I have a confession to make:
My name is Sandra and I am an M.R. James fan.
So, okay, for most people this is going to be a frustrating, completely self-indulgent post but it’s probably my only opportunity to talk about Montague Rhodes James (1862-1936), one of my favourite writers, in the same literary breath as Ellen Willmott, one of my favourite people and, well, sorry: my blog, my rules…
We already know that Ellen was into the supernatural, or at least she was in her younger days. We have found her sister Rose’s membership of the Society of Psychical Research and have strong reason to believe that Ellen was a member too. This was not particularly unusual, especially for Roman Catholics like Ellen, who was a great collector of memento mori.
We have many examples of her general interest in the spooky, but in my usual annoying way, I’m going to talk about that ‘another day’ as it will take this post way off-course if I start going on about it now.
We’re less sure about what she thought of ghost stories. We know she wasn’t wild about Japanese folklore/ghost story collector Lafcardio Hearn…
…or at least his letters, which were published in 1906 and, in July 1907, Ellen had just read.* She wanted to know if her great friend Dr Moore had read them yet and come to the same conclusion:
“I suppose he will live as a letter writer & that one ought to admire them to the highest degree. I have not come across anyone who has read them yet, but I am afraid my taste must be very bad not to admire them”.
Lafcardio Hearn did not become famous for his letters, so perhaps she was right.
I’m wondering if she may only have read the letters, however, because she’d run out of his fabulously gothic – and exuberantly-told folk tales – certainly from her other interests such stories would have been right up her red-lanterned alley.
It certainly seems strange to read a collection of letters by someone whose work you didn’t admire.
Hearn had been publishing ghost stories of Japan since 1894 – a time when Ellen was really into such stuff – but the most recent, the still-extraordinary Kwaidan, had been published in 1904, the year he died.
Perhaps, starved of folktales, she resorted to Hearn’s letters and found them wanting. Who knows…
Ellen does not mention M.R. James in any letters we’ve found so far. His ghost stories were being published around the same time, but were entirely fictional (as opposed to Hearn’s retelling of existing folktales), sprung from the fertile – if at times disturbing – mind of a Cambridge antiquary. We don’t know if she even liked fiction, preferred ‘factual’ folklore or, perhaps, didn’t bother with either.
Someone else in Ellen’s life was writing about James, though. In time-honoured Sandra-tradition, I will also write about the splendid Henry Elford Luxmoore (1841 – 1926) ‘another day’ as he was important in Ellen’s life and deserves his own spot in the limelight, but I have a very large piece yet to fit into his jigsaw, so bear with me for a while while I hunt the puzzle box for it.
Luxmoore was a very good friend of Ellen’s. Housemaster at Eton School for 29 years, but a master there for far longer, he was steeped in academia and one of his closest friends was his old pupil, Monty James.
James originally wrote ghost stories as Christmas entertainments for his chums at King’s College, Cambridge and rather raucous affairs they appear to have been, too.
Henry Luxmoore was present at many of these parties. We have unearthed at least 100, perhaps 117 – or more – long, chatty, Luxmoorian letters to Ellen, mostly undated and unsorted, which makes transcription Hard Work. Sadly I have been unable to track down her correspondence to him, and no, she does not feature in the collection of his letters published after his death.
The pair met in 1899, through their mutual friend Norman Moore, and almost instantly became very good friends. So far, however, just 16 of Luxmoore’s letters to Ellen have been transcribed, hence my reluctance to write too much about their relationship yet.
The pair bonded over their gardens, enthusiastically swapping plants and visiting each other on many, many occasions. I’ve never seen what remains of Luxmoore’s garden at Eton, but from his descriptions it must have been quite something.
And of course, we hope to learn much more.
Even in such a small sample of transcriptions-so-far, there is a little Jamesian matter to be had. In January 1907, for example, Luxmoore writes
“I assure you that you have been often thought of & spoken of in the last week, for I not only spent my Xmas at Kings Coll. Cambridge where Mr Walter Durnford was immersed in the duties of his XXX, but went thence to Felixtowe where Mr Cobbold has an interesting much Backhoused garden & today have been walking round Mr Fred Lubbocks’s at Emmett’s Ide Hill. There is a legend of you having been round Felixtowe, but I believe they only say so to gain credit”.
James often mentions Walter Durnford, Provost of King’s, in Eton and King’s: Recollections, Mostly Trivial. I can’t tell if Luxmoore is suggesting Durnford knew Ellen, but if he did we have no extant correspondence from him to her.
As far as I can tell, Ellen only actually met James once, and frustratingly we only know about it as a Luxmoore reply to a long-gone Willmott letter, which would have contained all the juicy details.
On July 17th 1918, Luxmoore writes:
“I was glad you met my old pupil & great friend M R James… We cherish hopes that he may succeed Dr Warre as Provost but we have as yet no hint from the King or Lloyd George, the latter cannot be, I fear, very friendly either to Eton or to Scholarship, but the King may absent himself. Will h...”
…and at that point the very badly damaged letter frustratingly runs out. In another, undated letter, found with a bunch marked ‘September, 1918’, Luxmoore’s dream has come true. Again, horribly damaged, we tune in just as he’s asking Ellen if she knows
“…that we are to have Dr James, whom you met, for Provost at Michaelmas?“
It doesn’t seem that Ellen ever met James a second time, though her friend Dr Moore and his son Alan spent the afternoon of May 25, 1919 with the new Provost and told Ellen they “saw many books and pictures”.
I know. None of this is earth-shattering news for most people. It’s all pretty thin stuff. I’m making no great revelations – it’s well-known that James was up for Provost of Eton that summer (though I’m not sure if it was clear that he wasn’t a shoe-in for the job).
And yes, it is sheer self-indulgence for me, an MR James fan, to know that he once met my other obsession, Ellen Willmott; a little Squeeee moment I had to share.
I have questions.
What did they talk about? Did they get on? Was Ellen a ghost-story fan, too? James’s books aren’t mentioned in the Warley Place auction catalogues – but then, they would have been ‘modern’ at the time, and therefore not worth enough to feature other than as part of one of the lots marked
‘a quantity of Books and Albums’, ‘various’ or ‘a similar lot’.
I can’t see that James was much – if anything – of a gardener, so presumably they bonded over archaeology, old manuscripts, old churches – or old friends, such as Henry Luxmoore.
Maybe one day Ellen’s letters to Luxmoore will turn up and we’ll know what she thought of the meeting (presumably on one of her many trips to Cambridge). Until then, I fear I may have wasted a perfectly good post frothing about not very much at all.
*Incidentally, the Hearn letters were collected and edited by Elizabeth Bisland, the second-most-famous girl-reporter-on-a-race-around-the-world. She completed her journey in 76 days – four less than the 80 days taken by Jules Verne’s Phineas Fogg, but was beaten to second place in the history books by one Nellie Bly…