Combe Martin's James Norman

Modified on April 21, 2024  

Marie Corelli's 'Reuben Dale' in The Mighty Atom

'Reuben Dale' was a main character in Corelli's best-selling novel The Mighty Atom (1896), written in Combe Martin. The fictional Reuben was in fact based on real-life parish sexton-cum-verger James Norman (c1844 -11.02.1898), who worked at Combe Martin St Peter ad Vincula Church and lived on the High Street.

There were at least three Normans working as sextons at the church between 1878 and the early 1900s: Nicholas, James, and Ernest Norman, in that order. We don't yet know if these men were all from the same family, but they are all listed in White's and Kelly's directories published during their tenures.

In White's Directory and Gazetteer of Devon (1879), Combe Martin men James Norman (butcher), and James Norman (grocer and draper), are listed in White's list of names and occupations (p. 237). Our sexton could be either of these men.

Marie Corelli stated that the character and words of her fictional 'Reuben Dale' in The Mighty Atom came directly from the sexton James Norman. Corelli wrote of meeting James while researching her novel, and painted his literary portrait.

Corelli described James Norman in her footnotes for The Mighty Atom. He was "handsome", "cheerful", "intelligent", and "manly" with a "contented life". Corelli made James internationally famous, and tourists flocked to meet him.

From Marie Corelli and James Norman, we also discover some of the features  and artefacts at Combe Martin St Peter ad Vincula Church, which survive today.  

James Norman in His Own Voice

Several literary tourists wrote about James showing visitors the “altar gates” in the church roodscreen, which never close. He would tell them “Do what ye will wi’ ’em, they won’t shut, see. That shows they was made ’fore the days o’ Cromwell".

"For in they times all the gates o’ th’ altars was copied arter the pattern o’ Scripture which sez: ‘An’ the gates o’ Heaven shall never be shut, either by day or by night." Read more˃

James Norman was born in his thatched cottage in 1844, and became the sexton at Combe Martin parish church for 12 years. He held the church keys, one of which was 500 years old according to Edwardian travel writers.

Besides acting as a tour guide, maintaining the church and digging graves: James wound the church clock and rang the bells. To time the services, he might have used the 18th century sundial affixed over the south porch. 

Visiting literary tourists and architectural historians unkindly alleged that James was 'fond of the drink', funded by generous tips. This literary trope has been passed down to the present day, without hard evidence.

Marie Corelli seems to have liked James. Apparently an amiable character, the enterprising sexton also sold his own post cards linked to his 'Reuben Dale' celebrity. James was literally famous around the contemporary British Empire.

Contemporary guide books alleged that James "took his tips to the local Castle Inn and The Pack o' Cards". While we don't know, it might have been that James's strenuous job, and exposure to burial miasma in those Victorian days, affected his health.

The Victorian and Edwardian archaeologists and historians we have read, could be critical of church sextons. And travel-writers are not always reliable sources. It’s also worth noting that attitudes towards church officials can be influenced by the personal beliefs and biases of the historians and archaeologists themselves.

When James passed away on February 11, 1898 at the young age of 54, the Ilfracombe publishers Twiss Brothers issued a postcard of his gravestone (see photo below). His memorial stands just a few feet away from the Lych-gate (given by Elizabeth Snell), on the southern grass bank in St Peter's church graveyard. 

The incumbent rector in 1898 was the Rev. Humphrey William Toms, the parish cleric in charge at Combe Martin for over sixty years. The living was a rectory manor, in the patronage and incumbency of the Rev. Toms, who had a good residence situated in a romantic combe, and 72 acres of glebe.

James Norman was immortalised in print, yet it seems the rector refused to allow the pseudonym 'Reuben Dale' on the epitaph. In Charles Harper's The North Devon Coast (1908) we are told "the rector declared that he buried a man, not a miff”. 

At least two other Normans were sextons at the church in this period; Nicholas Norman was sexton between 1878-1879 (White's Directory), and sexton Ernest Norman had succeeded James Norman by 1902 (Kelly's Directory). 

Read more about James Norman˃    Dive into Combe Martin's History˃ 

Marie Corelli's fin de siècle novel is set in this village, and she lived for some time at 'Waverly' near the Seaside. She stayed at the landmark 'Pack of Cards' Inn whilst writing The Mighty Atom. The authority for this is Exmoor National Park (27 April 2015); "Marie Corelli". 

Marie Corelli was one of the most successful novelists of her generation. The Pack O' Cards Inn has a 'Corelli Room', with a desk at which Marie is said to have written her unusual story about the conflict between science and religion. 

In The Mighty Atom, the character Lionel befriends Reuben Dale, parish sexton, and falls in love with Reuben’s daughter, Jessamine. In Corelli's typical melodramatic style, Jessamine and Lionel meet morbid ends.

Returning to James Norman: he served the church for twelve years and became a celebrity as well as the church tour guide. According to Marie Corelli who met and interviewed her real life Reuben: James was "handsome", "intelligent", and "manly" with a "contented life" (Corelli, The Mighty Atom, 1898, p. 106).

Combe Martin Museum and Local History Books

Combe Martin Museum and Information Point, on Cross Street, has more information and photographs. You can find other information in The Story of Combe Martin, by G.F. Beaumont (1981), and James Norman is mentioned in Kelly’s Directory of Devon and Cornwall.

 © Author 

Grave of James Norman                                  The Home of James Norman on High Street

Sources for this page accessed April-August 2023:

Corelli, Marie (1896): The Mighty Atom. Philadelphia : J. B. Lippincott Company., 2023.

Exmoor National Park Authority (2023): 

George Tugwell (Author), H B Scougall (Illustrator): The North Devon Scenery Book (1863). "Combe Martin's parish sexton [James Norman]".

Combe Martin Village History: "The History and Heritage of Combe Martin".

Charles G. Harper (1908); The North Devon Coast. London: Chapman and Hall Ltd.

Home | Marie Corelli

Kelly's Directory for 1881 (archived) full text.

St Peter ad Vincula Church Combe Martin,

Teresa Ransom, The Mysterious Miss Marie Corelli: Queen of Victorian Bestsellers, Bulbeck Books (2013).

The grave of James Norman (c1844-1898), the model for Reuben Dale in Marie Corelli's The Mighty Atom, in the churchyard of St Peter ad Vincula at Combe Martin, North Devon: image.

White, William: History, gazetteer and directory of the County of Devon including the City of Exeter&c (archived)Sheffield: W. White (1878-1879).