Monday, 10 November 2014

A College Mystery ~ A. P. Baker

Arthur Ponsford Baker was born on the 6th of September 1873, at Algoa Bay, Cape Colony. He was educated at Haldon House, Cheltenham, and Bristol, before going up to Christ's College in 1892. A serious accident on the football field in 1895 left him crippled for life, forcing him to leave college. He returned in 1903, and subsequently became a lecturer in history, and a valued 'coach', specialising in Medieval Italian history. He was a frequent contributor to the College Magazine and to the Cambridge Review. He passed away at the terribly young age of forty-five on the 20th of March 1919.* Baker produced only two books, University Olympians: Or Sketches of Academic Dignitaries and A College Mystery, both of which were published shortly before his death.

A College Mystery was first published by W. Heffer & Sons Ltd. in 1919, with illustrations by F. H. Round. The book must have done quite well, as the publisher issued a second edition (which is the edition pictured here), with a doubled print run, in 1923.

In the preface, the author tells us that the story was first read aloud to friends in his rooms in February 1918. And he thanks 'the Provost of Eton [M. R. James] for reading through the manuscript of this little book and for kindly comment'.

Baker's ingenious little book purports to be a true account of the events which resulted in there being a ghost in the Fellows' Garden at Christ's College, based largely on the papers of Simon Goodridge, which had come into his possession. The book is separated into sections, the first of which deals with eye witness accounts of the apparition, 'a tall, heavy, elderly man, dressed in black, with a swallow-tailed coat and high collar and stock,' who walked the garden 'slowly and deliberately, with bent head,' before eventually disappearing. Baker then writes:
'Was the figure they alleged that they saw the ghost of Christopher Round? Does he still take the walk which his record tells us he used to take in his lifetime? Does his uneasy spirit dwell upon his deed as in the days of his life here?
    This puzzle is not for me to solve. Like Simon Goodridge, I leave it to the reader, who must judge for himself.
    Here is the record and the evidence.'
The second section of the book is 'The Record of Christopher Round', an account written by Round himself as he approached his seventieth year, taken from Goodridge's papers. He tells us that he was the son of a rector, and was educated at home before going up to Trinity College, Cambridge, where he met Philip Collier, a scholar of St John's College. During the following years, every contest Round entered, Collier beat him by a slight margin, and Round had to make do with being honourably mentioned, which gave rise to considerable ill will on his part. Eventually, Collier left Cambridge and spent some time in Italy, so Round no longer considered him a threat and his feelings of resentment disappeared. But following Round's appointment as a lecturer at Christ's College, where he began his duties 'with great pleasure', he learned that Collier, recently returned from Italy, was to become a fellow lecturer. 'Thus began that rivalry of nearly ten years which spoiled my early life here, and ended in the tragedy which has haunted it ever since.'

Having already had his academic ambitions thwarted at every turn by Collier (though, the competitiveness that Round felt doesn't appear to have been shared by his nemesis), Round was later thwarted in love by the same man. Having fallen in love with Lady Mary Clifford, he discovered that she, like everyone else, preferred his rival. And if that wasn't bad enough, Collier had begun to behave oddly, apparently under the influence of spirits (the alcoholic type, not the supernatural variety), so Lady Mary had been won over by a drunk! Round was so distressed by these developments that his work suffered.
'I tramped the country roads and took my lonely perambulations in the garden, thinking all the while of Collier's victory and horrified at the idea of its coming to a man addicted, as I knew him to be, to secret drunkenness.'
Not wanting to spoil the enjoyment of anyone who hasn't read this book yet, I shan't go into any further detail about the storyline. It can come as no surprise, however, that the constant bitter rivalry between Round and Collier, though entirely one-sided, led to tragedy. The third section of the book is an extract from the Isle of Ely and Cambridgeshire Gazette, and is the record of an inquest. The fourth concerns the deceased's will, and is an extract from the East Anglian Times. The fifth section contains the recollections of Simon Goodridge, friend of Christopher Round and owner of the papers that make up most of this little volume, which is finished off with a brief postscript.

A College Mystery is a work of fiction, but Baker did such a skilful job of putting his book together, adding weight to his story by creating newspaper articles that read as utterly genuine and adding footnotes, that his account of the Fellows' Garden ghost has been accepted by many over the years as true. However, there were no Fellows by the names of Christopher Round and Philip Collier at Christ's during the period in which the story is set.

One of the witnesses at the inquest, James Young Simpson (1811~1870), was certainly a real person, though; he was an Edinburgh obstetrician and an important figure in the history of medicine. Dr Simpson was a strong advocate of the use of ether, but he recognised its disadvantages and sought to discover an alternative anaesthetic. In order to do so, he and his assistants, Dr James Mathews Duncan and Dr Thomas Keith, took to sniffing various chemicals after dinner at his Edinburgh home. On the evening of the 4th of November, 1847, the three men tested chloroform for the first time together. All three ended up lying on the dining room floor unconscious; Duncan snoring loudly beneath a chair and Keith kicking at the legs of the dining table.**

I found Baker's linking of a fictional story with elements of the actual history of medicine to be very interesting indeed. I took a history of medicine module as part of my history BA and developed an interest in the early use of anaesthesia and attitudes towards the use of pain relief, so this really appealed to me. I thoroughly enjoyed this clever little book. It's quite an achievement, to write a detailed story so convincing that it's accepted as truth, and in less than eighty pages too!

A nice copy of the first edition of A College Mystery, without the rare dust jacket, costs around fifty pounds at the moment (about eighty dollars). I've yet to find a fine copy with the jacket, so I've no idea how much one would cost. The second edition seems to go for about the same price.

In 2004 a paperback facsimile edition was published by Back-in-Print Books, which includes an article previously published in Christ's College Magazine in 1998, by Michael Wyatt, entitled 'A College Mystery - A Further Mystery'. It describes events that took place in the late 1920s or early 1930s, when Wyatt's uncle Sam was put up in the rooms that were once occupied, according to Arthur Baker, by Christopher Round. This paperback seems to be harder to find than the first edition. At this moment in time, I cannot find a copy listed for sale at Amazon, Abe, Biblio, ebay, or any of the usual places. And there doesn't seem to be a single ebook version out there.

*   Biographical information thanks to A Cambridge Alumni Database.
** Blessed Days of Anaesthesia: How anaesthetics changed the world, Stephanie J. Snow, OUP 2009.

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