Casting the Runes: The Letters of MR James

By Jane Mainley-Piddock

Foreword by Mark Gatiss

Tuesday, 12 May 2020

M R James and The Marriage Problem

M. R. James and The Marriage Problem

I am often asked by many people with an interest in M. R. James whether he was homosexual and why (even if he was) he never had a wife somewhere in the background, a la Oscar Wilde. 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...”[1]

One personal factor that made an offer of marriage to a “bright being” 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 King’s 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. [2]

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. [3]

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.[4] Where he was most at home was in the company of his own contemporaries, in the world of King’s and Eton.

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. 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.[5]

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”. [6] 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.[7]

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. [8] 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 its 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.[9]

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.[10]

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.[11] In James’s society the men usually behaved outside of their academic duties as men very free of any domestic responsibilities.



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

[2] Ibid, p.114

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

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

[5] M. R. James, Collected Ghost Stories (Ware: Wordsworth, 1992), p.105

      Ibid, p.136

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

[7] Ibid, p.129

[8] Ibid, p.126   

[9] Richard William Pfaff, Montague Rhodes James (London: Scolar Press, 1980), p.255

     Ibid, p.256

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


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

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