Wednesday, June 8, 2016

Scholars On Holiday

There is without doubt an entire thesis to be written (I am not volunteering) on the subject of stories that start with scholarly young men taking a holiday in the country, from which mysteries flow. Some of M R James’ stories begin in this way, so do a few of Arthur Machen’s, and in the tales of E.F. Benson it is a regular thing.

I must admit to a great fondness for these sorts of yarns. There is something very satisfying about the picture they conjure. Their leading characters have generally gone to some remote spot for some innocent reason to do with catching up with their studies, or taking a rest from their studies, convalescing, or for walking or fishing. They find an old inn with quaint features, and a landlord or landlady with ditto, often garrulous, particularly about local manners and customs. Not long after they arrive they go for a walk among the hills, woods, moors or similar lonely places. And then…

I was reminded of these pleasant adventures when I began another of them recently. This was The Seven Black Chessmen (1928), the only book published under the name ‘John Huntingdon’. It contained a line so typical of the field and so wonderfully enticing that I had to read it out loud. Two strangers at the aforesaid typical inn have fetched the local doctor (there is generally one of those in the picture somewhere, or the parson) and make themselves known to him.

“And allow me also to introduce myself. My name is Horton Forbes,” says one. I am, of course, very glad to hear this. A fellow called Horton Forbes could be up to anything. If he had offered some more commonplace name, I should have been disappointed, unless I suspected it might be an alias. But next comes the delicious line:
“Not by any chance the Horton Forbes who published a monograph on Phoenician Rites in the West Country?” asks the doctor.
“I’m afraid so,” Forbes replies, modestly, “with a smile” of course.

Well, I am sure we all agree that anyone who has published a monograph is going to have something about them. But a monograph on such a recondite subject! As noted in this place previously, Sherlock Holmes himself wrote a monograph on Chaldaean Roots in the Cornish Language, and was therefore working in similar terrain. The notion behind both is that Carthaginian sailors came to Cornwall long ago looking for tin, based upon some rather imaginatively interpreted passage in an ancient historian: but it is now thought that this is not at all what he was saying. And why anyone would take such a long, hazardous voyage for a commodity not all that valuable was never explained.

However, such legends die hard. And there are several similar ones about too. Arthur Quiller-Couch, for example, wrote a few very enjoyable tales which supposed the Greeks had landed in Cornwall. The legend that Joseph of Arimathea came to Britain, putting ashore in Cornwall, is persistent, and I remember reading that Cornish tin miners had a watchword they used during their tin workings: “Joseph was a tinner”. It has also been suggested that the Western Caliphate which ruled southern Spain for some centuries sent out vessels to Cornwall and established ports and citadels there. We might think these traditions are all about marking Cornwall off as a place distinctive from the rest of England (or indeed not part of England), possessed of its own venerable antiquity.

Relics and residues of any kind relating to the Phoenicians in Cornwall would of course be fascinating enough: but survivals of their rites there? At this point I confess I would be even more interested in reading Mr Forbes’ monograph than the book in which it is mentioned. In what way could those rites linger still, I wonder? I admit that I went so far as to check the British Library catalogue, just in case there was such a monograph. There isn’t.

So, back to Mr Forbes. And indeed much more about him is soon forthcoming. He had been sent into the jute business by his father, but did not much like it. Fortunately, a wealthy uncle died and left him all his money (there are often conveniently mortal uncles in such tales). Forbes entirely understandably threw aside jute and devoted himself instead to “anything uncommon or incredible”, an occupation that has already taken him to Persia and Siam, and now (for such is the setting) the Welsh border country, because, as he avers, “one may easily come across people quite as strange, and occurrences quite as stimulating, here at home”. He smokes long Turkish cigarettes. There is more than a suggestion in all this of the influence of Mr Machen, I think, not only in the Welsh Border setting, but also in the Mr Dyson-ish nature of the sleuth.

John Huntingdon’s book seems to be shaping up as mostly a murder mystery with only a marginal supernatural element, if that, and there is no sign yet that Horton Forbes’ specialised knowledge of Phoenician Rites is going to come in handy. However, I am still only a few chapters in, so who knows whether Baal and Ishtar may yet make their presence felt. In the meantime, since Huntingdon is evidently a pseudonym, it is worth looking to see who he really was, just in case it turns out that the author himself was an authority on the dread rituals.

Well, apparently not, or at least not obviously. It turns out he was Gerald William Phillips, 1884-1956, born in India; died in Surrey; the author of three volumes about Shakespeare published in the Thirties, and one monograph about him in 1954. The title of one of these, The Tragic Story of “Shakespeare” disclosed in the Sonnets, and the life of Edward de Vere, Seventeenth Earl of Oxford, etc. (Cecil Palmer, 1932), reveals him to be, as other sources confirm, an Oxfordian, ie one of those who argue that this courtier was the “real” author of Shakespeare’s work.

