Sunday, March 14, 2021

Classic Ghost Story Writers: Margaret Irwin



Lafayette: Margaret Irwin (1928)


I suppose that this one is a bit of a stretch. While two of the finest ghost stories I've ever read - "The Book" and "The Earlier Service" - were written by Margaret Irwin, there's no denying that her real fame stems (not unreasonably) from her work as an historical novelist.



Dorothy Sayers, ed.: Great Short Stories of Detection, Mystery, and Horror (3 vols: 1928-34)


I first encountered these two stories in the multi-volume anthology above. As for her novels, I collected those gradually from various secondhand bookshops.

The four set in the seventeenth century, around about the time of what we used to refer to as the English Civil War (and would now have to call the British Wars), are probably my favourites. I've read each of them a number of times, and they've been a great help to me in disentangling many of the political complexities of the era.

They are, in order of publication (though not chronology):



Margaret Irwin: Royal Flush (1932)


  • Royal Flush: The Story of Minette. 1932. London: Chatto & Windus, 1947.
  • The Proud Servant: The Story of Montrose. 1934. London: Pan Books, Ltd., 1966.
  • The Stranger Prince: The Story of Rupert of the Rhine. 1937. London: Chatto & Windus, 1947.
  • The Bride: The Story of Louise and Montrose. London: Chatto & Windus, 1939.



Margaret Irwin: The Proud Servant (1934)


The best of these, I suppose, is The Proud Servant - about that super-romantic figure the Marquis of Montrose, and his one-man war against the Covenanters in Scotland. But all of them are interesting. In particular, the portrait given of the Dutch household of the 'Winter Queen,' the exiled Queen of Bohemia, daughter of the British monarch James 1st and mother of Prince Rupert, in both The Stranger Prince and The Bride, retains a certain fascination.



Margaret Irwin: The Stranger Prince (1937)


She followed up these triumphs with another group of novels set in the sixteenth century: one rather disappointing one about Mary Queen of Scots, followed by a brilliant trilogy about Queen Elizabeth the First:



Margaret Irwin: The Gay Galliard (1941)


  • The Gay Galliard: The Love Story of Mary Queen of Scots. London: Chatto & Windus, 1941.
  • The Queen Elizabeth Trilogy:
    1. Young Bess. 1944. Grey Arrow. London: Arrow Books, Ltd., 1960.
    2. Elizabeth, Captive Princess. 1948. London: The Reprint Society, 1950.
    3. Elizabeth and the Prince of Spain. London: Chatto & Windus, 1953.



George Sidney, dir.: Young Bess (1953)


The most famous of these is undoubtedly Young Bess. It was even used as the basis of a film starring Jean Simmons and Deborah Kerr (not to mention Charles Laughton as Henry the Eighth!).

Besides that, there are a number of other novels. She started off in the fantasy genre, in the gentler, pre-Tolkien, early twentieth century mode of Stella Benson and Robin Hyde:



Margaret Irwin: Still She Wished for Company (1924)


  • Still She Wished for Company. 1924. A Peacock Book. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1979.
  • These Mortals. 1925. Uniform Edition. 1952. London: Chatto & Windus, 1968.
  • Knock Four Times. 1927. Uniform Edition. London: Chatto & Windus, 1951.
  • Fire Down Below. London: Chatto & Windus, 1928.
  • None So Pretty. 1930. London: Chatto & Windus, 1935.




Margaret Irwin: None So Pretty (1930)


Still She Wished for Company is an intricately told ghost story, and None So Pretty a tautly written period piece. Both show her already developing the skills which would lead to her mature historical novels a few years later.

The middle three are rather twee fantasy novels, which don't quite work for me, but which were certainly very popular at the time - hence the need for a 'uniform edition' of her works in the 1950s. I should note, though, that Rob Maslen mounts a spirited defence of These Mortals in the third of three posts about "Margaret Irwin between the wars" on his City of Lost Books blog.

A number of the online bibliographies for Irwin list another couple of late novels which I can't find available for sale anywhere, on Amazon or elsewhere, and whose existence I've therefore begun to doubt.

  • The Heart's Memory (1951)
  • Hidden Splendour (1952)

The fact that those same bibliographies (on Wikipedia, the Fiction Database, Fantastic Fiction and Agora Books) significantly misdate a number of her books, and - what's more - repeat the same errors from list to list, suggests to me that they're based on a comparison with each other, rather than independent library research.

