Casting the Runes: The Letters of MR James

By Jane Mainley-Piddock

Foreword by Mark Gatiss

Wednesday, 19 August 2020

Asexual, Homosexual, Bisexual or Straight – The confusing world of M.R.James

Asexual, Homosexual, Bisexual or Straight – The confusing world of M.R.James

James’s ghost stories contain deeper layers of violence which can certainly be viewed as containing a sexual element, an element which in some stories contains acts which contain sexual perversion. For instance, the moment when William Ager is on the back of Paxton in the burrow, where he was in the act of retrieving the Saxon crown, in “A Warning to the Curious, or the rape sequence in “The Story of a Disappearance and an Appearance.” Although coded these references would point to the act of sodomy, again punishable by Jail in that era. This perversion would point to a fear of physicality and of actual human contact or intimacy.

If we take a psychoanalytical approach, the way in which James wrote his stories, particularly his treatment of sexuality could also be seen as a working out of his fears buried in his psyche. The introduction of violence and cruelty in his treatment of his characters, particularly the sexual elements prevalent in the narratives of many of the stories, suggest a gradual working out of deeply buried and repressed parts of the personality. James’s everyday world was certainly very ordered, and apart from a few friendships there was no outlet in his life for intimacy.

The treatment of male and female characters in his stories reveals interesting elements of James’s personality, in that he seems to include sexual scenes which denigrate into rape, sadism and violence. James seems to utilise these scenes as a working out of his frustrated libido, but there is equality in this violence in that it is equally applied.

James the man lived the cerebral life of the mind, and there was never any mention in all of the biographies, auto biography and criticism of the man of any kind of physical relationship. The only time there was ever a hint of physical contact in James’s life was the regular “Horseplay” that James indulged in with his friends. Mike Pincombe observed that this horseplay or “Ragging” was regularly indulged in by James’s entire circle from school to university and even after, with the last account of James indulging in this at 41.[1] This was the only account of James ever having any kind of physical contact with anyone.

However there have been references made to James’s supposed relationships with the younger undergraduates at Kings, and with boys at Eton but these references are in the form of remarks made by some of James’s contemporaries, like Anthony Powell, who remarked that; “James’s seemingly platonic affairs with boys were fascinating to watch” [2]

The papers held by Kings college, and the diaries of both Fred and Arthur Christopher Benson are both rich with day to day intimacies of their friendship with James, but as the author Chris Barker has stated, that unless someone comes forward with a sworn testament to his relationships with James, or there is a find from the private papers of the Lubbock or McBryde families, this area of the inner emotional life of James will remain shrouded in mystery.[3]

The horseplay mentioned earlier would seem to bear out the fact that James was essentially scared of physical contact and was essentially very immature when it came to relationships with either sex. It mirrors the way in which young children will physically instigate fighting to show affection for one another or the opposite sex.

By extension James wrote his stories in the beginning for his contemporaries, the men with whom he worked and lived among. The inclusion of violence and horror in the stories, especially the more bloody scenes, were not designed to appeal to women. In that era especially, women were not expected to read that type of fiction, and the expectation was that their typical reader would be male, white and heterosexual.[4]

However, I am similarly reticent about applying a critique of gender to James and his Ghost Stories because I believe that it must be remembered, that the society James inhabited was an old fashioned one even by the standards of 1894 when he read aloud his first written story. It was an all male, cloistered exclusive society, a society where contact with the female sex was with sisters, mothers or servants; it was not the inclusive society of today.

I am mindful at this point not to project any ahistorical or sexual/cultural values from our period onto these nineteenth century stories. There have been applications of this type of criticism to James’s fiction by a variety of critics, one was by Mike Pincombe[5] where he utilised the work of Eve Sedgwick on “Homosexual Panic”, her classic 1985 work on English Literature and male homosocial desire. In his article, “Homosexual panic and the English Ghost story” he explained the theory, and I quote at length here to flesh out its fullness;

Once homosexuality is not only outlawed but persecuted, the threat of being accused of deviancy hangs like the sword of Damocles over every man who wishes to share in the benefits of patriarchy rather than become its dispossessed victim. It is not so much a question of “exposure” but of “accusation”, because it is in the nature of this kind of political terror to be arbitrary and inexplicable. One day you wake up to find you have been denounced as a deviant, and you lose everything: family, friends, position, and respect. This is the melodramatic narrative of homosexual panic. Sedgwick explains: “So called homosexual panic” is the most private, psychologised form in which many twentieth century men experience their vulnerability to the social pressure of homophobic blackmail. It goes back further than the last century, and she goes on to relate homosexual panic to a sub-group of the nineteenth century Gothic novel: each is about one or more males who not only is persecuted by, but considers himself transparent to and often under the compulsion of another male. Clearly, we can apply this narrative of persecution and pursuit to ghost stories, in which living men are chased and tormented by the ghost s of dead men – James’s pursuing forms in darkness.[6]

In applying this area of theory to James’s stories I see the panic as being more sexual, not just homosexual in nature, but the fear of intimacy with either sex.

