Casting the Runes: The Letters of MR James

By Jane Mainley-Piddock

Foreword by Mark Gatiss

Wednesday, 18 November 2020

The split in the way that James approached his academic and fictional work

The split in the way that James approached his academic and fictional work

It might have surprised James’s contemporaries that we remember him today primarily as a writer of hugely original, terrifying ghost stories. M R James was a figure of donnish respectability, provost of Eton, museum curator, fellow of Kings College. It is difficult to reconcile these professional personae with his identity as the author of such horrors as ‘Count Magnus’. In James’s pronouncements on his own work, we witness a distancing of the man from the author. When questioned about his fiction, James would often make jokes about it only being read by patient friends, or further deflect 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.[1] As Freud would reveal, however, jokes are mechanisms to deflect away from what is experienced as problematic in the human psyche.[2] The way in which he chose to distance himself from his fictional oeuvre is striking, as Steve Duffy has pointed out; James never saw fit to present his publishers with a corrected proof of his stories; once they had been written, he would send them uncorrected, in his often illegible handwriting.[3] Both Duffy and the James critic Rosemary Pardoe have commented that this apparently slap-dash approach is surprising in a man who took such great care with his writing in other respects.[4] Combined with James’s self-depreciation when it came to his fiction, this seems to be indicative of a man who considered his fictional oeuvre a distraction from his real profession. Indeed with his fiction there is a splitting of the personality, a doubling if you will similar to such fin de siècle figures as Wilde’s Dorian or Well’s Dr Jekyll. There is a real case for contending that James the academic was very different from James the writer of ghost stories. As P R Quarrie declared in his book celebrating James’s academic work,

[t]hose who know the Ghost Stories of an Antiquary do not connect them with the man in the picture (that hangs in the 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 great palaeographer.[5]

We can discern two distinct and often opposing camps in James criticism; those who study his lifelong contribution to palaeography and of cataloguing manuscripts, and those who have researched and loved his fictional oeuvre. The fiction takes on a life of its own in the case of the stories and they are difficult to encapsulate in a single description. They reflect various concerns of the Victorian fin de siècle – concerns, indeed that continue to resonate today. As Pykett argues,

[i]f the fin de siècle was constructed as an ‘age of transition’ by the periodising and other cultural imperatives of a later age, this process of retrospective (re)construction is no less in evidence in the new fin de siècle...every historical moment “writes” the literature it wishes to read, and one might add, every historical moment reads the past through the refracting lens of its own preoccupations.[6]

The split in the way that James approached his academic and fictional oeuvre began early. His family encouraged a spiritual, unquestioning life with a focus on religious observance. However, James’s generation found themselves in increasingly sceptical times vis-à-vis religious belief, and thus in conflict with the preceding generation. This tension, we will see, often troubles James’s short stories.

In his book Moses and Monotheism Freud outlines his theory that God the father is a symbol of patriarchy to all men.[7] However, by extension, this problematizes the familial relationship between actual fathers and sons. If the relationship a man has with his father is problematic, then it is axiomatic that this will have an effect with the viewpoint that the grown man will have with his Christian faith. [8] According to all of the published biographical material on James, the relationship that Herbert James had with his younger son was close, but founded on certain expectations.[9] One of these was that James would one day be ordained, as his father and his older brother had been. Herbert James was a profoundly religious man, and kept to his evangelical roots his whole life. In his only published work, The Country Clergyman and His Work, Herbert set out a template for younger clergymen (and, he hoped, his sons) to follow. [10] The book extols such worthy ideas as committing one’s whole life to Christ, eschewing any other distractions such as worldly pleasures of music or reading for pleasure, and suggests that holding services twice to three times daily was ideal for keeping in contact with one’s flock of parishioners.

