Friday, 16 January 2009

Montague Summers


Alphonsus Joseph-Mary Augustus Montague Summers (10 April 1880 - 10 August 1948) was a fascinating character (the youngest of the seven children of Augustus William Summers, an affluent banker and justice of the peace in Clifton, Bristol) without whom vampire research would be very much the poorer.

Throughout his life he was described by acquaintances as kind, courteous, generous and outrageously witty; but those who knew him well sensed an underlying discomfort and mystery. In appearance he was plump, round cheeked and generally smiling. His dress resembled that of an eighteenth century cleric, with a few added flourishes such as a silver-topped cane depicting Leda being ravished by Zeus in the form of a swan. He wore sweeping black capes crowned by a curious hairstyle of his own devising which led many to assume he wore a wig. His voice was high pitched, comical and often in complete contrast to the macabre tales he was in the habit of recounting. Throughout his life he astonished people with his knowledge of esoteric and unsettling occult lore. Many people later described him as the most extraordinary person they had ever known. His successor in the annals of professional vampirology, and founder of the Vampire Research Society, was barely an infant when Summers died.

Curiously, Seán Manchester's (whose initials are the same as Montague Summers’ initials reversed) is an outspoken opponent of the sexual preference attributed to Summers. Like Summers, however, he began in the Church of England and converted to Roman Catholicism before entering holy orders in the Old Catholic Church - as, of course, did Summers. Both were ordained within the context of the One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church and, as Old Catholic Bishops, led autocephalous jurisdictions that held authority in Great Britain. Summers entered the Old Catholic priesthood in 1913 and, towards the end of his life, was elevated to the episcopate by Hugh George de Willmott Newman, Archbishop of Glastonbury - an office and See currently held by Seán Manchester. Summers was episcopally consecrated for the Order of Corporate Reunion. Summers worked for several years as an English and Latin teacher at various schools including Brockley County School in S E London, before adopting writing as his full-time employment. He was interested in the theater of the seventeenth century, particularly that of the English Restoration, and edited the plays of Aphra Behn, John Dryden, William Congreve, among others. He was one of the founder members of The Phoenix, a society that performed those neglected works, and was elected a fellow of the Royal Society of Literature in 1916.

Summers joined the growing ranks of English men of letters interested in medievalism, Catholicism, and the occult. In 1909 he converted to Roman Catholicism and shortly thereafter began to style himself "Reverend" which his biographer Father Brocard Sewell asserts, as an ordained deacon within the Church of England in 1908, was correct and proper for him to use.

Summers worked for several years as an English and Latin teacher at various schools including Brockley County School in S E London, before adopting writing as his full-time employment. He was interested in the theatre of the seventeenth century, particularly that of the English Restoration, and edited the plays of Aphra Behn, John Dryden, William Congreve, among others. He was one of the founder members of The Phoenix, a society that performed those neglected works, and was elected a fellow of the Royal Society of Literature in 1916.

Despite his cherubic demeanour and affability some people found Montague Summers sinister, a view he delighted in encouraging. Although in everyday life he was kind and considerate, when engaged in academic debate Summers was furiously intolerant. There were also rumours that in his youth Summers had dabbled in the occult. Oddly enough, the same rumours persist about Seán Manchester. If true in either case, the only effect seems to have been to turn both completely against such meddling. He may have been fascinated, even obsessed by witches, vampires and the like but the tone of Summers’ writings is consistently hostile towards them. Ditto goes for Manchester who is believed to have infiltrated occult groups in order to later expose their depraved goings-on. Summers was a contemporary of the notorious Satanist Aleister Crowley with whom he was acquainted. Likewise, Seán Manchester was a contemporary of a number of infamous Crowley devotees of a later generation whom he met and interviewed.

