Ghosts & Scholars
M.R. James

Issue 8 (September 2005)

The Ghosts & Scholars M.R. James Newsletter is published approximately twice a year. Click here for further information on how to buy the full hard-copy edition. Contributions are welcome - click here for Guidelines.

Editor: Rosemary Pardoe (e-mail); Assistant Editors: David Rowlands and Steve Duffy.

Copyright © 2005 Rosemary Pardoe. All rights retained by the contributors. All unassigned material by Rosemary Pardoe. Not to be reproduced without the permission of the authors/artists.


(Unlinked contents can only be read in the hard-copy edition of the Newsletter)



"The Troll and the Christening" by M.R. James

"The Antiquarian Background of M.R. James's Stories" by James Doig

"A.P. Baker and A College Mystery" by Rosemary Pardoe

"A Warning to the (Urban) Curious: Folklore and Historic Preservation in the Ghost Stories of M.R. James" by Steve Winnall

"Jamesian Notes & Queries" ("In Defence of 'The Tractate Middoth'" by Jacqueline Simpson, George Featherston, and C.E. Ward; "Mithras and the Ghost Story" by C.I. Tuckley; "'Depositum Custodi': Wells and Treasure in German Folklore" by Helen Grant)


"Reviews" (De Nugis Curialium by Walter Map; Sea Mist by E.F. Benson; Mr Justice Harbottle and Others by J.S. Le Fanu)

Artwork: Alan Hunter ("Mr Humphreys and His Inheritance"); F.H. Round (Illustrations from A College Mystery); Douglas Walters ("Count Magnus")

The Antiquarian Background of

M.R. James's Ghost Stories

by James Doig

The structure of M.R. James's ghost stories is well-known and reasonably consistent across the thirty-odd stories that he wrote: in most of them, the action occurs in the recent past ("some thirty years ago"), and the protagonist, usually an antiquary or don, investigates or discovers an object or event from a more distant past (what I call the antiquarian background), which is linked in some way to a malevolent supernatural being. For all his knowledge of and interest in the Middle Ages, surprisingly few of James's ghost stories have an antiquarian background that is ostensibly medieval in origin. Of the major stories, "Oh, Whistle, and I'll Come to You, My Lad" has a twelfth-century Templar artefact, "An Episode of Cathedral History" has a demon shut in a fifteenth-century tomb, and "A Warning to the Curious" has a magical Saxon crown. Rather, M.R. James draws the supernatural elements for most of his tales from the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. So, Canon Alberic summons the demon in 1694; the witch trial in "The Ash-tree" occurs in 1690; the figures on the stalls of Barchester Cathedral were carved in 1669; the trial in "Martin's Close" occurred in 1684; the uncommon prayer book is dated 1653; the diary of Mr Poynter "concerned the years about 1710", and so on.[1] Why did James prefer a relatively modern antiquarian background for most of his stories when medieval England offered a rich source of ghosts, demons, mages and witches? This will be a fairly broad discussion; I will try not to deal in detail with the antiquarian background of any particular story.

In some respects, it is not surprising that James did not find the Middle Ages conducive to his "malevolent and odious" ghosts. Ghosts were not inimical to the living in the Middle Ages. Anyone who has read James's "Twelve Medieval Ghost-stories" will have noticed that the ghosts are not evil, nor are they necessarily feared.[2] In a world that believed in purgatory, the medieval ghost story was a plea for help by a tormented spirit of the dead and aimed to confirm the efficacy of church ritual - of absolutions for sins committed in life and of prayers and masses for the souls of the dead.[3] The word "ghost" did not have the modern connotations of fear or evil; it is translated by the Latin spiritus, which could signify God (sanctus spiritus), the soul, as well as the souls of the dead. There were evil spirits in the medieval world (invariably rendered in Latin as malignus spiritus), but these were denizens of hell. The "evil spirit" that destroyed the bell tower of All Saints Church in Hertford in June 1402, leaving marks like the teeth of a lion or bear on it, is akin to common stories of the Devil despoiling churches.[4]

We can find something closer to James's conceptions of the supernatural in the Old Testament. In fact, almost without exception James links his demons to the Old Testament either through scripture or more directly, as in "Canon Alberic's Scrap-book", where the link is clearly made through the depiction of King Solomon and the Demon. In their malevolence and destructive physical presence James's ghosts are closer to Old Testament revenants than the medieval variety. In the ancient Near East ghosts were almost always inimical and universally feared.[5] Like demons they frequented wastelands and lonely places, and could cause physical harm to the living; like demons they could be summoned or conjured to intercede for the living,[6] and they were listed with demons in exorcism rites. That ghosts would kill or abduct children is suggested in a couple of surviving texts.[7] These are all features of James's ghosts. Nevertheless, the ancient Near East was a world that literally teemed with supernatural monsters, spirits and demons, and is far removed from the Jamesian world where the supernatural is an unexpected and unpleasant incursion into the otherwise dreary and unexceptional life of the protagonist.

Naturally, Old Testament demons, witches and other supernatural creatures found their way into medieval eschatology, and like the beings inherited from Celtic and Germanic folklore, inhabited the otherworld: Heaven, Hell or Purgatory. Most, including the ghosts of the dead, inhabited Purgatory, which was the natural dumping ground for a plethora of supernatural beings that appeared in bestiaries, grimoires, chronicles, travel books, chansons de Geste, romans, and the oral folk stories of peasant folk. These creatures would appear in the world, often by being deliberately summoned either through church ritual (e.g. saints and angels) or by necromancy and the black arts (e.g. devils and demons). Thus in 1440, a vernacular chronicler remarked on a great storm which had broken when Henry VI was riding through the city of London:

"Whereof the people were sore agast, and aferd of the grete tempest. And so it was spoken amonges the people, that there wer som wikked fendes and spirites arered out of helle by coniuracion, forto noy the peple in the Reame and to put theym to trouble, discension and unrest."[8]

Although there are some parallels with James's ghost stories, essentially the medieval world is closer to that of Tolkien and C.S. Lewis (and Arthur Machen, for that matter). The medieval world is also one that is completely explicable: it is perfectly consistent with the cosmos as explained by the Catholic Church. Ghosts were an accepted and necessary part of life in the Middle Ages; they were manifestations of the obligations owed by the living to the dead.