It is not beyond the ordinary powers of a country clergyman to take three sermons on a Sunday, ...At all events it can be done for part of the year, if the additional service is found to interfere with your attendance at the Sunday school as a teacher yourself...[11]

However, James’s generation had started to question the status of the Bible, and along with the Higher Criticism and the implications of Darwinism for the status of the Old Testament, the Bible and by extension the word of God the father had come to be questioned in a way that Herbert’s generation could not understand. As B. W. Young explains,

James’s own explorations in what he called “Christian Archaeology” were also confirming suspicions common to many of his intellectual generation regarding the necessary relativity of religious beliefs. Indeed James’s lifelong interest in the religiously ambivalent world of apocryphal scholarship may provide a clue to the distance he sometimes seems to have felt however subliminally from conventional Christian apologetics...[N]o one seems to have questioned James about his fascination with the apocryphal and the heretical, and he himself never openly questioned his own “subterranean motives” in pursuing work on the Apocrypha, those otherwise forgotten books of the Christian Bible, whose ultimate and sometimes arbitrary, exclusion from scriptural authority so suggestively questioned the status of holy writ.[12]

Questioning the status of God’s word was easier, more thinkable, to James’s generation than to his father’s, and Darwinism undoubtedly drove a wedge between generations. The relationship between fathers and sons all over the country became newly problematic. This distancing of the son from the father’s wishes is symbolic of a feeling of not being accepted for himself, but rather of a need to strike out on his own as his own man. This was reflected in James’s life with the replacement in his life of a father figure by his tutor Luxmoore and other figures that represented patriarchal authority like Bradshaw, as I will examine in my chapter on sexuality.

As Osherson outlines, in the father-son relationship

[m]any sons try to resolve their guilt, shame and anger at their fathers in silent, hidden ambivalent ways. Some men unconsciously seek better fathers at work who will forgive them and leave them feeling like a “Good Son”. [13]

An examination of the letters exchanged between the elder and younger James, especially after James left Eton for Cambridge, shows James becoming increasingly evasive when Herbert reiterated his greatest wish, that his younger son should undertake ordination and “Come out for Christ”. At this time, James’s belief in the whole area of theology took a different turn.[14]

James wrote a pamphlet on this area of study, entitled The Wanderings and Homes of Manuscripts published by the Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge (SPCK) in 1919.[15] In it he went a little further towards explaining what actually fascinated him about a subject that, according to Pfaff and Cox, had held his interest from his earliest years. In his own autobiography Eton and Kings, and in his letters to Gwendolyn McBryde, this subject is one that drove most of his studies, as the cataloguing of manuscripts spawned all of his later studies on the apocrypha, and later on, his ghost stories.

In the first introductory paragraph James explains his view on why this area of work is still relevant to him after all the centuries which preceded this area of study.

The wanderings and homes of manuscripts is the title of this book. To have called it the survival and transmission of ancient literature would have been pretentious, but not wholly untruthful. Manuscripts, we all know, are the chief means by which the records and imaginings of twenty centuries have been preserved. It is my purpose to tell where manuscripts were made, and how and in what centres they have been collected, and, incidentally, to suggest some helps for tracing out their history. Naturally the few pages into which the story has to be packed will not give room for any one episode to be treated exhaustively. Enough if I succeed in rousing curiosity and set some student to work in a field in which an immense amount still remains to be discovered...[16]

The book fully expresses James’s fascination with and dedication to a subject which many even then found slightly obscure. He outlines the frisson of excitement he feels just standing in front of a bookcase of manuscripts that contain books and papers that have not been touched since the room was built in 1729. He notes with care that many of the papers are made with vellum, and uses words more akin to be found in describing sensations of pleasure such as “sumptuous”. As many of James’s friends and his biographers describe James as a lifelong bachelor and not given easily over to exclamations of passion, here perhaps is his muse, the finding of books and manuscripts that had previously been thought lost, and their reintroduction to the present world.[17] In his book on James Peter Haining included a speech by James to the Eton, Slough and Windsor Worker’s Education Association on manuscripts, where James said that in the application of study to manuscripts one should imitate Sherlock Holmes in the level of detection, and painstaking work that should be applied.[18]

The increasingly high profile of scientific discovery and deduction, and of its potential implications for long-held religious and social beliefs, added to the destabilising of established religion. There was also an unsettling amount of social change: over a period of sixty years, Britain seemed to have achieved progress that had been unimaginable in even Herbert James’s generation. Education of the masses was being stressed as a great equaliser, under British law there was now no discrimination against persons (apart from women), and charity and compassion were (theoretically, at least) accepted as the cornerstones of Victorian society.[19]