This argument put forward by Pincombe utilising the Sedgwick theory of Homosexual panic, would seem to sum up nicely the ideological terror lurking behind James’s ghost stories, except that there is one fatal flaw. James’s revenants are not just pursuing male forms; they are fully fleshed very corporeal revenants which possess identities very much their own, identities which also include gender. There are as many extremely nasty female revenants as male, and they are utilised to inflict death and mayhem on the victims in the stories just as much as the male revenants. The so called panic may be more of a panic around sex with both male and female, pointing to a potentially bisexual author, as the other theories of homosexual panic, suppressed or not, when applied to James seem simplistic, a sort of quick knee jerk reaction, as James the man and his fictional oeuvre are much, much more complicated than just that one theory.

Despite all of this application of various theories on James, no evidence of supposed homosexuality has ever been found. Both his biographers Cox and Pfaff never found anything to suggest that James had homosexual leanings, repressed or not. There were no letters diaries or novels to be published posthumously a la E.M.Forster’s Maurice. On the contrary Pfaff found letters and diaries to suggest the opposite, and one letter in 1906, although facetious in tone, makes for poignant reading as James details to Sibyl Cropper,

That in sorting through a deposit of letters going back to 1874, he has been reading (the sometimes hardly civil) letters of the 36 bright beings that have at different times declined the offer of my hand and heart. “These letters are all in an envelope by themselves...”[7]

Cox considered James as a product typical of his time and society, as where he may have been extremely intelligent and comfortable in that society of all men, at heart he was almost childish, boyish even

This … fits in the Victorian tradi­tion of what the writer Cyril Connolly (1903-1974) calls “Pe­rennial Boyish­ness”. It is the theory that child­hood experi­ences were so intense for many men that it came to domi­nate their lives and to arrest their devel­opment. Its symbol was Peter Pan, the boy who would not grow up (“puer aeternu­s”), and it implies a longing for a perpetual childhood.[8]

 It might be said that he was very guilty of one peculiarly late Victorian and Edwardian social idiosyncrasy: that of refusing to grow into manhood. Here it may be seen that he was in good company, as these boyish traits were observed in many of James’s contemporaries, such as JM Barrie, and T E Lawrence. Indeed there has been recent work on the boyishness of Lawrence especially, detailing his perennial boyishness, the rumours of his supposed homosexuality, and his viewpoint of women as useful for sexual exercise only. [9] This biography shows the complicated nature that manhood could espouse in that period. Another biography that of Baden Powell certainly backs up this complicated male, boyish nature, and demonstrates that Monty James was not the only complicated boyish Victorian- Edwardian man, in fact he was a member of a community of men, who cannot be neatly pigeonholed, as many of his critics have naively attempted.[10]

When men remain boyish well into middle age, continuing to love pranks and practical jokes, to enjoy making animal noises with children and to seek attention by singing falsetto songs in public, it seems reasonable to interpret this immaturity as symp­tomatic – in part at least – of a reluctance to grow up.[11]

Certainly James felt at ease in the company of children, he maintained friendships with Stella Cropper’s younger sister Billie, even attending The Wild West show with her to the amusement of his friends. Then there were the stories written for children, specifically The Five Jars and The Story of A Troll Hunt [12]  in which James wrote the introduction to his friend James McBryde’s book.

Many of his friends often commented that even in his later years, he seemed to retain this boyishness and was most comfortable in the company of younger undergraduates.[13] Cox continues with the observation that although in the modern world this may raise questions about his sexuality, “but this seems a hopelessly inadequate summation of the complex cultural and personal factors behind his resistance to marriage”[14]

One such personal factor was that James did not have the independent means to support a wife and the inevitable children that marriage would bring as for most of his life he was dependent on the two great institutions of his life, Eton and Kings for his board and his every need. Cox details in his biography of James, how he wanted a life in the country, in the Queen Anne house of his dreams but without family means to support this he would never be able to break away from the life of an academic within the bounds of these institutions. [15]

Cox’s argument seems very persuasive, as culturally a man in James’s position at that time would have been expected to financially support a wife; there was no question of a wife working to support her husband in the class that James belonged to. There were also the other areas of James’s life that he had to consider, not just a question of finances but also familial and cultural expectations. One of the times when James found himself falling in love with the sister of one of his friends that he found physically very beautiful, his sister Grace and his mother were horrified at the prospect, because the family were agnostics.

