The Antiquarian of Arcady,
Augustus Jessopp, the friend of M. R. James
by Jessica Amanda Salmonson
Augustus Jessopp was born at Cheshunt, Hertfordshire, on December 20, 1823, the third son & youngest of ten children. His father was John Sympson Jessopp of Cheshunt; his mother Elizabeth Goodrich of Bermuda. When still a small boy the family went to Belgium & afterward his "roving education" was acquired in a series of continental schools. As a young man he became miserably employed as a clerk in a Liverpool merchant's office, three years which to his intelligence & creative spirit surpassed hell. He was saved from this unhappiness by his acceptance into St Johns College, Cambridge, where he remained for four years.
In 1844 he was ordained in the curacy at Papworth St Agnes, Cambridgeshire, & that same year married Mary Ann Cotesworth, a nurse & daughter of a naval surgeon of Liverpool. Augustus must have known her since he was a clerk but could only wed after he was suitably situated to support a household of his own. I do not know why the standard reference volume British Authors says they did not marry until 1873 when Augustus was age fifty, since that's certainly not so; the error was repeated almost verbatim in Kunitz' British Authors of the Nineteenth Century.
The following year, in 1845, they moved to Helston, Cornwall, Augustus having accepted a position as schoolmaster in a run-down grammar school which had lost the majority of its students. By his & Mary's devoted effort the school was restored to its former fortune. It appears that he taught in the Helston Grammar School through 1858 but was headmaster only during the last four years. He continued his own education through this period, too, receiving his B.A. in 1848 & his M.A. in 1851. He also began his career as author & editor in the 1850s, publishing an edition of Donne's Essays in Divinity (1855).
In 1859, he accepted the appointment of headmaster for King Edward VI School in Norwich, soon after publishing his translation of Souvestre's Contes (1860). He found himself once again in command of an institution that had fallen on bad times, expected to work the same miracle of restoration as he had in Cornwall. And indeed, during his twenty year tenure, he transformed the Norwich institution into one that was both modern & respected.
Although he & Mary never had children of their own, boys schools in those days served as residences for the young scholars, thus Mrs. Augustus Jessopp had surrogate children galore. These included George Meredith's son Arthur, whom Mary all but fostered during an education underwritten by her husband.
Mary was a bulwark in Augustus's life & signal to his achievements as an educator. She handled all the details of the school lads' health, diet, & welfare, while Augustus attended to their spiritual & scholarly requirements. As Mary also assisted in her husband's voluminous correspondences, she ended up in ongoing communication of her own with authors & clerics of the day. George Meredith wrote separately to both Mary & Augustus. He told Augustus in 1861: "How happy you that have a Pallas! I will not envy you." Mary kept black cats & loved them as her husband loved dogs. Meredith wrote her a lovely poem in 1862, honoring her for her fine attentions to Arthur's interests, ending his flattering burlesque with this verse:Oh, Lady of the Three Black Cats! Fair well, & let me hope a
Meeting we may compass, ere in effigy you stand,
In Norwich's Cathedral, our illustrious St. Jessopa,
A scroll to tell a Border's needs in Heaven, in your hand."
Augustus received from Oxford in 1870 an honorary degree as Doctor of Divinity. Just nine years later, in 1879, the good Reverend Doctor retired from his school duties & became Rector of Scarning near East Dedreham in Norfolk, a situation he retained until 1911. He had considerable leisure & devoted himself nearly full time to antiquarian interests, establishing himself in that second tier of populist reverend historians, a line which includes the likes of Sabine Baring-Gould & ends in the Decadence of the scholarly fraud-priest & gothic specialist Montague Summers.
The Reverend Doctor had by now become well known as a "type" revered in England, inducing M. R. James' biographer R. W. Pfaff to describe Augustus as "a fine specimen of the learned but somewhat eccentric country parson." In 1880 he published "An Antiquary's Ghost Story" in both the London Atheneum and The Library Magazine, & long after in my & Richard Fawcett's wee journal Fantasy Macabre 12, 1989. It was to remain Augustus's most significant ghost story, & one which he later used as the starting point for a small set of weird tales interwoven with commentaries on dreams & the weird in Frivola; Simon Ryan; & Other Papers (1896). Of the five stories to which Augustus gave the overall title "In Wonderland," the second most important is "The Phantom Coach," a reworking of a tale first told to him by his friend William Maybohm, the father of the greatest of Victorian fantasists, H. Rider Haggard.