The Reformation caused a fundamental shift in folk belief when purgatory was abolished in 1549.[9] For the reformers, ghosts and bogeys ceased to exist; they became mere inventions to frighten children into good behaviour. After reciting a long list of bogeys that nurses taught children to fear, Reginald Scot in The Discoverie of Witchcraft (1584) asserts that such "since the preaching of the gospel, is in part forgotten: and doubtless, the rest of those illusions will in short time (by God's grace) be detected and vanish awaie".[10] Those monsters that were known to exist came to be seen as natural wonders, rather than evil beings allied to the Devil, or expressions of divine wrath.[11] Thus, in the thirteenth-century story of the merman of Orford in Ralph of Coggeshall's chronicle we have the following explanation:

"As to whether this was a mortal man, or some fish pretending human shape, or was an evil spirit hiding in the body of a drowned man, as can be read in the life of blessed Ouen, it is not possible to be precise; the more so because so many wonderful things of this kind are told by many to whom they have happened."[12]

By the early seventeenth century, Francis Bacon in his Advancement of Learning (1605) sought to assimilate monsters into the regular course of nature by trying to understand their underlying causes. What the loss of purgatory did, of course, was develop an orthodox religion - a world view - that was as dreary and pedestrian as the lives of James's antiquaries and dons. As John Selden remarked in the mid-seventeenth century, "There never was a merry world since the fairies left dancing and the parson left conjuring".[13] When the supernatural impinges on this disbelieving world, the result can be intellectually as well as physically mortifying.

Ghosts did not vanish away with the abolition of purgatory: seventeenth and eighteenth-century folk tales are replete with ghosts and bogeys, demons and witches.[14] However, the nature of ghost stories has changed markedly. In particular, ghosts are now feared. Part of the reason for this is that they have no place in Protestant Christianity. They are outside the church's authority - prayers for the dead and absolutions for sins were renounced and so no longer work.[15] Ghosts, quite literally, became trapped souls, outside the accepted world order, doomed to haunt a place for all eternity,[16] destructive and unknowable (and supremely unreasonable).[17] This is certainly the world in which M.R. James sets his ghost stories, where the natural order is upset by things that have no place in the world, or, indeed, the cosmos.

A moral dimension also accrued to the ghost story that was quite unknown to the medieval period. The ghosts of post-Reformation folklore were largely the preserve of rural working folk who led extremely poor, desperately hard lives.[18] It is no surprise that their ghosts are often the revenants of land-owning gentry who were callous and evil in life. Consider the following story of the seventeenth-century Richard Capel of Brooke Manor, Buckfastleigh, as described by Theo Brown in The Fate of the Dead:

"[Capel, a notorious womaniser,] is said to have kept his victims at Hawson Court, a mile or so to the west of his home. There are two versions of his death scene: either he was chased across Dartmoor by 'Whisht' Hounds until he dropped dead, or he died in his bed and the 'Wisht' Hounds howled round outside the house that night. Post-mortem trouble was anticipated, so he was buried very deep, outside the south porch of the church, and not only an altar-tomb was erected over him, but over that a little house as well, which is still to be seen. It is square, and on the north side, facing the church porch, is a massive iron grill, while on the south side there is a small oak door with a large keyhole. To this day the children of the village climb the hill, walk thirteen times round the little house and then dare each other to insert a small finger into the keyhole and feel Capel gnaw the tip."[19]

Capel is an early analogue of Black Hugo in the Hound of the Baskervilles, and perhaps also of "Count Magnus" (and there are similarities with "An Episode of Cathedral History"). Similarly, the post-Reformation fear of desecrated churches and of objects taken from them may have fed into such stories as "The Uncommon Prayer-Book" and "The Stalls of Barchester Cathedral", while a terror of liturgical Latin is transformed by James into the Latin tags which have an almost curse-like quality.

Tales such as this may indicate another reason behind James's preference for the late seventeenth/early-eighteenth century as background to his ghost stories: it lends them an authentic antiquarian/folkloric flavour that they would not have if the background was in the distant past. The folk tales published in Victorian journals, which James knew well, were often examples of oral storytelling. Take this one from Brown and Dewar's Ghostly Gold and Goblin Tunes:

"In 1857, the Rev J.W. Collins in Journal of the British Archaeological Association records a conversation with an old labourer who was told a strange story by his father. Mr Collins' informant believed that below the Money Field lay an 'iron castle full of gold and silver guarded by gnomes and spirits'. This castle was only to be opened by the night of a full moon, and it had got but a single door as an entrance. There was 'more treasure there under his feet than was contained in the palaces of all the kings of the world'. Some time then, in about the last decade of the 18th century, in Broomfield where the camp known as Ruborough lies, a certain Dr Farrar, a resident much interested in legend, equipped with a divining rod of hazel, went to the field on the day prior to the full moon. When the rod 'stood upright of itself', Farrar put in a mark and went off to make arrangements for the following night. Then, before midnight he took his Bible, and in company with his man and equipped for digging, stood by and told his labourer just where to dig the circle he had made. He was to go on until he heard his tool strike the iron door. 'Whatever you hear or see, don't speak a word for your life's sake: for if you do we shall lose all power of getting into the castle, and your life will be in danger.' Meanwhile the Doctor stood by with his Bible. Then without warning the spade struck metal. At once unearthly noises arose, and spirits swarmed out into the hole. Terrified out of all control the man yelled: 'Lord have mercy on my soul!' At once the grisly guardians caught him by the leg and began to drag him down. But Farrar placed the Bible on the man's head with one hand and managed to haul him up with the other. Immediately afterwards the sides of the pit caved in and the excavation healed over as if it had never been made."[20]

James may not only have taken ideas from such accounts (this story with its guardian spirits suggests "The Treasure of Abbot Thomas"), but also their form. The oral story-within-a-story lends verisimilitude to James's tales, for example the landlord's story of Count Magnus and Miss Wilkins's story in "The Rose Garden".[21] This technique adds the same factual legitimacy as the learned scraps of Latin, the quotes from historical records, and the carefully described manuscripts, buildings and places.[22]

This is what is at the heart of James's choice of antiquarian background: a world that is consistent, believable and recognisable by the young Etonians, friends and undergraduates for whom he was writing. However, as with the stories themselves, there are, possibly, deeper levels of meaning than first meet the eye. For M.R. James, who knew his church history, there was a correspondence between the energy, optimism and scientific approach of Victorian intellectuals and the confidence of the sixteenth-century reformers in sweeping aside childish superstition. Of course, in James's fiction, the reformers were wrong, and this is a lesson well learned by the protagonists in his short stories. When the supernatural world impinges on James's sedately Victorian dons and antiquaries it not only gives them a good fright, but it has something of the same effect as Lovecraft's "cosmic dread".


