Casting the Runes: The Letters of MR James

By Jane Mainley-Piddock

Foreword by Mark Gatiss

Thursday, 11 March 2021

Update - James and his bloody awful handwriting

Update - James and his bloody awful handwriting

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 was actually carrying on here a pattern that he had established in his early years at Temple Grove where His tutor Luxmoore often tried to correct James’s habits of finding unusual areas of research and writing about them in what he noted, the lesser byways of study, even “dredging the deeps of literature for refuse”.[5]

His parents had tried (without success) to exhort him to take care with his handwriting while he was at Temple Grove, and at Eton his terrible handwriting in letters to catalogue sellers (such as David Nutt) resulted in letters being sent back to him as Revd James.[6] In his later years his awful handwriting had attained a legend of its own as a poem written for James by Cyril Alington contains the line “your handwriting can rarely be read”.[7]

Although his tutor also worried about James’s “execrable” handwriting, a habit that did not bother James in the least, as in actuality he was actually quite proud of his handwriting. His friends however were often at a loss when they received his letters, one time his friend Gurney Lubbock exclaimed, that he had received a letter exhorting him to some action, but after reading the document over for half an hour, could still not work out what it was James wanted him to do, so instead had to go over to James’s rooms to check verbally instead.

There lies the rub, gentle reader. From the start of this process, James’s handwriting has caused no end of nightmares for me as transcriber of his letters. As one academic colleague has noted, (you are doing heroic work for the rest of us) meaning those who for better or worse are engaged in Jamesian research. I thought to myself, yes that’s great, (not) as I often sit staring at one of James’s letters with my face resembling the painting by Munch, trying to work out what he was trying to say at any particular point and then realising that the word I have been trying to read, is in fact in Greek, and not just ancient Greek, but the obscure pigeon Greek that was only used between father and son, Herbert and Monty James as their own personal joke.

So I venture on heroically trying to decipher the letters and providing obscure context to the variety of strange and wonderful topics that James found interesting enough to include in his letters. Wish me luck!



[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]  Michael Cox, M.R. James An Informal Portrait  (New York: Oxford University Press,1986), p.40

[6] Cox, p.19, p.30,

[7] Ibid, p.230.

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