James, M(ontague) R(hodes)
JAMES, M(ontague) R(hodes)
Nationality: English. Born: Goodnestone, Kent, 1 August 1862. Education: Eton College, Berkshire (king's scholar), 1876-82 (editor, Eton College Chronicle, 1881-82; Wilder divinity prize, and Newcastle scholarship, 1882); King's College, Cambridge (Eton scholar; Carus divinity prize, 1882; Bell scholarship, 1883; Craven scholarship, and Septuagint prize, 1884), 1882-85, first class degrees in classical tripos, 1884-85. Career: Assistant to the director of the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge University, 1886-87; fellow of King's College, Cambridge University, from 1887; lecturer in divinity, Cambridge University, 1888; dean, King's College, 1889-1900; director, Fitzwilliam Museum, 1893-1908; tutor at King's College, 1900-02; Sandars reader in bibliography, 1903, 1923; provost, King's College, 1905-18; vice-chancellor of the University, 1913-15; provost, Eton College, 1918-36; Donnellan lecturer, Trinity College, Dublin, 1927; Schweich lecturer, British Academy, London, 1927; David Murray lecturer, University of Glasgow, 1931. President, Buckinghamshire Archaeological Society; trustee, British Museum. Awards: Bibliographical Society gold medal, 1929. D.Litt.: Trinity College, Dublin; LL.D.: University of St. Andrews, Fife; D.C.L.: Oxford University. Commander of the Order of Leopold, Belgium; fellow, British Academy, 1903. Order of Merit, 1930. Member: Royal commissions on Public Records, on the Universities of Oxford and Cambridge, and on Historical Monuments; Royal Irish Academy (honorary member). Died: 12 June 1936.
Ghost Stories, edited by Nigel Kneale. 1973.
Ghost Stories, edited by Michael Cox. 1986.
A Warning to the Curious: The Ghost Stories of James, edited by Ruth Rendell. 1987.
Ghost Stories of an Antiquary. 1904.
More Ghost Stories of an Antiquary. 1911.
A Thin Ghost and Others. 1919.
A Warning to the Curious and Other Ghost-Stories. 1925.
Collected Ghost Stories. 1931.
The Five Jars. 1922.
Wailing Well. 1928.
The Founder's Pageant and Play of St. Nicholas, with A. B. Ramsay. 1919.
The Sculptures in the Lady Chapel at Ely. 1895.
Guide to the Windows of King's College Chapel, Cambridge. 1899.
Description of an Illuminated Manuscript of the 13th Century. 1904.
Notes on the Glass in Ashridge Chapel. 1906.
The Sculptured Bosses in the Roof of the Bauchun Chapel, Norwich Cathedral. 1908; Cloisters, 1911.
Old Testament Legends, Being Stories Out of Some of the Less-Known Apocryphal Books. 1913.
The Wanderings and Homes of Manuscripts. 1919.
Eton College Chapel: The Wall Paintings. 1923.
Bibliotheca Pepysiana, part 3. 1923.
Eton and King's: Recollections, Mostly Trivial 1875-1925. 1926.
Suffolk and Norfolk: A Perambulation of the Two Counties. 1930.
The Apocalypse in Art. 1931.
St. George's Chapel, Windsor: The Woodwork of the Choir. 1933.
Letters to a Friend, edited by Gwendolen McBryde. 1956.
Editor, with J. W. Clark, The Will of King Henry VI. 1896.
Editor, with A. Jessopp, Life and Miracles of St. William of Norwich, by Thomas of Monmouth. 1896.
Editor, The Ancient Libraries of Canterbury and Dover. 1903.
Editor, The Second Epistle General of Peter, and The General Epistle of Jude. 1912.
Editor, The Chaundler Manuscripts. 1916.
Editor, Madam Crowl's Ghost and Other Tales of Mystery, by Sheridan Le Fanu. 1923.
Editor, Latin Infancy Gospels: A New Text. 1927.
Editor, The Bestiary. 1928.
Editor, with A. B. Ramsay, Letters of H. E. Luxmoore. 1929.
Editor, The Dublin Apocalypse. 1932.
Editor, The New Testament. 4 vols., 1934-35.
Translator, with H. E. Ryle, Psalms of the Pharisees. 1891.
Translator, The Biblical Antiquities of Philo. 1917.
Translator, Henry the Sixth, by Joannes Blacman. 1919.
Translator, The Lost Apocrypha of the Old Testament. 1920.
Translator, De Nugis Curialium, by Walter Map. 1923.
Translator, The Apocryphal New Testament. 1924.
Translator, with others, Excluded Books of the New Testament. 1927.
Translator, Forty Stories, by Hans Christian Andersen. 1930; augmented edition, as Forty-Two Stories, 1953.
Descriptive catalogues of manuscripts in Eton College, Fitzwilliam Museum, the collection of H. V. Thompson, Rylands Library, University College, Aberdeen, and Oxford and Cambridge universities, 35 vols., 1895-1932.*
"James: An Annotated Bibliography of Writings about Him" by J. R. Cox, in English Literature in Transition 12, 1969.
