- M.R. James: An Informal Portrait by Michael Cox
Oxford, 268 pp, £14.50, June 1983, ISBN 0 19 211765 3
For M.R. James it is Eton and King’s that are gardens – incomparable gardens which are, however, precisely made for thus exclaiming about as one sits in their created shade. With the exclamation itself nobody need quarrel. It is as applicable to the material fabric as to much in the life and spirit of these magnificent royal foundations. But James wasn’t much of a man for falling to the labour Kipling knows gardens require: ‘grubbing weeds from gravel-paths with broken dinner-knives’.
As a don at King’s, although delightfully surrounded by fellow Etonians, he frankly hated the chores. Early established as Tutor (in the Cambridge, not the Oxford sense of the term), he declared that ‘the prospect of an indefinite period of arranging for examinations, taking lodgings, arranging rooms, deciding about payments, which with other like duties are seven-eighths of the work, is one which I cannot face with equanimity.’ He became Provost, and for a decade found things rather better. College business ran smoothly under the conduct of subordinate persons; there was endless leisure for the ‘gossip and badinage’ which, according to Charles Tennyson, formed the staple of talk among his intimates; admitted among these was always at least a select number of undergraduates whose friendship, more often than not, he retained throughout life.
In later years the scene darkened. There was an intellectual restlessness abroad in the college. John Maynard Keynes appeared (from Eton, indeed, where he had been in Pop), and as a very junior fellow announced that he had ‘had a good look round this place and come to the conclusion that it’s pretty inefficient.’ Plainly, rows lay ahead, and Monty – as one candid friend was to put it years later – ‘would do anything to avoid a row or a crusade or anything which raises the mental or moral temperature’. Then the First World War happened, bringing increasing dissatisfaction and unhappiness. Cambridge was rapidly drained of undergraduates: gone was that whole congregation in its budding-time of health and hope and beauty. Monty packed up and side-stepped from the Provostship of King’s to the Provostship of Eton – ‘where people are carrying on and the ranks are not depleted’. It was a translation which no scholar appears to have achieved before him.
However chummy the entire presented scene, scholarship must have been a factor in facilitating the move. Monty very obviously owned the desirable social charms and attitudes. But he had also made himself – with all proper Etonian effortlessness, utterly without taint of that earnestness that might have afflicted him had he lucklessly been sent as a schoolboy to Winchester – a scholar of the first distinction (and, indeed, copiousness) in his chosen field of Medieval studies. To this day, his cataloguing of virtually every major manuscript collection in Great Britain, and his knowledge of others abroad, underpins an entire province of learning. It was this that made possible his ultimately being awarded the OM, and it cannot but have counted when he contrived that final shifting of tents.
Yet Monty’s scholarship was a puzzle to some. One of these, as Michael Cox recounts, was Lord Acton:
‘You know Montague James?’ he asked a King’s man. ‘Yes, I know him.’ ‘Is it true that he 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.’
Part of the answer to this conundrum appears to lie in the character of Monty’s memory, which was enormously tenacious not only of facts but of visual appearance as well. One manuscript would call up in its minutiae the very image of another. Had Monty owned a commanding interest in the fine arts (which he distinctly did not) he might have become a Bernard Berenson quite without the aid of those thousands of filed photographs.