The dates in my own listings are based on my own copies of each of the books in question (with the exception of Fire Down Below and her two, fabulously rare, early volumes of short stories, Madame Fears the Dark and Mrs. Oliver Cromwell, all of which I'm still searching for).



Margaret Irwin: That Great Lucifer (1960)


Irwin also published one work of non-fiction - a spirited biography of Sir Walter Ralegh.
[NB: The Featherstones and Halls: Gleanings from Old Family Matters, Letters and Manuscripts (1890, reprinted 2018), is not hers, though it's listed under her name in several bibliographies]
My main interest here, however, is in her short stories. Here are her three collections (with the stories I don't have access to marked in italics):



Margaret Irwin: Madame Fears the Dark (1935)


  • Madame Fears the Dark: Seven Stories and a Play. London: Chatto & Windus, 1935:

    1. The Book
    2. Mr Cork
    3. The Earlier Service
    4. Madame Fears the Dark
    5. Monsieur Seeks a Wife
    6. Time Will Tell
    7. The Curate and the Rake
    8. "Where Beauty Lies"



  • Margaret Irwin: Mrs. Oliver Cromwell (1940)


  • Mrs. Oliver Cromwell and Other Stories. London: Chatto & Windus, 1940:

    1. Courage
    2. Breaking-Point
    3. The Doctor
    4. Mayfly
    5. Mrs. Oliver Cromwell
    6. The Country Gentleman
    7. Bloodstock
    8. 'I See You'
    9. The Collar
    10. The Cocktail Bar



  • Margaret Irwin: Bloodstock (1953)


  • Bloodstock and Other Stories. 1935 & 1940. Uniform Edition. London: Chatto & Windus, 1953:

      Stories from Ireland
    1. Courage
    2. The Country Gentleman
    3. The Doctor
    4. Bloodstock
    5. The Collar
    6. Uncanny Stories
    7. The Book
    8. Monsieur Seeks a Wife
    9. Mistletoe
    10. The Earlier Service
    11. Mrs. Oliver Cromwell and Where Beauty Lies
    12. Mrs. Oliver Cromwell
    13. Where Beauty Lies

  • So, after all that preamble, what are the two ghost stories I mentioned above actually about? [Warning: plot spoilers ahead ...]



    Margaret Irwin: The Book (1930)


    The first one, "The Book," is concerned with that favourite theme of the ghost story writer, the haunted book. In this case the early, sound financial advice given by the book to the hapless Mr. Corbett becomes rapidly more sinister as he becomes more and more dependent upon it.

    I guess what's really stuck in my mind about this story are the 'tainted' literary opinions - presumably conveyed by the book itself - which gradually poison his favourite authors for Corbett. Having taken out The Old Curiosity Shop and Marius the Epicurean from his shelves for some late night reading, since "Reading was the best thing to calm the nerves, and Dickens a pleasant, wholesome and robust author."
    Tonight, however, Dickens struck him in a different light. Beneath the author's sentimental pity for the weak and helpless, he sensed a revolting pleasure in cruelty and suffering, while the grotesque figures of the people in Cruikshank's illustrations revealed too clearly the hideous distortions of their souls.


    George Cruikshank: Illustration for Oliver Twist (1838)


    "What had seemed humorous now appeared diabolic, and in disgust at these two old favourites, he turned to Walter Pater for the repose and dignity of a classic spirit."
    But presently he wondered if this spirit was not in itself of a marble quality, frigid and lifeless, contrary to the purpose of nature. "I have often thought," he said to himself, "that there is something evil in the austere worship of beauty for its own sake.” He had never thought so before, but he liked to think that this impulse of fancy was the result of mature consideration, and with this satisfaction he composed himself for sleep.
    However, his sleep is plagued with dreams "of these blameless Victorian works."
    Sprightly devils in whiskers and peg-top trouses tortured a lovely maiden and leered in delight at her anguish; the gods and heroes of classic fable acted deeds whose naked crime and shame Mr. Corbett had never appreciated in Latin and Greek Unseens. When he had woken in a cold sweat from the spectacle of the ravished Philomel’s torn and bleeding tongue, he decided there was nothing for it but to go down and get another book that would turn his thoughts in some more pleasant direction.
    He can't quite nerve himself up to do so, though. Instead, in the days that follow, he finds that, like his children, who have started to detect cruelty and cynicism in such works as Thackeray's The Rose and the Ring, and even an expurgated Boy's Gulliver's Travels, he is "off reading":
    Authors must all be filthy-minded; they probably wrote what they dared not express in their lives. Stevenson had said that literature was a morbid secretion; he read Stevenson again to discover his particular morbidity, and detected in his essays a self-pity masquerading as courage, and in Treasure Island an invalid's sickly attraction to brutality.
    "This gave him a zest to find out what he disliked so much, and ... he explored with relish the hidden infirmities of minds that had been valued by fools as great and noble."
    He saw Jane Austen and Charlotte Brontë as two unpleasant examples of spinsterhood; the one as a prying, sub-acid busybody in everyone else's flirtations, the other as a raving, craving maenad seeking self-immolation on the altar of her frustrated passions. He compared Wordsworth's love of nature to the monstrous egotism of an ancient bell-wether, isolated from the flock.
    Well might Mr. Corbett conclude that "with a mind so acute and original he should have achieved greatness".

