Finding out about things

Alan Bell

  • Montague Rhodes James by Richard William Pfaff
    Scolar, 438 pp, £15.00, May 1980, ISBN 0 85967 554 8

Montague Rhodes James is secure in his reputation as a ghost-story writer of almost unparalleled quality. Even general readers of Ghost Stories of an Antiquary will immediately be aware of their strong autobiographical element, the authentic circumstantial detail about the natural that makes the supernatural all the more convincing. The firm command of technicalities, whether of libraries, manuscripts or misericords, the institutional background peopled by characters like the Sadduccean Professor of Ophiology and college fellows spending their long vacations in decayed cathedral towns, help to provide a persuasive background against which the author can deploy his menacing figures and evil presences (which are more convincing hinted at than described). The explicit and the implicit become easily blended, and one might be pardoned for thinking that the author himself had known such experiences, that it might well have been he who, crablike,

            walks on,
And turns no more his head,
Because he knows a frightful fiend
Doth close behind him tread.

Nothing could be farther from the truth. James was a man of unusual personal charm, excellent humour and simple piety, happily leading a contented life as Provost successively of King’s College, Cambridge, and of Eton. Admirers of the ghost stories are aware that they are being addressed by a man of much recondite learning, but it may not be apparent that the author is treating them to the recreations of one of the most learned men European scholarship has ever known. Even modern practitioners in one of James’s specialities will only be vaguely aware of his eminence in others, and an authoritative assessment of his achievement in all of them is a remarkably difficult task. Richard Pfaff has courageously undertaken the assignment and has produced a long and painstaking study which deals with James’s work in commendable detail. The life is never neglected, but Pfaff has correctly conceived of his biography as that of a scholar, and its prime concern is a study of the books and objects to which James devoted himself from an unusually early age.

He was born into a clerical family with strong Suffolk connections; local antiquities, particularly with the abbey at Bury St Edmunds, inspired his antiquarian pursuits, and even his writings on more obscure points of local iconography or bibliography are sometimes enlivened by a flash of autobiographical charm. He inherited a straight-forward Low Church piety which remained unchanged throughout his adult life; the question of why he was never ordained is a good deal more interesting than speculation on why he never married. His preparatory school gave him a sympathetic education which encouraged his precocious archaeological and linguistic interests. Even as a young schoolboy he was showing a taste for Apocryphal texts: first out of a perverse delight in their obscurity and eccentricity, but soon with a genuine fascination which was to endure, and to make him the leading British scholar in a subject that was a very lively international field of investigation by the turn of the century.

Eton, recently opened up (rather like Japan) to outside influences, provided the young James with an intellectual framework which channelled but never suppressed his scholarly interests. It was a rare schoolboy who would go grubbing about for Apocryphal texts in the Charing Cross Road while on day leave for the Lord’s cricket match, or who at 16 could presumptuously send an Apocryphal translation to the Queen with a request to be allowed to dedicate the finished work to Her (neither Windsor nor the Head Master was amused). Alongside these prodigies of learning, there was always an engaging streak of boyishness, and both sides of him developed rapidly under the benign influence of his tutors and of the foundation to which he remained devoted for the rest of his life.

He proceeded naturally to King’s, where he made an impact as a social figure in the college as well as a promising undergraduate. In his student days the college was threatened by a tension between the Etonian and non-Etonian elements, and James’s personal intervention seems to have been largely responsible for defusing it. A fellowship and tutorship followed, continuing him in a position in which he was able to exercise a benevolent personal influence on generations of undergraduates in a way that was specially characteristic of the college. The developing split in the college as an anti-religious party developed, with Keynes prominent in it, caused him much pain in his later years as a popular, efficient and hospitable Provost. One wishes that Dr Pfaff could have given us more detail here, as the issues are of considerable interest. James’s brother, shortly before the election, had prophesied his influence as likely to be ‘conservative without bigotry’, and the direction in which the institution was moving was distressing enough by the end of the First World War to make him eager to return to Eton as Provost of the school. There, as the resident eminence of the institution, he found a more congenial establishment, even greater opportunities for encouraging the friendship of the young, and – although the position was no sinecure – greater leisure in which to pursue his work as a scholar.

From his undergraduate days onwards. James had developed his scholarly interests. Work on the Apocrypha continued, he became an authority on medieval stained glass and wall paintings, and he began systematically to make the notes on medieval manuscripts which were to be the foundation of his greatest monument – the series of catalogues of the entire medieval manuscript holdings of the Fitzwilliam Museum and the Cambridge college libraries. He fell under the intellectual and personal influence of Henry Bradshaw, and began to discern a systematic framework for his bibliographical researches in the example of that erudite and original but unproductive scholar. Through Bradshaw, as Dr Pfaff puts it, ‘the application, whether conscious or not, to humane studies of principles of description and classification which we would often term “scientific”, but should more accurately call “biological” ’, became an underlying tenet of James’s scholarly compilation.

His achievement in cataloguing the thousands of medieval books in the college libraries is a remarkable one, particularly when most of the work was done by a busy King’s don who also happened to be Director of the Fitzwilliam Museum. They were compiled in a remarkably short time, and it is all too easy to see the defects of the work, noting an unevenness in quality as his descriptive technique developed with experience, or a tendency to pass over apparently dull material rather dismissively; and over-hasty preparation meant too many minor errors. But it would be wrong to scold him without recognising the massive contribution which he made to the foundation of a subject which his knowledge and descriptive flair helped to make possible. He himself readily recognised his faults, and was always modest about his work, which ranged from descriptive catalogues and editions of the contents lists of medieval libraries to introductions to fine facsimiles of some of the greatest illuminated manuscripts. Dr Pfaff introduces the various phases of James’s work in biographical sequence, discussing each very fully in relation to subsequent scholarship.

Such expository skill is all the more necessary for non-specialist readers puzzled by James’s lifelong devotion to the study of the Apocrypha. It began certainly as an ‘immature fascination with the obscure and the trivial’, but soon developed into something far more important. James came to see that these minor writings, some of them plainly ridiculous and others corrupt or fragmentary (his fellowship dissertation had been on a vanished book, The Apocalypse of Peter, that was subsequently rediscovered), were part of ‘the intellectual equipment of the western middle ages’. For all their picturesque oddity, they ‘provided a rich legacy of imaginative material to the medieval mind’. His Apocryphal work constantly cross-fertilised with his bibliographical and archaeological studies: the mutilated Lady Chapel sculptures at Ely, for example, could at last be recognised as illustrating not canonical but Apocryphal scenes, and his immersion in these byways of legend gave him a special perspective when dealing with medieval manuscripts, wall-paintings or glass. Later obscurities to which he gave passing attention, such as St Urith of Chittlehampton or St Walstan of Bawburgh, fit into a pattern of investigations which could in all its profusion have taken hints from contemporaneous work on Classical sculpture and painting, and attempted to trace, as James himself put it with deceptive simplicity but true humility, ‘the historical development of sacred art ... in connection with the literature and legends to which the artist had access’. His was a grand scheme, incapable of total fulfilment, and affording satisfaction in the apparently obscure divagations it allowed.

Nothing ever seemed to go to waste in his scholarship, and it requires a considerable breadth of learning to cover it biographically. The personal motivation for such a life of study is simply stated. James himself wrote in his charming but lightweight autobiography, Eton and King’s, that ‘I believe there never was a time when I have had more of a programme than to find out all I could about things.’ He liked to ‘keep his hand in’ over a wide range of disciplines, and the antennae of his learning were kept acute by a ready curiosity in which the element of chance was never to be discounted. This may sound too simple an explanation of the inspiration that lay behind his scholarly career, but the mere desire ‘to find out all I could about things’ rings true, especially in the writer of ghost stories where such simple elements of curiosity and chance find their fictional outlet with an unequalled conviction and effect.

He found fulfilment as a bachelor don in the lasting friendship of a number of his contemporaries and many of his pupils. They formed, in their very congenial institutional background, a group to which he could devote himself, and he seemed all the more approachable because of a continuing light-heartedness that made young Etonians recognise a kindred spirit in the resident chairman of the school’s governing body. The genuineness of his interest in the young helps to account for the success of his ghost stories, many of which were written with a respectful but far from uncritical audience in mind. Such a life had its compensations in the satisfaction of innumerable friendships. Conversely, when gaps came in his inner circle of men friends, they were very keenly felt. James suffered much from the bereavements of the First World War, and these deeply fell losses inflenced his decision to leave King’s and return to the sister foundation. Earlier, when his close friend James McBryde had died soon after taking his degree. James’s old Eton tutor Luxmoore had written to say that ‘those who have no wife and home circle of their own give hostages to fortune perhaps in greater dependence on and closeness to their friends.’

Dr Pfaff tends to nail his colours to a view of James as magus – his learned perception, wide memory and scholarly discernment perhaps matched by a certain measure of supra-natural insight. ‘Polymath’ is hardly a satisfactory description of him – suggesting more of immense range than of the depth of varied learning that characterised his outlook. Sir Stephen Gaselee once remarked that although James lacked the peculiar insight of a Headlam or the deadly precision of a Housman, ‘I consider him in volume of learning the greatest scholar it has been my good fortune to know.’ Gaselee had that privilege, and a book like Professor Pfaff’s can only make one regret not having been able to know a savant of such range, who combined with all the qualities of a sage a rare personal goodness.