Montague Summers grew up in a wealthy family living in Clifton, near Bristol. Religion always played a large part in his life. He was raised as an evangelical Anglican, but his love of ceremonial and sacraments drew him to Anglo-Catholicism. After graduating in Theology at Oxford he took the first steps towards holy orders at Lichfield Theological College and entered his apprenticeship as a curate in the diocese of Bitton near Bristol. A year or so later he converted to Roman Catholicism. He had been made a deacon within the Church of England in 1908, and was diaconated again within the Roman Catholic Church, but it was not until he embraced the Old Catholic Church that he was ordained into the priesthood. He celebrated Mass publicly when travelling abroad, but at home in England he only performed this sacrament in private. This was probably due to the fact that he was ordained into the priesthood outside the regular procedures of the Church. Old Catholic holy orders, albeit valid, are irregular in the eyes of Rome and Canterbury.

None of his close friends doubted the sincerity of his religious faith. Dame Sybil Thorndike wrote of him: “I think that because of his profound belief in the tenets of orthodox Catholic Christianity he was able to be in a way almost frivolous in his approach to certain macabre heterodoxies. His humour, his ‘wicked humour’ as some people called it, was most refreshing, so different from the tiresome sentimentalism of so many convinced believers.”

For a living, Summers was able to draw on a modest legacy from his father, supplemented by spells of teaching at various schools, including Hertford Grammar, the Central School of Arts and Crafts in Holborn, and Brockley School in south London where he was senior English and Classics Master. He described teaching as: “One of the most difficult and depressing of trades, and so in some measure it must have been even well-nigh three hundred years ago when boys were not nearly so stupid as they are today.” In practice though, he was both entertaining and effective as a teacher once he had overcome initial problems with discipline, and was popular with both pupils and colleagues despite making it plain his real interests lay elsewhere.

From 1926, when he was in his mid-forties, Summers' writings and editing earned him the freedom to pursue full time his many enthusiasms and love of travel, particularly in Italy. The bulk of his activity then was related to English Restoration drama of the seventeenth century. Beginning in 1914 with the Shakespeare Head Press, Summers had edited a large number of Restoration plays for various publishers, accompanied by lengthy critical introductions that were highly praised in their own right, and did much to rescue that period of literature from oblivion.

Not content with editing and introducing these plays, Summers helped in 1919 to found the Phoenix Society whose aim was to present them on stage in London. The venture was an immediate success and Summers threw himself wholeheartedly and popularly into all aspects of the productions, which were staged at various theatres. This brought him a measure of fame in London society and invitations to the most select salons, which he dazzled with his wit and erudition. By 1926 he was recognized as the greatest living authority on Restoration drama. Some ten years later he crystallized his knowledge in The Restoration Theatre and The Playhouse of Pepys which examined almost every possible aspect of the London stage between 1660 and 1710.

Summers' involvement with the theatre presents a curious parallel with his near contemporary Bram Stoker, who for most of his working life was business manager to Sir Henry Irving at the Lyceum Theatre in London. There is even a suggestion of some jealousy in the grudging praise Summers gives Bram Stoker's Dracula, leading to his conclusion that the novel's success owed more to Stoker’s choice of subject than any authorial skill. One cannot fail to suspect that Summers felt he might have written the definitive vampire novel himself, only better. Notwithstanding this conjecture, Stoker’s Gothic masterpiece remains a work of sheer genius. It was left, almost inevitably, for Seán Manchester to tie up the lose ends left flapping about at Dracula’s conclusion in a sequel titled Carmel. The thought must have surely occurred to Summers, but it was to be Summers’ own successor who executed the deed.

Summers’ fame as an expert on the occult began the publication of his History of Witchcraft and Demonology followed by other studies of witches, vampires and werewolves. Summers wrote hagiography (on Saint Catherine of Siena) and lives of writers such as Jane Austen before turning to the occult, for which he will always be best remembered. In 1928 he published the first English translation of Heinrich Kramer's and James Sprenger's Malleus Maleficarum, a fifteenth century Latin text on the hunting of witches. This work followed his History of Witchcraft and Demonology (1926) and The Geography of Witchcraft (1928). He then turned to vampires, producing The Vampire: His Kith and Kin (1928) and The Vampire in Europe (1929), and later to werewolves with The Werewolf (1933). Summers's work on the occult is known for his old-fashioned writing style, his display of erudition, and his apparent belief in the reality of the subjects he treats. Of lasting value were his seminal works on Gothic literature: The Gothic Quest: a History of the Gothic Novel (1938), A Gothic Bibliography (1940) and his collection of Gothic Horror stories in The Supernatural Omnibus (1931) and Victorian Ghost Stories (1936). Summers also edited an incomplete edition of two of the seven obscure Gothic novels, known as the Northanger Horrid Novels, mentioned by Jane Austen in her Gothic parody Northanger Abbey. Summers was instrumental in rediscovering these lost books, which some had supposed were an invention of Jane Austen herself.

