Saturday, 27 September 2014

Frivola ~ Augustus Jessopp

Augustus Jessopp (1823–1914) was a cleric, school teacher, antiquary and writer. He and M. R. James first became friends when they worked together on the Life and Miracles of St William of Norwich by Thomas of Monmouth (published in 1896). Of their collaboration, James wrote, in Eton and King's, published some thirty years later, "I thought that Dr Jessopp would be the right person to handle a monument of Norwich history of this importance... The resulting friendship with Dr Jessopp and the visits to Scarning were handsome rewards for any weariness entailed by the translation..."

The first thing I ever read by Augustus Jessopp was 'Hill-Digging and Magic', an entertaining article about the link between treasure hunting and sorcery, which was published in The Nineteenth Century in January 1887. I'd heard that it might have been a source for James' 'A Warning to the Curious', and that was my primary reason for ferreting out a copy of the book it later appeared in - Random Roaming and Other Papers (pub. by T. Fisher Unwin in 1894). I found that, regardless of the connection with James, the article was fascinating in its own right. I really warmed to Jessopp's tone and style of writing. So, I decided to look for a copy of Frivola, and I managed to get hold a nice second edition.* Neither book was expensive; we're talking about tens of pounds rather than hundreds. Oh and by the way, not everything in Frivola is supernatural in nature.

The first ghostly tale in the collection is 'An Antiquary's Ghost Story', an account of real events which took place on the 10th of October, 1879, at Mannington Hall, the home of Lord Orford. Jessopp had gone to the hall to examine some very rare books, and he stayed up alone in the library to make transcripts of what he found. He was busy writing when he saw a large white hand not far from his elbow. The hand turned out to belong to a large man dressed in an ecclesiastical habit, who appeared to be examining the pile of books that Jessopp had been working on. He felt curious, not fearful. The tale ends with Jessop inviting us to draw our own conclusions.

The account originally appeared in The Library Magazine and The Athenaeum in January 1880. It created quite a stir, and The Athenaeum was overwhelmed with numerous letters. Many correspondents suggested some sort of scientific explanation for Dr. Jessopp's experience, others wanted to know if the ghost sat on a real chair.

'The Dying Out of the Marvellous' is a short essay about the absence of belief in the modern age (Jessopp was talking about his own day, but we're no more capable of belief now than we were then... less so, in fact). This particular essay is where I got the quote that appears on the right side of this blog:
'A fig for men and women who brag of what they do not believe!. . . if he can't believe because he cannot imagine anything that he cannot handle, what shall we say of him but that he is an intellectual cripple?'
After reading the essay, I couldn't help feeling that Jessopp must have been rather ticked off that so many people wrote in about his ghost story in The Athenaeum, trying to prove some scientific cause for the whole thing, unwilling to take his account at face value... unwilling to believe. 'Give me the man who can believe anything,' he wrote in his article.
'What a dreary, monotonous, uneventful age we live in! We have sneered the ghosts and dragons away. We feed our children upon grammar and the multiplication table. Yet there are wonders still if we had but eyes to see them.'
'Dreams' is a short piece about dreaming and dream interpretation. 'I cannot say,' writes Jessopp, 'that I ever knew any man, woman, or child the better for dreaming anything. I have known several who were distinctly the worse for it.' In 'A Night of Waking', sleep and dreams evade Jessopp. Overtired but forced to lie awake, his 'memory was roused to preternatural activity', conjuring up dead friends, who converse with him about fascination, possession and mesmerism.

'The Phantom Coach', a very entertaining yarn, was inspired by local folklore. Within the story are several accounts of the comings and goings of the spectral coach, including that of old Biddy, who tells of its night-time visit to Breccles Hall ninety years earlier, when it 'called there and fetched away Jarge Mace. And who was Jarge, and how much of him was fetched?' To my mind, 'The Phantom Coach' is the best of the stories.

I'm not sure whether we can really call any of Jessopp's tales 'ghost stories'. They seem to be narrated from personal experience; none are intended to terrify. Reading them is rather like listening to a dear old friend reminisce about things he's seen, done or heard... with tea and iced buns laid on. I don't say this to put you off, though. No, not at all! Jessopp has a charming narrative voice, and such a lovely sense of humour. His tales are very entertaining; I highly recommend them.

I've not seen a first edition of Frivola for sale, so I can't say how much one might sell for. Nice second editions seem to go for about thirty pounds (which is about fifty dollars), but it's not easy to get hold of one (at the moment, at least).

In 1998, Richard H. Fawcett published The Phantom Coach: And Other Ghost Stories of an Antiquary. The individual tales from Frivola that I've mentioned above are all in it. It's a very nicely produced little book, with an attractive black dust jacket, and a fine copy seems to sell for about twenty pounds (which is about thirty-five dollars, I think).

* The second edition was published by T. Fisher Unwin in 1907. Frivola was first published in 1896. The first edition did not include 'Simon Ryan' and 'Notes on the History of Breccles Hall, Norfolk', but did include 'Books That Have Helped Me'.

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