"Do they say where it is?":
Geographical oddities in "A Warning to the Curious"

by Steve Duffy

An excerpt from the Introduction to A Pleasing Terror: The Complete Supernatural Writings of M.R. James (Ash-Tree Press, 2001).

Serendipitously, an interesting sidelight on James' attitude towards his ghost fiction came my way in the spring of this year, just when I was wondering what I might usefully find to say in this Introduction. At the kind invitation of Rosemary Pardoe, editor of Ghosts & Scholars magazine,(1) I was in Chester, looking over a facsimile of the original manuscript of "A Warning to the Curious", a personal favourite among James' tales and one of the many treats that await you as you read on. The photocopy had been secured by the editors, Barbara and Christopher Roden, as part of their research for this volume; it comprises twenty-two pages of the direst handwriting one might hope to encounter outside a doctor's surgery, pencil scribble with numerous corrections and emendations, ranging from part of a date to the deletion of whole paragraphs, and printers' instructions done in another hand. I wouldn't have passed up a chance to examine the document for the world, but without the printed text of the story to hand (to say nothing of Rosemary's accomplished translation skills) I'd have been completely in the dark for a good two-thirds of it.(2) Certainly it might irk anyone who'd ever taken as gospel the advice of those earnest Teach Yourself Creative Writing manuals: not for MRJ the double-spaced typed A4 manuscript, complete with word-count and the author's name and address on a cover-sheet... Joking apart, though, it did seem just a little curious - even significant, maybe - that James hadn't seen fit to present the publishers with a corrected, properly legible manuscript. Again that question of self-deprecation came up: could it really have been the case that these stories were considered too trifling to take up any more of the Provost's time than was absolutely necessary? It was at least a tenable hypothesis.

Reading through the manuscript Rosemary and I came, independently, to the same conclusion: it seemed to both of us more than likely that what we were looking at was a first draft of the tale. There are numerous minor corrections along the way - place names, dates and the like - and one major emendation, where two paragraphs are deleted in their entirety, and their content redistributed through the subsequent paragraphs.(3) Otherwise, what you read in the manuscript is more or less what you'll read between pages 341-355 of this book. If you're not familiar with "A Warning to the Curious", then it might help if you turn to those pages now, and read the story.

Those who have read "A Warning to the Curious" before will doubtless have read it many times (once could never be enough, for this tale), and won't need reminding that it deals with the finding of one of the Three Crowns of East Anglia, holy relics buried along the Anglian coast to protect the realm against invasion. Our narrator, a bluff yet kindly man holidaying with his friend Henry Long at the "Bear" in Seaburgh, learns of the Crown from its finder, the "rabbity, anaemic... but not unpleasing" Mr Paxton. I'd like to address the circumstances of the Crown's discovery in some detail, drawing your attention to the geography of the tale in particular.

Paxton, we're told, first got on the scent of the Crown in the village of Froston, "about five or six miles" from Seaburgh. Here he sees the Three Crowns carved in a church porch, and learns their history - learns, moreover, that one of the Crowns is buried quite nearby, and that the Agers, a local family only recently extinct, served as its guardians. Bicycling back from the church, Paxton comes across the grave of the last guardian, William Ager. Here for the first time James begins to elide, skimming over minor details in a frustrating, markedly-first-draft sort of way, and the first seeds of confusion are planted in the reader's mind. Is William Ager's grave in the churchyard at Froston? Not unlikely; it is, after all, in the church at Froston that Paxton first learns of the Agers, who were well-known to both the sexton and the vicar. Yet it is never made quite clear. Moving on: Paxton finds a prayer-book which once belonged to the Agers in a curiosity-shop. While we learn that it dates back to "1740 odd, in a rather handsome binding" (this is, after all, James the bibliophile), we're not told where the curiosity-shop is. "Down that way - you know", is the nearest we get to directions, and in the context of the narrative "down that way" might as easily be Froston, as Seaburgh. This is important, though, because it's in the curiosity-shop we learn that Ager had lodgings nearby, "in a cottage in the North Field". Paxton walks there immediately, and discovers the mound where he believes the Crown is buried. Now this location is definitely Seaburgh; James' opening paragraphs of personal reminiscence have already set the scene for us, describing minutely the walk from Seaburgh to the mound.(4) So; the Crown is buried at Seaburgh, some ten minutes' walk from the "Bear" hotel where Paxton, Long and our narrator are staying.

