Thursday, 13 February 2014

M.R. James And The Addleton Tragedy

(This piece, written by Alan Saunders, was originally published in 'Llama Droppings', the newsletter of The Head Llamas).

The year 1894 was a busy one for Sherlock Holmes, indeed Watson records that the accounts of their activities for that year filled ‘..three massive manuscript volumes...' (GOLD). This is all the more remarkable since Holmes was only active for about three-quarters of the year, the Great Hiatus did not end until the early spring. Cases we have on record from this time include EMPT, NORW and GOLD. In addition to these Watson mentions, but does not record a number of other cases. In GOLD we have the '… repulsive story of the Red Leech and the terrible death of Crosby the banker...'; '...the famous Smith-Mortimer succession case...' and '...the tracking and arrest of Hunt, the Boulevard assassin...' (which earned Holmes the Legion of Honour from the French government). In NORW we find mentioned the case of the '...papers of ex-President Murillo...' and the '..shocking affair of the Dutch steamship Friesland..’. An active year for the newly returned detective indeed.

A recent visit to Woking has, however, stimulated some thought on one other case from 1894 which Watson notes but does not record the fill details of. In GOLD we are told of the '...Addleton tragedy and the singular contents of the ancient British barrow ...'. Although it is possible that Addleton is a family name, it is more likely in this context to be the name of a place; a town or village. Not surprisingly, an examination of the atlas will show that there is no place in Britain with the name of Addleton, once again we are dealing with one of Watson's disguised locations. Given the high proportion of Holmes' cases that take place in the home counties the most suitable candidate for the place would seem to be the Surrey town of Addlestone, which lies some five miles to the north-west of Woking.

But what of the '...ancient British barrow...'? Just across the Basingstoke Canal from Woking, in the direction of Addlestone, lie two Bronze age burial mounds. Although there are a number of Pre-Roman sites around Addlestone, these are the closest that have been positively identified as barrows. This of course assumes that the barrow in question is in the same area as 'Addleton', but we have no reason to think otherwise. Very little information exists on these harrows. The Surrey archaeological guide merely lists them as Bronze Age with no date or further indication of their age. From their size and shape it is unlikely that they contain a discrete burial chamber, bodies would have been buried in graves dug into the sides. No record exists of any formal investigation of either of the harrows. They were both dug into unofficially in the early years of this century but nothing of note was found in them.

Although we have no further record of the Addleton tragedy it is possible that there may be a tale by another author that is loosely based on it. The ghost story 'A Warning to the Curious' by M.R. James was published some thirty years after the Addleton tragedy, and is set in the fictional town of Seaburgh, which James states is based on Aldeburgh in Suffolk. In it a young man called Paxton hears a local legend of a buried Saxon crown and sets out to find it. He does so and removes it from its hiding place but is then haunted by the ghost of a man who was its guardian in life and continued to guard it in death. Despite returning the crown to where he found it, he is eventually hounded to death by the vengeful ghost. The structure of the story rather than its plot is what interests us however. The tale is related by an unnamed narrator, who is holidaying in Seaburgh with his companion Henry Long and starts with them seated in their private sitting room in their hotel. At this point Paxton rushes in and proceeds to tell the tale of the crown and of its ghostly guardian. After hearing his statement, Long and the narrator set out to help him return the crown to its hiding place, and are later involved in trying, unsuccessfully, to prevent Paxton's death. The whole style of the story is that of a Holmes adventure. Although the characters of the narrator and Long are not those of Holmes and Watson, the style of the story, with its cosy sitting room start and the two companions helping a distressed client is purely canonical. Remove the ghost from the tale and substitute a mysterious mortal guardian, and we have a plot that would not be out of place in the canon. Remove the whole tale westwards to Baker Street, Addlestone and Woking and we have a convincing sequence of events for The Addleton Tragedy.

How did MR. James come to use the events of the case for one of his tales? James lived and worked in Cambridge, where he was Director of the Fiwilliam Museum and successively Dean, Tutor and Provost of King's. Whether or not you have Holmes as a Cambridge man it is known that he visited the town on more than one occasion. It is not inconceivable therefore that Holmes and James could have met. A number of their fields of interest overlapped; James is described as a linguist, palaeographer, medievalist and biblical scholar. Holmes knowledge of the bible was rusty, but he too spoke and researched into several languages, and studied several aspects of the medieval era; its mystery plays, charters and music for example. Indeed, Holmes may have spent several weeks in Cambridge researching into old English charters during the Spring of 1895 (3STtJ). Given their common pursuits, James and Holmes would have had much to discuss, and it is probably during one of these discussions that the tale of the Addleton tragedy, a case with a background firmly rooted in antiquity would have come up. Like all good authors James would have no doubt stored a nugget like this away, eventually to be used in a modified form as the basis for a story, Holmes would have found it somewhat ironic that when the account eventually appeared it was as a ghost story.

As a theory this is all rather tenuous, but it is difficult to read 'A Warning to the Curious' without seeing it as a tale of the master detective and his biographer friend hot on the trail of another mystery. If you doubt this, then read it for yourself!

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