An Evening with M R James

Old HauntsI do like M. R. James’s stories. They are terrifying, though often perpetually obscure, and delight in the macabre and the terrifying. James (1862-1936) was an academic, a medievalist and bibliophile who spent much of his life at Cambridge, and most of that in libraries. There is an aura of the obscure, arcane dustiness around him and his work, though he was also a man with a wicked sense of humour and an interest in the mysterious, the supernatural and the downright terrifying. Many of his stories feature a protagonist not unlike himself: a professor, librarian or antiquarian of some sort, who investigated a little too much, was perhaps a bit too curious, and suffered the terrible consequences of this. There is something terribly English about James’s writing.

He liked to gather his friends to tell them his ghost stories, especially in the winter MRJames1900months when the nights were long. Yesterday evening I went to the Birmingham Midland Institute (my second home at the moment) to a performance of Old Haunts, by Don’t Go Into the Cellar Victorian Theatre Company. In the Members’ Room, dimly lit, ‘Monty James’ sat in a large leather armchair and told us some stories, with just a few props, and some special effects. His manner was perfect – it’s the sort of thing that could easily become horribly twee, but he had just the right mix of menace and jocularity as he told us ‘Casting the Runes’ and ‘Oh Whistle and I’ll Come to you, my Lad’, along with other tales and chatty digressions. The script also included some of James’s own thoughts on the writing of Gothic stories, which I’ve used in teaching James:

Reticence may be an elderly doctrine to preach, yet from the artistic point of view, I am sure it is a sound one. Reticence conduces to effect, blatancy ruins it, and there is much blatancy in a lot of recent stories. They drag in sex too, which is a fatal mistake; sex is tiresome enough in the novels; in a ghost story, or as the backbone of a ghost story, I have no patience with it. At the same time don’t let us be mild and drab. Malevolence and terror, the glare of evil faces, ‘the stony grin of unearthly malice’, pursuing forms in darkness, and ‘long-drawn, distant screams’, are all in place, and so is a modicum of blood, shed with deliberation and carefully husbanded; the weltering and wallowing that I too often encounter merely recall the methods of M G Lewis.

Whistle_and_I'll_come_to_you_illustrationThere is certainly nothing ‘mild and drab’ about James’s stories or the performance. There were plenty of shocks – being suddenly plunged into darkness, hearing terrible screams, flashes of light and so on – it reminded me of the spectacle of Victorian shows, from spiritualism to conjurers, who enjoyed the effects on their audience much as ‘James’ did in Old Haunts. There were plenty of people visibly jumping with shock last night, but it’s not just about thrills: James’s stories make us draw closer to the light for fear of the dark, a primal sense that we need both the horror and the warmth to feel fully alive. There is something joyous in that, which the character of James clearly revels in, and which Gothic literature always indulges to the utmost. Victorian performance, like Victorian literature, particularly sensation literature, asks us to be fully involved emotionally and intellectually, because this full participation makes us vulnerable and therefore more susceptible to its effects. Don’t Go Into the Cellar seem to know this and play on it, and it works brilliantly, especially in such an intimate atmosphere as a small, crowded, dimly-lit Victorian room.

‘All possible devotion to poetry and beauty’

The Reading Art Project

Inspired by the exhibition of Julia Margaret Cameron’s photographs at the Victoria & Albert Museum at the moment, I’ve been thinking about how different art forms might reflect poetry in different ways. Cameron wrote that:

My aspirations are to ennoble Photography and to secure for it the character and uses of High Art by combining the real & Ideal & sacrificing nothing of Truth by all possible devotion to poetry and beauty.

