Within the corpus of M.R. James’ writing, his ghost stories, which were “read to patient friends, usually at the season of Christmas,” are like the little skulls in medieval paintings which mock the worldly ambitions of the portrayed. Although James was, in his day, an expert in the medieval and a translator of the New Testament Apocrypha, his ghost stories submit hapless historians whom, during the course of their researches, inadvertently disturb supernatural beings and incur their wrath. Vicious punishments are often meted out to these historians, but the reader is left with only the ghosts of morals and warnings; inconsequential parables in which James has delivered shadows of his own self into the hands of a malicious Devil’s Advocate to have all that was Enlightened beaten out of them for a bit of perverse fun. This “self abuse” may be mischievous in more ways than one: the literary critic Julia Briggs has observed that James’ ghost stories “seem almost to parody his scholarly investigations into Holy Writ, for they frequently adduce biblical or literary references to prove the existence of spiritual forces, yet these appear to be introduced in the spirit of an academic joke, to show that anything can be proved by the citation of learned texts.”
In James’ “A Neighbour’s Landmark” (1924), a historian unearths a multiplicity of texts and narratives which may help to establish “the truth” about a ghost, but we end up learning more about the constraints upon the historian’s research than about any otherworldly power. The story begins in the wilds of an “unfamiliar library” which await exploration. Whilst scholarship has lately resembled a gigantic ants’ nest, with academics patrolling their neatly ordered collections and archives, one may scorch with envy for the age of M.R. James, when one could visit an aristocratic friend’s country house for the weekend and end up poking through a family library which had lain undisturbed for centuries. The narrator of the story describes:
…Betton Court, where, generations back, two country-house libraries had been fused together, and no descendent of either stock had ever faced the task of picking them over… Now I am not setting out to tell of rarities I may have discovered, of Shakespeare quartos bound up in volumes of political tracts…
We soon find the narrator in the library “trying to pick out Swift by his style from among the undistinguished,” rather as one may hunt a camouflaged creature in a forest. The narrator is growing “tired” and “languid,” when, suddenly, the “that which walks” is as just at large amongst the antique pamphlets as it ever was in Betton Wood. The narrator “did sit up” in his chair. He confesses to being “really excited” by the “riddle.” The hounds are off! That which walks is mindless – it does not seem to know why it walks or cries – and this failure of knowledge rather stands out in a library. The narrator’s desire to know about the mysterious thing in Betton wood, is akin to that of a hunter in pursuit of an elusive quarry. One may here recall Herman Melville’s great lines about Truth:
In this world of lies, Truth is forced to fly like a sacred white doe in the woodlands; and only by cunning glimpses will she reveal herself, as in Shakespeare and other masters of the great Art of Telling the Truth…
Perhaps the Betton ghost has a story which is as thrilling as a Shakespearean tragedy, but it is not wholly a doe for the narrator to take a pop at. For the idea that this historian is a hunter galloping into the forests of history has already been somewhat contested. The narrator was about to embark on his story, when an unidentified listener complained that “You begin in a deeply Victorian manner.” The narrator snapped back that, “I am a Victorian by birth and education… the Victorian tree may not unreasonably be expected to bear Victorian fruit.” The narrator is not so much a hunter in the forests of history as a tree!
A general impression of being rooted within history is furthered by this unexpected challenge to the narrator’s authority. When the second first-person narrator interrupts the original narrative (which was not originally contained in speech marks), the befuddled, distracted first narrator, finding himself now in a dialogue, goes off on a tangent, struggling to reference an article from the Times Literary Supplement rather than his own story. Even though the second first-person narrator sets us back on the original path, we are reminded that the story’s narrative is not objective and ahistorical, but itself a part of history, and, furthermore, in the hands of a silly Victorian.
Whilst the ghost haunts a wood which has long been chopped down, the manuscripts in the Betton library – which are themselves the ghosts of old felled trees – seem to contain no useful information about the ghost. The only line about the ghost to be found in the library suggests, when quoted directly, that, “That which walks in Betton Wood/ Knows why it walks or why it cries.” When set in its reputedly proper context, however, this delivers an entirely contrary truth: “Someone says that someone else knows no more of whatever it may be – Than that which walks in Betton Wood/ Knows why it walks or why it cries.” Yet this line was originally contained within a “Country Song” – of which both the words and music have been lost – and the narrator finds it quoted in an eighteenth century letter (possibly inaccurately because the lyrics of folk songs constantly change). This elaborate set-up demonstrates from the start that the narrator is going to have a hard time hunting his ghost.