[1] About two thirds of the Collected Ghost Stories have a background set in this period.

[2] Jacqueline Simpson, "Ghosts in Medieval Yorkshire", Ghosts & Scholars 27 (2004), pp.40-44; and A Pleasing Terror (2001), pp.631-637.

[3] M.R. James, "Twelve Medieval Ghost-stories", English Historical Review 37 (1922), pp.413-22; and A Pleasing Terror (2001), pp.457-468. Also see the well-known "vampire" story in William of Newburgh, Historia Rerum Anglicarum (2 vols, Rolls Series, 1885), II, pp.474-482, trans. by A.J. Grant in Yorkshire Archaeological Journal 27 (1924), pp.363-379.

[4] "Quo tempore, apud Hertfordiam, temporae missae solemnis, malignus spiritus, corporaliter, ut putabatur, ingressus ecclesiam Omnium Sanctorum": "Annales Ricardi Secundi et Henrici Quarti, Regum Angliae" in Johannis de Trokelow et Henrici de Blaneford Chronica et Annales, ed. H.T. Riley (Rolls Series, 1865), p.340. The same chronicler describes the appearance of the Devil at a church in Danbury, Essex, earlier in the same year, disguised as a Franciscan monk.

[5] J.R. Porter, "Ghosts in the Old Testament and the Ancient Near East" in The Folklore of Ghosts, ed. H.R.E. Davidson and W.M.S. Russell (1981), p.220.

[6] The Old Testament speaks of ghosts almost exclusively within the practice of necromancy.

[7] R.C. Thompson, The Devils and Evil Spirits of Babylonia, being Babylonian and Assyrian Incantations (2 vols, 1904), I, p.34. Also note that the connection between wind and ghosts is famously made in Job 4, v.15-16: "A wind brushed my face; And made the hairs bristle on my flesh; And a figure stood there whose shape I could not discern".

[8] The Brut or the Chronicles of England, ed. F.W.D. Brie (2 vols, 1906-8), II, p.477.

[9] Generally on this see Theo Brown, The Fate of the Dead: A Study in Folk Eschatology in the West Country After the Reformation (1979).

[10] Reginald Scot, The Discoverie of Witchcraft, ed. Montague Summers (1930), p.87.

[11] Katherine Park and Lorraine J. Daston, "Unnatural Conceptions: The Study of Monsters in France and England", Past and Present 92 (1981), pp. 20-54.

[12] "Si autem hic mortalis homo extiterit, sive aliquis piscis humanam praetendens speciem, sive aliquis malignus spiritus fuerit in aliquo corpore submersi hominis latitans, sicut de quodam legitur in vita beati Audoeni non facile diffiniri potest, maxime quia tam multis de hujusmodi eventibus narrentur": Ralph of Coggeshall, Chronicon Anglicanum (Rolls Series, 1875), p.118.

[13] Table Talk of John Selden, ed. S.H. Reynolds (1894), p.130.

[14] Perhaps this is another reason why James preferred a 17th/18th-century background. In a number of the ghost stories it is ordinary working folk - labourers, gardeners, odd-job men - who are knowledgeable about the supernatural background.

[15] In "Canon Alberic's Scrap-book", Dennistoun remarks: "I hope it isn't wrong: you know I am a Presbyterian - but I - I believe there will be 'saying of mass and singing of dirges' for Alberic de Mauléon's rest. I had no notion they came so dear".

[16] Medieval ghosts are rarely linked to a place or location, and 'haunt' in the sense that we use it was unknown to medieval people; see Richard Bowyer, "The Role of the Ghost Story in Medieval Christianity", in The Folklore of Ghosts, ed. H.R.E. Davidson and W.M.S. Russell (1981), p.191.

[17] Similarly, the witch scares of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries were a grass-roots phenomenon, understood by the church in terms of a pact with the Devil; in the act of James I (1604) it became a felony to 'covenant with any evil and wicked spirit'. On the other hand, witchcraft trials in late Medieval England invariably involved the upper-classes and/or treason: John Tannere (1314-15); Edmund Earl of Kent (1330); Joan of Navarre (1419); Eleanore Cobham (1441); Jacquette de Luxembourg (1470); Earl of Mar (1479).

[18] See Brown, Fate of the Dead, passim.

[19] Ibid, pp.35-36.

[20] Theo Brown and Stephen Dewar, Ghostly Gold and Goblin Tunes: Archaeological Apparitions and Traditions (1968), pp.8-9.

[21] Only once did James write a ghost story as folk tale: "There was a Man Dwelt by a Churchyard", although this is a common technique in the field, e.g. Clemence Housman, "The Were-Wolf".

[22] Other writers of supernatural fiction, such as H.P. Lovecraft, adopted much the same techniques. Lovecraft added to the "cosmic" quality of his work through invented myth. James, on the other hand, appropriated existing English and Danish folklore and, from time to time, Old Testament myth.

back to top

A.P. Baker and A College Mystery

by Rosemary Pardoe

In the world of M.R. James-related fiction, Heffer & Sons of Cambridge are best known for publishing E.G. Swain's The Stoneground Ghost Tales in 1912 and Arthur Gray's Tedious Brief Tales of Granta and Gramarye in 1919. Between these two, however, they also produced a little book by A.P. Baker entitled A College Mystery. This 76-page novel (although it would be better described as "materials for a novel"[1]) was first published in 1918, and atmospherically illustrated by F.H. Round with five monochrome scenes from the story,[2] together with two much more amateurish line drawings (uncredited), the latter including the dust-jacket.

