S02E40 The Lost Tragedy by Denis Mackail

A comic ghost story from Edwardian London–perfect to relax to and not scary at all.

The Lost Tragedy by Denis Mackail

Denis Mackail was born in 1892  in London. His mother was the daughter of the famous pre-Raphaelite painter Edward Burne-Jones.  His father was Scottish, born on the Isle of Bute, and later Professor of Poetry at Oxford University and a specialist in Latin Literature and also President of the British Academy.  His sister was also a novelist. He was more distantly related to Rudyard Kipling and Stanley Baldwin, a British prime minister.

Denis Mackail was born into some privilege. His most famous novel Greenery Street deals with social manners in the upper-middle class London he knew. As such, this story is interesting as it deals with the doings of lower middle class tradesmen such as book-dealers.  Mackail must have known something of the trade to paint it so well.

Mackail suffered from ill-health when he was a young man and though he worked as a stage-set designer in the theatre in London, he was not fit enough to fight in the First World War.  I am not clear what his physical health problems were but he suffered from anxiety himself and had what is called a ‘nervous breakdown.’

Despite his comfortable early start he had some financial troubles and had to write to supplement his income. He published a novel every year from 1920 until 1938. He moved in literary circles and was a friend of A A Milne and P G Wodehouse, both famous for their light-hearted and comic writing. 

He wrote the official biography of J M Barrie (the author of Peter Pan) and but after the death of his wife in 1949 he never wrote another thing. Despite that he lived another twenty-two years, dying in London in 1971 at the age of seventy-nine.

Genre expectations. Writers can expect to get excoriated if they defy genre expectations. If you write a Romance be that clean or mucky (I don’t really read either to be honest)  or Space Opera that is not huge in scale, or Heaven Forbid ‘LitRPG’ that doesn’t have enough stats in it, then the hard-core genre reader will cut you down to size with a one-star review.

I say this because this may be a ghost story, but it is a comic ghost story and that genre has its own tropes and conventions, not least the wise cracking spectre as in the Ben and William show in this story.  I hope listeners were not too disappointed.

The Lost Tragedy is a well constructed tale. We have the set up of Shakespeare as someone they recognise but whose name they can’t place, who speaks with a ‘west-country’ accent, which might relate to the Warwickshire accent of Stratford Upon Avon.

It is very common for ghost stories to be related as ‘frame stories’ where the events are told to an unconnected person by someone who has first-hand, but now long previous association with the events. It is also in keeping with M R James’s dictum that ghost stories should be removed from the every day by placing them remotely in distance or time in that it happened when Mr Bunstable was a young man.

There is a tradition of the comic ghost story. This story reminded me somewhat of the Ghost Ship by Richard Middleton. This humorous tale of a ghostly pirate ship was published in 1912 but as Middleton killed himself in 1911, was written before that. I only mention the date because it was part of a trend of ghost stories with jokey spectres which perhaps began with Oscar Wilde’s The Canterville Ghost  published in 1887 and have a noble tradition through Casper The Friendly Ghost who first appeared in 1945 and  the film Bedknobs and Broomsticks 1971.

I also liked the description of the bookshop. It reminded me both of Black Books on the TV, the old Foyles I used to know on Charing Cross Road and in a way of Cynthia Asquith’s The Corner Shop (which is another London shop that you dip into out of the London fog). 

There is a shop like this in Victoria Walker’s The Winter of Enchantment where the young hero buys the magic mirror. But that is another story, and one you might like.

Burnt versus Burned.  Modern Grammar apps such as Grammarly or Pro-Writing Aid will tell you that ‘burnt’ is a British variant of ‘burned’ but in fact I’ve seen American writers use ‘burnt’ and British people regularly say ‘burned.’ The same with spilt and spilled, though I think ‘leapt’ versus ‘leaped’ is probably a British – American split. I’d be interested in what the Canadians do. And as for ‘tonify’ versus ‘tone’ (as in my abs) and ‘burglarize’ versus ‘burgle’ well.

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 Music  by The Heartwood Institute

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