- The Antiquarian Diaries of Thomas Hearne and Mr. Poynter in the Fiction of M. R. James:Duty Unfulfilled
Montague Rhodes James (1862-1936) lived most of his life within the walls of Eton and King's College, Cambridge, as a student, master, museum director, and provost. His impressive body of scholarly work includes studies and translations of biblical apocrypha, hagiography, and Christian art and architecture, as well as several groundbreaking descriptive catalogues of manuscript collections.1 Today, though, James is perhaps most well known for his highly influential "antiquarian" ghost stories, which have been frequently imitated, anthologized, and dramatized on television, film, the stage, and even a recent best-selling video game.2 James's fiction has already received some limited, uneven critical attention, but surprisingly few studies have paid much attention to the strong ties between his fictional works and his professional pursuits.3 An exception is a recent article by A.S.G. Edwards in Notes and Queries, who points out that the name of a character in "Canon Alberic's Scrap-Book" is taken from the real-life compiler of an album of manuscript fragments, James Dennistoun (1803-1855).4 Edwards notes that this small but interesting discovery "provides a surprisingly rare link between his ghost stories and his other career as one who by the mid-1890s 'in knowledge of MSS [was] already third or fourth in Europe.'"5 It is indeed surprising that so few substantial connections have been made between the imaginative and scholarly work of an author of James's stature and influence.
This article works to help fill this gap by carefully examining the antiquarian backdrop of another Jamesian story involving a collector of [End Page 339] manuscripts. "The Diary of Mr. Poynter" is a variation of this familiar theme in James's work, and indeed the story's antiquary protagonist is named, not Dennistoun, but James Denton.6 The similarity of these names (the fictional manuscript enthusiast, Dennistoun, in "Canon Alberic's Scrap-book"; the historical antiquarian scrap-booker, James Dennistoun, noted by Edwards; the fictional bibliophile, James Denton, in "The Diary of Mr. Poynter") is striking for a number of reasons. For one thing, it suggests that James's names tend to be significant in some way or other—often in allusively obscure ways. It is also symptomatic of the extent to which James's tales tend to retread old fictional haunts. That is not to say that James repeats himself, but most of his tales do hew to the conventions of a genre he himself largely invented. The antiquarian ghost story almost invariably involves a doppelgänger of the author in some form: a gentleman-scholar investigates a church, artifact, or book and makes an unsettling discovery. The past as object of study becomes the past as something to fear and loathe. A similar pattern obtains in the tale in question, but the particulars are bizarre even in comparison with the rest of James's weird fiction. As we hope to demonstrate, long-overdue attention to James's sources reveals in the tale an unlooked-for congruence of antiquarian allusion, historical context, and hair-raising imagery.
A brief summary of the story may prove useful. Despite its title, "The Diary of Mr. Poynter" does not directly deal with the private life of someone named Mr. Poynter. Rather, the tale is focused around something James Denton discovers in Poynter's diary after buying it sight unseen from a London book auctioneer. What he finds is a scrap of fabric imprinted with a pattern that "reminds one of hair," and that immediately appeals to the tastes of his enthusiastic aunt.7 Denton and his aunt live together and are in the process of decorating a new country manor; they decide to have the pattern reproduced on new curtains. Once hung, however, these patterned curtains give rise to something horrible, which Denton at first mistakes for his pet spaniel:
Then he thought he was mistaken: for happening to move his hand which hung down over the arm of the chair within a few inches of the floor, he felt on the back of it just the...