The Jamesian Season

M.R. James read his ghost stories to friends in the Chit-Chat Club at Cambridge around Christmastime so December seems like a good season for Jamesian housekeeping.

Castle Imprint, the publisher of my book Victoriana, has an annotated edition of James’s 1913 tale, “The Story of a Disappearance and an Appearance” available as a hardcover chapbook. The edition is illustrated with engravings of the Punch and Judy show by George Cruikshank throughout. “Disappearance” is the only one of James’s Christmas ghost stories specifically set at Christmas.

During the pandemic, with live theater scarce, I have been enjoying Robert Lloyd Parry’s regular dramatic readings on YouTube and DVD of weird tales, many by James. They remind me of a series that I wrote about in Victoriana:

Over the years, the BBC has adapted a number of the ghost stories of M.R. James for television. These adaptations culminated in a very fine series in 2000 featuring Sir Christopher Lee, titled Ghost Stories for Christmas. James had written his stories as seasonal entertainments during a long tenure as don and provost at King’s College, Cambridge. The BBC recreated James’s original readings for the series: a group of students gather in his book-lined rooms at King’s, which are decorated for Christmas, lit by candles, and a blazing fire in the hearth; they pour glasses of port, make themselves comfortable, and listen while James, played by Sir Christopher, tells a story. There are no special effects. In fact, there is very little to the production except for an intimate atmosphere; James’s words; a haunting and sublime arrangement of the Lyke-Wake Dirge, by the Anglican choral-composer Geoffrey Burgon, as theme music; and Sir Christopher’s inimitable baritone voice. The result is one of my three or four favorite series ever to air on television (the others being Sherlock Holmes with Jeremy Brett and Poirot with David Suchet, of course).

The Lee series is hard to find these days. All the episodes were once on YouTube, but not anymore. I have a box set of BBC ghost story adaptations on DVD. Three of the four episodes with Lee are included. However, “The Ash-Tree” is missing for some reason. The only format in which I can find all the episodes is an audiobook. The series is packaged as Ghost Stories with Christopher Lee on Audible, et al. Much of the charm is retained, including Burgon’s music. But if anyone knows where I can find “The Ash-Tree,” do tell.

The Unwritten Ghost Stories of M.R. James

MR_James
M.R. James, photographed by Olive Edis, c. 1910

The Cambridge antiquary Montague Rhodes James is best remembered as a writer of ghost stories. He composed thirty-four between the 1890s and his death in 1936. My favorite is “The Story of a Disappearance and an Appearance,” his most enigmatic and “literary” work, but also I think his most unsettling.

There were other tales that James planned but never completed, for one reason or another. The 1931 omnibus edition of his works features an essay entitled, “Stories I Have Tried To Write.” In it James summarizes his unfinished plots:

There was the story of a man travelling in a train in France. Facing him sat a typical Frenchwoman of mature years, with the usual moustache and a very confirmed countenance. He had nothing to read but an antiquated novel he had bought for the binding—Madame de Lichtenstein it was called. Tired of looking out of the window and studying his vis-à-vis, he began drowsily turning the pages and paused at a conversation between two of the characters. They were discussing an acquaintance, a woman who lived in a largish house at Marcilly-le-Hayer. The house was described, and—here we are coming to a point—the mysterious disappearance of the woman’s husband. Her name was mentioned, and my reader couldn’t help thinking he knew it in some other connexion. Just then the train stopped at a country station, the traveller, with a start, woke up from a doze—the book open in his hand—the woman opposite him got out, and on the label of her bag he read the name that seemed to be in his novel. Well, he went on to Troyes, and from there he made excursions, and one of these took him—at lunch-time—to—yes, to Marcilly-le-Hayer. The hotel in the Grand Place faced a three-gabled house of some pretensions. Out of it came a well-dressed woman, whom he had seen before. Conversation with the waiter. Yes, the lady was a widow, or so it was believed. At any rate nobody knew what had become of her husband. Here I think we broke down. Of course, there was no such conversation in the novel as the traveller thought he had read.

Then there was quite a long one about two undergraduates spending Christmas in a country house that belonged to one of them. An uncle, next heir to the estate, lived near. Plausible and learned Roman priest, living with the uncle, makes himself agreeable to the young men. Dark walks home at night after dining with the uncle. Curious disturbances as they pass through the shrubberies. Strange, shapeless tracks in the snow round the house, observed in the morning. Efforts to lure away the companion and isolate the proprietor and get him to come out after dark. Ultimate defeat and death of the priest, upon whom the Familiar, baulked of another victim, turns.

