A Very Short Biography of M. R. James

The curious life of Montague Rhodes James

Many people regard M. R. James (1862-1936) as the finest writer of ghost stories in the English language. How did he come to write such highly regarded tales? In this post we offer a very short biography of M. R. James, focusing on the most curious or eye-catching aspects of his life.

Montague Rhodes James was born in Kent, England in 1862, the son of a clergyman, though from the age of three he was raised in Suffolk. The family lived at the Rectory in Great Livermere, Suffolk, which, a century and a half earlier, been the childhood home of the Suffolk antiquary Thomas Martin (c. 1696–1771), nicknamed ‘Honest Tom Martin of Palgrave’. Whether the course of M. R. James’s life – namely, his lifelong interest in the past – was inspired on some level by Honest Tom’s ghost is not, alas, recorded.

Instead, it was a toy Punch and Judy set, as James recalled years later, that first gave him a taste for the ghostly: one of the cardboard figures among the set was called The Ghost, ‘a tall figure habited in white with an unnaturally long and narrow head, also surrounded in white, and a dismal visage.’ He frequently suffered from nightmares, many of them inspired by The Ghost.

M R JamesMontague James went to study at Cambridge, where he would spend much of his adult life, first as a student and then as a don. His scholarly achievements are less widely known than his ghost stories, but he was a notable academic who catalogued virtually the entire collection of medieval manuscripts at Cambridge University, and was an influential director of the Fitzwilliam Museum at Cambridge for fifteen years.

James’s interest in all things antiquarian – and medieval – fed into his ghost stories, which he would read to his fellow dons on Christmas Eve (his audience was exclusively male, much like M. R. James’s life: he never married and was probably a lifelong celibate). In many ways, his ghost stories represent a step backwards in the evolution of the ghost story: at a time when his contemporaries, such as his namesake Henry James, were writing ambiguous tales that treated the supernatural with scepticism and ambiguity (as in Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw), M. R. James tended to adopt a less equivocal line in his treatment of the supernatural. When a linen sheet billows in an M. R. James story, there usually is a (genuine) ghost beneath it. If you’re looking for a place to start, ‘Oh, Whistle and I’ll Come to You, My Lad’ remains one of his most celebrated stories, and typical of James’s ghost stories as a whole.

Indeed, James was conservative in nature, and this extended to his political views (when he expressed them) and his attitudes to other writers: he supported the ban of Radclyffe Hall’s 1928 novel, The Well of Loneliness, without quite understanding what it was about. Agatha Christie was more his cup of tea.

He received the Order of Merit in 1931. In 1918 he had been made Provost of Eton College, where he sat on the interview panel for a young boy named Christopher Lee, who would later play M. R. James on television. He continued as Provost until his death in 1936.

If this short biography of M. R. James has whetted your appetite for more knowledge about his life, you can discover more about M. R. James here.

Image: M. R. James in 1900, author unknown, Wikimedia Commons.

4 thoughts on “A Very Short Biography of M. R. James”

  1. Thank you for an interesting piece on one of my favourite writers – most enjoyable. However, I cannot agree that James’s tales are ‘a step backwards in the evolution of the ghost story’ though I would say that his success has had an arresting effect on its development – but that is the fault of his successors and would-be imitators. MRJ himself, for all his affectation of Victorianism, was very much a contemporary writer – it is surprising how often modern technology features in his stories, and in his children’s tale The Five Jars (published in 1922) he describes something remarkably like an iPad. The case can certainly be made that he is a Modern, much as he might have abhorred the idea himself – it is a point I examine at greater length here, if you’re interested: https://jfmward.wordpress.com/2014/04/04/the-sound-must-mean-mischief-m-r-james-and-the-age-of-uncertainty/

  2. Thanks for getting the word out on James. I don’t agree with the ‘step backwards’ comment (and not really sure that the other James was really going into new territory) either, but I was happy to see this.

    M.R. James was good at what he did: writing fine theatrical pieces to be read aloud.

    If you’re interested in his own theory of ghost stories, you can find them embedded in the beginning of “Two Students,” which is one of my personal favorites.

    Thanks again.


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