A ghost story for Christmas Eve

Perhaps we enjoy a ghostly tale as an antidote to the otherwise saccharine fare of the season. Or perhaps, in the gloom of winter, drawing around the light together makes us all the more aware of the darkness at our backs. For whatever reason, ghost stories have been a feature of the Christmas celebration since long before A Christmas Carol.

If you have ever seen the College loom out of the fog as you cross the bridge at daybreak, or sensed the eyes of a gargoyle following you down the Long Walk, or  – like many of the College Library staff – been startled by the tolling bell as you stoop over your work in a lofty tower, you won’t find it hard to believe that Eton has made its mark on gothic fiction. Some of the most significant gothic works in English literature were written by Etonians, and if we look closely we can see the influence of Eton’s architecture, legends and traditions on the genre. That’s a subject for another day, though, because Christmas calls for a particular, and very Etonian, kind of gothic story.

Portrait of M.R. James by Sir Gerald Kelly (oil on canvas).

Montague Rhodes James (1862-1936) was a true polymath. Known during his life as a medieval and biblical scholar and the Provost of Eton and King’s College Cambridge, James also produced an astounding number of descriptive catalogues of manuscripts held by Eton and many Cambridge colleges. Were that not reason enough for librarians to adore him, he also wrote ghost stories, and it is for these that he is most famous.

The autograph manuscript of ‘The Mezzotint’, which was published in Ghost Stories of an Antiquary (1904), and a photograph portrait of M.R. James, all from the Eton collection.

James’s stories often are set in ancient schools or universities, where a scholarly protagonist (frequently naïve or detached from the wider world) meets their undoing through a sinister, ancient object of the kind that James found in Eton’s own collections.  Perhaps in his protagonists James was parodying himself, a bachelor who happily lived much of his life within College walls, absorbed in mysterious antiques.

Eton found its way into James’s gothic tales more directly, too. He set several of them at Eton; ‘After Dark in The Playing Fields’ (1924) takes place in the vicinity of Sheep’s Bridge. ‘Wailing Well’ (1928) was written for an excursion of the Eton Boy Scouts, set in the location of their campsite and featuring beaks that they all knew. That James wrote it to read around the campfire with the purpose of amusing and terrifying them on that trip goes some way to explaining why it is the most gruesome, and one of the most funny, of his tales.

This copy of ‘Wailing Well’ is signed by the Etonians who feature as characters; an OS map, marking the location of the camp and the landmarks that feature in the story, is tipped in.
M.R. James, ‘Wailing Well’ (Mill House Press, 1928) [Lq.3.17]

Initially, James’s tales were not written to be read but to be heard. In the 1890s he began to write ghost stories to read to his friends on Christmas Eve as they gathered around the fire in his study at King’s. Even after he was persuaded to publish his Ghost Stories of an Antiquary (1904) and other collections, he continued to read his tales for select audiences on Christmas Eve, and these fireside performances became part of Eton’s tradition. Made to be told, his stories have become a regular fixture of the BBC’s Christmas offerings, finding new audiences to unsettle.

In that spirit, then, I invite you to draw close to the guttering candle, or take a walk through Eton in the lamplit gloam, and listen to James’ ‘Wailing Well’, read by student Guy Lorenzotti.

‘Wailing Well’, read by Guy Lorenzotti

From all of us at Eton Collections, a very merry Christmas.

By Hannah Smith, Assistant Librarian, College Library

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