Unfortunately, he was right.
The cups of tea that Field had been delivering to Farquhar in bed had been dosed with hallucinogens, the morning toast sprinkled with sedatives, the evening whiskey regularly spiked with bioethanol. Field had also been moving Farquhar’s belongings and then feigning ignorance when asked about them. Field had, in short, been gaslighting Farquhar for months, toying with him, manipulating him, and gradually robbing Farquhar of his most prized possession: his mind.
Messages from God
In August 2015, Farquhar’s third novel was published. A book launch was held in Stowe’s grand Marble Hall, but before it started Field drugged Farquhar with the powerful psychedelic 2C-B. When he arrived, Farquhar was flushed and shaking. He struggled to sign books and, at one point, thought he was being attacked by shards of light. The crowd of former colleagues and friends watched as the neat, capable, organized man they all knew fell apart before their eyes. After he recovered, Farquhar said it had been the worst day of his life. The book had been dedicated to Field.
Farquhar died two months later. Nobody raised an eyebrow when his will named Field a beneficiary, leaving him nearly $25,000, a life share in the Maids Moreton property, and a silver wine holder. But Field wasn’t finished. He moved in with one of Farquhar’s elderly religious neighbors, an 83-year-old spinster named Ann Moore-Martin. Field convinced the lonely Moore-Martin, a retired headmistress, that he was in love with her. Once she was in his thrall, the cycle of gaslighting began all over again but at an accelerated pace. Field began writing messages, supposedly from God, on her bathroom mirror. The messages, written in pseudo-Biblical language, hinted that she should leave all her possessions to Field. She subsequently changed her will, telling her solicitor that God decreed it so.
It was only after Moore-Martin was admitted to hospital in February 2017 following a seizure—possibly caused by Field—that Field’s plans started unraveling. Moore-Martin told a visiting friend that Field had given her a powder to help her sleep that was better than what the doctors had given her. The police were contacted and Field was immediately barred from visiting. Freed from his controlling grip, Moore-Martin gradually came to realize the deception. She tore up her will, gave a statement to the police, and died soon after.
The cycle of gaslighting began all over again but at an accelerated pace.
It was not long before Field was suspected of having had a hand in Farquhar’s death—Moore-Martin lived only three houses away—and arrested. After a three-month-long court case that gripped the British public, Ben Field was found guilty of murdering Farquhar in August of this year, possibly by smothering him with a pillow. The trial revealed how Field had kept meticulous notes of his actions: planning, photographing, and even filming Farquhar in his drugged state. Despite this, Field had been secretly recorded in the back of a police van boasting to his friend Martyn Smith, “I think I will get away with most of it.” He didn’t. Field is currently undergoing psychiatric evaluation before sentencing on October 18.
Why had my keen and insightful former teacher, who could size up a classroom in seconds, not seen the cold-blooded charlatan in front of him? It seems that for all his insight on the great works of English literature, in matters of the heart Farquhar was as inexperienced as his youngest students. He thought he had finally found love beyond the restrictive boundaries of the school and was blinded by its discovery. Little could he have imagined that this love, like the faux Gothic temples that grace the gardens at Stowe, was nothing but a folly.
George Pendle is the author of four books including Strange Angel: The Otherworldly Life of Rocket Scientist John Whiteside Parsons