Of course, I think Cameron is referring to ‘poetry’ as a general term; after all, it’s a term often used loosely, suggesting a lyrical beauty which is perhaps a fit subject for poetry. But Cameron’s ambitions were to produce this effect often through reference to specific poems, too. The exhibition indicates the range of her social circle; her sitters included Tennyson, Darwin, Browning and a number of Victorian luminaries from the scientific to the poetic. It is with…

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A plea for a church tower

St_Michael's_Church,_Stoke_Prior,_Worcestershire_2The village in Worcestershire where I live has a beautiful church, St Michaels and All Angels, of which parts date back to the 12th century. It’s a wonderful building, as well as a place of worship, and one which the vicar would like to see becoming more of a social hub for Stoke Prior. Not only is the building attractive and Grade I listed, but the ancient graveyard is full of wild flowers and contains areas reserved for wildlife, which is rampant among the illegible gravestones. I spend quite a lot of my time exploring the church and grounds with my small son, and it’s a place of which I’m very fond. Every day when I come down the hill into the village on my way home from work, I look across the field of sheep to the church and sigh with thankfulness that I can look at this scene which can barely have changed in centuries. It’s sad, then, to see the tower covered with scaffolding and part of the grounds out of bounds due to the crumbling tower.

I’m not an ecclesiologist (unlike my father!) but, briefly, the chancel is 13th century, while the north chapel and the south aisle were added in the 13th and 14th centuries. Decorated windows were installed at the same time, with further Victorian renovations. There is much more information here and here if you’re interested.

In the nineteenth century the church was renovated with funds providedEdward by the ‘Salt King’, John Corbett, a local man who made his money in salt-mining, and is best known now for building Chateau Impney in Droitwich Spa. He was also a very charitable man, it seems, and used him money for good, building almshouses, renovating churches and, I think, also paying for the school master’s house for the Reform School, which is now my house.

Now, the church is fundraising, with the hope that when fully renovated (which will cost around £150,000) the building will continue to be an integral part of village life. If you can donate anything at all to this fundraising effort, please visit their JustGiving page. There is also a facebook group at

Photo.jpgJohn Betjeman, that great preserver of English buildings, had a deep affinity for country churches, even writing poems as fundraisers (something I would love to do, but I’ll spare you). You can listen to him reading his comic ‘Diary of a Church Mouse’ here. He wrote that: ‘When a church has been pulled down the country seems empty or is like a necklace with a jewel missing.’ I’m sure it won’t come to that for St Michael’s, but perhaps we should all follow Betjeman’s lead and think about the spiritual, architectural, social, historical aspects of the heritage represented by our church buildings. Like Betjeman, I can’t walk past a church without popping in for a look, and the peace and beauty always makes it worth it.

If you have any bright ideas about fundraising, or want to know more, please feel free to contact me.

There is a lovely video of the church and its surroundings on Youtube:


‘Reading Art’: Pre-Raphaelite Painting and Poetry

The Reading Art Project

‘Reading Art’ is a three-month Cultural Engagement project funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC), organised by Dr Serena Trowbridge, Lecturer in English at BirmiBeata Beatrix (BMAG)ngham City University. The project is based at Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery (BMAG), and will explore the literary aspects of their Pre-Raphaelite collection.
For the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood and those associated with them, painting and poetry were sister arts. Many Pre-Raphaelite paintings were inspired by literature, and many poems were written to accompany paintings. The interest in and practice of these intertwining strands is one which was widespread in Pre-Raphaelitism, from Dante Gabriel Rossetti and William
Morris to less well-known figures such as Edward Hughes and Marie Spartali Stillman.

The works in the Birmingham collection indicate this breadth of literary engagement, from Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s Beata Beatrix (1877), inspired by Dante’s Vita Nuova, to Edward Hughes’ Night with her Train of…

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Women Reading

The Artist's Wife 1933 Henry Lamb 1883-1960 Presented by the Trustees of the Chantrey Bequest 1934 have a particular fondness for paintings of women reading. I suppose this is because I spend so much time reading – and I like images that have a woman, alone, comfortable, engrossed in a book, ignoring whatever is going on around her (including the artist painting her). I love this 1933 painting by Henry Lamb (left), The Artist’s Wife, for this reason. I’ve just discovered the Tate’s Album facility, in which you can create your own digital exhibition drawing on their collection, so I decided to do one of pictures of women reading. There are quite a few, it turns out (although, of course, many from other collections, too). You can look at my album here. The range of images is fascinating – because, after all, women reading is a historically complex, socially-inflected topic. For centuries women were only encouraged to read the Bible, and, presumably, recipe books – that is, when they were literate enough to read anything, and many of the images I’ve chosen show a woman simply holding, or even near, a book, which at least indicates her ability to read. After all, why teach women to read when they could just memorise a few chunks of improving verses or household advice manuals? Although Jane Austen wrote in Pride and Prejudice that