The main text is divided into several sections, most of which, as Baker explains in his "Editor's Preface", are taken from the papers of Simon Goodridge. They came into Baker's hands, or so he says, some time after Goodridge had collected them in an effort to solve the mystery of the haunting of the Fellows' Garden at Christ's College, Cambridge. A figure of a "tall, heavy, elderly man, dressed in black, with a swallow-tailed coat and high collar and stock" had been seen by several people, making his way "slowly and deliberately, with bent head" (p.2) through the garden and then disappearing from view.

The first section, "Communications from Past Residents in the Fellows' Building", does nothing more than recount briefly a number of eye-witness experiences of the ghost, varying in some details but all agreeing on the basic description and on the figure's apparent solidity. One witness also heard a "ponderous tread mounting slowly" a certain staircase to a certain set of rooms (p.4).

The main meat of the book appears in the second section: "The Record of Christopher Round" is the autobiographical narrative of the man who would eventually haunt the College. Christopher Round, writing as he approached his seventieth year, tells how he was born in Derbyshire at the beginning of the nineteenth century and, after a home education, went up to Trinity College, Cambridge. Almost immediately he encountered the charming and talented Philip Collier, a scholar at St John's College, whose success was to overshadow his own academic progress at every turn during the ensuing years. Although it was never Collier's intention so to blight Round's life, all the "University distinctions" for which Round entered, Collier would also enter, "and each time he beat me by a little and carried off the prize, while I had to be content with monotonous honourable mention" (p.12). Eventually they both became Fellows of their respective Colleges. Then Collier gave up his Fellowship at St John's to go to Italy, and Round heard nothing of him for a while. When Collier returned, Round "no longer looked upon him as a successful rival, but as one who had left the academic fold"; "[t]he old jealousy and grudge I had felt had been dispelled" (p.16).

All seemed well, but then Collier was elected to another vacant Fellowship at Christ's, and "[t]hus began that rivalry of nearly ten years which spoiled my early life here, and ended in the tragedy which has haunted it ever since" (p.19).

Some four years later, Christopher Round met the love of his life, Lady Mary Clifford, "a beautiful, good, and very gentle woman" (p.22), but his hopes of a happy married life were dashed when he realised that, while she considered him a friend, she did not return his intense affection. She was in love with another and - inevitably - it was Philip Collier. So were the events set in motion that climaxed in a scene of violence at the "bathing pool" in the Fellow's Garden. Having discovered what he thought was evidence that Collier was a disreputable drunkard, Round apparently killed him in a frenzy of anger when a minor accident offered the frustrated scholar an unexpected opportunity to become either a hero or a murderer.

After this, Round collapsed and was semi-conscious for some weeks; when he recovered, he found that Mary Clifford had moved away (she died ten years later). His life at Cambridge from then on was almost that of a recluse. In his later years, he was racked by guilt over his crime and had few friends aside from Simon Goodridge. But what Round never knew were the conclusions drawn by the coroner on the death of Philip Collier, whose inquest took place during Round's illness.

The next three sections of A College Mystery contain a report on the inquest from the Isle of Ely and Cambridgeshire Gazette, an extract from the East Anglian Times concerning the contents of Collier's will, and the "Recollections" of Simon Goodridge. In the inquest report, certain facts come to light for the first time; facts relating to some famously dangerous medical experiments which occurred in 1847. There is also a certain disagreement with the details of Collier's death as given in Round's account. This discrepancy is never explained in the book, and readers are, perhaps, supposed to come to their own conclusions as to which version is the most accurate.

The book ends with an "Editor's Postscript", where the author recounts two friends' encounters with the Christ's College ghost, significant only because the sightings took place on May 29th: the date on which Philip Collier died.

The story of A College Mystery is, therefore, not so much a ghostly tale as a murder mystery to explain a ghost. Essentially the moral to be drawn from all the materials collected in the book seems to be that one should never judge by appearances.


Arthur Ponsford Baker was born on September 6th, 1873, in Algoa Bay near Port Elizabeth, in Cape Colony (the future South Africa). He was the second son and fourth child of Henry Coles Baker, a colonial merchant from Bridgwater in Somerset. Henry and his wife, Amelia, had at least six children; the five oldest - Amy, Marion, Henry, Arthur and Frank - were all born in South Africa. By the birth of their sixth child, Lilian, the family had returned to England. When the 1881 Census was taken, they were living at Montpelier Grove House in Cheltenham (Gloucestershire). It was a prosperous household with five female servants.[3] Young Arthur was educated in Cheltenham and Bristol, before going up to Christ's College in 1892, where he studied for the Natural Science Tripos with a plan to enter medicine.[4]

In 1895, a serious accident of some sort on the football field crippled him for life and he abandoned hopes of a medical career. By 1903, he was able to return to his College, but this time he studied for a history degree which he obtained in the following year; he then became a lecturer at Christ's. Although Baker's interest in history was, according to his obituary, "catholic", he was particularly knowledgeable on "medieval Italy and the history of English politics during the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries". As a lecturer, he was admired, but perhaps even more so as a coach for the pass degree in history, "for which his patience and lucidity admirably fitted him". Baker was active in College life, and also showed a welcome concern with the education of the less privileged, supporting the Christ's Home for Working Boys and the Workers' Educational Association. He died on March 20th, 1919, aged only forty-five, "after a lingering illness". His obituary ends: "Many, outside the walls of Christ's no less than within, will sadly miss an ever cheerful and very gallant spirit".

Arthur Baker only produced two books, both published close to the end of his life. The first was University Olympians: Or Sketches of Academic Dignitaries, which was to have been issued by Heffer's in 1914, but was withdrawn because of the start of the First World War. When it finally appeared in 1918 (a few months before A College Mystery), a slip insert was added, explaining that "This book... is published now in the hope that reminiscences of University characteristics in the years just before the war, may be of interest, both to those who can recollect them and to those who have come to know Cambridge and the University". In its thirty-nine pages, University Olympians contains thirteen light-hearted poems, describing the types of people in various posts, positions and settings within University life (but they were "not intended to be personal portraits"). Thus there are poems on "A Master", "A Tutor", "A Dean" and so forth, with others entitled "Old and New" and "Behind the Backs". The rhymes originally appeared in the Cambridge Review, where they were very popular, although, to be honest, it is difficult now to see why. Here, for instance, are the first ten lines of "A Master":

I am a master: just within my ken
I watch the vagaries of lesser men;
For Deans and Tutors, Dons of each degree
Are one dead level when compared with me;
M.A.s and B.A.s severally I rate
With little creatures undergraduate,
Who, though attained to Academic age,
Have hardly passed the embryonic stage.
Afar, aloft, on all of these I gaze
And contemplate them with a pained amaze.

