by Matthew Walther

M.R. James (edited by Darryl Jones)
Collected Ghost Stories
Oxford University Press, pp.512, $19.95

Patrick J. Murphy
Medieval Studies and the Ghost Stories of M. R. James
Princeton University Press, pp.264, $84.95

Sanity is the most striking feature of Montague Rhodes James’s personality and the most salient characteristic of all his writings. The word is meant with all of its denotations, though the narrowly clinical one is undoubtedly the least relevant: soundness and health in body as well as in mind, sobriety of taste and judgement, sensibility, decorum, chastity, above all, correctness. It was James’s sanity that made his ghost stories, those unrivaled masterpieces of their genre scribbled for the amusement of colleagues and pupils for which he is justly remembered by most readers, so delightfully plausible; and sanity, too, has ensured the survival of his academic reputation, built upon an unfashionable conservatism in biblical scholarship and an unrivaled fussiness in the cataloguing of medieval Latin manuscripts.

It is the fundamental unity between James the well-known writer of what we now call “horror” fiction and the reticent Cambridge don that is the starting point of Patrick J. Murphy’s fascinating study. For far too long, scholarship on James has been bifurcated between enthusiasts for all things spooky and professional medievalists and biblical scholars. This is why even in the beautifully produced and immaculately edited selection of his tales from Oxford University Press one searches in vain for the endnote informing the reader that the monster glimpsed by Dennison, first in an illustration and later in the flesh, in “Canon Alberic’s Scrapbook” is not a fanciful product of James’s imagination but a description lifted wholesale from a Zoology of the Invertebrata, a textbook published by his friend and colleague Arthur Shipley, with whom he had actually visited Saint-Bertrand-de-Comminges. (This is especially unfortunate given that the late novelist Michael Cox, also the editor of numerous other absorbing anthologies of ghost stories for the same publisher, sees fit to inform us that a psalter is “a copy of the Psalms.”) Meanwhile the great medievalist Richard William Pfaff, the author of an amusing (though unfortunately long out-of-print) biography of James, gives comparatively short shrift to the tales, not so much dismissing them as taking their author’s assessment of them as unserious entertainments at face value in order to make room for the vagaries of academic politics and the revival of long-forgotten (and occasionally amusing) bibliographical quarrels. Murphy reminds us that the author of “Casting the Runes” and the editor of the Latin hagiography of Saint Ethelbert are entirely of a piece.

James was born at the rectory of Goodnestone, a small village in Kent, in 1862, of which his father, Herbert, had the living. His mother, Mary, was the daughter of a naval officer. The family was moderately distinguished on both sides (though it is worth pointing out that what then remained of the James fortune had been gotten rather shamefully from estates in Jamaica purchased during the time of Cromwell). One grandmother is commemorated at a nearby parish church in what James once described as “the worst painted window (perhaps) in the country.” Like that of his friend A.C. Benson, James’s childhood belongs to the vanished world of parsonage nurseries, in which children were free to spend their days teaching themselves Welsh and cycling to country churches for the purpose of amateur antiquarian research and discovering “that St. Livinus had his tongue cut out and was beheaded, or that David’s mother was called Nitzeneth,” so long as they took good sermon notes. He seems to have been a pious child. Unlike Ronald Knox, another product of the same Broad Church vicarage milieu, who once wrote that “neither death nor hell dwells with any morbid fixity in the mind of a normal child,” the young James seems to have been obsessed to a somewhat unusual degree with the Four Last Things. As he recalled years later:

There was a time in my childhood when I thought that some night as I lay in bed I should be suddenly roused by a great sound of a trumpet, that I should run to the window and look out and see the whole sky split across and lit up with glaring flame: and next moment I and everyone else in the house would be caught up into the air and made to stand with countless other people before a judge seated on, a throne with great books open before him: and he would ask me questions out of what was written in those books—whether I had done this or that; and then I should be told to take my place either on the right hand or the left.

