Casting the Runes: The Letters of MR James

By Jane Mainley-Piddock

Foreword by Mark Gatiss

Tuesday, 25 August 2020

M R James and The Mechanics of writing as Jungian Catharsis

M R James and The Mechanics of writing as Jungian Catharsis

One of the most striking things about James’s ghost stories is the dramatic manner in which he wrote them, dashing them off in a state of “fever heat”, at the very last minute before he was due to deliver them to a large and eager audience. [1] Indeed, the circumstances of the composition of the stories resemble something from those stories, as Steve Duffy notes:

… a visibly sweating James would emerge from his bedroom, “having scribbled the last few sentences of his tale only minutes beforehand”, candles would be extinguished, all bar one at his shoulder, and he would begin reading.[2] 

Duffy also notes that James’s attitude towards the publication of these stories was strangely casual: the manuscripts he presented to his publishers were never proof read, and always bore the marks of scratchings out.[3] Duffy wonders if this reveals more than a scholarly disregard for the lowly ghost story:

It did seem just a little curious-even significant, maybe-that James hadn’t seen fit to present the publishers with a corrected, properly legible manuscript. Again that question of self-depreciation came up: could it really have been the case that these stories were considered too trifling to take up any more of the Provost’s time than was absolutely necessary? It was at least a tenable hypothesis.[4]


James’s statements on the ghost stories also illustrate an apparent lack of respect for the genre, as we see in the preface to his first book, Ghost Stories of an Antiquary:

I wrote these stories at long intervals, and most of them were read to patient friends, usually at the season of Christmas...The stories themselves do not make any exalted claim. If any of them succeed in causing their readers to feel pleasantly uncomfortable when walking along a solitary road at nightfall, or sitting over a dying fire in the small hours, my purpose in writing them will have been attained.[5]

As Steve Duffy remarks, there is a paradox here; while James researched the background of his stories with his usual scholarly care, he invariably dismissed the results as being trivial.[6]

I would contend that James’s clear ambivalence is made manifest in the way in which James utilised his fiction to provide the catharsis that his overburdened and un-individuated psyche needed in order to function in the scholarly world he inhabited, a world where certain taboos of privilege and sexuality could not be transgressed.[7]

In my PhD thesis, the first full-length study of James’s ghost stories, I used Jung’s theory of individuation to shed entirely original light on James’s stories as manifestations of his profound ambivalence about his sexuality, about established religion, and about the development of new ways of seeing the world as new scientific discoveries troubled old established narratives.

As I explained in the chapter on the Jungian reading of James’s ghost stories, Jung’s work on individuation of the personality evolved through differing theories; my  thesis focused on the process of individuation in relation to Jung’s theory of the shadow, or the dark aspect of the human personality.[8] Jung argued that when the shadow is not assimilated successfully, then the shadow can become dominant, and be projected forth as either a split personality, or as a psychological projection; my thesis illustrated that the procession of “ghosts” that haunt James’s protagonists can be read as shadow projections of un-individuated personalities.

This phenomenon will be very familiar to Victorianists; there are many manifestations of this shadow figure in culture of the period, such as the doppelganger. It can be seen in novels such as Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, where Stevenson’s doctor unsuccessfully battled the dark half of his personality, even giving him free reign to exist as an individual presence in his own right, which ended in Dr Jekyll’s death, or in The Picture of Dorian Gray, where Wilde’s protagonist’s shadow found life in a portrait, in which the absorbing of Gray’s sins freed him to live a life of debauchery seemingly without consequences.[9]

The action of sublimation is the key to James’s stories; it was not just the actions of the revenants that were used to contain the sexuality of the characters, James also used his fiction to soothe his often over burdened scholarly mind. To utilise a Jungian term, in the action of writing his fiction at such break-neck speed, with such apparent lack of care, James demonstrates that he suffers from a uniquely Jungian malaise, an un-individuated or split personality, one which could not successfully reconcile differing areas of his life.

His sexuality, his decision to not undertake ordination into the church, and his reaction to the then new science of Darwinism, were all problematic for James the scholar and the fiction author. His ghost stories were the product of his un-individuated personality possessing the page as a cathartic reaction to these problems. The pages were the stage on which James’s animalistic, devolved revenants pursue his unlucky scapegoats, the sacrificial victims, who were the learned men who had committed sins the author was actually guilty of, for instance sublimating his sex drive into the interior of his life, in favour of his academic pursuits. We can see this clearly in “Canon Alberic’s Scrapbook” where the academic Dennistoun spends the first part of the story totally immersed in a never-ending cataloguing and photography of the interior of a little French provincial church. Even James, as the narrator, has already told the reader that he thinks that there is nothing of particular interest in this little church.[10] The narrator can be felt standing back and detachedly observing Dennistoun in his fixation totally obsessed in this act. He is immersed in an erectional urge to possess the interior of this church, to capture every inch of it.

As I have already noted often in James’s stories there is a single male academic who lives purely for his work. In “The Diary of Mr Poynter” the protagonist of the story, James Denton, is no exception as he lives with his aunt and prefers books to people.

Mr Denton was able to face the task of building a new and considerably more convenient dwelling for him and his aunt who constituted his whole ménage. Being in London, with time on his hands, and not far from the salesroom...he thought that he would spend an hour there on the chance of finding ...something bearing upon the history or topography of ...Warwickshire[11]

He has all but sublimated his life to this pursuit and there is no mention of any significant “other”, whether male or female. His aunt, Miss Denton, runs his life organising tennis matches and “drives out”. Her friends are his friends and he mostly leaves his life to her, as above the character would be seen, with a life not just lacking in sexual satisfaction, but intimacy of any kind.


[1]Steve Duffy, Introduction, in  James, M R, A Pleasing Terror (Ashcroft, British Colombia: Ash-Tree Press, 2000), p. Xxiii.

[2] Ibid, p.xvi.

[3] Ibid, p. Xviii.

[4] Ibid, p. Xviii.

[5] Steve Duffy, Introduction, in  James, M R, A Pleasing Terror (Ashcroft, British Colombia: Ash-Tree Press, 2000), p .2.

[6] Ibid, p. Xxiii.

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

[8] Carl Jung, Psychology and Religion (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1977), p. 563.

[9] Robert Louis Stevenson, Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (London: Penguin, 1994).
Oscar Wilde, The Picture of Dorian Gray (London: Penguin, 1992).

[10] M. R. James, Collected Ghost Stories (Ware: Wordsworth, 1992), p.1


[11] Ibid,p.217

Back to project page
Share on social

Top rewards

41 pledges


The ebook
Buy now