M R James’s Suffolk

18 Feb

The macabre beneath the landscape is not dispelled by nearness to the sea. What Henry James knew, and described in English Hours (1905) – the strangeness present on a flattened seashore – M R James (no blood relation, although the two were acquainted) expressed in two of his best-known ghost stories: Oh, Whistle, and I’ll Come to You, My Lad (scrambling over the groynes around Cobbold’s Point at Felixstowe, on a bleak, seemingly wintry, evening) and A Warning to the Curious, which leads to a remorseless killing on the beach near Aldeburgh’s martello tower. In his brief excursion to Aldeburgh in 1897, in “the glimmering of a minute,” Henry James responded to “the conditions that, grimly enough, could engender masterpieces.” MRJ was massively more a scholar than a fiction-writer, the settings of his stories were usually authentically antiquarian. But their “engendering” was perhaps as much instinctive as academic.  “A very pleasant man he is,” wrote MRJ of HJ, “talking just as he writes with punctilious effort to use the words he wants.” As with Henry James, MRJ’s greatness was recognised in his own day by the award of an Order of Merit.

MRJ’s use of words, effortless as it seemed, was that of a peculiarly able linguist, ranging voraciously through Latin and Greek at school (Eton). His first, and perhaps most formative teacher however was his father, the Reverend Herbert James, at home in Livermere Rectory, beside Livermere Park, near Bury St Edmunds. Livermere took its name from one of those placid lakes in western Suffolk that look as it they have lain there unchanged since the Dark Ages. Livermere Rectory stands, though unoccupied and no longer the rectory, on the eastern edge of this park. They came to it in 1865, Rev. James and his wife and three sons and a daughter, of whom MRJ, aged three, was the youngest. In the course of MRJ’s own long service with Eton and King’s – “mothers to the happiness of youth,” he called them – they came to take precedence as his home. But Livermere Rectory was the original nursery and schoolroom of a great scholar’s career. Here, too, the ghost stories took embryonic shape. It was a Georgian, stuccoed, sash-windowed house, the garden enclosed by trees but with glimpses from the house of the mere and the park beyond. There, already, were the essential ingredients of some of his stories in some light-hearted verses he sent home to his sister from Cyprus when MRJ was twenty-six: the sound of a foot in the grass, the head of a man long dead, and so on.

The church lies only a couple of hundred yards from the Rectory. A wooded walk through a shady grove leads to that end of the small churchyard which lies east of the church and is filled with the headstones of the Mothersoles, including Charles, who was parish clerk when MRJ was a boy. It can hardly be simple coincidence that Mrs Mothersole was the name of the witch whose trial in 1690 in one of his most alarming stories, The Ash-Tree, led to there being “guests at the hall.” There is little doubt that the Hall he imagined was Livermere, rather screened from the Rectory by trees – ash trees among them. The first “guest” entering the Hall, by way of the tree, seemed like a squirrel with more than four legs: finally the “guests” were found to be spiders as big as a man’s head, “veinous and seared,” living in the skeleton of poor Mrs Mothersole. Had the parish clerk handed on to MRJ a tradition about a local witch? We scarcely need his friend Mrs McBryde’s confirmation that MRJ “had a horror of spiders, especially large ones, and of the lone one which will unaccountably turn up in the bath.”

Walking west, past the Stuart “forkner,” we come to some Worby headstones. When that fashionably Gothicising Dean of Southminster, in An Episode of Cathedral History, exposed the altar-tomb “in which the night-monster had its lair” we know, from Isaiah 34, who evoked the hairy brute, with two great eyes, that knocked the Dean over. But how did the verger, who actually saw the monster, come to be called Worby? There are many tenuous connections between Suffolk and these stories, but MRJ deliberately set in this county, for instance, Rats – “It happened in Suffolk, near the coast.” Oh, Whistle and A Warning to the Curious MRJ’s preface kindly records as being in “real places.” Oh, Whistle belongs to Felixstowe, where MRJ and other Fellows of King’s College, Cambridge spent pleasant holidays after Christmas with Felix Cobbold, banker, philanthropist and bursar at King’s. As to A Warning, MRJ knew Aldeburgh from early childhood. Later in life, he spent a pleasant week or two at the White Lion Inn – in April or May – almost every year from 1921 until 1935, the year before he died.

MRJ’s inestimable contribution to the county of his earliest upbringing was to make sense of the poor jumbled ruins behind the proud stone gatehouses of St Edmund’s great abbey church at Bury, and to reconstruct from his unrivalled knowledge of the various collections of manuscripts the contents of the monks’ library: On the Abbey of St Edmund at Bury (1895). He had more than fulfilled the intentions he expressed in a letter home to Livermere from school when he was not yet twelve: “I desire above all things to make an Archaeological search into the antiquities of Suffolk, to get everything I can for my Museum, and last but not by any means least to get home.”

2 Responses to “M R James’s Suffolk”

  1. janowrite September 23, 2018 at 2:35 pm #

    Love James’s ghost stories and have taught courses about them – I really appreciated this post, thanks for this excellent background!


  1. M R James’s Suffolk — Ghost Cities | Fantasy Gift Sources: Book Reviews, Article Resources, News - February 18, 2018

    […] via M R James’s Suffolk — Ghost Cities […]

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