A Memoir of James by S. G. Lubbock, 1939 (includes bibliography by A. F. Scholfield); James by R. W. Pfaff, 1980; James: An Informal Portrait by Michael Cox, 1983.* * *
M. R. James was not primarily a writer of fiction, and the only stories he wrote were ghost stories. He was by vocation and profession first and foremost a scholar and antiquarian, an immensely learned man who specialized in classical, medieval, and Biblical studies and who achieved great distinction in many fields, including bibliography, paleography, and architectural history. But he had been fascinated by ghosts from childhood: in a newspaper article written near the end of his life (Evening News, 17 April 1931) he recalled seeing a toy Punch and Judy show with cardboard figures that included the ghost, and "for years it permeated my dreams." As a schoolboy he entertained his friends by telling ghost stories, and as an adult he wrote stories to read aloud to groups of friends and subsequently published them, often first in magazines and then in volume form.
Thus, his first published story, "Canon Alberic's Scrap-book" (originally titled "A Curious Book"), was written in 1892 or 1893, read aloud to friends in the latter year, published in the National Review in March 1895, and collected in Ghost Stories of an Antiquary. In many respects it sets the pattern for the stories that followed. Beginning placidly in travel-book style with a description of a French cathedral town, it describes a visit by an Englishman ("a Cambridge man") with archaeological tastes. So far, so ordinary, but the discovery of an ancient picture soon involves him in chilling experiences, and the story ends with the Englishman destroying the object that has given him a terrifying glimpse into a spirit world. The protagonist, like those in many other James stories, has much in common with the author: a man of erudition and arcane tastes, he is led by curiosity to venture beyond the limits of the rational world in pursuit of knowledge that takes him into the world of evil. There is nothing kindly about James's ghosts: they are not (as are the children in Kipling's ghost story "They") the welcome spirits of loved ones who have been lost, but evil and malevolent, coming from remote ages and impinging upon the human world of the present day only in order to disturb, frighten, or harm. (In the article already cited, James comments that in a ghost story "you must have horror and also malevolence.")
In some stories the insight into another world proves instructive and salutary. One of the best of all James's stories is "Oh, Whistle, and I'll Come to You, My Lad," which he may have read to a group of friends at Christmas 1903. The story presents the experiences of a young and skeptical professor whose discovery of an ancient object on a beach leads him into an unknown world. By the end of the story he is a sadder and wiser man whose "views on certain points are less clear cut then they used to be" and who has suffered a deeply disturbing, even traumatizing, experience. Again James's method is to move from the familiar to the inexplicable, from an atmosphere of intellectual and somewhat pedantic pursuits to one of mystery and horror.
Most of James's stories are concerned with the academic or scholarly life—the life he knew best—and introduce the traditional paraphernalia of scholarship such as quotations in foreign languages (one story actually begins with a long passage in medieval Latin), footnotes, and learned bibliographical references. The deciphering of ancient inscriptions and of codes or puzzles is also a common element. As Michael Cox has suggested, while part of the purpose of this may be to suspend disbelief by initially establishing a credible world governed by its own rules, it may also be that there are elements of parody and self-parody. Cox also reminds us that, because the original listeners to these stories were mainly professional scholars and colleagues, there may have been an element of mockery directed at the teller, and possibly also at his audience.
In his preface to More Ghost Stories of an Antiquary James makes clear his conviction that the most effective kind of ghost story is one set in the present day, and therefore one with whose situations the reader can readily identify. He urges that "the setting should be fairly familiar and the majority of the characters and their talk such as you may meet or hear any day"; in other words, the beginning of a story should observe the conventions of literary realism, whatever may happen later. He adds that "a ghost story of which the scene is laid in the twelfth or thirteenth century may succeed in being romantic or poetical; it will never put the reader into the position of saying to himself, 'If I'm not very careful, something of this kind may happen to me!"'
A good example of these principles in practice is "Casting the Runes," one of James's most frequently anthologized stories. It opens with an exchange of formal letters and a dialogue between husband and wife written in a commonplace conversational style, but it soon turns into a story of implacable and obsessive enmity and calculated revenge that entails invoking the supernatural. But the world into which the supernatural has penetrated, through the agency of an ancient book, is the world, thoroughly familiar to scholars and learned amateurs, of professional organizations and journal publication.
James was a great admirer of the stories of the Irish writer J. S. Le Fanu, whom he described as "in the first rank as a writer of ghost stories." The modern reader is likely to think that title should properly be given to James himself, whose stories are superior in consistent quality to those of the earlier writer. In the preface to Ghost Stories of an Antiquary he states that his aim will have been achieved if the reader is made to "feel pleasantly uncomfortable when walking along a solitary road at nightfall, or sitting over a dying fire in the small hours"; but this seems a misleading and reductive account of the effect of his stories, which often goes beyond a "pleasantly uncomfortable" sensation and conveys hints of the reality of a supernatural world of evil. It is of deep psychological interest that James, a highly successful man who followed a conventional career for his class and period, should have found such obvious satisfaction in exploring and sharing with others the darker possibilities of human experience.