“I declare after all there is no enjoyment like reading! How much sooner one tires of any thing than of a book! — When I have a house of my own, I shall be miserable if I have not an excellent liCandlemas Day circa 1901 Marianne Stokes 1855-1927 Presented by the Trustees of the Chantrey Bequest 1977”

nonetheless there remained a strong suspicion that women, with their tendency to hysteria, emotional outbursts and rather weak minds, were much better off not reading novels, which might drive them over the edge. The psychological consequences of reading fiction were potentially severe, leading women to expect romance and excitement, alongside an increased tendency to swoon at the sight of a man. In fact, well into the nineteenth century there was a view that reading as part of learning could, if taken to extremes, be very bad for a woman’s mental and physical health; it would take all the blood from her womb (thus rendering her infertile) and move it to her head (thus making her insane). It would – apparently – also give her cold feet. I read a lot, and I do always have cold feet, but things seem otherwise well.

The moral panic about women’s reading – whether they should, and if so what they should – provides the context to these images of women reading. Many of them, unsurprisingly, show a woman reading in a devotional context. These are often the most sombre, beautiful images, showing a religious devotion which is pictured as sacred as well as pictureMary Wollstonecraft (Mrs William Godwin) circa 1790-1 John Opie 1761-1807 Purchased 1884 One of my favourites of these is Marianne Stokes, Candlemas Day (1901), which shows a very pious-looking girl, totally focused, reading by candlelight. Appropriately, another name for Candlemas is the Feast of the Purification of the Virgin, and this young lady looks very virginal indeed.

Another good reason for a woman to be reading, historically, was to share a (morally improving, no doubt) story with her children. That’s another good reason to educate women; so they can teach their offspring. Some of these are ghastly cloying images, such as Arthur Boyd Houghton’s Mother and Children Reading, but others, such as Harrington Mann’s The Fairytale, are less morally improving and more appealing. These domestic reasons for women reading are historically accurate, I suppose, but there are more interesting paintings, in my view: I was surprised by the number of eighteenth century women pictured with a book in their hand, or tucked under their arm.

Some of the women in the paintings are writers, and are thus depicted with a book to indicate their position as such. Robert Southey may have written to Charlotte Bronte that:

“Literature cannot be the business of a woman’s life: & it ought not to be. The more she Lady on a Sofa c.1910 Harold Gilman 1876-1919 Purchased 1948 engaged in her proper duties, the less leisure she will have for it, even as an accomplishment & a recreation. To those duties you have not yet been called,  & when you are you will be less eager for celebrity”

but  literature – both writing and reading it – has, luckily, often been the business of a woman’s life, and many of the paintings reflect that. I love the famous Opie picture of Mary Wollstonecraft, looking up from her book severely but with just a tiny twinkle in her eye.

The late nineteenThe Reading Girl 1886-7 Théodore Roussel 1847-1926 Presented by Mrs Walter Herriot and Miss R. Herriot in memory of the artist 1927 and early twentieth centuries clearly took it for granted that women might read as a pastime – but, interestingly, they increasingly abandoned their books in aesthetic langour. There are a lot of books put aside in this period, such as Harold Gilman’s Lady on a Sofa (1910) and Matisse’s The Inattentive Reader (1919). The reading woman, then, becomes a much more appealing subject for male painters, as an aesthetic object to be looked at – presumably because while she is reading, she’s not paying attention to who is watching. I’m particularly struck – not in a good way – by Theodore Roussel’s The Reading Girl (1886-7) – after all, we all read like that, don’t we? Who needs clothes to enjoy a book? Perhaps most appealing, then, is Gwen John’s sober depiction of A Lady Reading (1909-11), in which a young woman stands alone, so engrossed in her book she doesn’t even sit on the nearby chair. I understand that absorption, and the painting speaks much more to reading women than the male gaze.