    The interesting thing about these opinions is that they are extremely cogent. Commentators on the story find it difficult to explain just why we should reject these "jejune" or "prematurely cynical" conclusions on their own merits, and are forced to fall back on the fact that - in the context of the story, at least - they are portrayed as the emanations of a deceiving, unholy spirit.

    That description of Wordsworth, in particular, is worthy of an F. R. Leavis or a Leslie Fiedler - but the "possessed" Corbett is pretty close to the mark on Dickens and Stevenson, also. Or so a Bloomsbury-inspired critic might well have thought. The date of the story, 1930, was, after all, the heyday of Lytton Strachey's influence.



    J. C. Squire (1884-1958)


    The London Mercury, where the story first appeared, was a notoriously reactionary literary monthly edited by the anti-modernist, "wholesome and hearty" J. C. Squire. The true cunning of "The Book," then, is to smuggle in such opinions in the guise of satire, leaving them to germinate secretly in unsuspecting readers.

    Margaret Irwin's story is a masterpiece. It continues to provoke and nag at us to this day. Whether she shared any of these against-the-grain opinions of canonical British authors is impossible to say. Certainly she was capable of formulating them, which is proof that they must have existed somewhere within her.

    She hasn't stopped me reading (and enjoying) any of the five authors she skewers - or, rather, whom her character challenges under the influence of an evil monk-turned-book - but she has made me think harder about each of them. The bleatings of Wordsworth, turned from love of the French Revolution to fulsome praise of his worthless patron Lord Lonsdale - the hypocritical sympathy of Dickens for oppressed young ladies while living under an assumed name with the powerless young Ellen Ternan - the gloating tone of Stevenson as he describes deaths and summary executions in The Black Arrow - the sheer weirdness of Charlotte Brontë's universe - the glaring omissions in Jane Austen's - all of these lend some weight to the insidious power of the story and of its ideas.

    Who can say what it's really about? It enters the ranks of supernatural classics because it continues to tease and irritate us, like the very finest of the works of Poe or Hoffmann.



    Margaret Irwin: The Earlier Service (1935)


    The second of the two, "The Earlier Service," transfers the basic conceit of Nathaniel Hawthorne's "Young Goodman Brown" - a witch cult concealed under a facade of piety - to an English country church, with a time-shift element built in for good measure.

