Α or Ω ? Reflections on ‘A Vignette’ – M R James’s last masterpiece

‘Feeding the Cockerels’ by Myles Birket Foster

A Vignette is generally described as ‘the last ghost story MR James ever wrote’ – not unreasonably, since it was published posthumously in the year of his death, 1936, in the November edition of The London Mercury (at that time, a major monthly literary journal), James having died in June. Evidently the story was commissioned for the Christmas 1935 edition but arrived too late, so was probably written some time in late 1935. It is something of an outlier when it comes to the canon of his work, and is seldom anthologised; the only place that I have seen it (and the first time I even heard of it) is in Richard Dalby’s collection, The Sorceress in Stained Glass (a book I bought on the strength of it). Its rarity is a pity, since it deserves to be better known; I think that it is, in its own small way, a masterpiece, and as far as its author is concerned, a work of singular importance.

I cannot claim to have thought so on first reading it; my recollection is that I enjoyed it well enough, but that it definitely belonged in the ‘minor’ category (of which, more later). There was, I thought, a comforting familiarity about it – so many details were characteristic James, and resonated with many of his earlier tales: it was pleasing to find that the old master had not lost his touch, even if his best days of invention were behind him. The last word I would have thought to apply to it is ‘original’; indeed, it seemed precisely the sort of piece that an acknowledged master of the genre might produce late in life in response to a commission that invited him to revisit old familiar territory, yet again – brief, as well-crafted as ever, but essentially a rehash of many elements that already feature in his previous stories.

It is only from rereading it recently that I have revised my opinion and come to think that it is original in a very precise sense: one might also call it seminal. Even if it is the last ghost story he actually wrote, I would suggest that it is quite possibly the forerunner of them all. I say ‘possibly’ because James is nothing if not a master of his craft; and just as it is wise, if a ghost-story is to be persuasive, to allow more than one possible explanation of the events it relates, so with A Vignette, two distinct and even opposite readings are possible. It may be, as I have suggested, a minor work in which a master of the genre, feeling obliged to write something, produces (to paraphrase his own note on A Haunted Doll’s House) ‘a variation on former stories in the hope that there is enough of variation in it to make the repetition of motifs tolerable’.

On the other hand, it may be that this is not the last in a long line of stories in a similar vein, but rather an account of the original childhood experience from which all the others sprang, an experience that explains not only the recurrent features of those tales, but also what prompted him to tell stories of that kind in the first place.

The key, I think, lies in one feature of A Vignette which is almost unique: aside from his children’s story, The Five Jars, only one other of James’s tales is related directly in the first person, as if the narrator is telling of events that have actually befallen him. That other is its companion in what I earlier called the ‘minor’ category, that odd lopsided nine-tenths-humorous curiosity, After Dark in the Playing Fields. We know, of course, that it is an error to assume uncritically that the ‘I’ in the story is the person who wrote it, but given that James was raised in a country rectory (where A Vignette is set) and was Provost of Eton (the location of the playing fields referred to in After Dark) we have reasonable grounds for supposing that here James is speaking as himself and that he may be giving an authentic account of an actual personal experience.

(As regards After Dark, I do not of course mean the humorous encounter with the owl, but rather the odd ‘tacked-on’ portion of a dozen or so lines at the end which hardly belongs with the rest – that, to my ear at least, has the ring of truth about it [indeed, it prompted me to write a story of my own – The Partygoers])

For those well-versed in James’s work, to read A Vignette is to hear, at frequent intervals, the wine-glass ting! of resonance as this or that aspect of the text recalls some feature of an earlier tale. Why not try it yourself, with this combination of the opening lines and a passage that comes soon after, in which (to paraphrase the author once more) ‘the ominous thing first puts out its head’:

You are asked to think of the spacious garden of a country rectory, adjacent to a park of many acres, and separated therefrom by a belt of trees of some age which we knew as the Plantation.

I should be puzzled to fix the date at which any sort of misgiving about the Plantation gate first visited me. Possibly it was in the years just before I went to school, possibly on one later summer afternoon of which I have a faint memory, when I was coming back after solitary roaming in the park, or, as I bethink me, from tea at the Hall: anyhow, alone, and fell in with one of the villagers also homeward bound just as I was about to turn off the road on to the track leading to the Plantation. We broke off our talk with ‘goodnights’, and when I looked back at him after a minute or so I was just a little surprised to see him standing still and looking after me. But no remark passed, and on I went. By the time I was within the iron gate and outside the park, dusk had undoubtedly come on; but there was no lack yet of light, and I could not account to myself for the questionings which certainly did rise as to the presence of anyone else among the trees, questionings to which I could not very certainly say ‘No’, nor, I was glad to feel, ‘Yes’ because if there were anyone they could not well have any business there. To be sure, it is difficult, in anything like a grove, to be quite certain that nobody is making a screen out of a tree trunk and keeping it between you and him as he moves round it and you walk on. All I can say is that if such an one was there he was no neighbour or acquaintance of mine, and there was some indication about him of being cloaked or hooded.

