The Mozart of the English Ghost Story

12 Jul

How does William Wymark Jacobs earn the title “The Mozart of the English Short Story”? Because his prose is exquisite and translucent, and his plots – like Mozart/Da Ponte operas – are full of fun and mischief, as anti-romantic as they are romantic. Just as in the last act of Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro, if you blink you risk missing a sublime, or a sublimely comic moment, if your attention lapses when reading a Jacobs story, you risk missing sly irony, wry innuendo or a mordant remark – more often than not about marriage! In fact, the simple pleasure of reading Jacobs’s perfectly paced prose – in Evelyn Waugh’s words, his “exquisite precision of narrative” – is often more enjoyable than following the actual plots of his stories, which are often intricate and sometimes seem only to hang by a thread, which require the reader’s alertness, if not participation, and which are often not resolved until the very last word, sometimes leaving the reader vexed, or even disappointed, however charmed by the telling of the story itself. An example of this is the delectable The Bequest, from Ship’s Company, about late-middle-age second marriage and – inevitably with Jacobs – money. Even the end of The Monkey’s Paw requires some reader participation. The fact is that Jacobs’s invisible craft of narration often cannot be matched even by the ingenuity of his plots. That the lasting satisfaction of a Jacobs story lies less in its plot than its telling means that, like Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories, Jacobs is infinitely re-readable. His sentences always have buoyancy and air. Knowing the plot of a Jacobs story – but not perhaps fully understanding its denouement – does not spoil the pleasure of reading and re-reading him. Open any Jacobs story and you will receive a lesson in how to write English prose and dialogue. Jacobs sustained this prose style, seemingly entirely natural to him – but he always worked hard and slowly – over some 150 stories and six novels. This means that making a selection from his stories is extremely difficult, because they almost all offer the same degree of pleasure.

Among the numerous anthologies, the first was the American Snug Harbour (1931), containing fifty-eight stories (681 pages). This was followed by The Nightwatchman and Other Longshoremen (1932), containing an almost completely different selection (with some overlap), also totalling fifty-eight stories (1,020 pages). The problem of exclusion is indeed not easy. Neither of these has an introduction or supporting material of any kind, unlike the three most recent anthologies. The first of these is edited and introduced by Hugh Greene – Selected Short Stories (1975) – who in his short introduction points out that Jacobs once joked with P.G. Wodehouse that he was his “hated rival”, whereupon Wodehouse claimed he was Jacobs’s “young disciple”, not rival. (Wodehouse chose two Jacobs stories for his A Century of Humour, a collection he edited in 1935.) Greene’s anthology contains twenty stories. The second comparatively recent anthology, published in 1994, was edited by Peter Ford (co-author of The Elephant Man), and entitled The Monkey’s Paw and Other Stories. This contains fourteen stories and a descriptive piece about Wapping. It also contains the best general essay on Jacobs, by its editor, in the form of a thirty-page introduction, which among many other things points out that a Jacobs story – The Money Box – was the basis, albeit remote, of a Laurel and Hardy film, and that the Argentinian maestro Jorge Luis Borges included a Jacobs story in his anthology The Book of Fantasy (Buenos Aires, 1940), alongside Guy de Maupassant, Edgar Allan Poe, Oscar Wilde and many others. The third and most recent Jacobs anthology is The Monkey’s Paw and Others, which collects Jacobs’s “Best Horror and Ghost Stories” (2016). A selection of Jacobs stories, chosen by the Penguin editor Denys Kilham Roberts, but without introduction, was published as Selected Short Stories in 1959, and republished as The Monkey’s Paw and Other Stories as a Penguin Modern Classic in 1962.

