The Uncommon Prayer-Book by M.R. James

This is the story of Mr Davidson (as told by a sporadically intrusive and disarmingly omniscient, if unreliable, narrator) and by chance Davidson meets another man on a train, a man who takes him to a certain secluded chapel in the middle of the countryside looked after by the man’s daughter and her husband, and the man obsessively laughs at the husband’s reported reference to ‘Gregory singing’ (Gregorian chanting?) as donkeys braying, and Davidson when in the chapel is told by the daughter about the eight prayer books that always manage to be open at a certain page of Psalm CIX when nobody is around, even though she always leaves the books shut, and the gestalt one needs to formulate, an act I have so far failed doing, needs to combine a donkey braying, St Gregory (and the locust (mistaken for a moth?) that landed on his bible?), the ‘moth psalm’ or as the daughter, who keeps her fabric safe from  moths, says: ‘morth’, together with aspects of historic rebellion against Oliver Cromwell by such banned prayer books having existed in 1653 …

The plot also takes me into a situation involving an unreliably Jewishly described(?) villain with three names who steals the books by exchanging them for books of a similar binding, and this villain is later bitten by a snake(?) or something else, as obliquely and frighteningly told to us by the lengthy Joycean stream of dialect monologue of a policeman interviewing common-spoken men.

An uncommon mystery indeed!

Some chance textual clues….

“…he say he can hear the old donkey brayin’ any day of the week, and he like something a little cheerful on the Sunday.”

“…to see as the morth shouldn’t get into ’em.’”

“The portraits of Cromwell, Ireton, Bradshaw, Peters, and the rest, writhing in carefully-devised torments, were evidently the part of the design to which most pains had been devoted.”

“It [the chapel] is a stone building about seventy feet long, and in the gothic style, as that style was understood in the middle of the seventeenth century.”

“‘…there’s not a rat in the place—not as no rat wouldn’t trouble to do a thing like that, do you think, sir?’ 

“Hardly, I should say; but it sounds very queer. Are they always open at the same place, did you say?’”

“Psalm cix, and at the head of it, just between the number and the Dens Iaudem, was a rubric, ‘For the 25th day of April’.” (25/4: St Mark’s Day and Cromwell’s birthday.)

The daughter’s possibly justified paranoia at being stalked: “here—no, it’s the other side, just within the screen—and lookin’ at me all the time I’m dustin’ in the gallery and pews. But I never yet see nothin’ worse than myself, as the sayin’ goes, and I kindly hope I never may.”

“We need not accompany him all the way to Longbridge. But as he was changing his socks before dinner,…”

“…great roll of old shabby white flannel about four to five feet high […] and this face hid in his neck—yes, sir, about where the injury was—more like a ferret goin’ for a rabbit than anythink else, and he rolled over, and of course I tried to get in at the door,…”

The reader did try to get in at the door of this insidious work, and then back out of it again, but they were subsumed by its implicit horror. Or is it simply the heat of the day?

Any help in ravelling or unravelling this gestalt?


My other reviews of M.R. James:


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3 responses to “The Uncommon Prayer-Book by M.R. James

  1. jay rothermel

    Great review: you get to the heart of the matter.

    This story is tough on the reader, at least on this reader.

    So tough, in fact, that I wrote two blog posts about it.

    One about the structural and aesthetic problems:

    One about the Jew-hating tropes:



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