For me, the landscape is reminiscent not only of the ‘park… protected – we should say grown up – with large old timber’ through which the unfortunate Mr Wraxall (in Count Magnus) makes his way past the mausoleum where Count Magnus lies, surrounded by ‘limitless… woods near and distant, all dark beneath a sky of liquid green’ but also recalls (as the child James makes his way homeward through it) that charming slideshow of Mr Karswell’s in Casting the Runes, ‘which represented a little boy passing through his own park – Lufford, I mean – in the evening. …and this poor boy was followed, and at last pursued and overtaken, and either torn to pieces or somehow made away with, by a horrible hopping creature in white, which you saw first dodging about among the trees’.

There are more than a few such parks with their grand houses in other stories – Aswarby Hall in Lost Hearts, Anningley Hall in The Mezzotint to name but two; and while it might be argued that this simply reflects the adult James’s admitted predilection for such houses, it is reasonable to ask both where that predilection originated, and why such landscapes feature in so many of his stories: might it not be from the musings of an imaginative and impressionable child whose daily walks took him through just such surroundings?

But our tally of resonances is far from done. I think it quite possible, for instance, that the neighbour who stood looking after him as he went through the wood grew up to be the ticket man at Dover who called after Mr Karswell, ‘Beg pardon, sir, did the other gentleman show his ticket?’ and on receiving a brusque reply said to his subordinate, ”ad he got a dog with him, or what? Funny thing: I could ‘a’ swore ‘e wasn’t alone.’ And as for the presence among the trees, does it not recall a line which Mr Humphreys (whose eponymous Inheritance also consists of a fine house and surrounding park) finds in the small quarto in his library,

‘but as Night fell, wherein all the Beasts of the Forest do move, he begun to be sensible of some Creature keeping Pace with him and, as he thought, peering and looking upon him from the next Alley to that he was in’

as well as the predicament of Fanshawe in Gallows Wood (entered by ‘a gate… leading into a belt of plantation’) in A View from a Hill: ‘I had all the fancies one least likes… indistinct people stepping behind trees in front of me, yes, and even a hand laid on my shoulder… just about at the middle of the plot, I was convinced that there was someone looking down on me from above – and not with any pleasant intent.’

That the presence in A Vignette (if indeed there was one) had ‘some indication about him of being cloaked or hooded’ does not surprise us, since that is the standard garb of many of James’s apparitions – but might we here be encountering the original of all those others?

A little further on in A Vignette, the child who says ‘I seem to see myself again in the small hours gazing out of the window across moonlit grass and hoping I was mistaken in fancying any movement in that half-hidden corner of the garden’ certainly recalls young Stephen Elliott in Lost Hearts ‘standing at the open window of his bedroom, looking out over the country’ when ‘the mysterious population of the distant moonlit woods was not yet lulled to rest.’

What follows in A Vignette is a passage that reflects on the nature of recurring dreams: ‘the moment a dream set in I knew that it was going to turn out ill, and that there was nothing I could do to keep it on cheerful lines’ and this undoubtedly chimes with an observation made by the narrator of O Whistle and I’ll Come to You (whom we can take to be James himself) ‘Experto crede [‘take the word of an expert’] pictures do come to the closed eyes of one trying to sleep, and are often so little to his taste that he must open his eyes to disperse them.’

The dream that James reports has an authentic ring, and recalls, not so much a specific story, but James’s own advice on crafting ghost stories: ‘Let us, then, be introduced to the actors in a placid way; let us see them going about their ordinary business, undisturbed by forebodings, pleased with their surroundings; and into this calm environment let the ominous thing put out its head, unobtrusively at first, and then more insistently, until it holds the stage.

compare that to

Ellis the gardener might be wholesomely employed with rake and spade as I watched at the window; other familiar figures might pass and repass on harmless errands; but I was not deceived. I could see that the time was coming when the gardener and the rest would be gathering up their properties and setting off on paths that led homeward or into some safe outer world, and the garden would be left – to itself, shall we say, or to denizens who did not desire quite ordinary company and were only waiting for the word ‘all clear’ to slip into their posts of vantage.

and you find in the second a specific realisation of what is described in general terms in the first.

