What a shame that one of Britain’s greatest short story writers should be remembered for only one story. Actually, though the story is remembered, the writer rarely is. In fact, ‘The Monkey’s Paw’ (1902), surely one of the most powerful and memorable short stories ever written, is sometimes wrongly attributed to Saki, who also occasionally wrote a macabre tale.
Prosper Mérimée, whose reputation also rests almost entirely on one story, comes to mind. Probably most of those who have seen one of the many incarnations of Mérimée’s ‘Carmen’ adapted for stage or screen are unaware of its authorship.
So how could the memory of William Wymark Jacobs, writer of the unforgettable ‘The Monkey’s Paw’, end up all but effaced by history?
W. W. Jacobs, born in London in 1863, wrote stories and novels mostly over a thirty year span from 1896 to 1926. His admirers included G. K. Chesterton, J. B. Priestly, P. G. Wodehouse, Graham Greene, and V. S. Pritchett. Wodehouse considered himself a disciple of Jacobs’.
Alfred Sutro, playwright and translator of Maeterlinck, recalled a dinner at which Jacobs sat near Henry James. ‘Mr Jacobs, I envy you,’ James said, leaning toward him. ‘You, Henry James, envy me!’ Jacobs said. James waved his hand dismissively. ‘Ah, Mr. Jacobs, you are popular! Your admirable work is appreciated by a wide circle of readers; it has achieved popularity. Mine – never goes into a second edition. I should so much have loved to be popular.’
Yet whose name and reputation has been lasting?
Greene considered Jacobs, along with Wodehouse and George Birmingham, one of the top three English comic writers of the past century. Priestly called Jacobs ‘a most finished conscientious and delicate artist’. Pritchett said Jacobs was one of ‘the supreme craftsmen of the short story’ and praised his ‘pellucid economy’. Evelyn Waugh said Jacobs ‘developed an exquisite precision of narrative’. And Ian Hay wrote ‘…Jacobs was much more than a writer of amusing or creepy tales; he was one of the greatest masters of story construction, especially short story construction, in our language. Moreover, he invented an entirely new form of humorous narrative. Its outstanding characteristics were compression and understatement’.
When you consider all of this high praise from high places, it is truly a wonder that such a writer could be almost invisible to modern readers. His distinction as a comic writer might seem strange to those familiar with ‘The Monkey’s Paw’, a heart-wrenching horror story in which an Indian talisman brings three wishes to a London family, with cataclysmic effect. But Jacobs’ stories can be divided roughly into three groups: The comic stories of seagoing men and barge crews set in the Wapping section of East London; the good-natured country stories set around the imagined village of Claybury (based on a Suffolk village); and the ghost and horror stories, which are set in either locale, or further afield.
Jacobs was a child of Wapping, his father manager, or wharfinger, of South Devon Wharf. At this time – the 1870s – the area was buzzing with sailors, merchants, traders, and loitering watermen, who constantly ferried the sailors in skiffs to and from their vessels anchored in the Thames.
Jacobs was educated at private schools, and while still a teenager passed his Civil Service examination which led to a job as a clerk in the Savings Bank Department of the General Post Office. He never claimed to have been a good clerk, ‘nor,’ he joked, ‘has anybody else attempted to do so’.
The young clerk nursed the writing bug, and started to contribute anonymous comic pieces to the GPO journal, Blackfriars. He attempted to branch out by submitting stories to higher-profile magazines, and collected a stack of rejection slips along the way. One of these stories he sent to the editor of the Idler, then Jerome K. Jerome, known for his comic gem Three Men in a Boat. Jerome recalled that Saturday afternoon:
I had stayed behind by myself on purpose to tackle a huge pile of manuscripts. I had waded through nearly half of them, finding nothing. I had grown disheartened, physically weary. The walls of the room seemed to be fading away. Suddenly I heard a laugh and, startled, I looked round. There was no one in the room but myself. I took up the manuscript lying before me, some dozen pages of close writing. I read it through a second time, and wrote to ‘W. W. Jacobs, Esq.’ to come and see me. Then I bundled the remaining manuscripts into a drawer; and went home, feeling I had done a good afternoon’s work.
