Story Notes:
"A View from a Hill"

(from Ghosts & Scholars 17.)

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 "A View from a Hill" 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.

"A View from a Hill" first appeared in the London Mercury, XII, 67 (May 1925), and was immediately reprinted in the fourth book of MRJ's ghost stories, A Warning to the Curious (Arnold 1925). The whereabouts of the original manuscript are not known. A.E. Housman, who was a friendly acquaintance of MRJ, told him that he thought there was "something wrong with the optics" of the story. MRJ's comment on this, in a letter to A.F. Scholfield, dated 29 October 1925, was "Well, there may be, but if these things happen, what are you going to do about it?" (M.R. James: An Informal Portrait by Michael Cox, Oxford 1983, p.145). Housman may have had in mind the difference in the angle of refraction of the air in ordinary field glasses and that of the liquid inside Baxter's.

p.299, l.11-12: "if you divided the map of England...south-western of them": In his introduction to the Collected Ghost Stories, MRJ states that "Herefordshire was the imagined scene of 'A View from a Hill'" (Penguin Complete, p.5). Between 1906 and 1929, he often stayed in Herefordshire at Woodlands, the home of Gwendolen McBryde and her daughter Jane (for whom MRJ acted as guardian). He described the house as "in perfect surroundings". Very possibly this area (near Abbey Dore and Kilpeck) is the setting for the tale. The names of the villages/churches mentioned in the story don't help in identification, as none of them actually exist anywhere in England (according to Crockford's Clerical Directory). However, if we take Fulnaker Abbey remains to be those of Kilpeck Priory, then it may be significant that there is a Gallows Knapp (hill) about half a mile from Kilpeck.

p.299, l.17: "Squire Richards": To anyone who has read in Eton and King's (1926) MRJ's account (pp.258-259) of his antiquarian friend, Dr Henry Owen of Poyston, near Haverfordwest (Pembrokeshire), there can be no doubt on whom Squire Richards is modelled. Owen and MRJ first met in 1912-13 on the Royal Commission on Public Records, just as Fanshawe met the Squire on "an official inquiry in town" (l.15). The Squire's Christian name was also Henry (see Patten's references to "Master Henry" later in the tale).

p.300, l.40: "your disgusting Borgia box": The 15th/16th century Borgia pope Alexander VI and his children, Cesare and Lucrezia, were widely believed to have used poison to dispose of enemies. One legend has it that they often used a trick ring containing a spring-loaded poisoned needle.

p.301, l.3: "I don't begrudge a drop of blood in a good cause": see p.303, l.34-36.

p.302, l.21: "a rushing, tumbling sea within a hundred yards": From this description it would seem likely that MRJ wrote "A View from a Hill" during one of his frequent stays at the White Lion Hotel on the sea front at Aldeburgh, Suffolk (which appears thinly disguised as the Bear at Seaburgh in "A Warning to the Curious").

p.303, l.34-36: "I don't suppose I can see anything...": Presumably the difference between what Fanshawe and the Squire could see through the glasses is accounted for by the fact that Fanshawe made an inadvertent offering of blood when opening the glasses box.

p.309, l.34: "He lived unknown...": William Wordsworth, Poems Founded on the Affections, No.viii: "She lived unknown, and few could know/When Lucy ceased to be."

p.311, l.37: "unsound mind": The inquest verdict would have been "suicide while the balance of the mind was disturbed".

p.313, l.31: "their bones boiled": The bodies and remains of hanged men were considered more magically potent than any other corpses, and were much in demand among witches and magicians. Paolus Grillandus, a judge in 16th century Roman witch trials, wrote: "Some take a small piece of buried corpse, especially the corpse of anyone who has been hanged or otherwise suffered a shameful death... the nails or teeth... the hair, ears or eyes... sinews, bones or flesh." A moss which grew on the skulls of hanged men was also popular (Man, Myth and Magic, No.70, p.1954). In Thomas Hardy's "The Withered Arm", the woman with the eponymous cursed arm is advised that she will be cured if she touches a hanged man's body.

p313, l.36: "a pity you took that thing into the church": It is extraordinarily rare for MRJ to show Christianity as having any real effect against or power over the supernatural (possibly the only other example is the crucifix in "Canon Alberic's Scrap-book").

Copyright (c) 1994 Rosemary Pardoe.

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