As well as the usual delights of the festive season—feasting , games, music and dancing—telling stories has long been a feature, especially spooky stories, which became increasingly popular in Victorian times, reaching their height in the early twentieth century when M.R. James, one-time Provost of King’s, published his ghost stories. One of the most popular of Victorian eerie tales was the legend of the Mistletoe Bough. The poem, written by Samuel Rogers, was published in the 1820s, and became popular nationally after Henry Bishop (of Home sweet home fame) set it to music in the 1830s. By the 1850s, it was a seasonal scary favourite in Victorian homes, and remained popular with those born in the era through into the twentieth century. My grandfather enjoyed terrifying me by chanting it ghoulishly, when I was a small child. Probably as a result I can still sing it almost word perfect 40 years on!
The story’s a pretty scary one. On her wedding night a young bride takes part in a game of hide and seek in a gloomy old house. The bride hides herself so successfully that no-one can find her, and it is believed that she has run away. Many years later an ancient chest is opened, and the skeleton of the bride, trapped in the chest in her bridal finery is uncovered. One does wonder if it wasn’t an influence on Charles Dickens’ portrayal of Miss Havisham – another woman entombed in her bridal splendour.
Among the collections at Cambridge University Library, there’s a rather different take on the tale, a song closely modelled on The Mistletoe Bough, as sung by Arthur Wood, comedian.
In Wood’s tale, a dastardly plot is hatched by the villain of the piece (had he just waited fifty years, he would have been tying maidens to railway lines in Hollywood), who plans to murder the young bride who has spurned him. After a show-down worthy of the Keystone Cops, bride is murdered and stuffed into the chest. Luckily however she is found by her beloved, and discovered to be still alive, saved from dagger point by her steel stays.
I can find nothing further about Arthur Wood, comedian – though there was an Arthur Wood around the same period, the son of a Nottinghamshire architect, who became an actor, and (if it is the same person) wrote several comic works – some of which (Shoddy, Romantic attachment and Behind a mask) are available at Cambridge University Library. Perhaps he led parallel lives as a comedian and a rather more serious actor? A further song by him, We’re all actors (A1871.1069), has a resemblance to the “Dodger” song, perhaps best known in the setting by Aaron Copland. It is possible that Wood spent some time in America, so maybe his song (written ca. 1863) was the inspiration for the later political lament.