Undoubtedly Baker's greatest literary achievement was A College Mystery, the contents of which were first read to friends in his rooms in February, 1918 (Preface, p.v). The book was published right at the end of 1918 in a run of one thousand copies, and dedicated "to all Christ's men who have worked for liberty in especial remembrance of those who have fought in the Great War". It proved to be a good seller for Heffer's who issued a second edition, this time of two thousand, in 1923. The second edition was out of print by the early 1940s. One reader, Miss Phoebe Meirion Rees of Williton, Somerset, was sufficiently enthused to write a 55-minute radio play, The May Tree, based on the book (although with all the names and the setting changed; the latter became "Kelvin College"). It was broadcast on the Home Service (West) during the evening of Tuesday, April 11th, 1939.[5] A College Mystery remained out of print for over sixty years until a new Heffer's facsimile reprint, now in paperback format with the original dust-jacket illustration on its cover, appeared in 2004.

Exactly how much truth is there in Baker's little story? Certainly, the Dr James Young Simpson, who appears as a witness at Philip Collier's inquest, was real enough. During the inquest, he tells of his experiments, with his friends "Mr. George Keith and Mr. Duncan" and Collier, in "inhaling various preparations to see if we could produce the state of temporary unconsciousness we desired" (p.55). Simpson (1811-1870) was an Edinburgh surgeon specialising in obstetrics, whose experimentation with anaesthetics culminated in a famous and near-fatal occasion in 1847 when he and his friends Drs George Keith and Matthew Duncan were all able to bear witness to the efficacy of chloroform. Having inhaled it, they promptly collapsed insensible to the floor! Simpson was keen to find an effective anaesthetic which he could use on his women patients who must otherwise suffer and often die of their internal "feminine ailments" (just as eventually happened to Mary Clifford in A College Mystery).

It is interesting that Baker, whose early ambitions to become a doctor were thwarted by his accident, should have chosen a well known event in medical history around which to base the explanation for certain events in his tale, although he seems to have obtained the specific details he wanted from nothing more technical than James Young Simpson's entry in the Dictionary of National Biography. My main reason for believing this to be his source is that, just as Baker fails to mentions the Christian name of Simpson's associate "Mr. Duncan", so too does the DNB refer to "Doctors George Keith and Duncan" without noting the latter's first name. Possibly Baker was also thinking of the DNB entry's remark that the use of chloroform was "strongly denounced as dangerous to health, morals, and religion", when he has the coroner berate Dr Simpson at length for going against God's law: "From of old it had been decreed by Providence that pain was part of the life and punishment of man and of woman. All regretted it, but all must bear their part of the common burden, which was the consequence of our earliest forefathers' sin" (p.62).

So far, so true to reality! But none of Simpson's experiments took place in Cambridge and none of them involved a person called Philip Collier. There was, in fact, no Philip Collier and no Christopher Round at Cambridge throughout the relevant period, as an examination of Venn's Alumni quickly reveals. The lives and deaths of Round and Collier were entirely fictional, including the documents (the newspaper reports of Collier's inquest and will) with which Baker added verisimilitude. He did such a good job of this, however, that the account has been retold as factual in a number of volumes of 'true ghost stories', such as Peter Underwood's Gazetteer of British Ghosts (1971), Andrew Green's Our Haunted Kingdom (1973) and John Brooks' Good Ghost Guide (1994).[6] Naturally numerous web sites have followed suit with an unquestioning credulousness! At this time, the fictional story of Christopher Round has become so firmly attached to the ghost at Christ's that it is impossible to say whether Baker invented that too, or whether there really were sightings of a strange figure in the Fellows' Garden around which he wove his fantasy.

For now, that must remain a mystery, as must the precise connection between A.P. Baker and M.R. James. There are no mentions of Baker in either of MRJ's biographies, and I have been unable to locate a single reference to him by MRJ anywhere. Yet, in the Preface to A College Mystery, Baker thanks "the Provost of Eton [i.e. MRJ] for reading through the manuscript of this little book and for kindly comment" (p.v). MRJ was not noted for having much patience with strangers who approached him out of the blue with requests for him to read the stories they had written, so I don't think Baker was one of these. MRJ and Baker were contemporaries as Cambridge academics and it is thus unlikely that they didn't know each other, or at the very least that they had mutual friends. Although it's possible that their paths only rarely crossed, MRJ's acquaintance with Baker was sufficient for him to willingly read Baker's manuscript; and I think he would have enjoyed it.


[1] Just as M.R. James's "The Stalls of Barchester Cathedral" was originally subtitled "Materials for a Ghost Story"!

[2] Frank H. Round was a drawing master at Charterhouse School. The only other published artwork by him that I have been able to discover is a series of forty-seven beautiful watercolours of irises for The Genus Iris by William Rickatson Dykes (1913; currently available in Dover facsimile).

[3] For comparison, M.R. James's parents, at Livermere Rectory in 1881 - with their adult daughter living at home, and one son, Herbert, in temporary residence - had four servants.

[4] The biographical material on A.P. Baker in this and the following paragraph is from his entry in Venn's Alumni; an obituary in the Cambridge Review, May 9, 1919 (vol.40, no.998, pp.296-297); and the 1881 on-line Census at

[5] Information from Heffer's accounts; the Radio Times entry (issue dated April 7, 1939) and the programme log for The May Tree. The May Tree's cast of ten featured one "Deborah Kerr". Although I cannot be certain, it seems probable that this was the famous Deborah Kerr who would soon go on to a great movie career (she appeared in her first film a year later in 1940). It was a career that included, of course, a role as the governess in The Innocents (1961), based on Henry James's "The Turn of the Screw".