    The extra turn of the screw this time comes from the presence of a crusader tomb in the church, which gives comfort to Jane, the young girl at the centre of the plot, as she finds herself increasingly drawn under the influence of these sinister past events. She finds herself repeatedly reciting - or rather, misquoting - Coleridge's lines:
    The knight is dust.
    His good sword rust.
    His soul is with the saints we trust.
    The young man York, an enthusiastic antiquarian, and the only one who takes her premonitions seriously, eventually unearths the reason for this shadowy presence hovering over the parish:
    In the reports of certain trials for sorcery in the year 1474, one Giraldus atte Welle, priest of the parish of Cloud Martin in Somerset, confessed under torture to having held the Black Mass in his church at midnight on the very altar where he administered the Blessed Sacrament on Sundays. This was generally done on Wednesday or Thursday, the chief days of the Witches’ Sabbath when they happened to fall on the night of the full moon. The priest would then enter the church by the little side door, and from the darkness in the body of the church those villagers who had followed his example and sworn themselves to Satan, would come up and join him, one by one, hooded and masked, that none might recognize the other. He was charged with having secretly decoyed young children in order to kill them on the altar as a sacrifice to Satan, and he was finally charged with attempting to murder a young virgin for that purpose.
    Jane, it seems, has been chosen to fill in for the young virgin, since Giraldus never succeeded in completing his ritual:
    All the accused made free confessions towards the end of their trial, especially in as far as they implicated other people. All however were agreed on a certain strange incident. That just as the priest was about to cut the throat of the girl on the altar, the tomb of the Crusader opened, and the knight who had lain there for two centuries arose and came upon them with drawn sword, so that they scattered and fled through the church, leaving the girl unharmed on the altar.
    York is too late to prevent Jane's abduction by the hungry ghosts.
    He walked up to the little gate into the churchyard. There was a faint light from the chancel windows, and he thought he heard voices chanting. He paused to listen, and then he was certain of it, for he could hear the silence when they stopped. It might have been a minute or five minutes later that he heard the most terrible shriek he had ever imagined, though faint, coming as it did from the closed church; and knew it for Jane’s voice. He ran up to the little door and heard that scream again and again. As he broke through the door he heard it cry “Crusader! Crusader!” The church was in utter darkness, there was no light in the chancel, he had to fumble in his pockets for his electric torch. The screams had stopped and the whole place was silent. He flashed his torch right and left, and saw a figure lying huddled against the altar. He knew that it was Jane; in an instant he had reached her. Her eyes were open, looking at him, but they did not know him, and she did not seem to understand him when he spoke. In a strange, rough accent of broad Somerset that he could scarcely distinguish, she said, “It was my body on the altar.”
    I guess one reason I like this story so much is the careful detailing of the backdrop - the shy attraction of Jane to York, and his own growing fascination with this intelligent but troubled young girl.

    But I do have to admit that I also like that moment of what Tolkien would call Eucatastrophe (the opposite of catastrophe: the sudden lucky turn that saves everything) when the Crusader comes to life and hunts the devil worshippers from the church.

    So much did I like it that I wrote a long poem about it when I was in my teens (now, luckily, long burnt to ashes). It completely failed to reproduce the atmosphere of Irwin's story. That may have been the first moment when I really started to understand how much skill and careful artifice went into the creation of such effects.

    I don't have much to say about the rest of Irwin's short stories. Some of them are quite good of their kind, such as the one about Cromwell's nominee attempting to take over his new estate in Ireland, but none of them rise to the heights of the two discussed above. Irwin clearly had a fascination with the supernatural, but it was the deep romanticism of her nature which brought the historical novels so vividly to life.



    J. R. R. Tolkien: Moments of Eucatastrophe (The Return of the King: 1955)






    Bassano Ltd.: Margaret Irwin (1939)

    Margaret Emma Faith Irwin
    (1889–1967)


      Novels:

    1. Still She Wished for Company. 1924. A Peacock Book. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1979.
    2. These Mortals. 1925. Uniform Edition. 1952. London: Chatto & Windus, 1968.
    3. Knock Four Times. 1927. Uniform Edition. London: Chatto & Windus, 1951.
    4. Fire Down Below. London: Chatto & Windus, 1928.
    5. None So Pretty. 1930. London: Chatto & Windus, 1935.
    6. Royal Flush: The Story of Minette. 1932. London: Chatto & Windus, 1947.
    7. The Proud Servant: The Story of Montrose. 1934. London: Pan Books, Ltd., 1966.
    8. The Stranger Prince: The Story of Rupert of the Rhine. 1937. London: Chatto & Windus, 1947.
    9. The Bride: The Story of Louise and Montrose. London: Chatto & Windus, 1939.
    10. The Gay Galliard: The Love Story of Mary Queen of Scots. London: Chatto & Windus, 1941.
    11. The Queen Elizabeth Trilogy:
      1. Young Bess. 1944. Grey Arrow. London: Arrow Books, Ltd., 1960.
      2. Elizabeth, Captive Princess. 1948. London: The Reprint Society, 1950.
      3. Elizabeth and the Prince of Spain. London: Chatto & Windus, 1953.
    12. The Heart's Memory (1951) [?]
    13. Hidden Splendour (1952) [?]

    14. Short stories:

    15. Madame Fears the Dark: Seven Stories and a Play. London: Chatto & Windus, 1935.
    16. Mrs. Oliver Cromwell and Other Stories. London: Chatto & Windus, 1940.
    17. Bloodstock and Other Stories. 1935 & 1940. Uniform Edition. London: Chatto & Windus, 1953.

    18. Biography:

    19. That Great Lucifer: A Portrait of Sir Walter Ralegh. 1960. London: The Reprint Society, 1961.



    Margaret Irwin: These Mortals (1925)


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