Jerome later described Jacobs as a ‘quiet shy young man, with dreamy eyes and a soft voice’. Jerome offered him a contract. Jacobs’ confidence collapsed; not only had the story already been rejected by a dozen other editors, but he was worried he could not repeat the performance and quality of it. But Jerome saw the possibilities in the story, and in the writer.
Jacobs’ stories started to appear in the Idler, The Strand Magazine, and other London-based publications. But his self-doubt made him cling to the Savings Bank Department job. It was not until he had three popular books published that he felt assured enough to drop his GPO employment.
Many of Jacobs’ stories are narrated by a cockney-speaking, Wapping night-watchman, said to be based on Kentish longshoreman Bob Osborne. This technique came about after Jacobs hit a block. It had not taken long for him to use up all his story ideas, and he sat for weeks wracking his brains for a new concept. At one point in this frustration he picked up his pen and wrote:
‘“Speaking of wimmen,” said the night-watchman.’
It was a breakthrough. By mentally stepping outside of himself, the pressure was off. Now he could move aside and let the night-watchman tell his stories. It was a lucky stroke that led to a long, popular career. He told Jerome that without the night-watchman, he might have had to give up writing.
But even though the night-watchman of his fancy steadily provided story ideas, Jacobs claimed he was not a facile writer. He said it often took him a whole morning to come up with a complete sentence, and a 4,000-word story required a month of work.
This, however, is still fast, and it is surprising he could generally keep to his standards of quality and polish over the five novels and thirteen story collections he wrote. (This is very fast compared to some writers. Another master craftsman of the short story, and one who has written in the tradition of Jacobs, Roald Dahl, commonly spent from four to six months on each of his stories, a dedication which his perfectionism demanded.)
Jacobs wrote his tales in the custom of the well-made ‘beginning, middle, and end’ story, but with more attention to plot than Kipling, tighter control than Maupassant, and more polish than either.
The loose, rambling novel is characteristic of nineteenth century English literature. Because of the English novel’s prevalence, it was thought that the concise, economical short story was the domain of the French, Americans, and Russians. But Kipling, Saki, Jacobs, M. R. James, and, later, Somerset Maugham, John Collier, and Roald Dahl, showed that there were British writers up to the task. The proliferation of English magazines such as The Strand, famous for publishing Conan Doyle’s stories, created a short story boom in Britain. The large number of magazines publishing short stories assured a ready demand for them.
It was in this literary climate that Jacobs began to work, and, fortunately, one for which he found his talents to be perfectly suited.
Many of Jacobs’ stories have twist, or surprise, endings. As Maugham said, this is a merit if the surprise is the logical end to the tale, which Jacobs’ usually are. One of the pleasures of fiction is the surprises encountered throughout a story, and if this includes an unexpected, but natural, conclusion, it only adds to the reader’s delight. Like the solution at the end of a Watson/Holmes story, Jacobs’ unexpected finishes surely delighted and attracted readers of The Strand and of the other magazines that printed his stories.
Jacobs’ night-watchman has his country counterpart in the form of ‘the oldest inhabitant of Claybury’. This is an unnamed old man (though sometimes referred to as ‘Old Truthfulness’) usually seated on a bench outside the Cauliflower pub, invariably with a pint of beer in hand or on the table, and smoking a churchwarden pipe.
Like the night-watchman, the old man narrates Jacobs’ stories for him, though usually for the price of a pint at the expense of a traveller or two who have stopped at the Cauliflower for rest and refreshment.
A favourite subject is Bob Pretty, who, as he says, ‘of all the sly, artful, deceiving men that ever lived in Claybury ‘e is the worst – never did a honest day’s work in ‘is life, and never wanted the price of a glass of ale’. Poacher extraordinaire, it would take the resources of MI5 to compete with Bob Pretty’s brilliant cleverness, and they would probably still be out-manoeuvred at that.