Because of this seeming progress in their society, many younger men found it almost impossible to hold to an unquestioning belief in scripture as the actual word of God. But James’s work on the hagiological and apocryphal areas of the Bible could be read as being a search for actual evidence of God’s word. The extension of this search could also be a reason for his fascination with ghost stories, as ghosts can be seen as evidence of the soul’s survival after death. Possibly, therefore, James could have been more of a Christian than his father realised, albeit a kind he might have had trouble understanding.

As this psycho-biographical insight into James’s family and by extension his work demonstrates, the focus on religion was all encompassing for James. His outlet for his worries in relation to his refusal to accept ordination, and follow the path his brother Ber had undertaken, was his fiction. The ghost stories proved a cathartic outpouring for his exhausted psyche. Constant worry about the religious dimension of his life would continue to be a focus for him throughout his life.

The religious debate also came to have a new dimension for James, personally and professionally, when it reached that bastion of James’s life, Cambridge University. From the time of James’s election to his fellowship at Kings in 1887, Cambridge was changing as the New Testament scholarship of scholars such as Westcott and Hort challenged the conventional belief of the previous generation, such as Herbert James.[20] This increasing challenge to the dominance of the old religious guard in Cambridge was thought to be one of the reasons that James took up the Provostship of Eton in 1911, as he felt that the “Ungodly” party had at last won out in Cambridge.[21]

As Young asserts, in Cambridge from about 1849 onwards the ghost story as a genre had become a focus for scholarly debate, with the young Leslie Stephen discussing “the old problem as to the truth of ghost stories” with the Apostles (a secret, highly prestigious university debating society).[22] Later this debate found a new focus when the future archbishop of Canterbury Edward White Benson founded the Ghost Society in the 1860s, which had the effect of formalising the debate. Henry Sidgwick and his wife Eleanor founded the Society for Psychical Research, which included many Cambridge dons, in 1882.

James’s interest in the ghostly was thus part of a larger societal engagement with the occult. James was less enthusiastically unquestioning than many others in his attitude towards the supernatural. All through his life, James declared that he exercised caution as to the existence of ghosts, always saying to the effect that if there was evidence, he would treat it with caution. In his last conversation with Sir Shane Leslie, when James was close to death, he maintained this stance, which was typical of the reticence with which he always discussed the spiritual world. [23] For James, ghosts always belonged in the pages of stories, not in the Cambridge debating hall. Benson and his colleagues may have formalised the ghost into a subject for debate but James rejected this approach, and instead focussed his interest entirely on his fiction.

Popular and academic interest in James’s work is still growing, increasingly so in the last decade.[24] The Psychical Society also retains a broad appeal, and their efforts have come to be part of the modern popular cultural landscape, especially in the United States where the ghostly trope is as much a part of the landscape of television, stage and screen as the zombie, werewolf, or vampire.[25]

James’s stories’ continued popularity (with the recent publication of volume 1 of the graphic ghost stories) show that they continue to be relevant to our over saturated age; they raise issues about the supernatural, obviously, but also about gender, class, power and privilege.[26] The critics who have declared that James’s fiction was insignificant, culturally and artistically, must have been limited by the lack of either time or imagination, as his stories continue to haunt the modern imagination long after their originator has become a subject for a ghost story himself. [27]

The public, wrote James in his preface to Collected Ghost Stories, are as Dr Johnson said, the ultimate judges: “if they are pleased, it is well; if not, it is no use to tell them why they ought to have been pleased”.[28] Unquestionably, the public was pleased - and the public still is pleased, as can be seen from the fact that Collected Ghost Stories has never been out of print since its first publication.

