One of the most recurring themes in M. R. James is the idea that the comforts of the present were afforded by the horrors of the past. Fey, fusty, middle-class men of leisure are able to pour their time into their pet hobbies because their ancestors waged war with the powers of political corruption and spiritual evil. In a sense, the road to their lives of ease and petty passions was paved with the broken bones and spilled blood of millions of their hardscrabble forefathers.
James both lived this sort of lifestyle himself – bicycling through France, going on “troll hunts” in Scandinavia, and poring over Medieval minutiae on Cambridge’s dime – but tried to be conscious of the comparative silliness of his lifestyle contrasted with prior generations who endured civil wars, religious schisms, national revolutions, witch hunts, violent corruption, political oppression, pandemic plagues, barbarian invasions, and the heavy, existential work of defining England’s social and spiritual identity.
And what could be more English than a rose garden?
The rose, itself, is the national floral emblem – just as the leek, thistle, and shamrock represent Wales, Scotland, and Ireland, respectively – and the traditional English garden festooned with this botanical insignia is still just as closely associated with the English cultural ideal as beer gardens and tea gardens are to their German and Japanese counterparts.
And how better to illustrate this particular theme than to suggest that a highly cultivated English garden be built over the hideous resting place of a tyrannical partisan whose disregard for justice outlived the grave? James takes his parable yet another step forward by showing that this aristocratic despot can only finally be “laid down” through the combined efforts of the local spiritual authorities – the bourgeois parsons – whose power, it would seem, comes directly from Providence, placing them in a strong position to oppose one whose authority has been illegitimately bought by cronyism and corruption.
The action follows George and Mary Anstruther – a milquetoast, middleclass couple who have just moved into Westerfield Hall in Essex. Mary is a no-nonsense field marshal of a wife, who immediately sizes up the backyard and decides to turn a particularly ugly, scrubby-looking area into a rose garden. The spot – notably near the path leading to the church – is dominated by overgrown bushes, a few rotten benches, and a large, oak post that appears to have no purpose. Obeying orders, George passes them onto the gardener, Collins, who agrees to grub them up, but notes that the post will take some work to remove, as it is very firm in the ground.
Later that day, Mary is visited by Miss Wilkins, a local woman who grew up in Westerfield Hall many years ago. Excited about her rose garden, Mary takes her to the spot to describe her plans, and Miss Wilkins explains that the site used to be a summer house, and that she and her brother Frank used to be afraid of it. One time, she elaborates, when her brother was eight, she discovered him sleeping in the house, but his face was so contorted in fear that she thought he had died, and he woke up with a scream. The episode lasted for several days: he refused to sleep alone and was troubled by nightmares.
In the bizarre dream which his sister interrupted, he found himself somehow in a past time, where he had the sense that he was on being put on trial by a kangaroo court, his fate having been previously decided. The judge interrogated him ruthlessly and unfairly, after which he was only aware of an oppressive feeling of anxiety. Finally, he remembered being led out in front of a crowd on a cold day, marched up the steps to a scaffold, and confronted with the awful sight of a brazier, at which point he woke up in fear of his life.
Thinking back on it, Miss Wilkins recalls an odd experience of her own, not long after Frank’s. He left her alone in the summer house at dusk, and she thought she began to hear angry voices in the distance. One, specifically, appeared to say “pull, pull. I’ll push, you pull.” The voices, she realized, seemed to become louder and clearer the closer she stood to the strange post (which, at the time, was part of the framework of a bench).
Not long afterward, for reasons she didn’t fully understand, her father had the structure demolished, although she remembered one of the workers assuring him that he had nothing to worry about because a “he” was “fast enough in there” – a phrase that suggested a person being imprisoned or being prevented from escaping. The full facts were lost to time because both of their parents died soon after.
The next morning, Mary complains of bad dreams, voices in the night, foreboding owl calls, and the impression that strange men were trespassing on their property. Although no evidence is uncovered, she does distinctly remember the sight of a horrendously large owl watching her through the window.
George confesses to a bad night’s sleep as well: he, like Frank, dreamed of being arrested. He was burning papers when the soldiers came for him and was also tried by a biased judge who refused to allow him a proper defense or representation. Also, like Frank, he next dreamed of a miserable, anxious time of waiting, and of being taken to an executioner’s scaffold on a snowy day where a brazier suggested that his entrails were to be cut out and burned before his eyes. He, too, woke up in time to be spared the next moment.
Mary is struck by the similarity in the dreams, yet had not told George about Miss Wilkins’ story.
Notwithstanding these dark happenings, the rose garden moves forward. The gardener is struck with an odd sickness directly after pulling the post, and his wife says several odd things in regards to the two events, namely that he hadn’t meant any harm by it, but – having been a local – he should have thought better of it.
Meanwhile, Mary goes to the site – now disencumbered of shrubs – to sketch the view. She is enchanted and stays there later than expected: until sunset. As she stands to leave, though, she realizes that she is not alone:
“Then a bird (perhaps) rustled in the box-bush on her left, and she turned and started at seeing what at first she took to be a Fifth of November mask peeping out among the branches. She looked closer.