[6] This list of books is taken from the sceptical and mostly excellent chapter on the Christ's College ghost in Robert Halliday and Alan Murdie's The Cambridge Ghost Book (Fern House, 2000), pp.15-19.

Acknowledgments: My thanks to Nicholas Culpeper for the copies of Heffer's accounts; and to Julie Snelling, of the BBC Written Archives Centre, for the Radio Times entry and programme log of The May Tree. Thanks also to Mark Nicholls, Graeme Stevenson and David Rowlands.

Two of the illustrations by F.H. Round

The Fellows' Garden, Christ's College, Cambridge (South View)
"The figure of a man crossed a patch of comparative light on the darkness of the lawn"

The Swimming Bath in the Fellows' Garden

back to top


De Nugis Curialium: Courtiers' Trifles by Walter Map, edited & translated by M.R. James;
revised by Christopher N.L. Brooke & Roger A.B. Mynors.
Oxford Medieval Texts, OUP, 1983, lxiii + 545pp, ISBN: 0-19-822236-X,

Reviewed by Rosemary Pardoe.

Walter Map (c.1130s-c.1210) was a clerk in the household of King Henry II; he was a justice in Gloucestershire, in his home county of Herefordshire and elsewhere. Throughout his life he held a number of clerical posts including canon of St Paul's (London); canon, chancellor and precentor at Lincoln; and archdeacon of Oxford. Map is best known today for De Nugis Curialium (Courtiers' Trifles), a collection of anecdotes, gossip and (often odd) tales, which he wrote mostly in the early 1180s, with some later insertions up to c.1193. The work, according to folklorist E. Sidney Hartland, "embodies very early recensions of the folk-stories of the European stock". M.R. James discovered De Nugis while at school at Eton, and he retained a fascination with it for the rest of his life. He gave several talks on Map, produced an edition of the Latin text for publication in 1914, and was responsible for the first English translation, which appeared in 1923 with footnotes on the folklore by E.S. Hartland.

The Oxford Medieval Texts edition of De Nugis was published in the 1980s, but was reprinted in 2002 and remains in print today, so a review now is both apposite and long overdue. The volume contains MRJ's Latin and English versions on facing pages, with amendments and corrections by the revisers.

What of the contents? Map was not, he insisted (surely with his tongue not too far from his cheek), "a writer of lies; for he does not lie who repeats a tale, but he who makes it". Many, although by no means all, of the tales told in De Nugis are strange or supernatural. There is the famous story of King Herla, who meets a faerie king - a satyr-like being - and agrees to visit him in his realm, which is reached through a cave in a high cliff. Unfortunately, when Herla and his party leave, they discover that hundreds of years have passed in the outside world, and those who dismount from their horses crumble to dust. Herla and the survivors of his company (the Herlethingus) are doomed to ride forever - an early example of the Wild Hunt - although Map says that they had not been seen since the start of the reign of Henry II. He reports other prodigies in the sky including herds of goats, and soldiers driving horses. There are faeries and water sprites who marry mortal men and admonish their husbands not to do or say a particular thing (touch them with a bridle, or reproach them and their family). The maidens warn them that, should they do so, disaster will follow. Of course, they do, and it does. Another bride is discovered to be (literally) a dragon. Gerbert, Pope Sylvester II, about whom much is told elsewhere concerning his magical knowledge and learning, has a section here, with some unique stories which do not feature in the later legends attached to him.

Of revenants and ghosts there are several: a traditional ghost returns to ask for absolution; but another wanders around in his shroud seemingly merely for the fun of it, until he is cornered in an orchard by "the whole population of the neighbourhood", and eventually held in his grave by a cross. Somewhat less farcical is "a Welshman of evil life" who returns after death as a kind of vampire. Every night he comes to his village and calls out by name those he knew in life. They "at once fall sick and die within three days", in a manner reminiscent of MRJ's "An Episode of Cathedral History". The first attempt to lay him fails, but he is finally destroyed when his head is chopped off. Another of MRJ's stories comes to mind when Map retells St Jerome's tale of St Antony's encounter with a centaur and a satyr while travelling to visit Paul the Hermit (as MRJ puts it in "Two Doctors": "the satyr which Jerome tells us conversed with Antony").

A severed head speaks; a small snake grows into a huge monster; a man lives with the fishes in the depths of the sea; another sees his dead wife with a "great company of women" (presumably ghosts or faeries) and regains her. The Devil in the form of a gigantic cat participates in the orgiastic cavortings of the Cathars. A lesser demon takes the shape of a noblewoman and slits the throats of three infants before a pilgrim manages to brand its face and it is forced to flee. But certainly the strangest and most grotesque story is that of the necrophilic shoemaker of Constantinople who breaks into the grave of his newly-deceased love, and proceeds to have sex with the body. Nine months later he returns to the grave and recovers his offspring: a gorgon's head, with which he gains many victories in battle.

There is just one complete manuscript of De Nugis in existence, dating from the fourteenth century; along with many copies of a single section which may be the only part circulated in Map's lifetime. For the Oxford volume, the complete manuscript and seven thirteenth-century copies of the widely-circulated section were collated, and as a result several improvements were made to MRJ's reading and translation, but the resulting text was based largely on his, "in tribute to an eminent scholar". As the Introduction explains, "James's translation is in many ways a model of its kind", but the revisers "had to correct it in a number of places, chiefly for two reasons: the practice of his generation of omitting, or leaving 'in the decent obscurity of a learned tongue', the more indelicate passages; and his belief that Map used words without knowing what they meant. This was partly true, but it tempted James on some occasions to needless imprecision. Yet when all is said and done, he had an exceptional understanding of the translator's art, and a remarkable talent".

On the first of these two reasons for correction, they are a little overgenerous to MRJ: even considered as a man of his time, he had a tendency to excessive prudishness. In De Nugis, he found "too odious to translate", some of the description of the Cathars' orgies where they are depicted as kissing the Devil on "his tail and privy parts", followed by a sexual free-for-all; and some lines concerning the shoemaker of Constantinople's deeds in the graveyard. The long story, "Of the Friendship of Sadius and Galo", is at times hard to follow in MRJ's original version because he completely omits some phrases - replaced by ellipses - connected with a devious attempt (told in language that is not crude) to check for the extent and existence of Galo's 'manhood'. MRJ's explanation for his actions was that "Map was not a great offender, for his age; but his public were amused at things which really do not amuse us", which comes over as stuffy, even for "his generation". At any rate, it is good to have all of these segments reinstated/translated here.

