Story Notes:
"There was a Man Dwelt by a Churchyard"

(from Ghosts & Scholars 19.)

In 1987, Oxford World's Classics published Casting the Runes and Other Ghost Stories, a collection of twenty-one tales by M.R. James with excellent notes by Michael Cox. Twelve stories were excluded from the volume, so twelve stories remained unannotated until I began this series of notes in G&S 10. The tales were dealt with in the order in which they appear in the Collected Ghost Stories, and the page/line references were to the Penguin Complete Ghost Stories of M.R. James (1984) although they should be comprehensible even with a different edition. The notes for "There was a Man Dwelt by a Churchyard" were compiled with the help of David Rowlands and John Alfred Taylor. I intend to add all the Story Notes to the G&S Archive in due course.

"There was a Man Dwelt by a Churchyard" was first published in Snapdragon, an Eton ephemeral, on December 6, 1924. Despite the fact that it pre-dates the first appearance of some of the stories in M.R. James's fourth collection, A Warning to the Curious (1925), it was not included there. For book publication, it had to wait until MRJ's Collected Ghost Stories (Arnold, 1931). The whereabouts of the manuscript are not known. To call "There was a Man" a story is really a misnomer, for it scarcely has a plot and is merely a small but mildly amusing joke.

Title: "A sad tale's best for winter; I have one of sprites and goblins. There was a Man Dwelt by a Churchyard: I will tell it softly; Yond crickets shall not hear it" is the way Mamilius begins his curtailed story in Shakespeare's A Winter's Tale (Act ii, Scene 1, l.25-31). The scene is quoted at greater length by MRJ at the end of his introduction to Ghosts & Marvels (OUP, 1924). No doubt it is significant that he would have been writing this introduction at roughly the same time as he was working on the story. It would be interesting to know whether the former inspired the latter.

p.338, l.20-21: "In those days it was common to bury people at night": See below, p.338, l.28-29.

p.338, l.22: "toward": In the archaic sense of 'impending'.

p.338, l.27-28: "Midsummer Eve and All Hallows": Traditional dates for important Witches' Sabbats.

p.338, l.28-29: "red-eyed and dreadful to look at": Mother Wilkins is clearly from the same mould as Mother Gibson, another suspected witch about whom MRJ write. She is the title character in "The Fenstanton Witch", the draft tale mentioned in "Stories I Have Tried to Write" and which was published in Ghosts & Scholars 12 (1990). Mother Gibson is described thus: "...she might have sat for a portrait of the evening as far as her eyes were concerned. They were as red as blood and the pupils like a goat's" (pp.2-3). In both "There was a Man" and "The Fenstanton Witch", the disturbance of the witch's grave leads to disaster, though John Poole in the former is seeking (and finds) money, whereas Hardman and Ashe in the latter are hoping to obtain items for use in magic. Nocturnal funerals also feature in both tales. It is tempting to deduce from the superficial similarities between the two stories that "Fenstanton Witch" was also written around 1924. These similarities may also account for MRJ's confusion in "Stories I Have Tried to Write" where he describes "Fenstanton Witch" as being set, like "There was a Man", in the sixteenth century. It actually takes place a hundred and fifty years later, in Queen Anne's reign.

p.339, l.4: "buried in woollen, without a coffin": In Elizabethan times when the story is set (p.338, l.12), only the most well-off people could afford coffins; the rest were buried coffinless in their woollen shrouds. Later, Acts of 1666 and 1678 (to encourage the wool trade) laid down that no cloth except wool could be used for shrouds and other grave-clothes, or for the linings of coffins.

p.339, l.28: "the passing bell": A single church bell tolled to mark the death (as opposed to the burial) of someone in the parish.

p.339, l.30: "they say there's lights": Presumably 'corpse lights' or 'corpse candles'; a form of Will o' the Wisp sometimes seen in graveyards, and possibly caused by phosphorescence from decomposing bodies.

p.339, l.38-40: "an old brass...curious way": For instance Ralph Hamsterley's brass (circa 1510) in Oddington Church (Oxon) - see illustration.

Copyright (c) 1995 Rosemary Pardoe.

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