“This was an occasion that greatly troubled James’s mother, when she learned that her son thought his friend’s sister, Stella Duckworth, extremely beautiful, she feared an unsuitable match, in which a pious James might marry a member of the irreligious Stephen clan”[16]

Today family opposition is much less important, but then it must be remembered that societal position was all important, and to be cast out of that society because of parental disapproval was more feared than today, especially as parents often made the matches that led up to marriage. The stigma of an unsuitable match was one that would deter even the most ardent of admirers, and by his own admission James was often shy of the female sex. [17] Where he was most at home was in the company of his own contemporaries, in the world of Kings and Eton.

Reading over the type of activities James and the other friends in his set enjoyed rather backs up the statement that James was regarded as boyish.

Conversations at the TAF, (twice a fortnight society) was what (James) was pleased to call “trivial” there was a great deal of mimicry, with (James) as the leading performer, and there were Rags.[18]

Rags were where one member would play a practical joke on another, such as hanging a hat on a coal scuttle or the like. [19] The rag would then usually descend into what the members liked to call “horseplay”, where they would wrestle. The wrestling would usually continue into decidedly unmanly behaviour of “vital grasping” this behaviour was actually omitted from one biography for “Reasons of piety” Behaviour that again we today we would see as repressed homosexuality, or homoeroticism except that again viewing the society of friends at Eton and Kings in their own setting and taking into account the times, they seem more like schoolboys not the sophisticated decadents like Oscar Wilde or Aubrey Beardsley. [20] This is where the application of theories like Sedgwick’s “Homosexual Panic” breaks down.

James’s celibate existence seems to make these types of theories almost redundant. His onetime Eton tutor and lifelong friend Luxmoore summed up the type of feelings that surrounded this society of men in a letter to James in 1917 when the Great War barred countrywide travel;

The club, the country house and well the chapel for that is no parallel – all rolled in one with the added freedom, may I say it? We are all alone, of a single sex...[21]

Indeed the life that James lived seemed to be utterly apart from concerns of marriage, and the opposite sex, but when a closer examination is given to the Ghost Stories, there seems again to be a more complicated issue around gender and sex. As I have previously argued James definitely had two types of revenants and characters that held his interest, that of the strong female, and the intellectually gifted but slightly feminine male. One need only think of Mrs Anstruther in “The Rose Garden”, “A stately dame of fifty summers” who is totally in charge of her home and husband, or Mr Dunning in “Casting The Runes” whose world falls apart when his charwoman and maid develop food poisoning.

In his own life he had demonstrated this love of strong women in the remark he made to his friend Prothero that he had found an actress playing the part of Peter Pan in a 1905 production one who would be fit to be his wife, he found her “fascinating”. [22] This remark would be fascinating to us examining his stories, as the two archetypes of James’s fantasy seem to meld in the figure of this Peter Pan, a beautiful boy being played by a strong woman.

James was part of a larger collegiate collective which found women congenial, but only if they lived apart from them. He often had women as friends, like the Cropper sisters, or Gwendolyn McBryde, whose daughter Jane was his ward, after James Mcbryde died (even if he did “regret her sex” at the birth) James was like many middle and upper class Victorian men, who believed in the ideal of separate spheres for the lives of men and women, parallel but separate.[23]

In his university he voted against the inclusion of women into the colleges and definitely against the idea of equality within any of the institutions, the privilege of education and parity for women was against the idea of the privileged all male bastion and James was one who wanted to preserve the all male elite. [24] Except this argument also breaks down in the face of James’s arguments with the academic Jane Harrison, as, whilst he respected Harrison for her standing as an academic, he also denigrated her stance on mythology, and it’s challenge to his own branch of academic apocryphal biblical study. It was the idea of women standing as progress that he seems to have feared, not the fact of them being women.[25]

Kane noted that in all male elite societies like James’s, that were based upon a long Christian tradition of “Brotherhood” the society works from within to emphasise and elevate the pure adoration of manly spirituality, intellect and tradition, so much so that any taint of homosexuality is repressed and the symbolic elevated, to the point that homosexuality is seen as weak and is very much discouraged.[26]

This is a world where the older members of the institution are held in high fatherly regard and the members are all seen as brothers. Hence the high regard for older men in Eton and Kings, like Luxmoore and Bradshaw. This was a world where the taint of homosexuality did not even have a label, until the article written by W.T.Stead in the Pall Mall Gazette, which led to the Labouchere amendments’.[27]  It was the spotlight thrown onto this hidden world which had alienated the public, and made a moral stigma out of a whole group of society, whereas a group homosexual men had always existed, now they were a stigmatised group.

