Casting the Runes: The Letters of MR James

By Jane Mainley-Piddock

Foreword by Mark Gatiss

Wednesday, 2 September 2020

M R James and his Joie De Vivre


M R James is often portrayed as a serious academic, and an austere man, a palaeographer, cataloguer, academic and a writer of ghost stories, as the writer S T Joshi noted:

At times it seems as if Montague Rhodes James (1862-1936) led not one life, but a multitude. That the same man could have described all the mediaeval manuscripts at the various colleges of Cambridge University, prepared an edition of the Apocryphal New Testament and other works of biblical scholarship, and, almost incidentally, produced four landmark volumes of ghost stories in the course of a fifty-year professional career that also saw him as dean and Provost of King’s College, Cambridge, director of the Fitzwilliam Museum, and Provost of Eton – all this makes one admire anew the native talents of one whose unassuming modesty would have shrugged off these attainments as all in a day’s work.

In his life there certainly was a split between his academic work and his fictional oeuvre:

As P R Quarrie observed:

Those who know The Ghost Stories of an Antiquary do not connect them with the man in the picture [in the original provost’s lodge at Eton]. The person whose photograph adorns the cover of the Penguin edition of the stories is not one with that of the palaeographer. [1]


However, there is one character attribute that hardly any of the essayists on James ever mention, and that is that he was a man given to whimsy, and even a very irreverent attitude to the pomp and ceremony that his life as a don in a college like King’s demanded. In fact James could be described as a man with a great aptitude for Joie De Vivre. When it came to his fictional output this can often be seen in his answers to questions about his writing process, or where his ideas came from for the stories, as when questioned about his fiction James would often make jokes about it being just read by patient friends, or by further deflecting any compliments by playing the piano and singing “I’m a man whose dun wrong to my parents” in a mock tragic-comedic cockney voice. [2]  

It was the same attitude that he struck over his academic work, in her biography of Penelope Fitzgerald, Hermione Lee notes that James often showed a very whimsical approach to academia. Fitzgerald describes mentioning one occasion when he was definitely facetious about the idea of debating: “[a]t dinner, overhearing two under-graduates disputing a problematic point...he rapped on the table sharply with his pipe and called out, “No thinking, gentlemen, please!” [3]

Even in the ghost stories this strangely whimsical approach can be located in the narrative, and especially in the characterisation of the protagonists and his villains, for instance in the story “Number 13”, his villain inexplicably decides to announce his presence by dancing, as the protagonist Mr Anderson apprehends suddenly a figure doing a vigorous exhibition of movement which is projected in shadow onto the blank street wall opposite his hotel room window. This dancing, although very vigorous, is done entirely in silence but not the accompanying singing which is loud enough, and of such a strange emission, to bring a crowd of serving men to the room door with weapons.

And to sing in a manner which could leave no doubt in anyone’s mind that he was either exceedingly drunk or raving mad. It was a high thin voice that they heard, and it seemed dry, as if from long disuse. Of words or tune there was no question. It went sailing up to a surprising height, and was carried down with a despairing moan as of a winter wind in a hollow chimney, or an organ whose wind fails suddenly. It was a really horrible sound... [4].


We can all imagine the genuine irritation that we all may feel in a strange hotel room next to a loud guest keeping you from sleeping, and this domestic horror is part of the irreverence that James’s stories often show, it is as James remarked that he tried to make the settings of his stories as ordinary and prosaic as possible, as he wanted his readers to stop for a moment and think, “If I am not careful something of that kind may happen to me.”[5]  The humour is often in the guise of a pretend irritation that James often encountered in his day to day life as a scholar, as Joshi noted in his “Weird Tale” about the story “The Treasure of Abbott Thomas”,

“Only he would open a story with a stunning and flawless imitation of a late mediaeval Latin Treatise, a 150 word passage in Latin followed by the narrator’s tiredly casual remark “I suppose I shall have to translate this”[6]


As James’s stories were often read to his friends at late night gatherings, we can at this point feel James’s audience of colleagues appreciating this academic in-joke about the inconvenient translation and laughing heartedly. This stylistic feature links in with James’s own love of mimicry. He was renowned by many of his friends for possessing this lifelong talent. Throughout his life he kept up a correspondence with his brother Herbert,

Herbert was Johnson a butcher, and Monty was a grocer called Barker, and it must be understood that they were Barker and Johnson to each other and to no one else...All this began in private school days and was renewed whenever they met...[7]

This act of ventriloquism  can be seen in many of the minor characters that populate the stories; although they are one dimensional they are also utilised in a lot of ways to move the plot along or to act as witnesses to authenticate plotlines. James’s stories are very much like a road with signposts pointing the way historically to the events of the era in which he lived and wrote, starting on the 28th of October 1893, with the magazine publication of the first two of his stories, later into the publishing of his first book, Ghost Stories of an Antiquary, with its collection of Victorian tales.

James’s behaviour in real life was also charming and whimsical, in one occasion when he was to meet the family of one of his dearest friends Walter Fletcher, the family forgot about his arrival, and the youngest member of the family, Maisie found him wandering around their garden muttering ““I don’t see no red carpet lain down, I don’t see no flags a flying!”

Even with the priceless manuscripts that James used for his academic research were treated with a whimsical attitude, as Gurney Lubbock one of James’s friends and biographer remarked, that “priceless manuscripts with the soda water bubbling upon them” were piled up on his desk during evenings held in his study chambers.[8]

None of this behaviour would link in with the way that James is portrayed, he was actually a very loved and pleasant man, who lived and loved life to the full. He was a writer of ghost stories but even they had humour in amongst the genuine scares, and his academic work and output was impressive, but the actual Monty James was a man who espoused real Joie De Vivre.




[1] P R Quarrie, M. R. James at Eton, in Dennison, Lynda (Ed), The Legacy Of M.R. James (Donington : Shaun Tyas, 2001)

[2] Ibid,

  Maisie Fletcher, The Bright Countenance, (London: 1957. P.73)

[3] Hermione, Lee, Penelope Fitzgerald: A Life (London: Chatto & Windus, 2013),p.369.

[4] Ibid,p.50

[5] Ibid,p.479

[6] S T Joshi, The Weird Tale, (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1990).

[7] S.G. Lubbock, A Memoir of Montague Rhodes James (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1939), p.28

[8] S.G. Lubbock, A Memoir of Montague Rhodes James (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1939), p.17.

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