The Oxford edition also contains a fine forty-page Introduction by C.N.L. Brooke on Walter Map the man; on the date, scope and purpose of De Nugis ("a marvellous guide to a fascinating lumber-room"); and on other writings (falsely) attributed to him; plus footnotes throughout. These notes thoroughly cover textual and translation questions, history, sources and references, but are weaker on the folklore and folk-tale aspects, about which they often do little more than direct the reader to the relevant entry in Stith Thompson's Motif-Index of Folk-Literature. This is puzzling as, in the 1923 edition, E.S. Hartland's notes are both long and fascinating. Thus, for instance, Hartland devotes well over a page to a footnote on the folkloric origins and connections of the tale of King Herla, and he gives the story of the Welsh 'vampire' a deliciously massive note of almost three pages in length; Brooke, on the other hand, allows the former just eight lines (with a few more in the Introduction) and the latter no folklore note whatsoever. Perhaps it may be that not all of Hartland's thoughts are either relevant or in accord with current discoveries and opinion, but they remain extremely worthwhile and I see no reason why they should not have been included here, duly sourced (except, I suppose, that their inclusion would have increased the size of the book by nigh on 25%!). Some of the original notes by MRJ and historical notes by Sir John Lloyd have been reproduced in this fashion, but Hartland has been ignored. In fact, the Preface by Brooke fails to acknowledge the very existence of Hartland's notes, crediting him only with editing the 1923 volume, "with notes by Sir John Lloyd".

Is the Oxford Medieval Texts De Nugis Curialium worth buying, when the fairly high price is taken into consideration? If you want both the Latin and the English versions, I would say definitely that it is. If you only want an English text, I'd advise a cyber-trip to Abebooks first, where you might well find a secondhand copy of the 1923 De Nugis for under £50, and you'll have Hartland's notes as well as MRJ's translation. However, this way you will miss out on Brooke's valuable Introduction. So ideally, if you can afford it, get both!

back to top

Sea Mist by E.F. Benson, edited & introduced by Jack Adrian.
Ash-Tree Press (P.O. Box 1360, Ashcroft, British Columbia, Canada, VOK 1A0),
e-mail:, 2005, xxxii + 343pp, ISBN: 1-55310-078-6,
£29.00/US$48.50 plus p&p.

Reviewed by David Rowlands.

This is the fifth and final volume in Ash-Tree Press's "Collected Spook Stories" of E.F. Benson (I reviewed the fourth in the series, The Face, in Newsletter 4), and what a humdinger it is! Not only does it contain the final seventeen stories (1927-1940) of his life, which take up 207 pages, but - in a 'last roundup' - editor and publishers include a further 133pp in three Appendices: "Undiscovered Fred" (the editor on what has most likely been overlooked - an erudite essay about Tillotson's Fiction Bureau); "The Illegitimate, the Barely Legible, and the Impenetrable" (three EFB tales that, while unequivocally "spook", are either jokes or a sort of 'after Xmas emetic'); and "'The Technique of the Ghost Story' and Others". This last reprints not just the essay of that name (which Jack had previously featured in one of several booklets for Palmer & Lloyd's Hermitage Books), but a further fourteen EFB pieces, all with some link to the supernatural, which demonstrate the wide range of his knowledge and the acuteness of his judgement, his humanity and - yes - his prejudices. One of these in particular - "Demoniacal Possession" - is an excellent and detached assessment of this difficult subject, and should give all who read it "furiously to think". It can probably be taken as an accurate reflection of the broadening of EFB's beliefs in the evening of his life. It is interesting, too, to compare his short, dynamic assessment of Le Fanu (In a Glass Darkly but mostly Uncle Silas) with MRJ's. I wish I could batter EFB's assessment that the pacing of Uncle Silas is essential to its success as a horror story, into the heads of those cretins who take it on themselves to edit (i.e. shorten) it!

Reverting to the stories themselves, nine of them come from More Spook Stories (1934, EFB's last and arguably scarcest collection), and five from The Flint Knife (1988, Jack Adrian's first EFB collection, which included twelve previously uncollected tales and three from The Countess of Lowndes Square, 1920). The title story comes from Jack's Desirable Residences (1991) and two are from The Technique of the Ghost Story (1993). Six at least represent EFB at his very best, while two more are first-rate. For my taste the ones that are most successful are those with skilfully-woven settings that encapsulate the genius loci: for EFB as for MRJ, places were prolific in suggestion. Thus the mist-girt town of Trench (Rye) near the Romney Marsh is what brings chilling conviction to the tale of "James Lamp" (one wonders, incidentally, what the readers of Weird Tales made of this story - and indeed two more of my "best" choices here - when they appeared there, in 1929-30). Others in this "best" category are "The Box at the Bank", "The Sanctuary", "The Wishing-well", "The Hanging of Alfred Wadham", "The Step", "Monkeys" and the inestimable "Pirates": arguably the best sentimental ghost story ever written. It's a touching evocation of EFB's childhood at the Bishop's Palace, Truro - "Lis Escop" - which becomes Lescop for this tale. He works in all his brothers and sisters as well as his mother and a telling aside on his father, too.

My old book-collector friend, Maurice Nutt, gave me his copy of EFB's novel The Inheritor, saying that it was the only one which captured the same atmosphere as the best of the spook stories - he was referring again to the settings (at Cambridge and in Cornwall) of this tale of Pan-inheritance. Coincidentally Jack Adrian begins his Introduction by imagining Fred's musings on receiving his author's copies of The Inheritor.

