Tuesday, 9 September 2014

Tedious Brief Tales of Granta and Gramarye

From October 1910, a series of stories appeared in The Cambridge Review, The Gownsman and Chanticlere (the College Magazine), by a writer called 'Ingulphus'. The true identity of their creator remained unknown until they were collected together in 1919 and published by W. Heffer & Sons as Tedious Brief Tales of Granta and Gramarye, when the author was given as Ingulphus, with ‘Arthur Gray, Master of Jesus College’ added in parentheses on the title page. The poem and nine tales contained within the slim card-backed volume are accompanied by sixteen superb illustrations by E. Joyce Shillington Scales (one of which, A Corner of the Library, I’ve included below). I have not been able to find out anything about the very talented Miss Shillington Scales, other than the fact that she was born in 1897.

Arthur Gray (1852 ~ 1940) became Master of Jesus College, Cambridge, in 1912, and remained so for the rest of his life. He wrote a number of books, predominantly about Cambridge history and Shakespearean studies, but he doesn’t appear to have written any fiction aside from these tales by Ingulphus.

The first story in the collection, 'The Everlasting Club', concerns an eighteenth century University club, the minute book of which, 'by a singular accident', finds its way into the hands of the Master of Jesus College. Members, referred to as Everalstings, are limited to seven in number, and membership does not cease upon death, much to the chagrin of those still living.

'The Treasure of John Badcoke' is not a supernatural tale. Set in the time of Henry VIII and Edward VI, it concerns the murder of the ex-Prior of Barnwell, later resident of Jesus College, by a treasure-seeking villain by the name of Adam Waller. It seems to me that, whether it's burying it or digging it up, the mere mention of treasure in an antiquarian tale often signals the horrible end of one fellow or another.

'The True History of Anthony Ffryar' is the story of the final days of Anthony Ffryar of Jesus College, a sixteenth century priest and alchemist. Following the outbreak of an epidemic called 'the sweat', and the subsequent closure of the college, Ffryar, entirely alone save for one college servant, locks himself away in his laboratory, determined to finally discover the magisterium, the master-cure for all human ailments.

In 'The Necromancer', Adoniram Byfield, chaplain attached to the Parliamentary forces in seventeenth century Cambridge, becomes convinced that Thomas Allen, a Fellow of Jesus College, is is league with the Evil One. Allen is a student of mathematics and astronomy at a time when mathematicians are looked upon as necromancers; he is also a loner who is rarely seen outside his room. Byfield, convinced that Allen is the cause of a number of suspicious deaths at the college, begins watching him.
'Once through his partly open door he caught sight of him standing before a board chalked with figures and symbols which the imagination of Byfield interpreted as magical. At night, from the court below, he would watch the astrologer's lighted window, and when Allen turned his perspective glass upon the stars the conviction became rooted in his watcher's mind that he was living in perilous neighbourhood to one of the peeping and muttering wizards of whom the Holy Book spoke.'
Is Thomas Allen a wizard, able to transform himself into a cat at night, and the cause of several deaths in his vicinity? Or is Adoniram Byfield a crazed religious fundamentalist fanatic who imagines demons in every nook and cranny? You'll have to read it and see.

In 'Brother John's Bequest', John Baldwin, a funny old character who is 'apparently under a religious obligation to abstain from washing', leaves two bequests: one to his friend and the other to Jesus College. Not realising that the whereabouts of Brother John's treasure only becomes apparent when the contents of both bequests are placed together, both beneficiaries think themselves cheated of what is rightfully theirs. It's a comical tale, and one of my favourites of the collection.
'Brother John had been a disappointment: uncharitable persons might say he was a fraud. He had got into the College by false pretences. In life he had disgraced it by his excesses, and, when he was dead, he had perpetrated a mean practical joke on the society. It is not well for a man in religious orders to joke when he is dead.'
In 'The Burden of Dead Books', set in the year 1604, Demetrius Commagenus reveals the secret of perpetual youth to Matthew Makepeace. Commagenus, having acquired the secret from his dying master, has remained alive for one hundred and seventy years by transferring his consciousness from one body to another, exchanging an old worn out body for a youthful one each time death approaches. Makepeace, mourning a wasted life and wishing for a chance to do things over, decides to exchange his body for that of his pupil, Marmaduke Dacre, and too late wakes 'to reason and a horrible dread' once the deed is done. It's my favourite tale of the collection. I love the opening lines:
'By its air of reverend quiet, its redolence of dusty death, in the marshalled lines of its sleeping occupants, and in the labels that briefly name the dead author and his work, an ancient repository of books, such as a college library, suggests the, perhaps, hackneyed similitude of a great cemetery.'
Again in the seventeenth century, this time 1652, 'Thankfull Thomas' is the story of a sexton who goes looking for buried treasure on the very night - the festival of the Name of Jesus - when the 'old dead folk' are said to attend Chapel in phantom procession. 'It was said that you could hear them trooping down from their chambers outside by a stair that does not exist, and they came through the church wall by a door that is unseen.'

The final two tales are not supernatural. 'The Palladium', set in the year 1026, tells of the translation of the relics of Saint Felix from Soham to Ramsey church. 'The Sacrist of Saint Radefund' tells of Margery Cailly, who, during the great pestilence of 1390, returns from an illicit meeting only to find that she has brought back more to the nunnery than a broken heart.

Gray is very skilled at constructing an authentic period atmosphere, particularly so in 'The True History of Anthony Ffryar' and 'The Burden of Dead Books', the latter of which is the most creepy of his tales. There's something about the idea of body theft that really makes the hairs on the back of my neck stand up (watching the Hoodoo-body-swapping scene in 'The Skeleton Key' had the same effect on me). How do you prove it's been done to you? You don't. Your life has been stolen and you're done for, and you're left alive for long enough to really appreciate what's been done to you. Creepy. 

The Ghost Story Press republished Gray's collection of stories in a limited edition in 1993, in pictorial grey boards in emulation of the first edition. It included a story that wasn't in the original edition: 'Suggestion', which first appeared in The Cambridge Review in October 1925.

In 1996, Jesus College republished Gray's stories as The Everlasting Club: and Other Tales of Jesus College, on the occasion of the Quincentenary of the college’s foundation. Bound in a very fetching bright red cloth, the collection retained the striking cover design of the first edition and it's original size.

A third reprint appeared in 2008, published by Ash-Tree Press. A limited edition, with dust jacket (see cover photo below), this also included the extra story, 'Suggestion'.

A first edition of Tedious Brief Tales in fine condition can go for up to two hundred pounds (that's about $350). The original boards are fragile, so getting a copy in fine condition can be a bit difficult. A very good copy costs about a hundred pounds (about $170).

You can expect to pay £100 (that's about $170) for a copy of the Ghost Story Press edition in fine condition. The Ash-Tree Press volume, which is a tad smaller in size, will cost up to about fifty pounds ($85). The Jesus College volume, which, to my mind at least, is the most charming of the modern editions, sells for surprisingly little - about twenty to thirty pounds ($35 ~ 50 or thereabouts). It can be a bit more difficult to get hold of, though, especially in really nice condition.

To the best of my knowledge, there isn't a Kindle edition available at the moment.

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