Also the story of two students of King’s College, in the sixteenth century (who were, in fact, expelled thence for magical practices), and their nocturnal expedition to a witch at Fenstanton, and of how, at the turning to Lolworth, on the Huntingson road, they met a company leading an unwilling figure whom they seemed to know. And of how, on arriving at Fenstanton, the learned of the witch’s death, and of what they saw seated upon her newly-dug grave.

These were some of the tales which got as far as the stage of being written down, at least in part. There were others that flitted across the mind from time to time, but never really took shape. The man, for instance (naturally a man with something on his mind), who, sitting in his study one evening, was startled by a slight sound, turned hastily, and saw a certain dead face looking out from between the window curtains: a dead face, but with living eyes. He made a dash at the curtains and tore them apart. A pasteboard mask fell to the floor. But there was no one there, and the eyes of the mask were but eye-holes. What was to be done about that?

There is the touch on the shoulder that comes when you are walking quickly homewards in the dark hours, full of anticipation of the warm room and bright fire, and when you pull up, startled, what face or no-face do you see?

Similarly, when Mr. Badman had decided to settle the hash of Mr. Goodman and had picked out just the right thicket by the roadside from which to fire at him, how came it exactly that when Mr. Goodman and his unexpected friend actually did pass, they found Mr. Badman weltering in the road? He was able to tell them something of what he found waiting for him—even beckoning to him—in the thicket: enough to prevent them from looking into it themselves. There were possibilities here, but the labour of constructing the proper setting has been beyond me.

There were possibilities, too, in the Christmas cracker, if the right people pull it, and if the motto which they find inside has the right message on it. They will probably leave the party early, pleading indisposition; but very likely a previous engagement of long standing would be the more truthful excuse.

In parenthesis, many common objects may be made the vehicles of retribution, and where retribution is not called for, of malice. Be careful how you handle the packet you pick up in the carriage-drive, particularly if it contains nail parings and hair. Do not, in any case, bring it into the house. It may not be alone… (Dots are believed by many writers of our day to be a good substitute for effective writing. They are certainly an easy one. Let us have a few more……)

Late on Monday night a toad came into my study: and, though nothing has so far seemed to link itself with this appearance, I feel that it may not be quite prudent to brood over topics which may open the interior eye to the presence of more formidable visitants. Enough said.

See also: A Ghost Story for Christmas.

A Ghost Story for Christmas

A Christmas Carol in prose. - caption: 'Marley's Ghost. Ebenezer Scrooge visited by a ghost.'
Marley’s Ghost, by John Leech, for A Christmas Carol, 1843

Every December we find ourselves in thrall to Charles Dickens and his seasonal classic, A Christmas Carol. Whether you read the novel every year or encounter it in one of its many adaptations and pastiches for stage or screen, there is no avoiding it. It is one of those rare stories that everyone knows, whether they have read the book or not: the miser Scrooge is visited on Christmas Eve by ghosts and apparitions who show him visions of his own past, present, and future, and those of the people with whom his life is intertwined, rekindling in his heart the warmth of Christian charity.

Dickens was a great keeper of Christmas. Among his earliest writings, the newspaper columns collected in 1836 as Sketches By Boz, there is a commemoration of the holiday which contains many of the themes he would later revisit in A Christmas Carol. He writes, “Christmas time!  That man must be a misanthrope indeed, in whose breast something like a jovial feeling is not roused—in whose mind some pleasant associations are not awakened—by the recurrence of Christmas…Petty jealousies and discords are forgotten; social feelings are awakened, in bosoms to which they have long been strangers.”

In the first half of the nineteenth-century, Christmas was not universally or extravagantly celebrated in England. Of course midwinter had been a time of revelry in northern Europe since pagan antiquity, marking the beginning of the return of the sun, and the retreat of darkness. But Christmas was never as significant as Easter in the Christian liturgical year. And while a history of merrymaking endured, especially in the countryside, where the rhythms of nature were better felt, in the busy commercial hub of London it was for many people just another day of work.

By the time Dickens wrote A Christmas Carol in 1843 there were signs of a revival of Christmas in the popular culture. Queen Victoria and her husband Prince Albert introduced the Christmas Tree to England from Germany in 1840. Two decades earlier, American author Washington Irving had recorded the surviving traditions of Christmas in rural England during his long residence in the country. “Old Christmas” was published in 1819 in Irving’s Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, which also contained “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” and “Rip Van Winkle.”

Dickens himself included a marvelous description of Christmas festivities in his first novel, The Posthumous Papers of the Pickwick Club, or, The Pickwick Papers, published in 1837. This great sprawling comic novel follows Samuel Pickwick, retired businessman and philanthropist, who, together with members of his eponymous London club, sets out on a series of misadventures to enlarge “his sphere of observation, to the advancement of knowledge and the diffusion of learning.” In one episode Pickwick spends Christmas at the manor of the rough, generous country squire Mr Wardle. Here family, friends, tenants, and servants gather together as one social body, undisrupted by the class warfare of the industrial revolution, under the benevolent lordship of Wardle. There is dancing, kissing under the mistletoe, a raucous game of blind man’s buff, quaffing of wassail, feasting, and storytelling.