The Introduction, and his other essays herein, are what we have come to expect from Jack Adrian. That is, he is like a literary rambler who, seeing from the map the shortest distance between two points, proceeds to follow every beckoning by-way and weaves an erudite and interesting tapestry around that direct route to knowledge. Not for him a bald statement of facts but a positive banquet of information; so much so, that the reader may well wonder if he is ever going to get to the point. But the time is indeed well-spent. Jack is incredibly knowledgeable about the magazines and publishers of the early twentieth century, and our time is not wasted in his company. We re-emerge on to the highway with him, enriched by what he has told us and amazed too at the dedication and application that has produced this wonderful harvest. It would be outstanding when applied to one author/topic, but he has gathered in also dozens of quality stories by A.M. Burrage, and his anthologies can always be relied upon to deliver the unusual and the overlooked gems. At the conclusion of the EFB round-up, this seems a good moment to say "Thanks" from all the ghost story buffs who have benefited so much from his quests.

And if Rosemary will allow me a couple more lines in this vein, it is a good time to salute, too, the accumulated achievement of Barbara and Christopher Roden at Ash-Tree Press in the past ten years: over a hundred major books published in that time and more in press. What an achievement! Thank you both, and all your helpers.

back to top

Mr Justice Harbottle and Others: Ghost Stories 1870-73 by Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu;
edited & introduced by Jim Rockhill.
Ash-Tree Press, 2005, xxxvi + 226pp, ISBN: 1-55310-079-4,
£28.00/US$47.50 plus p&p.

Reviewed by Roger Johnson.

M.R. James, as all the world knows, declared that Sheridan Le Fanu "stands absolutely in the first rank as a writer of ghost stories". That was, he said, his deliberate verdict, after reading all the supernatural tales he had been able to get hold of. Even compared to James himself, Le Fanu was not especially prolific in the field (we are speaking only of his supernatural short stories now; the novels do not concern us), producing in a period of nearly thirty-five years only some thirty tales, of which half a dozen or more are reworkings of earlier ones. And, with respect to Dr James's appraisal, it seems to me that there are only six that justify a place for their author "absolutely in the first rank" - but consider the six for a moment: "Schalken the Painter", "Green Tea", "The Child that Went with the Fairies", "The Familiar", "Carmilla" and "Mr Justice Harbottle". James's judgement is sound and Le Fanu's place is secure.

When Ash-Tree announced its three-volume edition of the ghost stories of Sheridan Le Fanu I decided to give it a miss. Having nice copies on my shelves of In a Glass Darkly and Madam Crowl's Ghost, I had the best of Le Fanu easily to hand ("Schalken the Painter" can be found in at least a couple of anthologies).

It was a short-sighted decision, however, as Mr Justice Harbottle has made very plain. I had not considered the fascination of following the development of Le Fanu's art by re-reading the stories in chronological order, seeing how themes, plots and characters are adapted and refined, and noticing, for instance, how the name Laura recurs in "Madam Crowl's Ghost", "Carmilla" and "Laura Silver Bell". Nor had I expected the pleasure I got from the lesser stories, those I had read before and those that were new to me. Above all, I had not allowed for the excellence of Jim Rockhill's Introduction, which is both scholarly and enthusiastic. In this final volume, of course, he deals with Le Fanu's last, troubled years. He definitively dismisses as baseless the legend of the author's death that seems to have originated with S.M. Ellis in 1931 (you will remember the supposed words of the family doctor: "I feared this - that house fell at last"), and establishes, thanks to Brian Showers' research, that his tomb is well marked and easily accessible in Dublin's Mount Jerome Cemetery. And of course there is Douglas Walters' superb cover painting.

As to the stories, in this volume you have four of the six masterpieces. "The Child that Went with the Fairies" is a melancholy, chilling tale, possibly based upon a folk tradition. Jim Rockhill perceptively remarks that the story "is most notable for its evocation of the region around the Slieveelim hills as a numinous place, like the Welsh wilds in Arthur Machen's early work, as threatening as it is beautiful". "Mr Justice Harbottle" may have grown out of the earlier "An Account of Some Strange Disturbances in an Old House in Aungier Street" (as Bram Stoker's "The Judge's House" surely did), but it is a very different story, a robust and gleeful narrative of the haunting of a corrupt and venal judge. "The Familiar", a revision of "The Watcher", is a perfect example of M.R. James's own techniques used to perfection long before MRJ himself began to write ghost stories. As Jim Rockhill says: "Sheridan Le Fanu is still given insufficient credit as a craftsman and often very little credit at all as a visionary in the field of spectral horror". "Carmilla", above all, demonstrates his supreme mastery. It is in this, the first and still (despite my admiration for Dracula) the best modern vampire story, that craft becomes one with art. "Carmilla" is both 'popular literature' and Literature with a capital L. It is also a sociological, psychological and sexological Golconda. And, as James pointed out, it has some curious features in common with "The Child that Went with the Fairies". (I think he is wrong, though, to identify the mysterious black woman who appears to accompany both the fairy lady and Carmilla's mother as a negress; she seems to me to have some resemblance to the Black Man of the European witch tradition.)

The other eight stories are variously set in County Limerick and in northern England, and some suffer from the sort of phonetic depiction of dialect that makes even some of Kipling's tales almost unreadable. The worst, oddly enough, are "The Vision of Tom Chuff", "Madam Crowl's Ghost", "The Dead Sexton" and "Laura Silver Bell", all with an English setting. Le Fanu's rendering of rural Northumbrian is probably accurate, but it makes for damn'd hard reading. (And what does he mean by "the five Northumbrian counties"? Northumberland and County Durham, to be sure, but which are the other three? Cumberland, Westmorland and the North Riding of Yorkshire perhaps?) The dialogue of "Dickon the Devil", though it takes place in Lancashire, is given in more or less standard English, and the Irish characters in "The White Cat of Drumgunniol" and "Sir Dominick's Bargain" are quite easily understood. There is little direct speech in "Stories of Lough Guir", which, as MRJ observes, are "apparently a record of stories actually told to Le Fanu and not invented by him; and they purport to be, as the phrase goes, 'veridical'".

Each of the eight has its own power and its points of interest, especially when read in conjunction with the four glories of this book. Blast it; I suppose I'll have to buy the other two volumes now!

back to top

go to Newsletter Issue 1
go to Newsletter Issue 2
go to Newsletter Issue 3
go to Newsletter Issue 4

go to Newsletter Issue 5
go to Newsletter Issue 6
go to Newsletter Issue 7

back to Jamesian News Page
back to Ghosts & Scholars Home Page