Story Notes:
"An Evening's Entertainment"

(from Ghosts & Scholars 18.)

In 1987, Oxford World's Classics published Casting the Runes and Other Ghost Stories, a collection of twenty-one tales by M.R. James with excellent notes by Michael Cox. Twelve stories were excluded from the volume, so twelve stories remained unannotated until I began this series of notes in G&S 10. The tales were dealt with in the order in which they appear in the Collected Ghost Stories, and the page/line references were to the Penguin Complete Ghost Stories of M.R. James (1984) although they should be comprehensible even with a different edition. The notes for "An Evening's Entertainment" were compiled with the help of David Rowlands and John Alfred Taylor. I intend to add all the Story Notes to the G&S Archive in due course.

"An Evening's Entertainment" was first published as the final story in A Warning to the Curious (Arnold 1925), and was probably written to fill up that volume. It may be the tale referred to in MRJ's letter to Gwendolen McBryde of October 3rd, 1925 (Letters to a Friend, 1956, p.135): "The ghost story book is finished. I had to write another one instead of the one I was at, which would not come out." The whereabouts of the original manuscript are not known. The story is an oddity in that it is the closest MRJ ever came to straight-forward grand guignol. Although pagan magic is the dominant theme, and there is a hint of ghosts seen, the supernatural actually features only in the form of the strange, poisonous flies.

p.328, l.6: "Rawhead and Bloody Bones": As MRJ says, the Oxford English Dictionary dates the name(s) as far back as c.1550, in Wyll of Deuyll (by Gascoigne?): "Written by our faithful Secretaryes, Hobgoblin, Rawhed, & Bloody-bone." The earliest reference the OED gives which mentions the phrase in relation to a nursery bogeyman is in 1659: "Most People are agast at them, like children at Raw-head and Bloody-bones" (Leveller 4).

p.328, 1.14-16: "Mrs Marcet's Evening Conversations...Science in Earnest": The full details of the second and third titles are: Dialogues in [sic] Chemistry by Jeremiah Joyce (1809); and Philosophy in Sport made Science in Earnest; being an attempt to illustrate the first principles of Natural Philosophy by John Ayrton Paris (1827). The first title is probably The Work-Table, or Evening Conversations, designed for the improvement and instruction of young persons (1823). However, the British Library catalogue lists the author as Miss E.A. Soutter; perhaps Mrs Marcet was her married name?

p.329, l.6: "Charles and Fanny, not Harry and Lucy": In the early editions of A Warning to the Curious, "Fanny" is called "Lucy" throughout the story, thus making a nonsense of this parenthetical remark. The error was later corrected.

p.329, l.10: "woundy": Excessively.

p.330, l.20: "before I was born or thought of": If the framing narrative takes place during the last century, which seems likely, then the main story must be set in the eighteenth century.

p.330, l.39: "old figure cut out in the hill-side": Later (p.331, l.37-38) this is described as "the old man on the hill". There are only two humanoid hill figures in Britain: at Cerne Abbas (Dorset) and Wilmington (East Sussex). Other descriptions of the location of the story (e.g. "them barrows on the down" - p.331, l.15-16) could apply to either area. The mention of "Wilcombe" (p.334, l.21) might suggest that MRJ had Wilmington in mind, but there are very few 'combe' names around Wilmington, whereas there are many near Cerne Abbas, including the two adjoining villages of Batcombe and Woolcombe, which may be "Bascombe and Wilcombe". 'Pagan' festivities and goings-on are associated more with the Cerne Abbas figure, and other clues in the tale (see below, p.333, l.3; and p.336, l.25-27) also point to Cerne as the setting. Both the Cerne Abbas Giant and the Long Man of Wilmington are of unknown date but probably prehistoric. The former is a priapic individual wielding a club. There are several theories as to his identity (see Jennifer Westwood, Albion, 1985, pp.46-50). One now generally dismissed view, though perhaps still widely accepted in MRJ's time, linked him with the Greek sun-god, Helios (this connection was never made with the Wilmington Man).

MRJ knew the Cerne figure and wrote about it in Abbeys (1926), p.149:

"I have always supposed that [Cerne Abbey] was set up here as a counterblast to the worship of the wicked old giant who is portrayed on the side of Trendle Hill just behind the Abbey. He is surely of very great antiquity, and is perhaps the most striking monument of the early paganism of the country. Whether he is British or Saxon, who shall say? Some have thought that he represents what Caesar describes - a wicker figure in which troops of victims were enclosed and then burnt to death. On this hypothesis the figure would have been marked out by a palisade of wattles on the ground, and the victims, bound, crowded into the enclosure. In any case, here must have been an important heathen sanctuary, and a fit place consequently for champions of the new religion to set up their standard."

p.331, l.9: "we don't want for company": Despite the suspicions of the locals, there is no definite indication that the "company" was living. It would seem likely that Davis used the young man as a 'scryer', just as Lord Saul used Frank Sydall in "The Residence at Whitminster", to conjure up images from other (or, in this case, past) worlds.

p.332, l.22: "in September": i.e. At the autumn equinox.

p.333, l.3: "a little ornament like a wheel": The wheel was a widely-used symbol of the sun and sun-gods. These in turn have been associated by some authorities with the druids and their 'wicker man' sacrifices as described above by MRJ in Abbeys.

p.333, l.28-33: "There was a long table...with an axe": Undoubtedly some sort of attempt at human sacrifice was involved here, though not the kind we might expect in view of MRJ's erroneous beliefs about the Cerne Giant. Death by fire would be more appropriate. It may be more significant than it first seems that the villagers eventually destroyed the men's cottage by fire (p.335, l.27-30), even if this did not dispose of the problem.

p.335, l.16: "Lord of flies, sir": As in "The Residence at Whitminster", it would appear that Beelzebub, the Lord of the Flies, was invoked by the activities of Davis and the young man. This introduction of a Judaeo-Christian demon is slightly puzzling since it is otherwise quite clear that the men were dabbling in Celtic magic, but no doubt there would have been little difference as far as the sexton was concerned.

p.335, l.35-36: "the spring of the year and at autumn-time": The spring and autumn equinoxes.

p.335, l.38: "one evening in the month of March": The spring equinox.

p.336, l.25-27: "When the sun's gathering his strength...his weakness": At the equinoxes and solstices. The many references in the tale to these times of the year offer final proof that Davis and his friend were involved in a perverse form of Celtic sun-god worship.

Copyright (c) 1994 Rosemary Pardoe.

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