Scrooges_third_visitor-John_Leech,1843 (2)
The Ghost of Christmas Present, by John Leech, for A Christmas Carol, 1843

It is interesting that both Dickens and Irving relegated Christmas festivities to the countryside, where the holiday and the great old manor houses in which it was still kept, were depicted as survivals of a bygone age. In the early nineteenth century this was probably accurate enough.

A Christmas Carol changed the way Christmas was celebrated in England. Dickens had intended it to do as much. He did not merely want to glorify the folk traditions of the season. The immediate impetus for the novel was his sympathy and concern for the poor, in particular children. It was a passion nearer to his own heart than anyone could have guessed at the time.

Dickens was born in Portsmouth in 1812 during a period of maritime build-up at the end of the Napoleonic Wars. His good-natured but improvident father, John Dickens, kept the family in middle-class comfort with a well paid job at the Navy Pay Office. For the first ten years of his life Charles Dickens thrived in an atmosphere of love and encouragement. He romped in nature. He read voraciously: The Arabian Nights, Robinson Crusoe, Henry Fielding. He wrote stories and staged drawing room theatricals. But John Dickens found himself increasingly in debt. He moved the family to London in 1822 where they struggled to make ends meet. In 1824 he was prosecuted by his creditors and sent to the Marshalsea debtors prison. The entire family lived with him at the Marshalsea except for twelve-year old Charles who was put to work. A job was found for him at Warren’s Blacking Warehouse, near the present-day Embankment tube station. He was paid six shillings per week to work ten hour days glueing labels to cans of boot polish in appalling conditions. He never spoke of the experience but he gave an account of it to his friend and biographer John Forster:

The blacking-warehouse was the last house on the left-hand side of the way, at old Hungerford Stairs. It was a crazy, tumble-down old house, abutting of course on the river, and literally overrun with rats. Its wainscoted rooms, and its rotten floors and staircase, and the old grey rats swarming down in the cellars, and the sound of their squeaking and scuffling coming up the stairs at all times, and the dirt and decay of the place, rise up visibly before me, as if I were there again.

In time, John Dickens paid off his creditors and was released from the Marshalsea. Charles was allowed to leave the blacking warehouse and return to a semblance of a normal childhood. But the experience changed him forever. Feelings of abandonment and betrayal and loneliness and fear haunted him long after.

The success of Dickens’s early novels made him a very rich man. He relished the role of a celebrity and a gentleman and spent lavishly on himself and his family. But the wretched children whose lives he had briefly and traumatically shared were never far from his mind. He always considered it his duty to employ both pen and purse toward a remedy for the ills of society.

When he wrote A Christmas Carol, he became, in the words of the actor and author Simon Callow,

a spokesman, not just for the oppressed and the disadvantaged, but for the essential integrity of a nation in the throes of radical transformation. There was a widespread unease at the way in which capitalism was evolving, at the loss of community and the inter-relatedness of the groups within it. The writing of the book sprang directly from his horror at the condition of children in the mines. Christmas, Dickens insisted, was mocked unless the absolute dregs of society were rehabilitated and the root causes of their rejection and elimination by society addressed.

This was something that Dickens believed could only be accomplished by the changing of hearts—and a changing of the way that business was done. He was no proto-Marxist. Callow notes, “Dickens didn’t believe you could fob off your personal responsibilities on to the state. He…didn’t believe in a welfare state, but in absolute direct human action.” How different money is in the hands of Scrooge than it is in those of Mr Wardle, or Scrooge’s first employer, the magnanimous old Fezziwig.

It is no coincidence that Dickens’s greatest call to charity was in a book that also called readers to feast and festivity. All of these are expressions of an expansiveness, an overabundance, a pouring forth, of the heart. One cannot exist without the other.

IMG_0575
The manuscript of A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens, on display at the Morgan Library

The monstrousness of Scrooge, as we find him at the beginning of A Christmas Carol, is in his stinginess of heart as well as money. Likewise, his reformation at the end of the novel is a conversion of the heart. Charity and benevolence and festivity and love and joy pour forth in equal measure. He becomes the Dickensian ideal: a “whole” man.

It was a stroke of genius on the author’s part to bring about this transformation with the aid of the supernatural. There is an atavistic power to the evocation of ghosts at this time of year, much as there is to the reenactment of the ancient feast.

I have always liked the English custom of telling ghost stories on Christmas Eve. It is not as popular as it used to be. We think of it as a Victorian custom, largely because of A Christmas Carol, but it is much, much older. Like other folkways it has receded from the forefront of the culture but we still encounter it.