This is not to suggest that his boyhood was morbid or unhappy. His surviving correspondence suggests that playfulness was both common and encouraged in the James household. In one letter written when he was seven, he entreats an unknown female cousin: “Please don’t marry till I am of age. Here is a set of rules for you. 1. Abstain from all lovers. Don’t marry affected, stupid young men like this. 3. Don’t love silly young fiddle-faddles with white gloves.” Later in life he would describe to a friend his time spent at Aldeburgh in Suffolk, whose parish church was the site of one of his earliest memories: “The first organ I heard was likewise here and the first anthem performed, I know not on what occasion, caused me to burst into tears of apprehension and to be led from the sacred edifice. I now know it to have been Clarke Whitfield’s In Jewry is God Known, in which they sing ‘the shield, the sword, and the battle’ a good many times.” 

In 1876, after three years of preparatory school at Temple Grove in London, he entered Eton, one of the two academic institutions in which he would spend the rest of his life. James was by all accounts an unusually gifted student, save in mathematics, a deficiency that extended beyond algebra even to simple arithmetic, mastery of which eluded him throughout his life. His schoolboy hobbies included bird watching and collecting insects, and, with the help of a friend, translating the apocryphal Book of Baruch from classical Ethiopic. (It was only due to the intervention of one of his teachers at Eton, who thought the proposed gesture somewhat audacious, that his edition of the text, completed at age fifteen, was not presented to Queen Victoria.)

In 1882, having earned the prestigious Newcastle Scholarship, James continued to Eton’s sister institution, King’s College, Cambridge, where he would remain until 1918, when he returned to his old school to serve as provost. His many decades at King’s were spent during a period of transition, when the loose foundations of modern English medieval scholarship laid by gentleman amateurs of the previous century were being built upon into something sounder. James would end up being responsible for the cataloguing of nearly every single important college, museum, and cathedral manuscript collection in Britain; it is not an exaggeration to say that today entire fields of scholarship would be unrecognizable, and perhaps even impossible, without his astonishing and, in the option of his friends, almost effortless industry.

This is not to suggest that James’s work was strictly limited to the neglected art of cataloguing. His numerous contributions to Notes and Studies and similar journals are models of scholarship and, very frequently, of economy.  Who could fail to delight in paragraphs that begin “I have brought together in this note such unusual names of angels as I have found in documents belonging to the infancy of the English Church,” or in ninth-century Anglo-Saxon lists of the seventy disciples? In one speculative essay he proposed the existence of a now-forgotten Apocalypse of Ezekiel, a hypothesis upon which he expanded in Lost Apocrypha of the Old Testament. It is difficult to imagine the publication today of anything resembling his translation of much of the extant corpus of New Testament apocrypha, not only because of James’s extraordinarily wide learning but because very few writers would now be capable of anything like his gorgeous pastiche of the Authorized Edition. Here is a passage from his version of the Proto-Evangelium of James:

It is Mary that was nurtured up in the temple of the Lord: and I received her to wife by lot: and she is not my wife, but she hath conception by the Holy Ghost.

And the midwife said unto him: Is this the truth? And Joseph said unto her: Come hither and see. And the midwife went with him.

And they stood in the place of the cave: and behold a bright cloud overshadowing the cave. And the midwife said: My soul is magnified this day, because mine eyes have seen marvellous things: for salvation is born unto Israel. And immediately the cloud withdrew itself out of the cave, so that our eyes could not endure it. And by little and little that light withdrew itself until the young child appeared: and it went and took the breast of its mother Mary.

Even more beautiful, perhaps because it has an unmistakable air of truth about it, is an extract he presents from a Coptic life of Our Blessed Mother:

She used to take hold of his hand and lead him along the roads, saying, “My sweet son, walk a little way,” in the same manner as all the other babes are taught to walk. And he, Jesus, the very God, followed after her untroubled. He clung to her with his little fingers, he stopped from time to time, and he hung on to the skirts of Mary his mother, he upon whom the whole universe hangeth. He would lift up his eyes to her face . . . and she would catch him up to herself and lift him up in her arms and walk along with him.