On a point of technique, the way in which the dream in A Vignette makes a link between the experience in the Plantation and what is to come in the garden is strikingly similar to the way Parkins’s dream in O Whistle links his homeward walk along the beach with the later events in his bedroom. Another feature of it points to a different story:

Now, too, was the moment near when the surroundings began to take on a threatening look; that the sunlight lost power and a quality of light replaced it which, though I did not know it at the time my memory years after told me was the lifeless pallor of an eclipse.

The momentary change in atmosphere from calm to threatening, heralded by a change in the quality of light, is surely also found in two related passages, one from the unfinished John Humphreys and the other from A Neighbour’s Landmark: ‘The homely well known pasture seemed in a moment to widen into an illimitable grey expanse – an acute feeling of extreme loneliness and of being on a hopeless and aimless journey came over him’ (John Humphreys)

‘But I must fix the view a little more firmly in my mind. Only, when I turned to it again, the taste was gone out of it. The sun was down behind the hill, and the light was off the fields… I thought no longer of kind mellow evening hours of rest… but instead images came to me of dusty beams and creeping spiders … of flying Time and all it had taken out of my life.’ (A Neighbour’s Landmark)

As I have remarked elsewhere, these too have an authentic ring – anyone who has felt it will recognise their accuracy as descriptions of sudden acute dysphoria, the sense that no pleasure is to be had from anything, and all the goodness has drained out of life. While I accept that this is aside from the main line I am pursuing here, it is interesting to find these fictionalised accounts of what I strongly suspect was a personal adult experience for James couched in terms reminiscent of what may have been an actual childhood terror.

The resonances with earlier work continue in the account of the central experience itself: when the child in A Vignette steals down to the garden ‘with an access of something like courage – only it was more like desperation, like determining that I must know the worst –’ to see what is actually there, he strongly recalls Stephen Elliott, who wakes from a terrifying dream and ‘with a courage which I do not think can be common among boys of his age… went to the door of the bathroom to ascertain if the figure of his dream were really there.’ Stephen finds nothing; the child in A Vignette is less fortunate: Things were, alas! worse than I had feared; through that hole a face was looking my way. It was not monstrous, not pale, fleshless, spectral. Malevolent I thought and think it was; at any rate the eyes were large and open and fixed. It was pink and, I thought, hot, and just above the eyes the border of a white linen drapery hung down from the brows.

Not only does this recall a line from Mr Humphreys and his Inheritance, “and have you never heard” cries a Neighbour “of what Faces have been seen to look out over the Palisadoes and betwixt the bars of the Gate?” but that curious detail, ‘It was pink and, I thought, hot’ immediately conjures the experience of Mrs Anstruther in The Rose Garden: ‘It was not a mask. It was a face – large, smooth, and pink. She remembers the drops of perspiration that were starting from its forehead’. The apparition itself conforms to (or might we say, is the source of?) James’s dictum, ‘the ghost should be malevolent or odious’ – he expands on the description above: There is something horrifying in the sight of a face looking at one out of a frame as this did; more particularly if its gaze is unmistakably fixed upon you. Nor does it make the matter any better if the expression gives no clue to what is to come next. I said just now that I took this face to be malevolent, and so I did, but not in regard of any positive dislike or fierceness which it expressed. It was, indeed, quite without emotion: I was only conscious that I could see the whites of the eyes all round the pupil, and that, we know, has a glamour of madness about it. The immovable face was enough for me. I fled, but at what I thought must be a safe distance inside my own precincts I could not but halt and look back. There was no white thing framed in the hole of the gate, but there was a draped form shambling away among the trees.

Again, the ‘draped form shambling away among the trees’ is the standard-issue James apparition (and the distinctive gait is as much a characteristic as the fluttering draperies – James’s ghosts seldom walk: they crawl, move to and fro with great swiftness and irregularity, hover, and dart; or (as we have seen) hop). The one that Mitchell’s mother saw in A Neighbour’s Landmark, as well as being close kin to the dream-spectre of O Whistle and the dwellers around Wailing Well, would, we feel, be quite at home in the Plantation: ‘on the darkest evening she ever came through the wood… she seemed forced to look behind her as the rustling came in the bushes, and she thought she saw something all in tatters with two arms held out in front of it coming on very fast’. (And A Neighbour’s Landmark, of course, centres round a strip of wood with a path through it that the locals preferred to avoid, and when it ‘was stubbed up [t]hey done all the work in the daytime, I recollect, and was never there after three o’clock’.)