Summers cultivated his reputation for eccentricity. The Times of London wrote he was "in every way a 'character' and in some sort a throwback to the Middle Ages." His biographer, Brocard Sewell, paints the following portrait of Summers:

"During the year 1927, the striking and somber figure of the Reverend Montague Sommers in black soutane and cloak, with buckled shoes - a la Louis Quatorze - and shovel hat could often have been seen entering or leaving the reading room of the British Museum, carrying a large black portfolio bearing on its side a white label, showing in blood-red capitals, the legend 'VAMPIRES'."

While his contemporary Aleister Crowley adopted the persona of a modern-day witch, Summers played the part of the learned Catholic witch-hunter. His introduction to the Malleus Maleficarum declares it an admirable and correct account of witchcraft and of the methods necessary to combat it. In the introduction to his book on The History of Witchcraft and Demonology he writes:

"In the following pages I have endeavored to show the witch as she really was – an evil liver: a social pest and parasite: the devotee of a loathly and obscene creed: an adept at poisoning, blackmail, and other creeping crimes: a member of a powerful secret organization inimical to Church and State: a blasphemer in word and deed, swaying the villagers by terror and superstition: a charlatan and a quack sometimes: a bawd: an abortionist: the dark counselor of lewd court ladies and adulterous gallants: a minister to vice and inconceivable corruption, battening upon the filth and foulest passions of the age".

Much of Summers’ life remains in obscurity, many of his personal papers have been lost; yet he left an autobiography, The Galanty Show, which was published posthumously in 1980.

In his introduction to Horace Walpole's The Castle of Otranto Summers articulated the appeal of Gothic novels, and perhaps also the appeal of all the dark mysteries that fascinated him:

“There is in the Romantic revival a certain disquietude and a certain aspiration. It is this disquietude with earth and aspiration for heaven which inform the greatest Romance of all, Mysticism, the Romance of the Saints. The Classical writer set down fixed rules and precisely determined his boundaries. The Romantic spirit reaches out beyond these with an indefinite but very real longing to new and dimly guessed spheres of beauty. The Romantic writer fell in love with the Middle Ages, the vague years of long ago, the days of chivalry and strange adventure. He imagined and elaborated a mediaevalism for himself, he created a fresh world, a world which never was and never could have been, a domain which fancy built and fancy ruled. And in this land there will be mystery, because where there is mystery beauty may always lie hid. There will be wonder, because wonder always lurks where there is the unknown. And it is this longing for beauty intermingling with wonder and mystery that will express itself, perhaps exquisitely and passionately in the twilight moods of the romantic poets, perhaps a little crudely and even a little vulgarly in tales of horror and blood.”

Montague Summers died of a heart attack in 1948 and his mantle awaited the arrival in London of Seán Manchester who would there establish himself as the most celebrated vampirologist of the latter-half of the twentieth century; just as Summers had established himself as the most celebrated vampirologist of the first half of that century. When Sandy Roberston launched The Summers Project in 1986 to raise money for a tombstone to be laid on Summers’ unmarked grave in Richmond Cemetery, known only as plot 10818, it was naturally to Seán Manchester that he turned for support. The simple stone, bearing the legend “Tell me strange things,” was erected on 26 November 1988. Summers invariably opened his conversation with those words when people visited him. He yearned to hear strange things.

In 1991 an updated and enlarged hardcover edition of Seán Manchester’s best selling The Highgate Vampire was specially dedicated to the memory of Montague Summers. This fitting tribute to that former vampirologist still remains in print. Two years after his death, Summers’ longstanding friend, Hector Stuart-Forbes, joined him in the then unmarked plot at Richmond.


Vampire Research Society

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