Unlike many of his Cambridge colleagues, who were horrified by the idea of anything so vulgar as publishing a book, James wrote for popular audiences on antiquarian subjects as well. While copies are now vanishingly rare, illustrated volumes such as Abbeys, published by the Great Western Railway Company in 1925, are among the most beautiful coffee-table books ever produced. Another fine piece of writing had no publisher at all:


Let them who come after see to it
that their names are not forgotten.

These lines appear at the base of a stone cross in Aldeburgh that looks out upon the sea toward France. Their similarity to the words which had appeared on the scrolls given to the families of the First World War dead is not incidental, for the latter had been anonymously drafted by James himself at the behest of George V. (Among the many volumes in James’s possession at the time of his death was an album with a small selection of letters the crown had received on his behalf; one was marked simply “From a father and mother”: “We desire to thank the Authorities concerned for the Memorial Scroll in reference to our dear boy and to say how greatly we appreciate not only the kindly thought that has sent it but the beauty of expression used by the author of it.”)

When James began his scholarly career at the turn of the last century, the discovery of new texts was an almost daily occurrence in medieval studies, and this rarified work was still the province of scholars who were only grudgingly admired on the continent despite their purported philistinism and (worst of all) their orthodoxy. James loathed German textual criticism and the facile comparative anthropology of his Cambridge colleague James Frazer with something like equal intensity. His reply to Jane Harrison’s essay proposing that parts of the Gospel had been lifted from Euripides is one of the most devastating rejoinders ever published in a scholarly journal. (As he told his friend Gordon Cary: “I opened the last number of the Classical Review and read in it so unscrupulous an article by Jane Harrison on the Head of John the Baptist—she said it was the head of Pentheus, and John Baptist was the Year-Daimon and all that kind of rot—that I instantly took a pen and dipped it in gall.”) But his gravest misgivings were reserved for the coterie surrounding G.E. Moore and later the young Maynard Keynes, who contemptuously dismissed James’s administration as provost of King’s as “inefficient.” He cordially disliked their combination of intellectual pursuits—especially metaphysical speculation—which he regarded as worthless with a hedonism he considered at best frivolous and at worst grossly immoral, and he hated the reflexive atheism that undergirded both. A colleague once recalled James silencing two undergraduates engaged in a philosophical discussion while at table: “No thinking, gentlemen, please.” By the end of the First World War, he would leave his college after nearly four decades, becoming the first provost of King’s to take up the same position at Eton. He will almost certainly be the last.

It is difficult to convey to those who are unfamiliar with Ghost Stories of an Antiquary and its successors the extent of James’s achievement in what was, then as now, considered one of the murkier byways of literature. He stands above even the acknowledged masters of the traditional ghost story—Sheridan Le Fanu,  Charlotte Riddell, Margaret Oliphant, W.W. Jacobs, Vernon Lee, E.F. Benson, Oliver Onions—much as Shakespeare towers over other early modern English playwrights as both the genre’s most representative author and its most dazzling innovator. This is true for the very simple reason that his tales are astonishingly lifelike. (This is why I have always maintained that the pieces of modern horror fiction that most resemble James are not the wan pastiches attempted by his admirers, especially in his lifetime, but the early work of Stephen King, which evokes a blue-collar New England of trailer parks and run-down apartment complexes every bit as vividly as James’s tales do his own donnish milieu.)

