In issue no. 15 (May 2009) of The Ghosts & Scholars M.R. James Newsletter, Richard Dalby announced his discovery of a children’s book with a previously-unknown short introduction by M.R. James, the noted ghost story writer. The book is The Lion’s Birthday (Eton, London, and Colchester: Spottiswoode, Ballantyne & Co., ), by Emily Plenderleath Harrison, with illustrations by Dora Barks. Dalby was not at that time able to trace any information about the author.
Emily Plenderleath Harrison was born in late 1843 in Hart, County Durham, the fourth of eleven daughters of William Gorst Harrison (1803-1891), the oldest of five sons of shipbroker William Harrison of Thornhill, Sunderland. In a brief forward to The Lion’s Birthday, Harrison notes that the book was written by her sister and herself more than sixty years ago (i.e., before 1860), and though she admitted to collaboration, she did not name any one of her ten sisters on the title page as co-author. Dora Barks, who illustrated a few other books in the nineteen-twenties, was not her sister. Emily Plenderleath Harrison worked at Eton from around 1890, and from that work came her association with M.R. James. She died in in late 1933, aged 89.
The Lion’s Birthday is a story told in forty verses, each containing four lines. The story tells of the Lion, who in order to celebrate the ten years he has been monarch of the wood and plain, sends out invitations to the various animals to join him for a party. Not all the animals are eager:
The Elephant, in private, thought / That it would be an awful bore; / But yet he thought he ought to go / As he had never been before.
The Tigers, Wolves and Panthers said / “Pray tell the Lion we’ll be charmed.” / The Stags (poor things!) replied the same, / But inwardly they felt alarmed.
The monkeys are excited, the sheep are shy (fearing that the Wolves surely would be there), the Bears and Leopards were delighted. Alas, the party does not work out so well, for the Tiger is tempted by the Deer and kills her, breaking everything up, and some animals giving chase to the murderer.
James ironically calls the story a “pleasant ballad” in his short “Foreword”.