As I argued earlier both Benson brothers were homosexual, and other acquaintances such as E M Forster who were at Cambridge were also homosexual but at the time closeted, the point needs to be argued that as in a lot of Edwardian society these facts were known, just not discussed.  As Cook argues,

What is more important is the way in which the way the scandals... publicized the existence of homosexual subcultures and made them into a matter for mainstream politics...[28]

Stead went so far as to say in his article that if this label was to be believed in its entirety then there would be a mass exodus from the old all male bastions of Eton, Harrow, Winchester, Rugby and the two universities of Oxford and Cambridge to the prisons of the country. This old fashioned world, where sexuality did not really have a place, was the reality I would argue that James preferred to inhabit, even if he took pains to ignore the actual world that he occupied himself.

In that era although homosexuality was punishable by law, there was still an underground culture, coded and hidden but very much alive for the men who inhabited that milieu. White illustrates the everyday world that they moved in and inhabited, remarking that it is possible, “to construct a map of homosexual London, marking the places where these men could meet one another...”[29]

Their everyday lives had to be discreet and coded in order to not draw attention to their lifestyle. Both Benson brothers, and many other acquaintances of James at Cambridge at the time were homosexual and these codes can be read in their diaries. There is nothing however to show that James was a part of this world, or even actually aware of it. His relationships with women also point to this unworldliness.         

He almost seemed to hold women in high esteem, but was intimidated by them to the point of sometimes outward avoidance; Shane Leslie in a recollection of James said that in the Cambridge Undergraduate magazine, “The Granta” there was a biographical article written about James that mentioned one particular incident which is indicative of this;

Apparently three weird sisters visited him in his rooms, probably on charitable rather than amorous intent. He excused himself by slipping into the inner room and leaving by a window. At any rate the weird ones were left sitting until they gave up hopes for whatever they hoped.[30]

It did not mean however that he was a misogynist or women hater, indeed whenever that charge was brought against him, he would refute it, the incident of the idealisation of the actress playing Peter Pan being just one such refutation. It was just that the society in which he was brought up and the mores of that society dictated the idea of men and women as different but equal and that their worlds should be kept apart as much as possible. His was the age of Coventry Patmore’s “The Angel in the House”, the age where women were seen as the moral and spiritual guardians of their men and their behaviour.[31] In James’s society the men  usually behaved outside of their academic duties as men very free of any domestic responsibilities: -

Even as a fifty year old provost of Kings James shared with his friends a boyishness (or even childishness) and light heartedness which might have astonished the wives of his fellow heads...Indeed, in a number of fundamental respects James’s life was marked by external changes and discontinuities much less than most peoples...he lived in the same college (and in only three locations within it) for 36 years and at either Eton or Kings, from the time he was fourteen until his death.[32]

Indeed, one of his friends Arthur Benson repeatedly made entries in his diaries about how James would frustrate him with his dichromatic nature, where on “one hand he was a remarkable man possessed of the talents for knowledge and retention, but who was irritatingly childish to the point of annoyance.”[33] It begs the question then, where would a wife have fitted in with this world? Or even with James’s life and character.

As besides James’s prodigious talents in the area of Mss and biblical apocrypha and the output of his fiction, he always retained something of a Peter Pan character who cherished the company of his own band of “Lost Boys”. The same friends he had at Eton remained with him throughout his life. The two institutions who were almost “Mother”, to him always made sure that he was sheltered and fed. Indeed when he came to move into the lodge at Eton after accepting the Provost ship, he remarked that now he would have to buy his own Port, as up until then it had always been on the table at Kings! [34]

Moreover these two institutions did not really demand a huge workload in return.[35] This all meant that James did not really need a wife and home. The college saw that every need was provided for, and in case we forget, a man of his class would always have had servants. In fact a wife and home especially children would have been a much heavier burden than perhaps he was prepared to bear. He was also not the only James child that never married, as his brother Ber didn’t marry and his sister Grace didn’t undertake marriage until after 40.