For those of us who are adepts there could be no better treat than Murphy’s book, which, despite its occasional detours into woke academese—the notes are full of references to journal articles with titles like “Homosexual Panic and the English Ghost Story”—is both learned and affectionate. I was not surprised to learn that something nearly identical to the ritual described in “The Experiment,” a late story whose power I have always attributed solely to its sparse but haunting descriptive passages (“It was a very dark night, and the spring wind blew loud over the black fields”), actually appears in the fifteenth-century manuscript referenced at the end of the tale, which he had catalogued for the Cambridge University Library. Murphy speculates at some length upon the question of why James did not quite reproduce the text verbatim, either in the story or in the draft entry he made for the official manuscript catalogue. Surely the plainest possibility is that he did not think anyone should read a text of undoubtedly occult origin.

Like many of the best writers of fiction, James disclaimed any high purpose for his tales. (Among the ghost story’s exemplars he did not include many of the serious authors such as Henry James who made occasional forays into the genre: “I will only ask the reader to believe that, though I have not hitherto mentioned it, I have read The Turn of the Screw.”) The most for which he hoped was that they might “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.” He was likewise uninterested in theorizing about the genre’s popularity. Instead he seems to have been content to regard his work in the same terms in which it was first presented to the friends and colleagues who heard it read aloud during the Christmas season: as the ideal entertainment for a cold winter evening.

Near the end of his life James composed a slim volume of memoirs, Eton and King’s: Recollections, Mostly Trivial, 1875-1925. It would be a mistake to suggest, as some readers have, that this is not a revealing book. In fact, I can think of few autobiographies more thoroughly imbued with the spirit of their authors. After its publication, his old tutor Henry Luxmoore wrote to warn a mutual acquaintance that he must not come away from James’s autobiography with the impression that it was appropriate to “lie abed and know everybody worth knowing and never seem to work.” Having read it again just now, I find it difficult not to arrive at the opposite conclusion.

I also find myself wishing desperately that we had a published selection of his letters, which are less generously extracted in Murphy’s study than in earlier biographies. His critical verdicts shocked many of his contemporaries, but most of them have aged well. Who, with a century’s worth of hindsight, would now disagree with him that Agatha Christie would prove more important to the history of English literature than Aldous Huxley or James Joyce (“a charlatan . . . that prostitutor of life and language”) and or blame him for refusing to join his friend Bernard Shaw in defense of Radclyffe Hall’s Well of Loneliness (“I believe Miss Hall’s book is about birth control or some kindred subject.  I find it difficult to believe either that it is a good novel or that its suppression causes any loss to literature”)?

The same goes for his politics. James was a charmingly mild-mannered Tory whose only fixed principles were his positive horror of Bolshevism and unbelief (while at King’s, he successfully opposed Thomas Henry Huxley’s appointment as provost of Eton), if not quite everything else that fell under of the umbrella of “modernity and progress,” as A.C. Benson once put it. Benson, who knew James better than most, insisted that his friend, who had the “mind of a nice child,” really “hates and fears all problems, all speculation; all originality or novelty of view.” (For a man whose life was bookended by the popularity of Herbert Spencer and Adolf Hitler respectively, with the rise of agnosticism, eugenics, nationalism, and the Soviet Union in between, this would not perhaps have been to his discredit.) To admirers and enemies alike, he would remain an enigma, as a well-known exchange between Lord Acton and a colleague of James’s suggests:

“Is it true that [James] is ready to spend every evening playing games or talking with undergraduates?”
“Yes, the evenings and more.”
“And do you know that in knowledge of MSS he is already third or fourth in Europe?”
“I am interested to hear you say so, sir.”
“Then how does he manage it?”
“We have not yet found out.”

It was on Friday, June 12, 1936, on the Feast of St. Eskill, that James died just as the choir in the chapel of Eton had begun to sing the Nunc Dimittis. At his funeral three days later, the organist played the Dead March from Handel’s Saul, one of his favorite pieces, and he was buried in the nearby parish cemetery. His tombstone gives, in addition to the dates of his birth and death and his two beloved provostships, those glorious lines from Ephesians announcing the hope was no longer a sojourner but a member of the household of God and a fellow citizen with those departed saints in whose company he had spent so many blissful hours in life. There is no indication that the grave has ever been haunted.

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