A Haunting at the Beinecke: An Interview with Kathryn James

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Halloween II

October 25, 2018

Housed within the Beinecke’s hyper-rational gridded walls are all manner of strange texts—from alchemical recipes to notes written shortly before their authors’ deaths. What strange forces might these manuscripts hold? Ought we be fearful of unleashing their ancient wisdom? On a crisp morning in mid-October, we descended into the library’s basement to speak with Kathryn James, the curator of the Beinecke’s Early Modern and Osborn Collections, about the spectral life of texts.

Why do you think we see so many narratives in which a text is the holder of a curse or some other evil force?

I’ve thought a lot about this issue – the ways in which a manuscript is this unknown strange object that can also be something you’re frightened of, that can have this affective power.

The stories of M.R. James are great for thinking about the relationship between the text-object and the kinds of power that it might have. He was the provost of Eton College in the early 20th century, a very tweedy man who wrote ghost stories about a scholar, antiquarian, or cataloguer who in some way ends up with a manuscript that has a kind of spectral life. And they’re always set in these particularly charged spaces: the library, or the church, or the gentry household.

Often there’s a kind of spatial narrative – much like you see in these horror stories – surrounding certain texts. They’re unleashed from innocuous circumstances, like the chest in the corner, and then acquire their own life.

Can an ancient text still retain its aura when it’s in such a pristine, modern space like the Beinecke?

The architecture does contradict the working life of the library. You have this statement from 1963, but the library itself is a laboratory. The tremendous energy that is at work here is in many ways at odds with the building’s appearance of tranquility. The manuscripts are living objects; they’re still used as text, as evidence and we now also increasingly see them as material structures that connect to a remote textual past.

One of the objects in the collection that reminds me of this is Thomas More’s annotated prayer book from when he was held in the Tower of London before his execution. On the one hand it’s interesting as a historical document, but then there’s also the aura of the book – its emotional or affective significance. The Tower of London and More’s execution have no bearing on this book as a physical object, and yet they surround the book intellectually as you encounter it. So I have had this question: why do books that were written in moments of extremis – when the author is in prison or about to die – seem to be granted this additional power? How does a book become a carrier of this emotional charge?

Do you get a lot of seekers here – people whose interest feels less than purely scholarly, who want to see an object like this to attain these hidden energies, so to speak?

There is often a pilgrimage aspect to research. It’s intensely impassioned. I had this terrible experience at Cambridge at the Fitzwilliam Museum. M.R. James worked there, actually, and it’s this 19th-century space, formal and almost fictional in its English gentlemanliness. The manuscript of Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own is housed there, and I visited to see this. When the librarians brought it out to the reading room – I had no idea this was going to happen – as soon as I started reading her handwriting I heard her voice in my head, and just burst into tears. And not in a decorous way, but this huge, loud, coughing sob. The entire library had this quality of shocked silence. I had to pretend that I had a cold to escape the moment.

What is it about a manuscript that seems to offer this possibility of a connection with people from past, to this person, on the other side of the threshold of the physical object?

Is the cursed object narrative of an M.R. James story an allegory for that connection?

The figure of the ineffectual scholar, antiquarian, or cataloguer who is always chasing after ghosts comes up often, both in reality and in fiction. For example, take the Shakespeare scholar Delia Bacon. She was obsessed with the idea that Francis Bacon was the author of Shakespeare’s works, to the point that she went to Stratford to try to open Shakespeare’s grave and prove that he wasn’t buried there at all. She actually spent the night in the church, but couldn’t bring herself to excavate the grave. She was haunted by Shakespeare and his absence. She’s also buried in Grove Street Cemetery, so there’s a way in which she’s corporeally here.

If you’re looking for the voices of the past and the object that can incarnate them, the search will often lead to a book. Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto, which was the first gothic novel, centers around a lost manuscript that shows up in a tower. Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey is similar: the heroine looks to find what she’s read in a gothic novel.

Why this constant searching? Does a collection have a different energy when it’s encountered in its place of origin?

What is gained from seeing an archive in situ? Why do I go to the places that people write about, the places where things happened, or the places where authors sat and wrote their books? I do think that there is a subjective power to those places of origin. A text’s origin changes the way in which it is understood; somehow these places convey back to the text object. There is a fetishistic quality to it all, the aura of the place where the author once was.

So do I think that there is a sort of occult power – in the broadest sense of the term – to encountering a collection in its original space? Logically, no. And yet in practice of course there is.