M.R. James's Women

by David G. Rowlands

(from Ghosts & Scholars 15.)

Some commentators have suggested that M.R. James was a misogynist, whereas others have hinted that he contemplated marriage on several specific occasions. These speculations I am happy to leave to their originators, but I do find MRJ's treatment of his fictional women characters interesting. He certainly never uses them as objects of scorn or derision, though in one or two cases (as with the men) they are vehicles for humour. Even in the case of that distaff 'Barker' character, Mrs Ann Maple, whose voluble discourse he makes so amusing, he softens any hint of ridicule by a commendation (itself a delight of pomposity) of her worth by Dr Oldys, whose doubtless fruity tones I always mentally allot to Felix Fulton.

There are several women in the ghost stories who only have 'walk-on' parts, as it were: Mrs Chiddock and Lady Mary Hervey; Mrs Hunt; Eliza the serving maid at the King's Head (I hope her tip was remembered in the stress of subsequent events); and Mrs Betts. Others like Miss Letitia Haynes and Mrs Ashton have so few meaningful words that we are dependent upon their situation in the stories to colour them in our imaginations.

It can be tempting to 'build up' the minor characters. For example, it would be possible to write several lines about the sacristan's daughter in "Canon Alberic's Scrap-book", or to speculate on the degree of domestic harmony enjoyed by Mrs Ashton... but this would be getting a bit PhD-ish and Lit-ish... and once we start down those pathways, psychology and psychiatry lurk only just behind the bushes. No, I'd rather be in Wilsthorpe Maze with Miss and Mrs Cooper!

Of the more developed and important characters, Dr James has particular use for the strong-minded, determined woman who has triumphed - for good or ill - over the restrictions of sex, Society, the Establishment or the Law: not least those required to manage feebler men... Mrs Anstruther, Miss Denton, perhaps Lady Wardrop and possibly even the aubergiste at St Bertrand de Comminges.

MRJ tells us simply that Mrs Mary Anstruther is "a stately dame of some fifty summers", and she is a force to be reckoned with throughout "The Rose Garden". Indeed it is 4pm before she is finished directing her household, and free to resume work on the sketch of the church she is making from the shrubbery of Westfield Hall. She has her husband's time mapped out to suit her ends, and confirmation of her absolute despotism comes in a comment to that gentleman by the gardener, Collins: "'Well now, it ain't for me to go against orders no more than what it is for yourself - or anyone else' (this was added somewhat hurriedly)." We note in fact that the pliable husband, George, has to report back the success of his mission in informing Collins of the lady's wishes, before he can depart to do her bidding in Maldon. One wonders if he ever got much golfing in with Williamson.

This story is, in fact, mostly concerned with Mrs Anstruther. She is the only one of MRJ's delightfully dominant women to get an unpleasant shock. Miss Denton ("The Diary of Mr Poynter"), for example, gets off lightly - being shrewd enough not to have any of the curtain fabric in her room! Yet, despite her domineering, Mary Anstruther is sympathetic to her husband's nightmare (though perhaps because of her own disturbed night) and, with Miss Wilkins' narrative in mind, she leaps nimbly to the conclusion of the dream's origin - as shrewdly as does Florence Gayton in "Casting the Runes" - and proposes a reasonable theory of thought transference to account for it.

However, her ingenuity of mind and logic avail her not against the appearance of Sir --- --- (William Scroggs?) in the box bushes, nor against the instant recall effect of the photograph of his portrait that the Essex Archaeological Society is hawking round. Her constitution and manner succumb to the shock, and she winters abroad: the arrangements of which also fall to husband George - we are not told whether by mandate or from force of habit. It is one of my few quarrels with MRJ that we do not know if Mrs Anstruther came to terms with Westfield Hall and the clearing where she envisaged her Rose Garden, or whether the Hall subsequently came on the market.

Lady Wardrop is a particular joy to me. In fact all the characters of "Mr Humphreys and His Inheritance" add immeasurably to the effectiveness of this tale - one of my great favourites. MRJ unbends to tell us perhaps a little more of her than is his usual wont: "stout, elderly... very full of talk of all sorts and particularly inclined to make herself agreeable to Humphreys..." She is also sensitive to atmosphere, particularly that of Wilsthorpe Maze, and shrewd enough to suggest to Humphreys how to solve the riddle of the message on the stone blocks moved from the maze to the summer-house. Her maze book would undoubtedly have made fascinating reading.

More potently forceful, perhaps, are the evil genii of their stories, either in the flesh or from beyond it: Mrs Mothersole; Mrs Elizabeth Merryweather; the blackmailing Jane Lee (there is no humour, only grim threat, in her mis-spelt letter to Archdeacon Haynes); Old Mother Wilkins (not to be confused with Miss Wilkins of "The Rose Garden"); and their Ladyships Sadleir and Ivie (Theodosia Bryan). Nor must we forget those who were but lightly drafted in intent, but nonetheless potent for that: the moustachioed Madame Giraud and perhaps Caroline Purdue (see "The Unfinished Ghost Stories of M.R. James", G&S 4, pp.38-9, 40).

