‘There was a Man Dwelt by a Churchyard’ was published in 1924 in the Eton newsletter ‘Snapdragon’ by classic British writer M. R. James. It is one of James’ shortest stories and is based on the Shakespearean play ‘The Winter’s Tale’. The beginning lines of the short story are taken directly from the play from Act 2: Scene 1, 25-31, where the innocent young boy Prince Mamilius starts regaling the court and his Queen mother with a story of a man in a churchyard. M. R. James begins this story in this way to give it a sense of historical character, which we normally find in all his other usual antiquarian ghost stories. This story is very similar to his incomplete story titled ‘Stories I Have Tried to Write’ in the part describing the witch who sat upon her grave after her death and was found by two college students practicing the occult. Having many layers to it, it is impossible to study this short story and its significance without understanding ‘The Winter’s Tale’ and the tender role of Mamilius in it. Unlike Queen Hermione, Mamilius would never gain anything from his father or the royalty. His words in the last part of this horror story seem to echo too hauntingly in our hearts, making us remember a life lost due to sin, doubt, and suspicion.
The story begins in the court of Sicily. Mamilius is entertaining his Mother at the start of the story. However, King Leontes of Sicilia arrests Queen Hermione on the charge of infidelity even though she was pregnant with his child at that moment. She was innocent of the crime. Mamilius’ fine story was left unfinished, just like his life as a prince of Sicily. M. R. James, in a compassionate and encouraging tone, then begins his own story and takes off probably what Mamilius wanted to say in the play ‘The Winter’s Tale’ if he had had a chance. M. R. James begins the tale with an odd old man, John Poole, who lives in a home overlooking one side of the street and the other side overlooking the churchyard. Where the churchyard was concerned, he specifically could get a good view of the graveyard and, like a sadistic voyeur, would gaze on late-night funerals as a hobby. One night, the rumored old witch of the area, Mother Wilkins, passed away. Though she was not popular in the area, she had saved a lump sum of money to provide for her decent burial. However, due to the heartless or rather obstinate abhorrence, the people had for her, even the parson of the parish church flung her coins upon her lonely grave as she was being buried in disgrace and without proper arrangements having been carried out at all! This money is nabbed by the deceitful John Poole, who then visits the neighborhood inn. There he is warned about his home and is asked by a superstitious blacksmith to leave the house because it overlooks the graveyard, and he sees corpse lights or will-o’-the-wisps over the graves of the dead. John Poole shrugs off the whole idea till one night, he looks out of his window and sees upon the grave of Mother Wilkins a brass-like statue with a shroud over its head. It was Mother Wilkins who had come back from the dead to procure her money. Her ghostly form enters his room, and after searching uselessly, she realizes that the money was with John Poole in bed and shouted, ‘ So you’ve got it’! At that moment, the story is cut short by Mamilius, and he lunges upon a court lady and scares the living daylights out of her. For his mischief, he is reprimanded by his Queen Mother but leaves the company when it is time for him to retire, saying that he knew even more, scarier stories than the one he had narrated. His last words leave a sorrowful impression on the reader, and one feels empathy for a child who suffered and died pining for his accused mother.
A sad tale’s best for winter; I have one of sprites and goblins. There was a Man Dwelt by a Churchyard: I will tell it softly; Yond crickets shall not hear it.The Winter’s Tale Act 2: Scene 1, 25-31
Thus begins Mamilius in the play M. R. James studied carefully; it sounds very much like the beginning of a macabre Christmas story worthy of the creativity of the scholar horror writer of the late Victorian and Edwardian Age. But without knowing the basic plot of the play, we will find it difficult to comprehend the text. Here is a short description of the main plot line of ‘The Winter’s Tale’, which is sometimes regarded as one of Shakespeare’s Comedies and at other times one of his Romances. Also noted are the highlights to comprehend and analyze the short story titled ‘There was a Man Dwelt by a Churchyard’, which tends to have that cavernous tone like the other famous M. R. James short story titled ‘Oh, Whistle and I’ll Come to You, My Lad’, but with a richer depth.
Plot of The Winter’s Tale
Pertaining mainly to the importance of this particular story, the play begins with the King of Sicily and the King of Bohemia deciding to meet and catch up. Since the King of Bohemia could not come to Sicily to see his old friend, who was King Leontes of Sicily, for a particular reason, his wife goes to Bohemia to convince the other king to come with her. Immediately upon her return to Sicily, Leontes suspects his wife of infidelity. Her name is Queen Hermione, and she is pregnant with his child. She is arrested while in court being entertained by her innocent son Mamilius. She gives birth to a daughter who is taken away from her. Pining for his innocent mother, Mamilius dies, and upon hearing this, so does Queen Hermione, though it simply looks like she has fainted. The daughter is looked after by shepherds and betrothed later on in life to Prince Florizel, the very son of King Polixenes, the King of Bohemia. They arrive at the court of Sicily, where King Leontes is perpetually mourning the mistake he committed against his wife and children, whom he feels he has lost forever. When the identity of the daughter, Perdita, is revealed, a union of estranged members of both sides of the world takes place. Final redemption arrives at the end of the play in a rather bizarre manner when inaugurating a brass statue of his supposed dead wife, the statue comes alive, and it is revealed that it is indeed Queen Hermione who had not died. Thus, Leontes is happily united with his wife once again. The only person who does not get redemption is the dead Mamilius, to whom M. R. James sings an ode in the form of this horror story we are analyzing today.