Over the years, the BBC has adapted a number of the ghost stories of M.R. James for television. These adaptations culminated in a very fine series in 2000 featuring Sir Christopher Lee, titled Ghost Stories for Christmas. James had written his stories as seasonal entertainments during a long tenure as don and provost at King’s College, Cambridge. The BBC recreated James’s original readings for the series: a group of students gather in his book-lined rooms at King’s, which are decorated for Christmas, lit by candles, and a blazing fire in the hearth; they pour glasses of port, make themselves comfortable, and listen while James, played by Sir Christopher, tells a story. There are no special effects. In fact, there is very little to the production except for an intimate atmosphere; James’s words; a haunting and sublime arrangement of the Lyke-Wake Dirge, by the Anglican choral-composer Geoffrey Burgon, as theme music; and Sir Christopher’s inimitable baritone voice. The result is one of my three or four favorite series ever to air on television (the others being Sherlock Holmes with Jeremy Brett and Poirot with David Suchet, of course).

The telling of ghost stories has a corollary in other customs that cast an eerie mood over the Christmas vigil. The parlor game snap-dragon was mentioned by Shakespeare and Dryden, and has an entry in Dr Johnson’s dictionary. It was already an old game in the nineteenth century when Dickens wrote of it in The Pickwick Papers. Snap-dragon is played with a bowl of raisins, soaked in brandy. The lights are dimmed and the brandy is set on fire, producing an uncanny blue flame. Participants attempt to snatch raisins out of the fire and extinguish them by popping them into their mouths and eating them. Writing in his journal, The Tatler, in the eighteenth century, Sir Richard Steele explained, “the wantonness of the thing was to see each other look like a demon, as we burnt ourselves, and snatched out the fruit.”

In Pickwick Papers Dickens connected the playing of snap-dragon and the telling of “old stories” in his depiction of a Christmas Eve revel at Dingley Dell Farm, the Kentish manor house of Mr Wardle. After the dance, when the mood of the assembled guests had settled, Dickens writes:

[T]here was a great game at snap-dragon, and when fingers enough were burned with that, and all the raisins were gone, they sat down by the huge fire of blazing logs to a substantial supper, and a mighty bowl of wassail, something smaller than an ordinary wash-house copper, in which the hot apples were hissing and bubbling with a rich look, and a jolly sound, that were perfectly irresistible.

“This,” said Mr Pickwick, looking round him, “this is, indeed, comfort.”

“Our invariable custom,” replied Mr Wardle. “Everybody sits down with us on Christmas Eve, as you see them now—servants and all; and here we wait, until the clock strikes twelve, to usher Christmas in, and beguile the time with forfeits and old stories. Trundle, my boy, rake up the fire.”

I think these traditions serve a ritual purpose similar to the antimasque in a masque. They are part of a performance, a folk ceremony, outside the formal liturgy of the church, that commemorates the triumph of Divine order over the fallen world.

The masque was a form of entertainment popular in Jacobean England. It was partly theater and partly dance. It would begin with an antimasque: a short vignette that represented the world in chaos. This might involve portrayals of drunken disorder, witchcraft, or war. The masque proper would then begin with the arrival of the king and queen and courtiers, disguised as ancient gods. They would conquer the antimasque and bring order to the symbolic universe of the hall—a transformation represented by a formal dance.

In the Christian liturgical year, the season of Advent that leads up to Christmas, is a time of fasting and preparation. It is a solemn season. We are given the opportunity to reflect on the hope and hardship of those who lived in the world before Christ was born into it: a world of darkness, confusion, and chaos. Every year we reenact the vigil of those who waited faithfully for the Savior through dark days. When Christmas Eve gives way to Christmas, and we remember the arrival of God in the world, darkness gives way to light, solemnity to celebration, fast to feasting, ghost stories to carols, chaos to Godly order.

The manuscripts of all five of Dickens’s Christmas novels, including A Christmas Carol, are on display together for the first time at the Morgan Library in New York where Charles Dickens and the Spirit of Christmas runs through January 14, 2018.

Sources:

Callow, Simon. (2012) Charles Dickens and the Great Theatre of the World. London: Harper Press.

Dickens, Charles. (1836) Sketches By Boz. London: John Macrone.

Dickens, Charles. (1837) The Posthumous Papers of the Pickwick Club. London: Chapman & Hall.

Dickens, Charles. (1843) A Christmas Carol. London: Chapman & Hall.

Forster, John. (1872-4) The Life of Charles Dickens. London: Chapman & Hall.

Steele, Richard. (1887) Isaac Bickerstaff, Physician and Astrologer. London: Cassell & Company.