The figure of the ghost is still very relevant to a new audience now; a quick survey of the bookshelf in any bookshop, or internet search will confirm that the public’s appetite for stories concerning these ethereal beings has not diminished. James’s Collected Ghost Stories was reissued again for Christmas 2013, and all of his stories are available for download onto kindle or other electronic reader.[29] Any brief survey of contemporary literature, genre fiction, television, music and film would reveal that we are still obsessed with the idea of the ghost. The debates surrounding our obsession continue to haunt our modern lives; understanding James’s stories better helps us to understand not only their continued popularity and relevance but also why the ghost story is such a powerful medium, containing, as James’s stories do, a wealth of repressed material which helps us to understand him, and his period, My first chapter on James’s ghost stories and religion explores the impact of contemporary religious debates on James’s fictional oeuvre.




[1] M R James, A Pleasing Terror (Ash-Tree Press, Ashcroft, British Columbia, 2001)

 Maisie Fletcher, The Bright Countenance (Hodder & Stoughton, London, 1957), P. 73

[2] Sigmund Freud, Jokes and Their Relation to the Unconscious (Harmondsworth,Penguin Books, 1975)

[3] M R James , A Pleasing Terror (Ash-Tree Press, Ashcroft, British Colombia, 2001)

[4] Ibid, p. xviii

[5] Lynda Dennison (ed), The Legacy Of M.R. James (Shaun Tyas: , Donington, 2001), p.12.

[6] Lynn Pykett, (ed), Reading Fin de Siecle Fictions (Longman : Essex, 1996), p.18.


[7] Sigmund Freud, Moses and Monotheism (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books,1975),  p. 248

[8] Ibid, p.249

[9] Richard William Pfaff, Montague Rhodes James (London : Scholar Press, 1980), p.62

    Michael Cox, M.R. James An Informal Portrait  (New York: Oxford University Press, 1986), p.73

[10] Herbert James, The Country Clergyman and his work (London: Macmillan and Co, 1890)

[11] Ibid, p.141

[12] B W Young, The Victorian Eighteenth Century An Intellectual History (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007), p.175


[13] S. Osherson, Finding Our Fathers (Random House, New York, 1986), p.8

[14] Richard William Pfaff, Montague Rhodes James (London: Scolar Press,1980), p.63

[15] M R James, The Wanderings and Homes of Manuscripts (London: SPCK & Macmillan, 1919)

[16] M R James The Wanderings and Homes of Manuscripts. (London: SPCK & Macmillan, 1919), p.3

[17] Richard William Pfaff, Montague Rhodes James (London : Scholar Press, 1980), p.62

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

[18] Peter Haining, M R James: Book of the Supernatural (W.Foulsham and Company Ltd, Slough, 1979), p.31


[19] Gerald Parsons, (ed), Religion in Victorian Britain IV Interpretations, (Manchester, Manchester University Press, 1988.), p.6


[20] Richard William Pfaff, Montague Rhodes James (London : Scholar Press, 1980), p.332

[21] Ibid,p.332

[22] B W Young, The Victorian Eighteenth Century An Intellectual History (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007), p.154

[23] S.T. Joshi, Introduction, Warnings to the Curious, (Ed), by S T Joshi and Rosemary Pardoe (New York: Hippocampus Press, 2007), p.37

[24] Ibid,p.12

[25] Krister Knapp, William James: Psychical Research and the Challenge of Modernity, (North Carolina : The University of North Carolina Press, 2017), p.3

[26] M R James, Ghost Stories of an Antiquary, A Graphic Collection of Short Stories by M.R.James Adapted by Leah Moore and John Reppion, (Self Made Hero, London, 2016)

[27] Michael Cox, M.R. James An Informal Portrait  (New York: Oxford University Press, 1986), p.149.

   S.T. Joshi, Introduction, Warnings to the Curious, (Ed), by S T Joshi and Rosemary Pardoe (New York: Hippocampus Press, 2007),p.12



[28] M R James, A Pleasing Terror (Ashcroft, British Columbia: Ash-Tree Press, 2000), p.x

[29] M R James and Darryl Jones, Collected Ghost Stories, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013)


Back to project page
Share on social


Mark Vent
 Mark Vent says:

WOW! loved that ... very interesting!

posted 18th November 2020

Top rewards

41 pledges


The ebook
Buy now