The climax of the story in A Vignette – the actual experience, if such it is – is approached with the masterly diffidence that characterises the whole tale. From the outset, James expresses doubt about the precise detail of what he is recalling and he accompanies this with the consistent use of another device, technically called paraleipsis (or apophasis), the rhetorical trick of drawing attention to something by denying it or pretending to ignore it. On the first page he says, in describing the Plantation, ‘but there is nothing that diffuses a mysterious gloom or imparts a sinister flavour – nothing of melancholy or funereal associations’ and likewise ‘there is neither offensive bleakness nor oppressive darkness’ – so conjuring all these things in the very act of denying them. As he approaches his account of the experience itself he begins by stating ‘One afternoon – the day being neither overcast nor threatening – I was at my window in the upper floor of the house.’ Even the face, when he finally sees it, ‘was not monstrous, not pale, fleshless, spectral’. James’s combination of continually casting doubt on the substance of what he saw with denials that anything overtly sinister attended it creates a sort of counterpoint in the reader’s mind to the effect that it has some substance and is sinister in character.

I mention this as a reminder that there is another way to read this story: James was, undoubtedly, a master of his craft, and he knew very well how to overcome the obstacle that inheres in all ghost stories, namely that they deal with matter which, on an everyday level, we find incredible. The usual device, which James generally deploys, is to put some distance between the narrator and the events he relates: the action is represented as happening to someone else, and may be further filtered through the medium of letters, diaries or old papers. This cleverly separates the credibility of James as a narrator from the credibility of the tale itself: we believe him to be a faithful reporter, so we are more inclined to accept the possibility that what he relays to us, however fantastic it seems, may just be true – the more so as James makes no attempt to force it upon us. But here, in this final ghost story, he dispenses with the buffer that distance provides and speaks directly as the person whom the strange events befell: can he still make us believe him?

I think he can, because I am genuinely in two minds as to whether A Vignette is an authentic account of an actual childhood experience, recalled in old age, or a tour de force of the ghost-story writer’s craft that perfectly simulates such an account. But if you were to press me, I would come down on the side of a genuine recollection of an actual childhood experience. In part, I know that is because I want it to be the case, but I feel that there is evidence to support my view. Two things combine to turn the scales for me: the first is the sheer abundance of the resonances. As we have already seen, there are echoes of A Vignette (I feel that this is the right way round to put it) in Lost Hearts, The Mezzotint, Count Magnus, O Whistle, The Rose Garden, Casting the Runes, Mr Humphreys and his Inheritance, A Neighbour’s Landmark, A View from a Hill and Wailing Well (as well as a connection in character with After Dark in the Playing Fields) – that is a third of the collected stories, and there are a couple more resonances to be sounded before we are done.

The second thing that convinces me is what I would call explanatory power: we gain much more understanding of James’s stories and his motive in writing them if we suppose them to stem from the seminal childhood experience recounted in A Vignette than if we suppose A Vignette to be no more than a weary old man’s conscious or unconscious recycling of elements drawn from a range of his existing stories. I think we should take James’s concluding paragraph at face value, not least because it adumbrates an idea that recurs in more than one of his stories, including two we have not mentioned yet:

Do not press me with questions as to how I bore myself when it became necessary to face my family again. That I was upset by something I had seen must have been pretty clear, but I am very sure that I fought off all attempts to describe it. Why I make a lame effort to do it now I cannot very well explain: it undoubtedly has had some formidable power of clinging through many years to my imagination. I feel that even now I should be circumspect in passing that Plantation gate; and every now and again the query haunts me: Are there here and there sequestered places which some curious creatures still frequent, whom once on a time anybody could see and speak to as they went about on their daily occasions, whereas now only at rare intervals in a series of years does one cross their paths and become aware of them; and perhaps that is just as well for the peace of mind of simple people.

This, I think, is as plain a statement as we can find: that the childhood experience – whatever it was – ‘had some formidable power of clinging through many years to my imagination’ is amply demonstrated by the fact that aspects of it suffuse a great number of James’s stories, even to the point of making them seem (when considered as a whole) to draw on rather a narrow range of invention: so many houses with parks to be traversed, so many woods with some half-seen presence, so many cloaked or hooded apparitions with fluttering draperies and a curious gait. As to the query that haunts him, ‘are there here and there sequestered places which some curious creatures still frequent, whom once on a time anybody could see or speak to as they went about their daily occasions’, that recalls the memorable exchange between the Rector of Islington and Dr. Abell in Two Doctors:

“You are then of John Milton’s mind,” I said, “and hold that

Millions of spiritual creatures walk the earth

Unseen, both when we wake and when we sleep.”