The narrator abandons the library and stretching his legs after tea, he unbeknowingly reaches the very spot where Betton Wood once stood. Yet surveying the surrounding landscape, he does not observe actualities, but instead finds himself imagining landscapes from the “wood-cuts” of the impeccably “Victorian” artist Birket Foster. He recalls those which “decorate the volumes of poetry that lay on the drawing-room tables of our fathers and grandfathers.” Standing in the ruins of Betton Wood, his mind remains deep in the library – or rather the Victoriana in which he is rooted – and he accordingly imposes sentimental peasants on to the landscape, the Victorian fruits from a Victorian tree. “…they are beautiful to me, these landscapes, and it was just such a one that I was now surveying,” he trills, not entirely specifying whether he is seeing it for real or in his mind.
The cry directly in his ear, however, is very real. When the stunned narrator regards his cherished landscape again, he sees a very different scene, although its gloom still essentially hails from Victorian literature: “images came to me of dusty beams and creeping spiders and savage owls up in the tower.” It takes a further cry to finally blast the narrator into reality. “There was no mistake possible now,” he whimpers, before fleeing from an awful and immediate fear.
The narrator is here more rooted in history than the ghost herself. The ghost is a sheer, blank scream, whose only distinguishing characteristic is her timekeeping. The narrator fears that “the thing would pass me again on its aimless, endless beat,” and one may here be reminded of the automated bird-scarers which one encounters in the modern countryside. Whilst the ghost is consigned to a perpetual present and runs like a clock, the narrator, who only recites established ideas to himself, is planted in the past. After his Victoriana fails him, the narrator concedes that the ghost “was from outside.” When the narrator delivers his own story about the thing to Philipson, it is already buried within history and the narrator will not return to the site of Betton wood under any circumstances.
In this narrative, even the idea of a “ghost” is a little suspect. The first and only mention of a “ghost” in the story is not part of the actual narrative – Philipson’s father takes a line from the (very-Victorian) Walter Scott’s Glenfinlas as an epigraph for his documents. Unable to quite get the word out, the narrator splutters that the Betton cry is “super-natural, or -normal, or -physical.” It is beyond the confines of his established, rooted knowledge, where ideas about ghosts are only Victorian. To learn the truth, the narrator will need to leave behind his ideas and get hunting.
The narrator’s host, Philipson, consults with Mitchell, an old family servant, to retrieve the story of Betton wood. Mitchell relates how it was Philipson’s own father who “done away with Betton wood.” “You needn’t look at me as if it were my fault,” Philipson complains, not wishing to himself be rooted within the past. When the cantankerous Mitchell does not seem game for telling his story, Philipson threatens to “go and ask old Ellis what he can recollect about it.” This provokes Mitchell into delivering his tale, but he actually relates an account told to him by his mother. This thrice-told tale, conveyed through a series of repetitions and retellings, stands somewhat in contrast to the bald shriek of the thing in Betton wood. Nobody bothers to obtain Ellis’ version of events, which remains an untrammelled path in the forests of history.
Another way through the woods lies in the documents left by Philipson’s father, which contain notes from several interviews with local people. One identifies the ghost as a “lady of title” who moved a neighbour’s landmark in order to take “a fair piece of the best pasture in Betton parish what belonged by rights to two children.” The lady was duly subjected to the “curse that’s laid on them that removes the landmark” and she “can’t leave Betton before someone take and put it right again.”
In this account, both the lady and the inventers of the curse are unnamed. The name of the ghost has dropped out of history, the boundary dispute which cursed her to haunt the wood has long been forgotten, she is identified only by her association with a wood that has been since chopped down, and the nature of the “landmark” which she moved is unspecified. Although the world has moved on, the poor ghost is consigned to play her part to an empty, nay a demolished, theatre. Curiously, the identity of the neighbours whom she robbed is as forgotten as their “Landmark.” The landmark asserted the rights of “two children as hand’t no one to speak for them,” and their want of a champion persists to the present day. The title of “A Neighbour’s Landmark”, however, refers only to a single “Neighbour” – no doubt the “lady of title” whose cry is now itself a permanent landmark.
The children are entirely freed from history – and happily forgotten – whilst the lady’s spirit remains imprisoned in a world which seemingly retains no record of her identity. Although James’ politics were infamously conservative, one should note the irony of a “lady” doomed to become as inconspicuous in the present day as her peasantry were during her lifetime. Yet her story will only be fragmentarily preserved in the memories of the modern peasantry and, in a restoration of old-world responsibilities, Philipson’s father, when unable to identify the rightful owners of the pasture, donates “the annual yield of about five acres to the common benefit of the parish and to charitable uses.” At the very end of the story, the lady’s name and a scrap of her tale are found within an edition of the State Trials – perhaps this has lain deep within Betton library all the time – but the narrator will merely cite the story of the newfound “Lady Ivy” before allowing her to slip back un-exorcised into the forests of history.
[Amazingly, “A Neighbour’s Landmark” is currently unavailable on the internet, although Steve Duffy writes a little about the story here and Ralph Harrington provides some good background here. Tychy previously enthused about James here.]