Saturday, 16 May 2020
M R James and the time he stalked Queen Victoria
M R James and his Queen Victoria Fixation
In today’s world we are very accustomed to what is termed “celebrity culture”, with all of the plethora of reality television shows and the ‘red top’ tabloid papers keeping a breathless public up to date with every facet of their favourite stars life, no matter how trivial. From so called C list celebrity stars up to our own royal family, no one it seems is safe, and they all have advisors to cultivate this public glare, to screen out the more harmful elements of the publicity game, and to ensure that any publicity gained is as beneficial to the stars image as possible.
Whilst this may be viewed as a relatively recent phenomena, at least from the perspective of the twentieth and twenty first century, back in the time of M R James’s attendance at Eton in 1879, he may have been said to have been guilty of this over fixation on celebrity culture, as he became very interested in none other than Queen Victoria herself.
This fascination started with (according to his biographer Michael Cox), the wedding of the Duke of Connaught and Princess Louise Marguerite of Prussia on the 13th of March. James had been quite caught up with the royal atmosphere and had been up to S.W.R. railway station to watch the bride arrive, and the next day he sequestered himself into a nook with a ‘spyglass’ to watch the Prince of Wales say goodbye to the Eton Provost under his window.
James was by his own admission guilty of being “slightly disarranged in the intellect”as from the end of that March he had over indulged in “too much reading and too much East Wind”. Added to that his tutor Luxmoore had noticed he had developed a ‘badgering tendency’ to talk of not much else but the Queen.
He attended the wedding of the Princess and the Duke on the 13th of March, and noted the Queen ‘smiling benignly’ at the proceedings, he and his friends followed the Royal carriages from the gates with loud cheers. Things soon took a turn for the worse in regard to James’s royal fascination, as he had discovered in a book (August Dillmann’s, Chresomathia Aethiopica) a fragment of an Aprocryphal text, The Rest of the Words of Baruch, and decided to try and impress the Queen with a translation of the text.
Together with his friend Ion Thynne, he translated the text. At the same time he was experiencing what might be seen today as a nervous breakdown, the symptoms which he described as,
Disability to read, or work, or sleep, or converse coherently...Best Remedy...playing on a piano, or other instrument of Musick. Actual Treatment. A tonic of unknown composition and feeble effect.
His fascination with the Queen and ‘other royal personages’ began to accelerate, he attended the reading room at Eton every day after the wedding to pore over pages and pages of newspaper articles, reading everything he could about details of the lives of the various royals, and any gossip he could procure.
His tutors were so concerned about this uncharacteristic turn of personality with the seventeen year old James, that they excused him from his usual school work and recommended he read what he liked.
This was incomprehensible to James, as he found light literature at that time, ‘idiotic’, but heavier books he ‘could not comprehend’, he tried a session reading 50 of the Orphic Hymns, but it was ‘The last straw’, and although he felt that he would remember a good deal of the words, he felt he, ‘would not repent of his evil ways’.
In the meantime Ion Thynne and James had finished their translation of the fragment of Baruch, and together they had sent it to the Queen asking her permission to dedicate the work to her. As his other biographer William Pfaff found, the letter, “Got no further than her private secretary, Sir Henry Ponsonby, who returned it with a stiff note to the Eton Head Master”. However what the account of the whole affair did not mention was James’s state of health at the time.
The headmaster was very concerned at the ‘conceit’ of the boys and asked James’s brother Sydney and his tutor Luxmoore to explain to both of them the unwise nature of their actions. James himself, in his own autobiography Eton and King’s describes being elated by the sending of the letter, even though “we should be better for some personal correction”.
What all of this illustrates however, is how what we may think of as a modern phenomena, that of the celebrity stalker, or an over interest in the lives of people we may admire, or want to emulate, is not so recent, indeed there were in James’s day penny sheets of salacious gossip, and newspapers that also focused heavily on not much else than music hall stars and the Royal family. Even someone like a brilliant ghost story writer like M R James, someone we may think would not be interested in the day to day events of the rich and famous, is as guilty as the rest of us, judging by his participation in the whole “Baruch Affair”, he was as human as the rest of us.
 Michael Cox, M.R.James An Informal Portrait, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1986.p.32
 Cox, M.R.James An Informal Portrait p.32
 Richard William Pfaff, Montague Rhodes James, London, Scolar Press, 1980. P.32
 M.R.James, Eton & King’s, London, Williams & Norgate, LTD, 1926. P.42.