That Jacobs is best and sometimes only known for his story The Monkey’s Paw is understandable because of its originality and quality, but it is market forces (the ease of promoting a story that is well known) that explains this effective limitation, because it by no means stands alone in its originality or perfection among Jacobs stories. Every reader will have their favourites, and not everyone will choose The Monkey’s Paw. Jacobs’s story The Boatswain’s Mate was made into an enjoyable comic opera in 1913, with libretto and music by Ethel Smyth. One wonders why, with the continuing popularity of Dad’s Army, no one has televised Jacobs’s beautifully plotted and very spirited stories. Perhaps their endings, which often turn verbally on a penny, would be difficult to bring off visually. Jacobs’s thirteen volumes of short stories, published between 1896 and 1926, with dialogue often written with a Cockney inflection – which the reader soon gets used to and comes to savour – are broadly of three kinds. Most are set on the River Thames, around Wapping, now a sought-after district of London’s former Docklands, which was in Dickens’s day – just before Jacobs – the notorious home of thieves and smugglers. These stories are often told by world-weary nightwatchmen. Their subjects are the bargees, boatmen and sailors – and their wives – of the small craft, barges, sailing barges and ocean schooners, some involved only in local port trade, others sailing as far as Boston in Lincolnshire, Llanelli in Wales, and sometimes the Far East and even Australasia. A second category of stories is set inland, around the Cauliflower pub in the village of Claybury, near Loughton in Essex, populated by rural folk, with the occasional visitor from outside. The characters of the Wapping and Claybury stories are almost exclusively working class or artisan. Those of the third and last category of stories, of horror and the macabre, including Jacobs’s most famous story, The Monkey’s Paw – because it was almost immediately dramatized and filmed – are socially more mixed. The most elegantly told and, at the same time, most gruesome story, The Well, for instance, has an upper-class ambience and cast, and an opening worthy of Saki or Oscar Wilde. There is in fact a fourth category of story, set inland among ordinary artisan folk, and even a fifth, combining stories set at sea and the macabre.

Critics, for once in agreement with the public, have always been positive about Jacobs. P.G. Wodehouse and Evelyn Waugh have both been quoted above. G.K. Chesterton, writing in 1900, begins his essay on Jacobs by comparing him with famous period wits like the Victorian painter James Whistler and the essayist and caricaturist Max Beerbohm, pointing out that while they raise a well-mannered smile or chuckle, Jacobs raises a laugh. He calls Jacobs’s humour common – popular, not vulgar – and goes on to stress his natural ability to speak in the voice of the ordinary working man, whether landlocked cabbie or boatswain at sea. A typical Jacobs interior involves a room in which the head of a household sits in a Windsor chair, embarrassed young men “draw figures with their feet” on the carpet, older women are powerful, but rarely harridans, and young women are lethally attractive (Jacobs’s main illustrator, his friend Will Owen, does not seem to have been able to depict them otherwise). J.B. Priestley, writing in The London Mercury in 1923, says that if Jacobs had written depressing stories instead of entertaining people as he did, he would have been recognized as a great artist: “Literary conditions are becoming so topsy-turvy that popularity is almost a short cut to critical oblivion.” Priestley says that Jacobs creates a world just as Jane Austen does, because comedy demands it; that is why it is wrong to see him as a purely realist writer. The result is something that is not mere farce on the one hand, nor the mere realistic humorous “sketch” on the other, but an art that makes use of both and transcends them, a kind of midsummer nightwatchman’s dream. Priestley relishes Jacobs’s favourite characters – forlorn lovers (including the middle- and even the old-aged), pining young (and not so young) men, fathers and daughters, husbands and wives, and especially pretty young women who invariably outwit and outplot their men, or, as Victor Pritchett points out, are “strong-willed monsters, the scolds of the kitchen”, invariably with numerous children.

Hugh Greene claims in the introduction to his anthology: “Few writers in the whole of English literature have taken such a consistently low view of women.” This is arguable, because Jacobs was not free of the conventional view of women, and there are certainly echoes of his own conflicted marriage in some of his stories, but it is not the whole truth, and it does Jacobs an injustice. The plot devised by the Countess and Susanna in Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro is pure Jacobs and typical of many of his stories, where young women turn the tables on the men. The last British critic to write about Jacobs was Victor Pritchett, writing in the best tradition of the English essay (in Books in General, 1953). He sees the comic writers of his own generation – Waugh, Wyndham Lewis and Ronald Firbank – as “noticeably mad”, suffering “personal mania”, with “a house of private madness on their backs”. Whereas he sees Jacobs as the last of the sane old school, pointing out that the world of wharves and small ships trading from the Thames Estuary was “a fixed world at its moment of ripeness and decline, propitious for the artist”. No notions of social didacticism, or even realism, were in Jacobs’s mind. He just wanted to portray and communicate the world he knew so thoroughly, which he felt and feared was at its zenith or climax. “There is no doubt,” concluded Pritchett, “that Jacobs is one of the supreme craftsmen of the short story.” To quote P.G. Wodehouse, even more succintly, “There is only one Jacobs.”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: