M.R. James: An Informal Portrait 
by Michael Cox.
Oxford, 268 pp., £14.50, June 1983, 0 19 211765 3
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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.

Deep scholars are not commonly gratified when it is hinted to them that their chief stock-in-trade is anything so commonplace as a capacious memory, and Monty did possess a higher mental endowment. This wasn’t, indeed, anything as grand as a metaphysical or speculative habit of mind. He tended to distrust intellectual inquiry and wish it elsewhere: there is a story – possibly ben trovato – that when two young men ventured to discuss a philosophical problem in his hearing, he rapped sharply on the table with his pipe and called out: ‘No thinking, gentlemen, please.’ Again, he was ignorant and intolerant of the developing physical sciences, and could speak of ‘a coarse 19th-century stinks man like Huxley’. Yet what he did crucially possess was very much the scientist’s prime endowment: an unslumbering curiosity. The operation of this faculty made him, nearly everybody agreed, one of the most erudite men of his time – yet his learning was channelled by his temperament, some thought, largely into unimportant and even trivial courses. It would scarcely have saved him from being just another boring don had it not been linked – almost perplexingly linked – to a great deal of good humour, high spirits and fun.

As a young man, we learn, horseplay was always a feature of his closest friendships, and might mean a tumble on the hearthrug in which those involved sought each to maim the other in unmentionable ways. With the years, no doubt, Monty came to desist from this. But all through his life he was a superb mimic, with something that must have approached Mr Mike Yarwood’s flair for ‘impersonating first one person and then another in a continual stream’. He invented odd games. One of these, played shortly after he had become a fellow of King’s with, among others, an undergraduate friend called Walter Fletcher, has been described by Fletcher’s son. All round the edge of the Fellows’ Garden was a path, thickly-lined on both sides with evergreen bushes and shrubs. One person had to make his way round this path, without running or making a noise, while others hid in the bushes ‘and either made eerie noises as the victim passed, or gently clutched at his clothes and so on. It was very rare, my father said, for anyone to succeed in getting round. Monty was particularly good at making ghostly noises.’ There is something a little obscure about this, and any fellow of King’s disposed to involve his pupils in it today would clearly have to clarify the rules. But in the story there lingers something of the ethos of an earlier age, when teachers and pupils in a Cambridge college were young and celibate together, and marriage and maturity confined to a provostorial lodging.

By profession, Monty was an antiquarian: that, rather than a historian. By temperament, he must be called a hedonist; had you murmured carpe diem to him, he might faithfully have continued the quotation: quam minimum credula postero. He was more concerned with the felicities of Eton and King’s as they stood than disposed to take thought about their future in a changing society. Yet there is enough of him, he is sufficiently complex and elusive, to challenge a biographer. Mr Cox in his ‘informal portrait’, rises to the challenge admirably, sensitively balancing his subject’s idiosyncrasy against his broad representative character. Monty’s codicological studies are outlined but not examined, since that task has been definitively carried out by R.W. Pfaff of the University of North Carolina. Nor, although he devotes a chapter to them, has Mr Cox a great deal to say about those ghost stories the publication of which brought Monty wide popular acclaim – although he is not here so dismissive as Alwyn Scholfield, a colleague and close friend, who records in the Dictionary of National Biography merely that ‘in a lighter vein’ his subject ‘composed ghost stories and little plays for schoolboys’.

Mr Cox’s concern is essentially with the worth and weight of M.R. James, and he is at once candid and scrupulously fair. He allows a good deal of space to a formidable devil’s advocate in the person of A.C. Benson. Monty regarded Benson as his oldest friend, and Benson declared Monty to be very dear to him. But the two appear seldom to have met without Benson’s hurrying off to commit a great deal of disobliging appraisal to his diary:

He hates and fears all problems, all speculation; all originality or novelty of view. His spirit is both timid and unadventurous ... I don’t suppose anyone alive knows so much or so little worth knowing! ... Monty’s knowledge is extraordinarily accurate and minute; but mainly concerned with unimportant matters – and his mind has nothing constructive in it. He seems to me to be an almost perfect instance of high talent; a perfect second-rate man ... He will simply be a Head [of King’s] on the old lines – reactionary, against novelty and progress. He will initiate nothing, move nothing. Monty has no intellectual, religious, or philosophical interests really ... It is a beautiful sort of life, in a way, but a superficial one when all is said.

This is a conflation, but the effect of these remarks about a friend, even when scattered, is scarcely pleasing.

More charitable, but also more perturbed, was Henry Luxmoore, Monty’s tutor when he entered Eton as a boy, and at Eton still until he died in the eighth year of his old pupil’s Provostship. Luxmoore was austere but tolerant, and both qualities are evident in his account of a Christmas spent at King’s a few years before Monty’s attaining the headship of the college:

I am spending Christmas in this wonderful place with great enjoyment of grounds and chapel ... Last night Monty James read us a new Christmas story of most blood curdling character, after which those played animal grab who did not mind having their clothes torn to pieces and their hands nailscored. The cleverness and gaiety of them all is wonderful and yet if it goes on like this in term time – and it does – where is the strenuous life, and search for truth and for knowledge that one looks for at College? Chaff and extravagant fancy and mimicry and camaraderie and groups that gather and dissolve first in this room and then in that, like the midges that dance their rings in the sunshine, ought to be only the fringe of life and I doubt if here it does not cover the whole, or nearly so.