Pretty, when caught red-handed on his way home carrying a sack of pheasants or other game over his shoulder, has been known masterfully and mysteriously to produce a butcher’s receipt for the booty. Or when he was seen on a plantation and pursued by game keepers, and in order to dispose of evidence, threw a sack of ‘pheasants’ in a pond, which, when the squire had it dragged, was found only to contain twenty cabbages. ‘You ought to be more careful,’ Pretty tells the keepers. ‘Very likely while you was taking all that trouble over me, and Keeper Lewis was catching ‘is death ‘o cold, the poachers was up at the plantation taking all they wanted’.
Through The Strand Magazine, Jacobs became associated with the artist Will Owen, who illustrated eleven of Jacobs’ eighteen books. Owen memorably brought to visual life Jacobs’ comically scheming, seafaring men and village rogues with his pen-and-ink drawings. Perhaps most interesting, the two sometimes went on coastal walks together in search of story material. Though once famous for his stories about sailors, dockhands, longshoremen and so on, Jacobs was mostly a landlubber. In 1949, Lieutenant-Commander L. M. Bates, of the Port of London Authority, wrote complaining that though Jacobs ‘was happiest writing about the longshoremen whom he knew so well’, the ‘stories set in barges and coasters ring slightly false, and innumerable technical slips and mis- statements reveal his lack of first-hand experience in nautical matters’.
So strong, however, was Jacobs’ instinct for writing, or telling, a story, that most of his appreciative audience was more than content to let any faulty detail slip by as they were carried away by the narrative.
As Jacobs’ books continued to be published critics complained of the lack of development in them, believing each book should show signs of literary and intellectual growth since the last. Jacobs seemed to appear on the scene in full creative flower with his first book, without much change as the years wore on. Further, Jacobs, primarily a humorist, did not attempt to tackle serious social problems in his fiction. He simply showed his chosen portion of the human race in action.
Arnold Bennett wrote one such attack, ‘W. W. Jacobs and Aristophanes’, for the New Age in 1908. Jacobs’ twelfth book, a novel called Salthaven, had just come out, and Bennett claimed that the book displayed no development in talent since the appearance of his first one, Many Cargoes, published in 1896. He bemoaned Jacobs’ lack of ‘intellectual curiosity’, comparing him to Aristophanes, who was ‘passionately interested in everything’.
Jacobs’ ignoring of ‘social issues’ damned him in the eyes of pedantic critics, and caused many to overlook his literary gifts as a short story writer. (But it cannot be argued that he avoided all serious issues; ‘The Monkey’s Paw’, a kind of fairy/ghost story, is awful – a timeless, Old Testament kind of awful – in its seriousness. It is the ultimate ‘be careful what you wish for’ cautionary tale.)
Of his choice of subject matter, though, Ian Hay has suggested that Jacobs indeed sought more variety, but was always pressed back by his publishers to write of Wapping or Claybury. The Times Literary Supplement said that the sailors and villagers in Jacobs’ stories were simply his raw material, what he knew. And of his style they went on, ‘… The integrity of every tale is complete. The economy, the light touch, the never forced surprise in detail or dialogue, the perfect adjustment – all the virtues about which the writing men of the nineties talked so much and for which they worked so strenuously, came naturally to Jacobs, that popular magazine-writer. They are most obvious in the tales of terror … But the same literary virtues are to be found in the slightest and most disreputable tale of a tipsy Thames bargehand’.
In fact, Jacobs’ talents for clarity, concision, plotting, and polishing made his stories easy to read, and so an inviting introduction to literature for young readers. Peter Ford writes of discovering Jacobs’ books when a teenager in England in the late 1940s, while they still enjoyed some popularity:
‘They were readily available for a few shillings a volume in second-hand bookshops, often in good first editions with Will Owen’s appealing illustrations of cranky old sailormen and rustics. They could be found, too, in W. H. Smith up and down the country in Methuen’s collected cheap edition: wrapped in utilitarian green dust-jackets and, within, illustrationless and displaying a well-worn typeface. … In the case of Jacobs, a special pleasure to be had was that you read him without anyone having recommended that you should. He remained a personal find, and having started on some of the stories you wanted to read the lot, though you probably never managed it.’