The Brass Statue
The beautiful brass statue of Queen Hermione is paralleled to the horrifying brass statue of Mother Wilkins, who the church and John Poole cheated of her money. We see a similar description of the statue coming to life in both stories, which startles and astounds all present. Grotesquely, Mother Wilkins tries to ‘unite’ with her grave thief, a juxtaposition of Leontes’s mystical union with his beautiful wife. Even Queen Hermione seems to frighten and spook all present. Revelatory is the fact that both get what they want, which is redemption, where Queen Hermione is concerned, and revenge, where Mother Wilkins is concerned. Both women were wronged in a terrible way, one accused of infidelity while the other, because of her status as an elderly single woman, is denied her last wish to be buried properly because the region ‘assumes’ her to have not been a true Christian and being a witch. She is rumored to have not been present at home when the witch sabbaths of All Hallows and Midsummer’s Eve used to take place.
Discrimination Against Women
The play and the horror story highlight the discrimination practiced against Hermione and Mother Wilkins because they did not meet the status quo of the then-respective male patriarchy. It is surprising to see this very revolutionary take on women, particularly in James’ story, because he usually tended to have a prejudice against women himself which is evident because in most of his stories, all the main characters are always women. Mother Wilkins need not have been a witch, but her thirst for her money made her revisit her grave robber John Poole. She demanded her due and, even in death, could not tolerate that her money was taken away from her and her right as a Christian and a human being to deserve a decent burial. Unlike most individuals, Mother Wilkins was not depending on the charity of the men of her region to supplement her needs after her death; she had already provided for herself and was independent even in her old age. If a man like Leontes can suspect his queen and disgrace her as well as be the cause of her losing a son to death and a daughter to banishment, what of single women like Mother Wilkins, whom from time immemorial men have been afraid of and have been declaring such free-spirited women to be witches? ‘All Hallows’ is ‘All Saints Day’ celebrated by the church about what ‘they’ feel is a true saint, either male or female! ‘Midsummer’s Eve’ is a celebration of the season of summer, usually held on a date around the summer solstice. It has pagan pre-Christian roots in Europe, and since most pagan feasts and customs are focused primarily on women, it is conveniently deemed Satanic when actually, it is nothing more than a celebration of the resurrection and fertility of Mother Earth. This aspect in the two texts is truly an indictment against patriarchy. Shakespeare is famous for doing this in his plays; it is strange that M. R. James takes it up too in this short story titled ‘There was a Man Dwelt by a Churchyard’.
The greatest celebrated child character in Shakespeare’s plays has to be Mamilius. Likewise, the childlike innocence and expectation with which all lovers of M. R. James’ short stories await his stories during the Christmas season imitate that of the dead boy. He is the unsung little hero of ‘The Winter’s Tale’, whom James immortalizes indirectly in the last paragraph of his text. James used to narrate his ghost stories at Christmas time at his college; his students used to wait eagerly for his stories. He seems almost to be an early 20th-century older version of the mischievous Mamilius.
John Poole, unlike Leontes, was not repentant of what he had done. He even tried to secure his stolen money by placing it from his wall cupboard into the breast pocket of his nightgown. He is rewarded with doom as Mother Wilkins enters his room and searches through it. Minor themes like calamity, thievery, sin against the dead, and fear are touched upon lightly in the text.
Thus, ends ‘There was a Man Dwelt by a Churchyard’ by M. R. James. It is evident that he always wrote in favor of superstition rather than science though he was a provost for many years. This folk tale-like ending to this story comes off as charming and tender. It is captivating yet full of everything that is not like the usual Gothic drama of that time.
I enjoyed re-reading and analyzing this ghost story by British writer M. R. James. I plan to re-read and analyze more of his short stories in the coming days. I have spent my whole life, right from my days at school, enjoying his stories. If you want to know more about my life, you can check out my memoirs titled The Reclusive Writer & Reader of Bandra or Scenes of a Reclusive Writer & Reader of Mumbai. If you are interested in checking out more of my analysis of M. R. James’ short stories, you can check them out here. I hope to read and review more short stories soon.
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