There has been a bit of a kerfuffle this week in the Jamesian community after a savage TLS review by A.S.G.Edwards of Casting the Runes: The Letters of M.R.James by Jane Mainley-Piddock utterly trashed it. My problem with the book is that James letters are generally deeply dull which is clearly not the author’s fault; also despite the claim of being the first collection of his letters I’m pretty sure that that there was a volume of correspondence between him and the widow Gwendolyn of his friend and illustrator James McBryde
Now there may be matters in the correspondence of interest: Mark Gattiss tends to make a lot of noise about James being gay, and I’m not so certain we can say anything about the man’s sexuality, even if we should. There is one incident oncerning the death of a friend I wanted to see if he commented on and yet unfortunately this selection is of just under one hundred letters so is unlikely to help.
Edwards in the TLS all his academic gravitas to pour scorn upon the book from on high. It is clear that Mainley-Piddock could not read James handwriting; resulting in some terrific howlers. As a volume of letters this is therefore genuinely flawed : “guesses at what James may have written.” Unfortunately the real versions are no more interesting than the mistaken ones. Furthermore there is a hint of class tension in all this; people seem only too happy to dismiss Mainley-Piddocks work and pile insult upon insult.
It is a little unwarranted in my opinion. James handwriting was considered unreadable in his day – he even jokes about himself in his letters. A serious effort by hardcore Jamesians to produce transcripts of his letters failed for exactly this reason – large sections are largely unreadable. I have seen his handwriting, and I can make out most of it – but probably less than Mainley-Piddock. What helps for me is context — I know a great deal about Bury St. Edmund’s Abbey and his 1902 excavations there and so can by squinting recognise words like Lanfranc. Likewise Edwards as a noted scholar of Middle English can — but much remains unreadable to me. Let he who can read James text with confidence cast the first stone! I can’t. And even if I could, it doesn’t make the letters interesting.
John Linwood Grant marvellously parodied the whole business over on the M.R.James Facebook group but l’d already hit upon the fun to be had in *fake* M.R.James letters. Given my growing up as a neighbour, albeit separated by exactly a century I was able to provide a fairly reasonable spoof – I may continue it one daw with a few more fake letters.
So here is my attempt at a fake MRJ letter…
Hope you are quite well and weather interesting and so on? Your account of Fives matches so dull I would have rather read the apocrypha in that curious old Bible. Even Tobit better than Barrington Minors fall from the step which I doubt enthralled even those who saw it. A twisted ankle? Next time he might at least break his neck before a report reaches the Rectory! I saw a flight of rooks over the Barnham Road today and yet I do not take up your morning with that matter. Please write about something other than Virgil and Fives.
In contrast with your quite pedestrian epistle I have quite an extraordinary matter to report. Yesterday papa was visiting our neighbours at Ingham; the Rev. Norburn and Catty being trapped by an outbreak of mumps at the Rectory, and there being a number of parishioners who needed speaking to on various matters. Papa decided to take me, and we took the trap and drove over.
We called in to see the Squire and I was allowed to go to the kitchens where Jenny fed me raisins and boxed my ears and said I was a prig; and then Mrs Mothersole that old witch fed me lemon tart and it was so sharp I pulled a face; tart that tart was quite the worst dish I have ever tasted in a respectable house; and I pulled a face and the old witch banished me to the garden. I will have my revenge!
I was searching among the ash trees for a large hairy spider to put in her walking boots when I heard a curious rustle in the rhoderdendrons; assuming it was the kitchen cat, a remarkably docile ginger Tom I went after it. Instead imagine my surprise on finding a hole leading through to St. Bartholomews? Wriggling through the hedge I emerged in to the nettles and grass of the churchyard, and there made out the sinister sexton Hickling with a large clay jug and a spade making his way round to the north side.
I immediately sensed he was up to no good; so I followed him round, being careful of course to stay in the grass. There is only one grave on the north side, and imagine my horror on seeing —
Bother! Laura says I must catch the 3.05 as I need new boots from Bury. I shall write rest later.
Your dear brother
I’m sure you can all do much better though! 🙂 And if anyone wants to finish the fake letter? 😉
The train journey felt interminable, but I finally arrived in Bury and found the bootmaker’s shop. I was in luck, and managed to find the perfect pair of boots – they fit like a glove. As I headed back to the station, I breathed a sigh of relief that the trip had been a success.
Now back on the train, I take out my notebook and continue writing to you. Imagine my horror on seeing that the sexton was digging it up! It was a freshly dug grave, barely a week old, and I recognized the name on the headstone. It was that of a local girl who had passed away in mysterious circumstances.
Hickling seemed to be in a state of frenzy as he dug, muttering under his breath and occasionally taking a swig from the jug. I hid behind a nearby yew tree and watched in horror as he finally unearthed the coffin and flung open the lid.
The stench that emerged was unbearable, and I could barely suppress a retch as I saw the twisted and bloated form of the young girl. But what happened next was even more disturbing. Hickling began to mutter some sort of incantation, and I could see that he was holding a strange, twisted object in his hand, which he proceeded to lower into the open coffin.
As he did so, the corpse began to move, to twist and writhe in an unnatural manner. I could hear the sexton cackling with glee as the thing inside the coffin began to claw its way out, and I realized with horror that I had stumbled upon some sort of dark ritual.
In that moment, I knew that I had to flee, and so I backed away slowly, trying to make as little noise as possible. I didn’t stop running until I was back at the Squire’s estate, where I immediately went to have my ears boxed by Jenny, heart pounding in my chest.
I don’t know what sort of evil Hickling has unleashed, but I am certain that it cannot be anything good. I will have to be careful in the days to come, and make sure that I keep my wits about me. For I fear that I have stumbled upon something that is beyond my understanding, and that there are forces at work in this place that are far darker and more malevolent than I had ever imagined.
Your dear brother
Bravo! So now the dead have risen! I can write a letter back. 🙂