Quis est iste qui venit: a factual element in the ghost stories of M.R. James.

2013-07-12 Eyam, Derbys.

Montague Rhodes James must surely have been one of the greatest ever authors of supernatural tales. While his stories always have realistic settings these settings often involve country mansions, or Oxbridge colleges and their dons. It is evident that James didn’t readily move outside the rather privileged world of scholarship he knew so well. Like Dorothy L Sayers, whose creation Lord Peter Wimsey inhabited the same world, he probably could not have created a credible working class character. But it is very easy to imagine James personally narrating his stories to admiring friends and colleagues on a snowy winter’s night in his rooms, while a log fire blazed in the grate, the candles flickered, and the port circulated.

‘Monty’ James had been born in 1862 and became a very notable scholar indeed. His serious work involved medieval literature and history; he also catalogued the manuscripts of several Cambridge colleges including, I have discovered, mine. As well as his collected ghost stories I have his books on The Apocryphal New Testament and Suffolk & Norfolk on my shelves which gives some idea of the range of his interests. He rose to become director of the Fitzwilliam Museum and then tutor of his college. For many years he was successively provost of Kings College, Cambridge and then of Eton School, both originally founded by King Henry VI. James was a Christian conservative and never married. He died in Eton at the age of 73.

James’s stories were published in four collections. The first two were entitled Ghost Stories of an Antiquary and More Ghost Stories of an Antiquary. Objects of antiquarian interest like ruined abbeys, rare manuscripts, and arcane literature, feature regularly. Latin inscriptions provide important plot elements in several of the stories. More than once readers are conveyed in imagination to the bleak Suffolk coast, where James lived as a child; but haunted victims could also be dispatched to France or Scandinavia when the occasion demanded. Several reviewers have noted that the stories frequently contain an element of violence or death and I believe all James’s ghosts are malevolent. Truthfully the stories seldom, if ever, make entirely comfortable reading.

Many more recent writers of fantasy and supernatural tales freely admit that James has been highly influential to their own work. I don’t believe that the ghost stories have ever been out of print since their initial publication and they have been widely adapted for TV and radio. Mark Gatiss is the most recent of many enthusiasts. As a reliable guide to contemporary interest my researches quickly revealed three websites devoted to James, including one wittily called ‘A Podcast to the Curious’. Of the thirty or so stories he wrote The Mezzotint, Casting The Runes, and Oh, Whistle and I’ll Come To You My Lad are probably the best known, but naturally all readers have personal favourites.

Is there a factual basis behind any of the stories? From James’s own words one would imagine not: ‘as for the fragments of ostensible erudition which are scattered about my pages, hardly anything in them is not pure invention’. I cannot claim to have analysed every single story in detail but it is certainly clear that the names, if not the locations, of the English country houses and communities are invented, the cathedral town of Barchester does not exist outside fiction, dates are often expressed in the form 190-, and learned professors hold chairs in rather unbelievable disciplines such as orphiology (snakes) and ontography (heaven knows). So it came as a surprise when I recently learned that a story that I have always particularly admired contains a real individual, and indeed an individual whose life could justly be described as ‘stranger than fiction’.

The story in question is A Neighbour’s Landmark which was published relatively late in James’s career (1924). The rather terrifying apparition concerned walks in an area called Betton Woods. I’m not sure where this is intended to be although a place of this name exists in Shropshire. It is not really necessary for me to spoil anyone’s reading enjoyment by revealing further plot details except to say that the walking ghost is considered to be that of Lady Ivy, also known as Theodosia Bryan, who died in 1694 some years after appearing before Judge Jeffreys in connection with a forgery. I am by no means the first person to discover that unusually, and possibly uniquely, this James character is perfectly genuine.

Theodosia was born in 1628, the daughter of Mr John Stepkins a well known oculist. Father, and daughter, and other family members, were apparently well-known for undertaking surgery to treat blindness caused by congenital cataract. In addition to this unusual skill Theodosia, as her subsequent career revealed, was also beautiful, witty, cunning and, I am rather afraid, totally shameless. In 1644 she married one George Garret, but their short life together was not much recorded. She was widowed within two years and returned to keeping her father’s house. In 1647 Theodosia Garret, as she then was, became the second wife of Sir Thomas Ivy of Malmesbury, Wilts (1602-1674) who had recently returned from the East Indies. I don’t know any more about the circumstances of their meeting and marriage but Thomas was a wealthy man. Theodosia is reported as being hugely extravagant with money, or at least with her husband’s money. In a subsequent highly acrimonious separation, conducted in a clerical court, Theodosia accused Thomas of some highly creative sexual activity (‘lewd and vicious practices’). She seems to have won the day in the litigation, although Sir Thomas is known to have subsequently solicited the help of Oliver Cromwell, then Lord Protector of England. Finally in 1674, after Sir Thomas had died, she married James O’Bryan. Theodosia lost James ten years later, and her children from the first two marriages had also died. She may not have been an easy women to live with but there were certainly moments of tragedy in her life.

It seems that after her three marriages Theodosia was left a wealthy woman. She is believed to have owned some property in the London area but in the late 1670s, and again in 1684, she claimed ownership of a large area of potentially valuable land in Shadwell and Wapping. She appeared in court where her opponent was Thomas Kneale who claimed to  lease the same land from the Dean & Chapter of St Paul’s Cathedral. The presiding judge was Judge Jeffreys, then Lord Chief Justice of England, who later became notorious for the Bloody Assizes conducted after the Battle of Sedgemoor. The judgement of the court was that Lady Ivy and ‘one Duffet’ forged the documents on which her case for ownership was based. After the judgement Lady Ivy was tried again for forgery but, remarkably, she was acquitted due to a lack of evidence concerning her personal involvement. Her life seems to have continued largely unrecorded until she died a decade later in 1694.

In his story M.R. James very briefly describes these events although the actual undertaking that binds her shrieking spirit to Betton Woods occurs earlier in her career and is, presumably, fictional. Since it is improbable that M.R. James stories will ever cease to be read it is likely that Theodosia has obtained imperishable fame in an unusual and most unexpected way.

Many details of Theodosia’s life have been elucidated by family historian Damaris who has most generously given me permission to use them. You may also learn more about Lady Ivy as she is mentioned by Dee Gordon in her Little Book of the East End, (2010). A blogger Dr Roy gives a detailed and largely sympathetic account of the tribulations of Sir Thomas Ivy: 




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