This is no more than an attractive expanding of Lord Acton’s question. Perhaps because his personal attachment to his former pupil was very strong, the bachelor Luxmoore was liable to misgivings of a more intimate order.

In 1904 there died, suddenly and within a few months of marriage, a young man called James McBryde. He had come up to King’s in 1893, and was Monty’s junior by 11 years. Almost immediately, they became devoted friends – with the younger man so much under the influence of the older as to treat him to misogynistic diatribes clean contrary to his own nature. Although Monty found the actual wedding ‘most oppressive’, he welcomed the marriage and became Mrs McBryde’s firm friend for life – so that along with his mother and sister she appears to be almost the only woman of whom he ever had a good word to say. But McBryde’s death – trauma hard upon trauma – broke Monty down entirely. It created a void never to be filled. Luxmoore wrote: ‘I had seen your dear friend only four times I think, and had been singularly attracted by him, as indeed everyone would be who saw his charm and knew his power and skill – to me he had the added interest of being your friend. Those who have not a wife and home circle of their own give hostages to fortune perhaps in greater dependence on and closeness to their friends, and to you this loss means a very deep and painful wound.’

Luxmoore had for long maintained that ordination would be good for Monty, as likely to lend an enhanced seriousness to his days. Now it was marriage – and for the same reason, but for another also. Monty’s return to Eton, although delightful, raised fresh problems, even hazards. ‘He is very happy at being here,’ Luxmoore wrote, ‘very accessible to boys and all, but I wish he were married.’ For a start, he felt that the way of life now on view in the Lodge was not such as should be held up as a pattern to youth; years later he was to warn John Lehmann not to conclude from a reading of Monty’s Eton and King’s that it is well to ‘lie abed and know everybody worth knowing and never seem to work’. But now there was this further thing. It was in particular to the more juvenile of his charges that much of the Provost’s time was given. He frequently preached in Lower Chapel; he devised activities which he could share with the Lower Boys; it was to them that, by way of encouraging literary pursuits, he read Edgar Wallace in his drawing-room. Nothing can be more certain than that all these proceedings were conducted with complete propriety. Yet there was, perhaps, something injudicious about them. It was, for instance, at the age of 13 that Jo Grimond, plied with claret and port at the Provost’s board, returned to his house ‘just before midnight, very slightly drunk’.

Luxmoore’s disapproval climaxed on Founder’s Day 1919, on which Monty revived the 16th-century custom of the Boy Bishop’s Play. Monty wrote the Latin play – or the prose part of it – and the Lower Boys acted it in 15th-century costume in College Hall. Luxmoore found ‘something a little unsatisfactory in all the old ’uns sitting over wine and cigars (in Hall!) and having in the little boys to amuse them. So the old Cardinals might ring for dancing girls!’ Here the startling last phrase shows ‘unsatisfactory’ to be a meiosis. At King’s Monty had been rather too fond of young men. If in his later years he became too fond of boys, it wouldn’t at all do.

The direction of these anxieties in Luxmoore is quite unsurprising. As a young master at Eton, he had been much under the influence of that Billy Johnson who, discovered as writing with injudicious warmth to a pupil during the holidays, had abruptly changed his name to William Johnson Cory and fled in shame and consternation into the depths of the New Forest, there to engage in the activity of teaching young women Greek. But I very much doubt that even the elderly Luxmoore was of the settled judgment that here was a real danger: rather, it must have been something like an anxiety brushing the fringes of the mind. James McBryde may have been, in a sense, Monty’s Arthur Hallam, but was far from having been a prime passion in the grave. Monty, as Mr Cox insists, never looked for intensity in friendship – although he had, as Arthur Benson expresses it, ‘rather a romantic capacity’ for it. At school there had been no sign in him of any emotional hunger that might have driven him to seek out (as in the case of Benson himself) a passionate relationship with another boy. To a quite extraordinary degree, his only deep personal relationship was with the school itself. Out of Eton, and in lesser degree out of King’s, he simply never grew. Mr Cox puts this essentially hung-up condition urbanely when he observes that ‘the boy was never far below the surface of the man.’ Or, as Lytton Strachey more astringently put it, ‘it’s odd that the Provost of Eton should still be aged 16.’ Or, again, as Monty himself, in his 60th year, declared to McBryde’s widow: ‘The truth is I am a very immature creature, with not much clearer vision of life than I had when I left school ... Friendships have been the saving clause ... and so it is like to be to the end of the chapter.’ The friendships were very numerous; they were gracefully conducted and impressively maintained; but they fell quite naturally within the limits of what Mr Cox, at the outset, calls a ‘deeply conventional nature’.

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