On seeing Jacobs for the first time and having expected the humorist to be a round, outgoing, jolly fellow, people were surprised to see a slight, shy man, usually standing silently on the periphery of social gatherings. Peter Quennell described him as gloomy, ‘Short and meagre, his red-rimmed eyes set in a shrunken yellow face, he was never seen to smile…’ C. Lewis Hind depicted him as ‘a slight, slim, unobtrusive young man’ who ‘never had much to say, but one was always glad to see him…’
After 1926, with most of his writing behind him, Jacobs, then living in Berkhamsted, took daily walks to the Swan for half a pint, then strolled to the bookshop. He also went to the cinema twice a week, to see whatever was playing. Hugh Greene (Graham’s brother) wrote that Jacobs was sometimes glimpsed rambling on the Grand Junction Canal towpath, chewing on a piece of straw, ‘a small grey-faced sad man with something of Buster Keaton about him’. Commander Bates said that in Jacobs’ later years he was occasionally seen ‘in his old haunts at Wapping and Poplar’.
It was rumoured that after the publication of his last book, the collection Sea Whispers, in 1926, Jacobs never picked up his pen again. But uncollected stories which appeared in magazines after 1926 have occasionally come to light. The truth is Jacobs simply slowed his pace, and apparently only wrote and submitted a story after an idea came to him, rather than producing on demand.
Jacobs died, seemingly almost anonymously, in 1943. For the jacket blurb of the Penguin edition of Deep Waters in 1919, Jacobs wrote that since 1899 he had squeezed out ‘a frugal living from editors and publishers’. But his obituary in The Times ran that ‘From 1899 onwards he lived by his pen; and, since his popularity grew with the years, he was free to do what he wished and lacked nothing’.
In 1924 J. B. Priestley wrote that Jacobs’ fiction ‘has given me more pleasure than probably the Nobel Prize-winners of the next ten years’. He also rhapsodised that Jacobs’ stories were ‘not mere farce on the one hand, nor the mere realistic humorous sketch on the other, but an art that makes use of both and transcends them, a kind of midsummer night-watchman’s dream’.
In 1988, Jorge Luis Borges helped to seal the immortality of ‘The Monkey’s Paw’ by including it in his prestigious collection, The Book of Fantasy. Still, many know the story without having any idea who penned it.
William Addison wrote of the literary editor who, during Jacobs’ supposed retirement, coaxed the then reclusive writer into contributing an essay on humorous writing. The editor was delighted with his powers of persuasion, until he received the article, which ‘lamented the immorality of the modern world as revealed in its literature’. Perturbed, the editor met with Jacobs and reminded him that he had invented a cheat, a liar, and a criminal in the form of Bob Pretty. The only reaction of the reserved Jacobs was a sad shake of his head.
Perhaps it was Jacobs’ introverted nature that led to the later obscurity of his reputation. It is a marvel that a story of such violence and terror as ‘The Monkey’s Paw’, the reverberations of which are still felt over a century after its first appearance, could have its origins in the fancies of such a mild-mannered artist.
But this contradiction is not without parallel, as evidenced by the disparity between the personality and work of one of Jacobs’ contemporaries, the composer Gustav Holst. His cycle, The Planets, includes the famous ‘Mars: The God of War’, a ferocious, homicidal, fiery piece of music which makes the distorted blarings of Metallica and other heavy metal exponents sound anaemic by comparison.
You would think such a composition would have come from a boisterous, chest-baring Bohemian always on the lookout for opportunities to prove his masculinity. Yet the extent of the quiet, gentle, slight, bespectacled Holst’s blasphemies, when faced with a crisis, amounted to a softly uttered, ‘Oh!’
And so W. W. Jacobs’ night-watchman still walks in the darkened East London of Jacobs’ imagination, the London of Jack the Ripper and Watson and Holmes. All it takes to hear his booted tread on a Wapping dock and to ‘listen’ to one of his tales is to open a collection of Jacobs’ stories.
As Jerome K. Jerome said, the night-watchman talks on.