There are female visitations aplenty, of course, and female servants and relatives and bystanders, and a wife or two, and of course the witch in The Ash Tree: but Mrs Anstruther is very close to the only time in 30-odd in M. R. James stories that a woman is protagonist-victim; and when it’s not what he considers manstuff that gets the demon’s motor running. The other — that I’m aware of — is a rarely anthologised fragment called The Experiment: and we never actually meet the woman character in that.
But we very much do meet Mrs Anstruther — she’s the one strong character, and everyone else (such as her husband) we only really recognise in terms of their relationship with her. At its simplest, the story is this: Mrs A wants to convert a neglected corner of her small estate into a rose garden; orders the gardener to remove the decayed garden seat and uproot an old post attached to it; something is disturbed, which brings unpleasantness…
Which is to say, this is a structure he used many times in a manworld context; and it’s the manner of the retelling which matters, not the meat. (Or more accurately: the meat is the manner.)
It opens with a wife-husband dialogue, a to-and-fro that’s mild and rather dated domestic mini-comedy; she’s a bit of a no-nonsense termagent; he’s a bit henpecked. So far so stereotypical, maybe: women be gardening, men be golfing (if they’re allowed). But it’s easy to be misled if this seemingly throwaway scene isn’t to your tastes in humour; or if the world it depicts isn’t to your taste in lifestyle, the upper-mid rural middle classes of a hundred years ago, as they interact with their equals, their servants — and others. The comedy scenes are amusing enough, in an undemanding way: but the purpose of this opening scene is not, I think, structurally different from that fierce block of untranslated Latin that opened The Treasure of Abbot Thomas. James is describing a world he belongs to or near, with a mixture of precision and amusement; and, whether or not he approves of the ordering of this world, he wants to get you comfy enough in familiarity that when the trouble starts…
I was 14 when I first read it, and we’d just moved into the first house the family owned — in a small very rural village, with a big garden. My dad had told me I might enjoy these stories, and I’d found a Collected James in Shrewsbury library. I reached this particular story in a silent reading period at school. The English teacher was catching up with his marking, with other readers absorbed all around me in their own written worlds, when something rustled in the shrubbery and that pink sweaty face loomed out, giving me the single biggest yikes-eek shock-thrill-shiver I’ve ever had while quietly reading. I had to bite back a vocalised grunt of fright — and doing so brought me back to a sense of the room, and the crowd of day safely sat about me in it, if anything only rendering more acute the sense of solitary peril, of images and fears unleashed, in your own head alone, by the wrong sentence on the wrong page. That face – MRJ even likens it to a Guy Fawkes mask, the better to underscore the horror of its not being — stayed with me for wakeful weeks.
Why was the fright so intense? It’s more than a just a good boo-moment, though it is of course that. The lulling effect of the setting — including the deftly controlled soft music of rising alarm — has a particular character: partly of familiar, slightly stuffy stolidity (the social world it depicts lingered on in the sleepy Shropshire of 40 years ago); but also — for a 14-yr-old — of something at once all around me and quite alien. Which is sex. The main characters in this story (and only this?) come in gendered pairs: Mr and Mrs Anstruther, the gardener and his wife; the former owner and her brother — and their parents. And there’s also something uneasily and veiledly dual also about the haunting: different people are bothered and/or invaded by different personality elements; read carefully and you realise there’s a dominant ghost and a secondary, eternally bound to him.
Which is why the backstory is confused, or anyway confusing. The dream that gets into some bystanders’ heads seems to be from the POV *not* of the waked and walking whoever-it-is, but of one of those he oppressed when he lived. He being “Sir ______ _____ , Lord Chief Justice under Charles II”, who retired in disgrace to Essex and there died of remorse. This last fits the historical facts of neither of the historical judges it resembles — Sir William Scroggs and the horrible Baron Jeffreys of Wem, the latter a figure we’ll meet again in a James story. Certainly the dreams that Mr Anstruther and the former owner’s brother (when a boy) seem to agree on this: that the dreamers are seeing OUT of the eyes of someone arrested, put on trial, harassed unjustly by a sarcastic and hostile judge, and led out to execution. Seeing from inside the Guy Fawkes mask, if you like. Yet the face is that of Judge _______ himself, or so we’re later told. How does this cross-wire leakage work? Is this figure troubled because he can’t get his own victims’ last days and terrors out of his head, and putting it into nearby sleeping heads, as he wakes and walks? And WHY are the heads in question both male?
Alongside this, there’s the classic understated undercurrent of “panic” fear: “The terror induced by forests and darkness was called by the Ancients, Panic fear, or the fear of the great god Pan,” to quote a favourite passage from another book I liked at that age (Dorothy L. Sayer’s Murder Must Advertise). There is absolutely something queasily quasi-sexual about this particular spectre’s manifestation to the women: one of its victims — the house’s previous owner (when a young girl, many years before) — hears it whispering “I’ll push, you pull”. And Mrs Anstruther has to endure the round pink hairless face emerging out of the bushes, sweating, eyes closed, lips parted, and somehow receding as threateningly as it appeared. Not that James’s ghosts aren’t often just this intolerably tactile, for their bachelor victims… anyway, intended or not, these kinds of shadowy psychic elements helped spook me as a kid.
As always there’s also the curious Jamesian undercurrent, where the lower orders are somehow in better contact with and smarter about the forces of the unseen: the gardener ordered to to pull up the offending stake is rendered bed-ridden and contrite by whatever he reluctantly sets free; and others in the village seem aware of something the Anstruthers are very much not, though they’re oddly reticent to tell their betters about it. The vengeance of the uncultured dispossessed on both the learned and the comfortable, at once justified and wildly out of proportion, is the heart of so many of his tales. If MRJ seems a little outside his expected territory, of libraries and tombs and the dusty sediment of lawless power long ago, the fact of the private English garden is nevertheless built on a multitude of forgotten enclosures acts down the centuries, and Mrs Anstruther encounters a mobile residue of the same unresolved injustice her nerdy or greedy bachelor professors do in the other stories, a bent judge kept from rest by inchoate unwritten, perhaps unwriteable will to right.
Add to this the continued evolution of the technique we already saw in A School Story, that he’ll refine subsequently: the half-revealed backstory as gathered from several semi-independent sources, whose incompleteness is most elegantly filled in supernaturally. The unclarity is central to the effect; we have to construct the story ourselves, and are thus made complicit. And if the social-domestic satire is a flimsy cartoon at best, this only amplifies the enormity of disproportion which makes for the horror. The comedy staple dialogue — in which Mrs A somewhat bullies Mr A — at the outset is balanced by the trial in the dream, in which the (male) dreamer is seeing through the eyes of the bullied defendent; that the ghost of the judge goes on to terrify Mrs A is perhaps a sort of comeuppance for her lack of self-awareness, which we somewhat anticipate enjoying early on, but we too are ably punished for our little schadenfreude, because her terror will also of course be ours.