The essays & books Augustus composed in the solitude of his rectory at Scarning cover a wide array of historical subjects, conveying an especial liking for topics relating to folklore, superstition, monastic life, the history of the Anglican church, & peasantry. As a critic of sundry contemporary & antiquarian subjects, he was regarded in the 1880s as "racy & provocative." A representative essay would be "Hill-digging & Magic" in The Nineteenth Century, January 1887. It was collected in Random Roaming & other papers (1894); plus there was an uncollected, extended footnote, "A Warning to the Society for Psychical Research," in the April 1887 Nineteenth Century. The main essay addresses some archeological interests, related folklore of the fairy mounds, & the meaning of "hill-digging" as, virtually, "sorcerer," since anyone who went questing for treasure in these mounds was believed to require beforehand -- or to acquire in the digging process -- a demon familiar. Included in the essay is a tale of one such demon encountered in the days of Henry IV, 1465, which unfortunately doesn't quite stand alone, or I would have excerpted it for the present collection of Augustus's supernatural tales.
He contributed to The Edinburgh Review, The Quarterly, & other journals, with the majority of his primary essays in The Nineteenth Century, being later collected under such titles as Arcady for Better or Worse (1887), The Coming of the Friars & other historical essays(1888), Trials of a Country Parson (1890), Studies of a Recluse in cloister, town, & country (1893). Although he did not live long enough to see it published, his last volume, England's Peasantry & other historic essays (1914), contained more of these earlier pieces. It had been some years since he'd been able to write & this last book was arranged through T. Fisher Unwin, his main publisher for decades, when Augustus was no longer able to care for his own needs & had fallen into penury. While in his prolific phase, he also contributed biographical essays on such as Queen Elizabeth to The Dictionary of National Biography. This publication honored him, after his death, by including, in a supplement, a fond (if far from definitive) biographical sketch of Jessopp.
Augustus was not as happy at Scarning as in former residences, & felt that he had been cast out of the mainstream of his former social & professional life; but nevertheless it was a productive time for him. For all his sense of having been displaced & abandoned of society, this was in great part his emotional state of mind, & not entirely factual. He was well liked by all & sundry, blessed not only with well famed friends but also with continuous honors. Several of his books were reissued through the years; a few had American editions. His life remained entirely vital: in 1895 he was made honorary canon in Norwich Cathedral & in 1902 a chaplin in ordinary to the King. He continued to prefer the title of Reverend Doctor, however, & did not care to be addressed as Canon.
Augustus travelled, sometimes alone, sometimes with Mary, on scholarly quests & to visit with correspondents with whom he would stay. He was friends with Rudyard Kipling & Edward Burne-Jones, among so many others. Burne-Jones' granddaughter, the noted author Angela Thirkell, remembered Augustus's pleasing yet imposing figure as "tall & white-haired, with the look of one who walked often with his Maker." In her commentaries with some of Augustus's letters, which she published in the November 1921 issue of Cornhill Magazine as "Letters from a Shepherd of Arcady to a Little Girl," Angela remembered he used to captivate his hosts into the late hours with delightful conversation & recital of verse by the fireplace.
He had also an streak of wicked humor, as when he privately ripped into a verse by the rubbishy poet Alfred Austin, who at the time was Poet Laureate of England. Austin's misrepresentations of natural history inspired Augustus to reply in similar doggerel, beginning:I heard a Laureate twaddler say
I must prove I'm a poet
I'll write some wordy birdy lay
And to ye world I'll show it!
And so on through six stanzas of whimsical abuse.
In the 1890s Augustus became chums with fellow scholar M. R. James. He & the young "Monty" collaborated on a remarkable study & translation of the twelfth century Life & Miracles of St William of Norwich by Thomas of Monmouth (1896) which James discovered in a Suffolk church & which Jessopp translated. Monty assuredly read his friend's "An Antiquary's Ghost Story" in advance of composing his own vastly more famed Ghost Stories of an Antiquary (1904).
In 1905, Mary Ann died, & everything took dismal turns thereafter. Amidst unexpected poverty he was forced to sell his fine library for sustenance, losing thereby his primary reason for life, & would even then have fallen into deeper penury but for obtaining a small civil list pension to arrest unutterable hardship.
His final years were spent in a state of madness. Already in 1900 he wrote of frequently hallucinating "wakeful dreams" & falling into periods of turpitude. Although the record insinuates his unexpected bad luck brought him finally to insanity, he was of an age that we might charitably suspect clinical senility was what underlaid his last, tragic condition, a decline which Angela Thirkell represented kindly as "the gradual & gentle clouding of his mind." He died insane on February 12, 1914, in Norwich.
"The Antiquary of Arcady" is copyright © 1999 by Jessica Amanda Salmonson, all rights reserved. The vignette illustrating the title is a detail from the dustwrapper of Jessopp's The Phantom Coach & is copyright © 1999 by illustrator Wendy Wees.
This essay was written as the Introduction to Augustus Jessopp's The Phantom Coach: An Antiquary's Ghost Stories, edited & introduced by Jessica Amanda Salmonson, & published by R. H. Fawcett in a fine edition hardcover limited to 400 copies.
Autographed copies can be obtained from Violet Books. Check the catalog link in the navigation bar below to see what's available.
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