Still She Wished for Company – Margaret Irwin. The Bodley Head, 1937.
Margaret Irwin’s best-known work is a trilogy of novels about Queen Elizabeth I. The first of these, Young Bess, was made into a Hollywood movie starring Jean Simmons as the young Queen, Stewart Granger as the suave, handsome Thomas Seymour, and the not so suave and handsome Charles Laughton as Elizabeth’s father, Henry VIII.
Irwin also wrote two novels about James Graham, 1st Marquis of Montrose, who fought a civil war in Scotland on behalf of the English king, Charles I. Montrose achieved a number of spectacular victories but met a sticky end in Edinburgh in 1650. Wikipedia records his cause of death simply as “execution” although, in true Game of Thrones fashion, his head was mounted on a spike outside Edinburgh Cathedral. To make absolutely certain he wasn’t going to reappear from beyond the grave his limbs were sent to Glasgow, Perth, Stirling and Aberdeen. You can imagine the scene in a tenement flat in Glasgow,
“What was that in this morning’s post Morag?”
“Och, it was only one of Lord Montrose’s legs dear…”
Irwin also wrote a number of ghost stories and two fantasy novels; the first of these, published in 1924, was Still She Wished For Company.
The story moves between the 1920s and the 1770s, following two heroines; 20th century Jan Challard, from London, and 18th century Juliana Clare, the daughter of an aristocratic Berkshire family. The two heroines see one another from time to time through a magical time slip, but never actually meet.
The title of the novel comes from the poem, The Strange Visitor, published in Joseph Jacobs’ 1890 anthology, English Fairy Tales. Like many of the tales collected by Jacobs it is terrifying. A woman sits at her spinning wheel and wishes for company. As she spins and wishes, a series of disembodied body parts arrive one by one, starting with the feet:
“In came a pair of broad, broad soles, and sat down at the fireside; And still she sat, and still she span, and still she wished for company.
When the body is complete the woman asks it a series of questions culminating in,
“What did you come for?”
If I were writing a handbook for babysitters I would include the poem in the chapter, “How to Deal with Kids – and their Parents – Who Give You a Hard Time”. It should be read aloud shortly before the parents arrive home. The final line is:
… “I came FOR YOU!”
If this is delivered with sufficient gusto, accompanied by a quick change into a Halloween mask, the child will levitate from its bed, petrified with fear. The returning parents will then have to deal with the sleepless nights which follow and – if you’ve really put in a performance – several months of counseling.
Like The Strange Visitor, Montrose’s mangled body was reassembled. Eleven years after his execution he was given a state funeral in Edinburgh.