Now, though not quite as good as finding him a Phoenicianist (or whatever the proper term should be for those who seek signs of this civilisation in the West Country), this is still quite cheering. I have a fondness for quaint theories surrounding Shakespeare, including debates about the apocrypha (plays he might have written or co-written), books and things he may or may not have owned (such as his history book or, recently, his dictionary), and of course “the authorship question”. I was delighted to find a sturdy volume recently in which, instead of the usual suspects (Bacon, Oxford, or a circle of courtiers amusing themselves), a Russian scholar put forward the figure of the Earl of Rutland. There do not seem to be many other Rutlandians yet, but these things wax and wane. At first Bacon was very much in the ascendant but now Oxford is definitely more favoured.

I should explain that my relish in such debates is not because I subscribe to any of the theories in particular, but because I enjoy literary eccentricity. I also have a small collection, I suppose it may be getting on for a dozen titles, of books which attempt to complete, or solve, The Mystery of Edwin Drood. Some of these are written as novels, or as fictional continuations, whereas others are essays or monographs looking at the various theories that have been put forward, sometimes advancing a new one, or if not at least coming out in favour of one or another. The several questions the famously unfinished book prompt include: what did Dickens mean when he said he had “a very curious and new idea for my new story…a very strong one, though difficult to work”?; what is the significance of the opium den?; who is the stranger Dick Datchery, and what is he up to?; who are the Singhalese twins, Neville and Helena Landless, and what is their role?; and, of course, who murdered Edwin Drood?.

This is a very enjoyable game indeed. Many ingenious devices have been used to work out how Dickens meant the story to end. People have looked for clues in his letters or, more often, it must be said, between the lines of his letters. The illustrations to the frontispiece of the first edition have been minutely examined for clues, on the assumption that Dickens might have confided the denouement to the artist. The memoirs of Dickens’ family, friends and associates have been scoured for anything he might have said or hinted to them. Seances have been held to elicit the answer from Dickens’ restless spirit, and indeed a whole book was written which purported to have been dictated from beyond. The position is made more complicated, and disputatious, because Dickens himself clearly said he changed the plan for the story as he wrote it: so any early suggestions may have been superseded.

M.R. James also much enjoyed the Drood game and accompanied some fellow scholars to Rochester to look into it at the scene of the crime (if, indeed, there was a crime: even that is not quite certain). This is another example of “scholars on holiday” and in more than one way, taking time away from the cloister and common room to pit their wits against a perennial and in every sense endless mystery.

(A version of this essay first appeared as a contribution to The Everlasting Club. Why not join if you'd like to read more, by diverse hands?)

(c) Mark Valentine 2016


  1. I wrote the works of Shakespeare...

  2. The diversity (perversity?) of Mark's literary interests amazes me. How many books has he, I wonder. I had to downsize recently and now probably only own something over two thousand books, taking in the usual supernatural/decadent semi-obscure writers we love, but I also find I have gone down by-roads that lead me to obsessions with people such as Tom Horn (the wild west scout who ended up on the gallows), Rochester and other rakes, the Jeffrey MacDonald murder case, and the eccentric John Mytton. If only I'd room, money and another lifetime who knows what else I'd look into because I rarely see a book I don't at least want to crack open for a quick look.

  3. a fascinating excursion in itself and another signpost for those who set their sights on collecting 'elusiviana' . There's a task there in itself for the scholar bibliophile to checklist the titles of monographs that appear and that are referenced within stories.

    Jean du Bois

  4. It was a little toy man, made of tin.
    "Wizard of OZ?" asked the shopkeeper.
    "Not at all," beamed the professor. "Gift from Dr. Braise for my daughter, brought back from Cornwall. Has a little door in its chest, supposedly for holding paper notes."
    "You don't say."
    "Yes. As I understand it, you write a note, place it inside, and wind up the tin man like so. He walks across the room and delivers the message to a friend, or in my daughter's case, her nurse."
    "Oh? Her nurse?"
    "Bed-ridden you know. Voice so weak, she used the tin man to send messages to the nurse. It was practical and playful, you see."
    "And so now you want to sell it?"
    The shopkeeper noticed a books under the professor's arm.
    The Golem, and the Paper of Life.

  5. Lovely article as always on literary esoterica and eccentricity. I, too, have a fondness for the ''bachelor-scholar who holidays in remote, legend-haunted location and uncovers supernaturalism'' tales; and I often feel that Cornwall, a place I would like to visit sometime, is a separate country from England. There are some Celtic strains in other English counties, such as Lancashire and Devon, but no other land in England's jurisdiction contains such a Celtic wealth and heritage as Cornwall.

  6. "There is without doubt an entire thesis to be written... on the subject of stories that start with scholarly young men taking a holiday in the country, from which mysteries flow."

    Not just mysteries: see Clough's The Bothie of Tober-na-Vuolich. It's an interesting revelation about nineteenth and early twentieth academic life that would-be scholars did their studying in the vacations and socialised in term!