“It was not a mask. It was a face—large, smooth, and pink. She remembers the minute drops of perspiration which were starting from its forehead: she remembers how the jaws were clean-shaven and the eyes shut. She remembers also, and with an accuracy which makes the thought intolerable to her, how the mouth was open and a single tooth appeared below the upper lip. As she looked the face receded into the darkness of the bush.”
Horrified, she makes for the house but faints once she makes it. The couple immediately take a vacation to Brighton, where they are unexpectedly contacted by the Essex Archeological Society. The letter asks if they know whether a portrait of a former resident is still in the Westerfield Hall art collection. The sitter was Lord Chief Justice during Charles II’s reign, although he was forced to resign under scandalous allegations, and retired to Westerfield Hall before dying, supposedly, of a guilty conscience.
The letter further alleges that the Lord Chief Justice was buried on the way to the churchyard (though, notably, not in holy ground) and that his body was transfixed with a stake to keep him at rest, and asks if the Anstruthers know if this legend is still part of the local oral tradition.
The letter includes a photo of a copy of the portrait in question, which horrifies Mary to such an extent that they decide to winter overseas.
Meanwhile, George (alone) returns to Westfield and discusses the case with a local priest who admits to the local legend: that the judge was staked, postmortem, but that his grave has long been the site of ghostly happenings: spectral owls, disembodied voices, and the like. Examining the parish register for the burial, they are unsettled by a notation in different handwriting: “QUIETA NON MOVERE” – "do not unsettle established things," or, colloquially, “Let sleeping dogs lie.”
Beneath the surface of this horticultural spook story is a historical parable of the rise of England’s gentry and professional classes and the decline of the feudal aristocracy. It’s moral may even imply that modern England’s material prosperity and intellectual idleness might accidentally lead to the resurgence of corruption and social unrest (an argument which H. G. Wells effectively illustrated in “The Time Machine” with the weak, inbred race of the Eloi and the brutal, troglodytic Morlocks).
The purpose of the haunting appears to come from two different parties: one which is pushing back against the meddlers – presumably the spirits of the judge’s victims on one hand – and one which is encouraging their interference – presumably the judge’s ghost on the other. The first set of hauntings consist of the anxious memories of the executed prisoners: memories of being arrested, tried, and taken to their deaths. These visions – shared by Frank and Mr. Anstruther – seem to serve to frighten away those who try to turn the judge’s grave into a place of fun or leisure, and they also seem to only affect males – who would have been likelier victims of political violence in an earlier age.
The second set of hauntings – the judge’s encouraging voice and the apparition of his face, flushed and sweating from hellfire – are no less frightening, but appear to be part of his attempts to have the stake removed from his impaled corpse (for this is so obviously what its purpose is), which would allow him to prowl the countryside once more, as it had in the 18th century, before the local parsons put an end to his walkabouts. Interestingly, these experiences seem to only affect females, and have a notably sensual quality to them.
In the first recorded instance, Miss Wilkins, then a young girl, hears the judge whispering secretively to her, coaxing her to join him in a vigorous activity involving the manipulation of a phallic pole extending from his body. His words of “Pull, pull. I’ll push, you pull” are no less suggestive. The second of these experiences take place during the night, where Mrs. Anstruther is awoken my soft whisperings, and the sight of a sinister owl predatorily watching her (Mr. Anstruther does not hear or see anything) as she lies sleeping in her bed.
The third of these female experiences is the climactic appearance of his flushed, sweaty face with its closed eyes and gaping moth. I need not connect those dots other than to say that it is perfectly legitimate to interpret the source of heat being simultaneously hellish and orgasmic since, while living, the judge’s pleasure seemed to derive in causing suffering, making it fitting that his torment should also carry with it a sexual reading.
While many of James’ readership will cry foul on these observations, using the tired excuse that James was asexual both in life and in his writing, we cannot fail to acknowledge the obvious sensuality of these scenes, even if we might disagree about how far to interpret them. What seems apparent, however, is that Frank and Mr. Anstruther were visited by one set of ghosts – the miserable wretches who died under the judge’s authority – while Miss Wilkins and Mrs. Anstruther are sought out by the ghost of the man who signed off on their executions.
From a basic, gendered reading of these facts, it would seem that James is warning of the dangers posed by autocrats who have the power to condemn good men, leaving women vulnerable to their sexual predations. Even in a less explicit interpretation, it seems clear that James is painting innocent men as being the natural obstacle in the way of evil men, and innocent women as their natural desire – whom they will attempt to lure into an alliance (“Pull, pull. I’ll push, you pull”) as unwitting helpmates, and whom they will progressively assault with their sensual power (graduating, as he does, from a whispered voice, to a watchful owl, to a physical manifestation of his face, becoming increasingly real and increasingly invasive).
James’ moral, once again, hints at the hard-won importance of social justice and political liberty, and at the perils posed to members of both genders if the still-conscious threats of the past are forgotten in the present.