At the beginning of "A School Story", M.R. James has two characters in a smoking room, discussing the ghostly tales which were current during their private school days. One gentleman mentions: "the house with a room in which a series of people insisted on passing a night; and each of them in the morning was found kneeling in a corner and had just time to say 'I've seen it', and died." His companion replies: "Wasn't that the house in Berkeley Square?"
No doubt MRJ was thinking of the 'authentic' haunting of Number 50, Berkeley Square, in the West End of London, when he wrote this, yet in one particular his description is at odds with the standard accounts.
As early as the first half of the nineteenth century, the house in Berkeley Square had a reputation for being seriously haunted, although, contrary to popular opinion, Sir Edward Bulwer-Lytton did not base "The Haunted and the Haunters" (1859) upon it (MRJ thought Lord Lytton might have been inspired by "the 'veridical' history of the haunted mill at Willington, inhabited by the Procter family").(1) It was not until the 1870s that the subject really took off in print, with discussions and eye-witness accounts in Notes and Queries and Mayfair. Since then, everyone who is or was anyone in the ghost-hunting world seems to have written their own versions, from Harry Price through Elliott O'Donnell to R. Thurston Hopkins. The common theme is of a room haunted by a terrifying 'something' which causes anyone who witnesses it to drop dead or go mad. There is a regular cast of characters, including a maid who sees it and loses her mind; two sailors who doss down in the then-empty house and soon regret it, one breaking his neck in trying to escape and the other, inevitably, going insane; and a gallant but foolhardy young lord or captain (variously named as Sir Robert Warboys, Captain Raymond, Captain B., and Captain Kentfield), traditionally the fiancé of one of the house occupants. This young man apparently decided to sleep in the haunted room as a dare or challenge, agreeing that he would ring twice if he needed help from his friends who were waiting downstairs. Alas, by the time they reached him after the second ring, he was stone dead, having discharged his pistol at...nothing (or, alternatively, having shot himself)!
Exactly what the so-called Nameless Horror of 50 Berkeley Square was, no one seemed sure, as so few saw it and lived in a fit state to tell the tale, although Lord Lyttleton (not to be confused with Lord Lytton!) claimed to have fired a blunderbuss at something which leapt at him in that terrible room. R. Thurston Hopkins, whose descriptions of true ghost stories often seem to owe a lot to the Jamesian tradition, clearly showed signs of having read "Oh, Whistle, and I'll Come to You, My Lad" once too often when he recounted the sailors' experiences:
"They were out of the bed in a split second and dashed towards the window where they had left the only weapon they possessed, a rifle with which one of the sailors had propped open the window. ...the intruder took up a position, with large outspread claws, between the bed and the door, thus obstructing the sailors' way out down the stairs... They were of the tough bully-beef breed, but the idea of rushing into the thing and escaping through the door was not very welcome to them. They felt they could not endure the touch of the horrible intruder. It stood for a moment in a dark corner near the door, and the sailors could not see what manner of face the thing possessed - animal or human. But soon it began to move towards them...it crept, panted, shuffled across the room, making scratchy sounds on the bare boards which might have been the scraping of horny claws. As if it had marked down its victim, with formidable speed it leapt towards the sailor who had grasped the rifle by its barrel ready to use it as a club. The next moment the sailor had staggered backwards into the window and had broken part of the frame-work and glass away, uttering cry upon cry at the utmost pitch of his voice..."(2)
MRJ, a keen reader of 'veridical' ghostly tales, will have been very aware of the various pre-1906 accounts of the happenings in 50 Berkeley Square, yet when he wrote "A School Story" in that year he mentioned one feature which I have been unable to discover in any of them. Sometimes, before dying or being removed to the lunatic asylum, the victims will say a few words, but these are invariably along the lines of "Don't let it touch me" (some authors allow that the surviving sailor or the maid was able to give a garbled, raving discourse on his or her encounter, but these are never told in the first person). Nowhere have I found a witness who says, in MRJ's words, "I've seen it." Nowhere, that is, in any non-fiction version.
Maybe I have simply not looked in the right place, but there is another possibility. Rhoda Broughton's "The Truth, the Whole Truth and Nothing But the Truth", first published in 1873 in Tales for Christmas Eve and reprinted in Twilight Stories, 1879, is a beautifully written, fictional tale based quite closely on the 'facts' in the case of 50 Berkeley Square. Told in a sequence of letters between two deliciously gossipy ladies, one of whom has just obtained a house in Mayfair at a remarkably cheap rent, it includes all the essential ingredients except for the sailors' adventure. At first everything about the house seems perfect, but then the staff report that it has a haunted room, and then the housemaid sees 'something' and goes mad. Finally, a handsome young Hussar friend of the family, Ralph Gordon, vows to spend a night in the dreaded room. As usual, he tells everyone to come to his aid only if he rings the bell twice, and, as usual, by then it is too late. He speaks just seven words before falling down dead. The identical seven words had previously been the last coherent sentence spoken by the maid. They are: "Oh, my God! I have seen it!"
That MRJ was familiar with the work of Rhoda Broughton is unquestionable. There is an unpublished letter of 1924 (in the possession of a G&S reader) in which MRJ tries to identify the author of a story that a correspondent had sent him, saying "at first I had wondered if it would prove to be Rhoda Broughton who sometimes wrote a tale of this kind" (the tale in question was actually Stephen Hall's "By One by Two and by Three").
Also, in MRJ's 1929 Bookman essay, "Some Remarks on Ghost Stories", he lists Broughton amongst those having "some sufficiently absorbing stories to their credit".(3) It seems very possible, therefore, that MRJ had her "The Truth, the Whole Truth and Nothing But the Truth" in mind (whether consciously or consciously) when he wrote the introductory section of "A School Story". There are, however, a number of early sources on the House in Berkeley Square which I have been unable to check, so if you can prove my theory wrong, by all means do so!
(1) M.R. James, Introduction to Ghosts and Marvels (Oxford University Press, 1924), p.xi.
(2) R. Thurston Hopkins, Cavalcade of Ghosts (1956), p.26.
(3) M.R. James: Casting the Runes and Other Ghost Stories, ed. Michael Cox (Oxford University Press, 1987), p.346.
My thanks to David Rowlands, Clive Ward, Katherine Haynes and other members of the Everlasting Club for their help with the research for this article. The excerpt from MRJ's letter is reproduced by kind permission of Barry Cross.
Copyright (c) 1999 Rosemary Pardoe
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