Sunday, August 20, 2023

A Neighbour's Landmark - a brief note

Following some melancholy family events which I won't go into here, I recently acquired a small selection of vintage books. These included a 1969 edition of The Professor Challenger Stories, a second copy of M.R.James's Abbeys and a volume of essays by A.A.Milne, entitled Not That It Matters (did you know he wrote anything other than Winnie the Pooh? I didn't). There was also a book which struck me as very similar to one I had read about in my very favourite M.R.James ghost story - "A Neighbour's Landmark." Here it is:

The book in the story is described as follows:
"I think we must all know the landscapes—are they by Birket Foster, or somewhat earlier?—which, in the form of wood-cuts, decorate the volumes of poetry that lay on the drawing-room tables of our fathers and grandfathers—volumes in ‘Art Cloth, embossed bindings’; that strikes me as being the right phrase. I confess myself an admirer of them, and especially of those which show the peasant leaning over a gate in a hedge and surveying, at the bottom of a downward slope, the village church spire—embosomed amid venerable trees, and a fertile plain intersected by hedgerows, and bounded by distant hills, behind which the orb of day is sinking (or it may be rising) amid level clouds illumined by his dying (or nascent) ray. The expressions employed here are those which seem appropriate to the pictures I have in mind; and were there opportunity, I would try to work in the Vale, the Grove, the Cot, and the Flood. Anyhow, they are beautiful to me, these landscapes, and it was just such a one that I was now surveying. It might have come straight out of Gems of Sacred Song, selected by a Lady and given as a birthday present to Eleanor Philipson in 1852 by her attached friend Millicent Graves."

My "new old" book is not actually "Gems of Sacred Song" but something very similar: "The Sabbath: Sabbath Walks and Other Poems", and as you can see from the frontispiece, it is indeed illustrated by Birket Foster. 

I was really rather charmed to find that my new acquisition was so very Jamesian. I had a leaf through it and discovered that there were even a couple of illustrations very reminiscent of the one in the story (particularly this first one):

The protagonist of the story, of course, is interrupted in his contemplation of a Birket-Foster-style view over the countryside by a horrific and piercing shriek in one ear, which is repeated a few minutes later. I've always found the story particularly chilling, especially the horrid thought that if you were to linger about the site of Betton Wood too long, you might hear the scream a third time. Brrrr. 

Anyway, I thought I'd share! As for me, I love the book and am going to treasure it.