[1] Mike Pincombe, Class war in “Casting the Runes, , 2011. P.3


[2]  Christopher Barker, Plagiarism and Pederasty: Skeletons in the Jamesian Closet (Dublin: Haunted River, 2003),p.6

    Christopher Barker,  “Unpleasant Demons Violence and Cruelty in the Jamesian tale”, Wierdly supernatural,2 (2004),p.5

[3] Magdalene college archives, Cambridge


[4] Sandra M.Gilbert & Susan Gubar, The Madwoman in the Attic, The Woman Writer and the Nineteenth-Century Literary     Imagination([n.p.]: Yale University Press, 2000), p.9

[5] Mike Pincombe, “Homosexual Panic and the English Ghost Story: M r James and Others”, M R James Newsletter, 2.2, (September 2002), p.4-6.


[6] Ibid, p4-6.


[7] Richard William Pfaff , Montague Rhodes James (London: Scolar Press, 1980), p. 220.

[8] The Boyish Side Of T E Lawrence,

[9] Harold Orlans, T.E. Lawrence: Biography of a Broken Hero (N.Carolina : Mcfarland, Jefferson, 2002).

[10] Tim Jeal,  Baden-Powell  (London :Hutchinson, 1989,),p.87

[11] Ibid, p.87

[12] Ibid,p149.

    M. R. James, Five Jars (London : Book Jungle, 2008).

   James McBryde, M. R. James, The Story of A troll Hunt ( London : Coachwhip Publications, 2006)

[13] S.G. Lubbock, A Memoir of Montague Rhodes James, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1939), P.21.

[14] Michael Cox, M.R. James An Informal Portrait  (New York: Oxford University Press, 1986),p.165

[15] Ibid, p.114.

[16] B W Young, The Victorian Eighteenth Century an Intellectual History (Oxford : Oxford University Press, 2007.) ,p.177.

[17] Richard William Pfaff, Montague Rhodes James (London: Scolar press,1980), p.62

[18] Michael Cox, M.R. James An Informal Portrait  (New York: Oxford University Press, 1986),p.59

[19] Ibid, p.55.

[20] Ibid, p.59.

[21] Richard William Pfaff, Montague Rhodes James (London: Scolar press,1980),p.216.

[22] Michael Cox, M.R. James An Informal Portrait  (New York: Oxford University Press, 1986),p.164


[23] Ibid, p.129

[24] Ibid, p.126.

    Ibid, p.127.

[25] Jacqueline Simpson, “The Rules of Folklore” in the Ghost Stories of M.R.James”, Presidential address given to the Folklore Society, 22nd March 1996.

[26] Michael Kane, Modern Men Mapping Masculinity in English and German Literature 1880-1930(Strand, London : Cassel, 1999),p.180

[27] Graham Robb, Stranger, Homosexual Love In The Nineteenth Century, (London : Picador, 2003),p.95

[28] Ibid, p.67

[29] Chris White (Ed), Nineteenth-Century Writings on Homosexuality, (London: Routledge, 1999).

[30]Shane Leslie, Montague Rhodes James, In Joshi, S T, & Pardoe, Rosemary (Eds), Warnings to the Curious (New York: Hippocampus Press, 2007),p.30


[31] Coventry kersey Dighton Patmore, The Angel in the House (London: Andesite Press, 2015),p.2

[32]  Richard William Pfaff, Montague Rhodes James (London: Scolar press,1980),p.223

[33]  Michael Cox, M.R. James An Informal Portrait  (New York: Oxford University Press, 1986),p.125


[34] Ibid, p.223.

[35] Richard William Pfaff, Montague Rhodes James (London: Scolar press,1980),p.340.

Back to project page
Share on social


Diana Wright
 Diana Wright says:

An interesting essay, but highly repetitive, jumbled, and unedited. I'd appreciate something cleaner and premeditated.

posted 19th August 2020

Jacqueline Gray
 Jacqueline Gray says:

Thank you for this most excellent and interesting piece of writing. I am so looking forward to the copy of your book. Well done!

posted 19th August 2020

Colin Gray
 Colin Gray says:

Fascinating! It's just occured to me that, when I was at university, fifty years ago, there was not one openly gay person there. I did know two gay men, but they absolutely concealed their relationship. I never once heard the subject mentioned by anyone at all. The jest was that the Marxist, Trotsykist, Leninist, etc, groups which were very prominent then were all deeply Victorian in their puritannical approach to sex. The revolution must come first, comrade!

posted 19th August 2020

Colin Gray
 Colin Gray says:

PS It's good to see the level of funding increasing. I await publication with the keenest interest. James' ghost stories always seem to me to be the product of a powerful mind writing for festive occasions, where all is joviality and good cheer. It'll be very interesting to see him in his daily life: possibly a very different man may be revealed!

posted 19th August 2020

Top rewards

41 pledges


The ebook
Buy now