Casting the Runes: The Letters of MR James

By Jane Mainley-Piddock

Foreword by Mark Gatiss

Tuesday, 29 June 2021

Finding a Way - Or getting a room of my own for M R James:

Finding a Way- Or getting a room of my own for M R James:

This book as with a lot of books started its life in the shade of other books, namely three, Virginia Woolf’s two famous polemics A Room of One’s Own and Three Guineas and Dr Hope Jahren’s Lab Girl. Both were written by women who had to “find a way”, i.e. they had to find the time and money to be able to write and in Jahren’s case to be able to conduct research.

I do not have an academic position and academic funding, my PhD was self funded and when it came to further research I long lamented of ever finding the money to be able to conduct the research for this book. Then I re-read Woolf’s books and Jahren’s and thought no I will find a way.

In these days of incessant cuts to humanities courses, and lack of funding, it always seems that the positions and funding go to (usually white men who are known to the committees – “he is one of us”), and the usually token person of colour who is awarded funds to make the decision makers feel a little less anxious about themselves.

So I decided that my approach to research and to the book finding a life would work differently to suit me and my model. In 2019 I became aware of a new way of publishing that might work for my fledgling idea of getting James’s letters published. Unbounders was a crowd-funding publisher, a new idea based on a very old practice, that of the patron, Patrons helped such luminaries as Keats publish his poems, and artists such as Gabriel Rossetti sell his canvases.

In a case of an author, the new model that unbounders chose was that the author to be would pitch their idea to the publisher, and then get their social media followers to fund the book, if they had an interest in reading it. I had a following on Twitter (then) of over 16,000 followers who had been following my PhD journey and who were all very big fans of James and his ghost stories. They also eagerly read my blog on James, where I posted the material that had not made it into my PhD thesis. I had also picked up more followers as I had been the one of the third of the organisational team behind the two M.R.James conferences that we had held at the Leeds Library in 2015 and 2016.

However, I still had the worry of having zero funds to pay for trips to Cambridge, to start my research process. Then four angels stepped in, The Provost of Eton and his wife Lord William Waldegrave and Caroline generously gave me some funds, along with some of the Jamesians on Twitter who all made the conditions less penurious. (This was before I started a ‘gofundme’ account for donations to help me with costs of hotels, trains and food, very cheap food in my stays down in Cambridge, in order to be able to visit the various archives where James’s letters are held) However, not one academic institution had helped with funds for the genesis of the book. Kings College ignored all of my requests for help, even though I was making such efforts to transcribe their famous sons letters.

Also I want to state at this point in this introduction with a disclaimer, I do not consider myself an “expert” on M R James, yes I have a PhD in the area of his ghost stories, (as with all PhD’s this is a small niche area of a reading where I applied a Jungian and historical reading to them). But with all PhD’s you only find out afterwards that what you thought was a major undertaking turns out to be anything but, in that when you finish you find that you have only scratched the surface and contributed a small amount to your field of study. Jamesian studies is a wide ranging area, as James himself had many areas that he contributed to in his academic and literary life, from Apocrypha, biblical studies, archaeology, ghost stories, as well as the historical period in which he lived.

However, what is now coming to be known as Jamesian studies is as two members of the Jamesian community Chris and Barbara Roden state a work in progress, as “inevitably, new material will come to hand, tomorrow and in the future”[1]The Jamesian community as well is a family, a an often dysfunctional family in that we often argue amongst ourselves, and there are many siblings in the family. At the start of this process of editing and transcribing James’s letters, as I said I was not the expert as whilst doing my PhD on M R James’s ghost stories at Aberystwyth University, I wanted to gain an insight into the man as author. So as well as buying a few books on his stories I searched on a very popular online store for a book of his letters and came up with, nothing, apart from a book published of his correspondence with a widow of his friend James McBryde (Gwendolen).[2]

This was a start but as for a bigger selection of his letters, still a blank. There were two biographies on James but even they were relatively old, (Richard William Pfaff’s biography on James had been written in 1980, Michael Cox’s in 1986, Gurney Lubbock’s very small offering in 1939 two years after James’s death and James’s  own auto biography Eton and King’s in 1926).

Here was an academic and literary mystery, as to why M. R. James’s letters had not been published. I started making a few enquiries, as I knew that there WERE letters. Checking the pages of the various biographies, their footnotes mentioned quite a few, and in the various websites the letters were identified as being in the archives of Cambridge University library, King’s College Cambridge, The Fitzwilliam, and Eton College to name but four places where James’s correspondence, whether social, familial, or work related were deposited.

However, academics and their colleges were famous for just casually archiving work, and not cataloguing it, as James well knew, he had made a very good career out of cataloguing the various archives of Cambridge and Oxford, as well as many other religious and academic libraries.

This however, was made even more uncanny when the fact was considered that James’s ghost stories had been in continuous print since 1911, when its first collected issue was published.

Apart from the various issues of the ghost stories, and the books mentioned above there was very little on James, apart from a book of critical essays published by the ghosts and scholars author Rosemary Pardoe and the website (a virtual treasure trove of Jamesian facts and figures that was very helpful in my first few years on the PhD). It was not until the last few years of writing up my Jamesian research for my PhD thesis that published material would start appearing on James, the first complete book was in 2017, by Patrick Murphy on the medieval angle of James’s ghost stories.[3] But I wanted a book of James’s letters. Apart from there being a gap in Jamesian study here was also the proverbial gap in the market, and nature abhors a vacuum, so I decided to rectify that.

In October 2019 I plucked up my courage and emailed Unbounders with some questions, whether I had to have the whole manuscript ready before I started the fundraising process (a major put off for me if it did, as I did not have the time, or inclination to start the process, as I was already down about the time it had taken to do the PhD and I did not want to start another “wild goose chase” if there was no interest from a publisher. So i asked the thorny question via email, and got the first promising shoot of hope, a reply back from Unbounders which sounded very positive:

The Unbounders

I pretty much forgot about the submission thinking that I would never hear back, or just get a generic thanks but no thanks email in time. Then February of 2020 i was sitting down to lunch, and watching the first episode of “Picard” when my phone went off. Sighing to myself I paused the stream of trekky goodness, and put down my knife and fork, I thought that it would be a tweet, but then i noticed that it was in fact an email, and an email from unbounders. I shrugged my shoulders and looked over at my cat who was regarding me from the opposite sofa.

Here we go I thought, thanks but no thanks. Then i took a closer look,

The email was in fact very surprising:

They were very interested, and asked if I was ready to start the process of crowd-funding, ready? You betcha!

I was already ready, my PhD had gone in and given that everything was in lockdown due to the COVID Pandemic, I was eager to have something (anything) to stop me freaking out over which way the verdict on my PhD was going to go, plus the postgraduate office was heartedly sick of my emails asking them if they had heard anything back from the examiners.

(etc etc)

Then at the start of October the government relaxed the rules around the lockdown enough for me to get over to Cambridge. (But boys and girls that will be in the next update)!




[1] Christopher & Barbara Roden, Preface to M. R. James, A Pleasing Terror (Ashcroft, British Columbia: Ash-Tree Press, 2000)


[2] Gwendolen McBryde, M.R.James: Letters to a Friend (London: Edward Arnold, 1956). Richard William Pfaff, Montague Rhodes James (London: Scolar Press, 1980); Michael Cox, M.R. James An Informal Portrait (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 1986); S.G. Lubbock, A Memoir of Montague Rhodes James (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1939); M. R. James, Eton and Kings (London: Williams and Norgate, 1926);


[3] Patrick J. Murphy, Medieval Studies and the Ghost Stories of M. R. James (Pennsylvania: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2017).


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