‘”I do not know,” he said, “why Milton should take upon himself to say ‘unseen’; though to be sure he was blind when he wrote that.”

and the same notion finds its way into An Evening’s Entertainment in the conversation that the children’s great grandfather is reported to have had with Mr Davis and his young man:

‘Well,’ [my father] said, ‘it may suit you, but I shouldn’t like a lonely place like that in the middle of the night.’ and Mr Davis smiled, and the young man, who’d been listening, said, ‘Oh, we don’t want for company at such times’

(that word ‘company’ is characteristic of the way James can charge a quite ordinary word with sinister overtones: such as HP Lovecraft rely (overmuch to my mind) on obscure vocabulary to conjure horror – ‘arcane’ ‘blasphemous’ ‘Cyclopean’ ‘eldritch’ – but James can raise a frisson with the way he employs a common term. ‘Company’ (which occurs in a surprising number of his stories) almost invariably carries a sinister charge, from the old sacristan in Canon Alberic’s Scrapbook, ‘Monsieur will travel in company with his friends; they will always be near him. It is a good thing to travel thus in company – sometimes.’ (and that, it now strikes me, recalls the horrible betrayal of companionship that concludes A Warning to the Curious – ‘The notion of Paxton running after – after anything like this, and supposing it to be the friends he was looking for, was very dreadful to us.’) through to Parkins on the beach in O Whistle (in a scene that is a kind of reverse of the the one with Paxton): ‘One last look behind… showed him the prospect of company on his walk, in the shape of a rather indistinct personage, who seemed to be making great efforts to catch up with him…[Parkins] decided that he almost certainly did not know him and that it would be absurd to wait until he came up. For all that, company, he began to think, would really be very welcome on that lonely shore, if only you could choose your companion.’ Dr Abell and Mr Davis’s young man we have already mentioned, and we can add, from Number 13, Anderson’s judgement on Daniel Salthenius, who had signed a contract to sell himself to Satan, ”Young idiot!’ he said, meaning Salthenius, who was only an undergraduate when he committed that indiscretion, ‘how did he know what company he was courting?” and of course in Casting the Runes ‘Both Dunning and Harrington are firmly convinced that it [the scrap of paper with the runes on it] had the effect of bringing its possessor into very undesirable company.’ To round it off (or begin it) we have the same usage in the description of the garden from A Vignette, quoted earlier: ‘and the garden would be left – to itself, shall we say, or to denizens who did not desire quite ordinary company and were only waiting for the word ‘all clear’ to slip into their posts of vantage.’)

To conclude, why James makes, in A Vignette, what he modestly describes as ‘a lame effort’ to describe his moment of childhood terror may be inexplicable to him, but I think I understand it well enough: towards the end of his life (perhaps already sensing that his time is drawing to a close) he is asked to write yet another ghost story, for the 1935 Christmas edition of the The London Mercury. That he does not finish it in time may be significant: perhaps, in quest of a plot, he has become sidetracked into pondering the path that brought him here, a distinguished scholar in his field and an eminent man who has persisted throughout life in what might be thought the frivolous pastime of writing ghost stories. Where did all that start? As Graham Greene observes, ‘There is always one moment in childhood when the door opens and lets the future in’.

For James, I think that moment was a distant experience rooted in the domestic landscape of his early childhood, an experience that comes to him now not as anything clear-cut but rather with (to borrow his own phrase) ‘a haze of distance’ – not unlike a vignette, in the photograhic sense, in the 1930s a style already redolent of Victorian times, ‘a small illustration or portrait photograph which fades into its background without a definite border’. But vignettes can also be ‘short, impressionistic scenes that focus on one moment or give a particular insight into a character, idea, or setting’ and James’s story also does all that: the one moment that it focuses on affords an insight not only into James’s character as a writer, but also into the ideas and settings that recur in his stories. I think it is significant that James ‘could never glean any kind of story bound up with the place’ even though he cannot deny ‘the strong probability that there had been one once’ – is not that want of a definitive explanation of his formative experience just what has given him both the licence and the spur to pursue, in his adult ghost stories, what such a story might have been?