So far, so good; yet what does Paxton do next? He goes out to the mound at night, and digs for the Crown - and finds it; and from that moment on, he is never again alone. Did a frisson just run up your spine? Yes, mine too; very understandable. But we must try, just for a few minutes, not to let the supernatural elements overwhelm us. Note instead Paxton's movements, once he has secured the Crown. In his own words: "I had to get to the junction for Seaburgh, and take a train back."

Take a train back? We've already been told, and will be told again before the tale's conclusion, that the mound is within easy walking-distance of Seaburgh and the "Bear". Later on in the tale, when Paxton, Long and the narrator go to put the Crown back, they leave the hotel some time after half-past ten at night, walk to the mound, re-inter the Crown, cover their traces, and walk back to the hotel - and they're still back "well before twelve". So where did Paxton take the train from? and why?

Now you can run this one backwards and forwards, trying to conceive of a set of circumstances which will account for Paxton's to-ing and fro-ing about the Anglian countryside. You can propound an elaborate double-bluff whereby Paxton thinks to fool the villagers as to his nocturnal whereabouts; you can introduce a handy stopping-train at a convenient junction, barely a mile or two from the Seaburgh terminus... and yet; and yet. At the end of it all, the business with the train reads, in my opinion, less like a deliberate plot point, an intentional construction, than an erratum - the same class of minor inaccuracy or ongoing revision that James tidies up at a dozen other places in the manuscript. (At one point, for instance, he writes "Aldeburgh" for "Seaburgh", crosses it out and corrects it; at another, he begins to write "Thor-", only to amend the place-name to "Froston".) Had he gone over the manuscript a few more times before sending it to the printers, is it possible that he might have chosen to remove any ambiguity concerning the mound's whereabouts vis-à-vis Seaburgh and the local train network?(5) I wonder.

By now, anyone who loves James' ghost stories is probably cursing me up and down the town, and asking how I could spend so long in discussing "A Warning to the Curious" without mentioning its primary characteristics - its unrivalled atmosphere of mounting, creeping unease, its appallingly single-minded revenant with his "power over your eyes", its unforgettable denouement out on the shingle beach by the Martello tower. I hereby apologise unreservedly; of course, these things are what you will remember when you read "A Warning to the Curious". (In fact, you will probably remember them for as long as you live...) Be assured that the story ranks among my top three favourites of James', and possibly of anybody's spook stories; its virtues far outweigh any minor faults it may possess, and certainly the tale is strong enough to withstand any amount of nit-picking from the likes of this carping faultfinder. But in mitigation, I would plead an underlying purpose: I would suggest, in fact, that if the ambiguities I've listed above are uncorrected errata (and not just... well, ambiguities), then their presence in an otherwise perfectly crafted narrative might furnish us with one or two clues; clues as to why James could lavish such evident care and attention on the creation of these tales, and yet appear so dismissive about them once they were finished - even to the extent of not bothering to provide his publisher with a fair copy, or to read through his own proofs with due care and attention. In examining this apparent paradox, we might even come to guess at something of the truth behind James' attitude towards his own ghost stories...


(1) For more than twenty years the Jamesian journal of record; indispensable to any self-respecting James buff by virtue of its admirable in-depth research and exegesis, not to mention its enlightened and discriminating pick of new fiction in the Jamesian tradition. In case you're wondering what that tradition might constitute, I've heard it defined most succinctly as "whatever Ro says it is"...

(2) For Rosemary's description of the manuscript, see Ghosts & Scholars 32, pp.47-49: "The Manuscript of 'A Warning to the Curious'".

(3) See also the MS of "Number 13", from which a descriptive opening paragraph was cancelled, and to which a passage concerning Daniel Salthenius' dealings with the devil seems to have been added, both at a fairly late stage, together with numerous odd-word and -phrase emendations.

(4) You can pretty much follow the route on modern Ordnance Survey maps of Aldeburgh, ending up incongruously enough in a caravan-park; any excavations you might choose to undertake while on-site will be at your own risk, since the publishers decline to accept either responsibility or blame for the consequences, in this world or the next...

(5) Of course, one trusts he would still have found a way to bring in that splendid business with the guard at the railway station: you remember, the one who held open the door after Paxton got into the carriage - "just as he would if there was somebody else coming, you know."

May 2001
Copyright © 2001 Steve Duffy

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