The Leech of Folkestone (one of the Ingoldsby Legends)

As I had the chance of introducing here, I love Arthur Rackham and, after having focused a lot on Kay Nielsen’s work, I feel I should dedicate some attention to him as well. I poured some works he illustrated in this post, but some of the stuff deserves more attention. The Ingoldsby Legends, or Mirth […]

As I had the chance of introducing here, I love Arthur Rackham and, after having focused a lot on Kay Nielsen’s work, I feel I should dedicate some attention to him as well. I poured some works he illustrated in this post, but some of the stuff deserves more attention.

The Ingoldsby Legends, or Mirth and Marvels is the first of these works I’d like to talk about in detail, because it’s a lot less known than it should. It’s a weird, funny, unsettling collection of short stories, mostly legends and ghost stories, and the more than occasional poetry, and it was published at the beginning of the XIX Century under the name of Thomas Ingoldsby of Tappington Manor, pen name of Richard Harris Barham, a clergyman from Canterbury. They started appearing in 1837 as a regular series within the magazine Bentley’s Miscellany and later caught the attention of by Henry Colburn and his New Monthly Magazine, the same magazine which had published John Polidori‘s first gothic novel The Vampyre in 1819.

The Ingoldsby’s stories had been illustrated by John Leech (the first illustrator of Charles Dickens‘ Christmas Carol in 1843), George Cruikshank (already mentioned as possibly the first illustrator to turn his attention to children), and John Tenniel (Lewis Carroll’s first illustrator after himself, if you recall). Arthur Rackham worked on them for a 1898 edition.

A complete list of the chapters, alongside the original illustrations, is available here. Very well-known are the “lays” series (including “The Lay of St Cuthbert; or the Devil’s Dinner-Party” and “A Lay of St Nicholas”) and the “legends” series (including “The Black Mousquetaire: a legend of France”, “The Merchant of Venice: a legend of Italy” and “The Auto-Da-Fé: a legend of Spain”).

I’ll mostly focus on some of the stories that were illustrated by Arthur Rackham, who produced 12 colour plates and 80 inkworks for the 1898 editions and came back, in 1907, to rework them into 23 colour plates and 73 inkworks.

1. The Leech of Folkestone: Mrs. Bothersby’s Story

The story is sets in the depths of Romney Marsh, where a woman gets bored with her husband and plots with the family doctor to get rid of him, but has to employ means that go way beyond the tools supplied by science and medicine.

It sets off with a very famous statement, probably the most famous statement of the Ingoldsby Legends:

The World, according to the best geographers, is divided into Europe, Asia, Africa, America, and Romney Marsh. In this, and fifth, quarter of the globe, a Witch may still be occasionally discovered in favourable, i.e. stormy, seasons, weathering Dungeness Point in an eggshell, or careering on her broomstick over Dymchurch wall.

Romney Marsh is a wetland area in the south-east of England, between Kent and East Sussex. It’s far from an idyllic place: it was plagued by malaria till the XVIII Century, known as ague or marsh fever, and the problem was only solved by the construction of the Royal Military Canal in 1806; it was used as a smuggler’s den between the XVI and the XVIII Century, and a place that could only take pride in its sheep for a very long time.

Romney Marsh. Illustrated and Described by John Piper (1903-1992)

The story starts in this fine environment and immediately sets the stage as a witch story and paints the scenery with additional strokes, particularly Dungeness and Dymchurch.
Dungeness is a a headland, a peak where the coast of Kent overlooks the Strait of Dover: it’s one of the closest places reaching out to France. It’s famous for its lighthouses: things started off with an eleven meters wooden lighthouse in 1615, replaced in 1635 with a new lighthouse called Lamplough’s Tower, 33.5 meters high, nearer to the water’s edge, followed by a 35 meters lighthouse built in 1792 by Samuel Wyatt; nowadays it counts seven lighthouses, five high and two low, with the fifth high one still fully operational today.
Dymchurch is a village, once used as seat of the Leveller of the Marsh Scotts (the local head magistrate) and consequently as a court room for the Romney Marsh area. Destroyed by a fire in 1575, this tribunal called New Hall was rebuilt in the same year and it remained one of the only landmarks in the village, alongside the Martello towers built in the XIX Century as coastal defence. It is the setting of the XX Century series of novel portraying the adventures of the smuggler Doctor Syn, written by Russell Thorndike and set in the early XVIII Century.