Malevolence and a thirst for retribution are mingled with the pathos of such hapless victims as poor Ann Clark and Phoebe Stanley, but we are given no data to account for the origins of the terrible three women who haunt "Wailing Well".

Then there are those innocents who see ghosts and have to endure them despite their fears: the innkeeper Sarah Arscott who describes so vividly to the Assizes the return of Ann Clark; and poor Emma Mitchell who, despite her dread of Betton Wood and its 'walker', often perforce has to use that short cut, at the risk of hearing and (once) seeing the shrieking ghost. We are told much less about the elderly widow in the Cathedral Close who dreams of the vampire's red eyes as he (or is it she?) flits about spreading pestilence and enervation; or of the wife of the FSA whose dress is torn and stained as she sits sketching on that particular tomb.

Of the more commonplace ladies who enhance the stories, we find Mrs Mary Porter at Brockstone (a good foil for Davidson), Miss Wilkins who has sold her house to the Anstruthers (and confides to that lady her childhood 'romances' about the arbour: romances which were neither quaint nor charming), Verger Worby's mother; all of whom are limned-in with very few words of description (of Miss Wilkins, for example, we are simply told that she is of mature years), yet of whom we can conjure up surprisingly vivid pictures. Then there are Mrs and Miss Simpson (who, in "The Tractate Middoth", marries the well-intentioned, but possibly opportunist Mr Garrett - though one feels he has earned any future good fortune); and Mrs and Miss Cooper, whose company I'm sure we should find pleasantly stimulating in small doses, just as the head of their house (that Barker of Barkers) was able to entertain Mr Humphreys with his patter. Indeed, were I a young man of slight prospects, I'm sure I should not have been averse to showing Miss Cooper the Wilsthorpe Maze myself - chaperoned by her mother of course, who doubtless would have been easy enough to lose for a while at least.

Four characters stand out as particularly good creations. There is the aforementioned Mrs Maple ("The Residence at Whitminster") of the voluble speech ("I couldn't help thinking to myself, 'If you was bats, where should we be this night?' ...Well, there's something to be thankful for, if we could but learn by it."). Another housekeeper, Mrs Bunch of "Lost Hearts", is somewhat more comfortable and placid, perhaps the sort of motherly woman a small boy might befriend and confide in - though, admittedly, Stephen seemingly has no trouble in confiding his dreams to his reclusive uncle, Mr Abney. Mrs Bunch and Stephen while away the long evenings in chatter about Aswarby Hall and its occupants, and gradually we become aware of the implication of the sequence of events that is unfolding. Mrs Bunch's simple beliefs and interpretations represent the reassurance of normality: a bastion against that nagging certainty of what is going to happen...

The Grandmother of "An Evening's Entertainment" is a wonderful mixture of the reassuring - if illogically stern - grandparent who gets a certain satisfaction out of recounting her gruesome story to a captive audience. MRJ gives us no description of the old lady: her character and wry charm appear in the quirky asides and comments she makes on her ghastly narrative ("Don't you know - but there, how should you - what was I thinking of? Well, anyway, you mind what I say."). Even a century or so later than this narrative is set, many of us have experienced grandparents with just this degree of strict illogicality! Having scared the daylights out of the little girl at least with her story, she refuses her a night-light for her room!

Miss Mary Oldys ("The Residence at Whitminster") is perhaps MRJ's most complete attempt at a female character, and an especially delightful one (though Miss Mary Cave - see G&S 4, pp.40-41 - might have eclipsed her had MRJ persevered with this draft). He takes pleasure in sharing some of her thoughts with us and particularly her confidences to a friend, Emily, via a letter.

Part of this letter forms a crucial and grim part of the story, but MRJ also gives us the carefully composed opening of the missive, with its rounded phrases (not devoid - as he tells us - of traces of the influence of that leader of female thought in her day, Miss Anna Seward, known to some as the Swan of Lichfield). The story is, curiously enough, told from a number of viewpoints - that of the narrator who has to span some ninety years in putting together the incidents, that of Dr Oldys, his niece Mary, and her young man Mr Spearman - and in the course of the events' unfolding, each of these observers gives us an insight into Mary's character. Whether MRJ had anyone in particular in mind as the original, we cannot know, but he was certainly well-acquainted with a number of lively, intelligent young ladies (the Cropper girls, for examples), who may unwittingly have assisted him to such a felicitous character. Again, you will find little definite description, though we do learn that Mary is "fair... with light hair and large eyes, rather a devotee of literature".

As with his horrors, MRJ suggests far, far more than he actually says of his characters, and this - of course - is the source of his power. Read again "The Residence at Whitminster" and see how subtly this is done... and if Mr Spearman is not to be envied his good fortune! The interesting question is, to what extent will his Mary become another Mrs Anstruther?

Copyright © 1993 David G. Rowlands

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