A Lady Reading 1909-11 Gwen John 1876-1939 Presented by the Contemporary Art Society 1917


Book review: Lost for Words

Edward St Aubyn’s novel Lost for Words seemed to be both feted and reviled in the press when it was first published and subsequently vanished, despite winning the Wodehouse prize for comic fiction. However, I was intrigued by the reviews I read and I have to say, the book hasn’t let me down. It’s a satire on the world of literary prizes, and indeed contemporary literature more widely, and as satire it doesn’t particularly have characters you love or empathise with (though some are more appealing than others); what it does is exaggerate familiar stereotypes and provide a humorous though sometimes painfully accurate depiction of some of the issues which beset modern literary prize committees. I’m interested in literary prizes: I have tried, in the past, to read the Man Booker long list, but it’s not just the literature I’m interested in but the process of judging and the politics which come into it. St Aubyn skewers these, and whilst it’s funny, and literary, it’s also rather uncomfortable reading, because ultimately the novel is asking what literature is for in the twenty-first century.

The main characters are either prize judges, or writers. The judges are, it is quickly made clear, chosen for politic reasons rather than for love of literature, apart from one slightly pompous female academic, and they all have their own agendas when it comes to choosing a novel to win. They read reluctantly, and are searching for ‘relevance’ or ‘social inclusion’, or else currying favour with someone. Literary merit only matters to the academic, Vanessa, whose choice of novel (‘the only literature on the shortlist’) is clearly doomed from the start. What especially appealed to me was the extracts from these invented novels – examples of ‘gritty’ Irvine-Welsh-derived prose, an overwritten historical novel, and so on – are perfect examples of work that shouldn’t win any prizes, and the characters’ reactions to these meta-texts tell us everything we need to know about their characters. After all, someone’s literary tastes, interests and what impresses them, are very telling indeed.

Edward-St-Aubyn-011The novel also indicates the effect of the prize, and it’s concomitant publicity, on the authors and their friends; there is something very genuine about Sam’s struggle to write his next book, for example, and I was greatly entertained by the French theorising of the French theorist, Didier, whose lengthy sentences will sound very familiar to anyone who has ever read Foucault, Lacan or Barthes. Occasionally, I actually thought he made more sense than any of the other characters, which perhaps suggests that I, too, have been a bit brainwashed.

“Evidently,” said Didier, “we are in the presence of the text-as-textile, as the fabric-ation that weaves a dissimulating veil over its apparent subject, expressing the excess of figurative language over any assigned meaning or, more generally, the excessive force of the signifier over any signified that tries to contain it.”

Ultimately, what Didier does is to rationalise, in his postmodern way, why ‘good literature’ isn’t necessarily the concern of literary prizes. His theories cover up the ‘old fashioned’ view of what makes literature ‘great’, seeing that approach as reductive and restrictive, not to say elitist. Instead, we live in a post-literary age, Didier and the novel imply, in which the most feted work of fiction might not be fiction at all, and might not to be written by the author, either. After all, Barthes has told us that the author is dead, and the significant factor in literary production is the reader, so by what standards do we judge a book, and how can we ever know anything about literature?

I suspect that my comments on Lost for Words – a book that ultimately does suggest we should all be speechless at the state of modern literature – will make it sound particularly appealing only to those who share my interest in literary criticism and the world of books. In fact, it’s a highly entertaining and fast-moving book which I read in a couple of days because, aside from my pretentious lit-crit enjoyment of the metafictional aspects of the book, I simply wanted to know what happened in the end. This isn’t – in my view – a novel to fall in love with, but it entertains and it makes you think, and that’s good enough for me.