Should you want a book about this charming place, I can only recommend the abovementioned Romney Marsh. Illustrated and Described by John Piper (one was put on sale here and sold for 17,500 £).

One of the illustrations within John Piper’s book.

The specific town in which we set our stage however, regardless of its charming surroundings, is Folkestone, a port town of very ancient origins. A barony in the Norman times, and home of a very famous Roman Villa before that, it became part of the so-called Cinque Ports during the XIII Century and, at the start of the Tudor period, there’s record of it being called a proper town. The creation of a long-planned harbour in the XVIII Century made it the centre of other smuggling activities and in 1684, among the city development, a guildhall saw the light. By 1837, when the Ingoldsby Legends are published for the first time, it was a seaside resort.

Not many miles removed from the verge of this recondite region, stands a collection of houses, which its maligners call a fishing-town, and its well-wishers a Watering-place. A limb of one of the Cinque Ports, it has, (or lately had,) a corporation of its own, and has been thought considerable enough to give a second title to a noble family. Rome stood on seven hills; Folkestone seems to have been built upon seventy.

“Folkestone, Kent” in A Voyage Round Great Britain (1814–25) by William Daniell (1769-1837). Preserved at the Tate Gallery.

Its streets, lanes, and alleys,– fanciful distinctions without much real difference,– are agreeable enough to persons who do not mind running up and down stairs; and the only inconvenience all felt by such of its inhabitants as are not asthmatic is when some heedless urchin tumbles down a chimney, or an impertinent pedestrian peeps into a garret window.

Hints of the peculiar architecture of the town are given by the author in a similar fashion in which he has given us an idea of the Romney Marsh: we see the steep streets with stairs up and down the hills; roofs with their chimneys and their young, mischievous chimney-sweepers (urchin is a name for homeless children living in the street); garrets, which are basically very poor accommodations in what we would now call attics, very cold during the winter and with no elevator to reach them. A happy place, as I said: a fishing-town, as the maligners would say, and a watering-place as the well-wishers would auspicate.

The story is set in the early part of the XVII Century and the author takes the chance to tell us just now, after having introduced what Rackham himself would define the genius loci. One of the places we need to know in our story is a specific street in Folkestone, called Frog-hole or East street, and long since forgotten, where we find a «compounder of medicines» of «doubtful reputation» and «comparative opulence». Among these practitioners, we are concerned with Master Erasmus Buckthorne.

…the eflluvia of whose drugs from within, mingling agreeably, with the ‘ancient and fish-like smells’ from without, wafted a delicious perfume throughout the neighbourhood.

“A cow may yet be sometimes seen galloping like mad, with tail erect, and an old pair of breeches on her horns, an unerring guide to the door of the crone whose magic arts have drained her udder.” (one of Arthur Rackham’s illustrations for this tale)

On Master Buckthorne’s door, we find his assistant, a «lean and withered lad» which our pharmacopolist seems to be using as a lab rat for his experiments, just to make sure that we have zero sympathy for the physician. Our Igor is leading up a horse for his master, specifically a Suffolk Punch, which is a stout animal, a draught horse of solid appearance usually employed for farm work. Our Master Buckthorne locks up the laboratory, mounts the horse without any particular grace and sets off for the country.

We reach «a handsome and substantial mansion, the numerous gable-ends and bayed windows of which bespoke the owner a man of worship, and one well to do in the world», where our physician meets a gardener and inquiries as to the health of his employer, Master Marsh. As we learn, our master is very ill and the news is only reinforced when a «buxom-looking hand-maiden» comes to fetch our physician and leads him (and us) into the breakfast parlour where the master is ready to drown his illness in food and wine.

The scene as illustrated in a book available here.

There, at the head of his well-furnished board, sat Master Thomas Marsh, of Marston Hall, a yeoman well respected in his degree: one of that sturdy and sterling class which, taking rank immediately below the Esquire, (a title in its origin purely military,) occupied, in the wealthier counties, the position in society now filled by the Country Gentleman.

Our poor fellow is facing, with no particular fright, a cold sirloin, which is a cut of beef, «big enough to frighten a Frenchman» and a game-pie, a pie of venison, «of no stinted dimensions». A silver tankard (defined as a large drinking vessel with one handle and often a hinged cover, as I’m sure you are picturing within the hands of Hebe) is filled with ale «strong enough to blow a man’s beaver off». The poor fellow is clearly suffering.

Master Marsh crest, as part of the original illustrations.

The sideboard groaned beneath sundry massive cups and waiters of the purest silver; while the huge skull of a fallow deer, with its branching horns, frowned majestically above. All spoke of affluence, of comfort,– all save the master, whose restless eye and feverish look hinted but too plainly the severest mental or bodily disorder.

The house is equally magnificent in its décor and at the Master’s side, just like another decoration, we meet Mrs. Botherby, the heroine of our tale, «a lady now past the bloom of youth, yet still retaining many of its charms». She’s a foreigner, with a «clear olive complexion», and «the darkness of her Andalusian eye»: although making fun of the supposed superiority of the man by saying that husbands were denominated «lords and masters» through a work of «legal fiction», the author presents us with a scenario in which our Mrs. Botherby has every reason to be unhappy with her asshole of an husband. She’s also clearly a lady not to be messed with: her beauty «was one to be admired rather than loved».

The proud curl of her lip, the firmness of her tread, her arched brow and stately carriage, showed the decision, not to say haughtiness, of her soul; while her glances, whether lightening with anger, or melting in extreme softness. betrayed the existence of passions as intense in kind as opposite in quality.

She leaves the room, bestowing upon the doctor «a look fraught with meaning», and we’re left with the two idiots. Master Marsh has an army of doctors, all of them unsure on what’s wrong with him (because nothing is wrong with him). And it’s not like Master Buckthorne doesn’t try to tell him: he explicitly tried to warn him that there’s nothing wrong with him, he’s just eating too much and not getting out enough.

Then arouse thee, man, shake off this fantasy, betake thyself to thy lawful occasions,– use thy good hap,– follow thy pleasures, and think no more of these fancied ailments.’

It takes a bit of convincing but, eventually, Master Marsh rises and seems resolute to follow his good doctor’s advises, even if he does so with the attitude of a man who has just been ordered to do something awful. He wanders off muttering a verse from the un-cheeriest play of all: Shakespeare’s Othello, Act 3 Scene 3.

‘Not poppy, nor mandragora,
Nor all the drowsy syrups of the world,
Shall ever medicine thee to that sweet sleep
Which thou own’dst yesterday.’

Unfortunately, however, something seems to be the matter with our Master Marsh, and nor Master Buckthorne nor Mrs. Botherby seems to be innocent about it. We see them weaving their plot through the eyes of their daughter Miss Marian Marsh, «a rosy-checked laughter-loving imp of some six years old»: we see them exchanging a vial of something and her mother places it in her boudoir. The two are clearly trying to kill the master of the house, and clearly he’s proving to have too much of a good health for their subterfuges to work.

And in order to know how it continues, I’m afraid you’ll have to read it. You can find it here.

One of the most illustrated scene is the scene of the bewitching itself.

“The little man had seated himself in the centre of the circle upon the large skull” by Arthur Rackham.


The same scene illustrated by O.M. Cholmeley (1872-5) on sale here.


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