Christmas, a few years ago now, wouldn’t have been Christmas without an M.R. James ghost story for Christmas Eve, courtesy of the BBC. Looking up exactly what was transmitted when, I was interested to see that the first of the stories to be broadcast on radio was a version of ‘Martin’s Close’ in 1938, only two years after James’s death. The first television version was shown in the US in 1951 – ‘The Lost Will of Dr Rant’, an adaptation of ‘The Tractate Middoth’, that wonderful tribute to the staff of Cambridge University Library – with a very young Leslie Nielsen as the hapless library assistant Garrett.
The ghost stories (which apparently were written for the entertainment of his fellow dons, rather than, as legend has it, to chill the blood of the King’s choristers on Christmas Eve) assured James lasting fame, but were a sideline to a distinguished academic career as a bibliographer, specifically as a cataloguer of medieval manuscripts (we have reissued most of his catalogues). He became Dean of King’s, Director of the Fitzwilliam Museum, Provost of King’s, and in 1913, Vice-Chancellor of the University of Cambridge. He had to deal with the consequences for the university of the outbreak of the First World War – a hospital fitted up under cloisters of Nevile’s Court in Trinity and subsequently extended to the playing fields on the far side of the Backs, the accommodation of refugee students and professors from Belgium, the quartering of nurses in King’s, a recruiting office in Corpus, and regimental messes in most of the colleges – as well as the immediate fall in student numbers as so many young men volunteered for the forces, and so many of them failed to return.
In 1918, after thirty-six years as a member of King’s, James was offered the post of Provost of Eton, and took up the position on Michaelmas Day, just six weeks before the armistice. He continued as Provost of his old school until his death in 1936, and his memoir of the two foundations of King Henry VI, subtitled Recollections, Mostly Trivial, 1875–1925, was published in 1926.
This entertaining account is broadly chronological in structure, and begins with the arrival of the not-quite-thirteen Monty at Eton to take the scholarship examination. (He had to repeat the process a year later, as although he passed, there were not enough vacancies to ensure him a place.) He speaks of his schooldays with great warmth, and clearly revelled in the traditions and rituals of the place. He loved the music in chapel (Handel remaining one of his favourite composers), and was allowed access to the college collection of manuscripts, guiding himself very early to his life’s work.
The chapters about Eton, the friendships he made there, the school societies and pastimes, the masters (of varying degrees of eccentricity), and the special occasions, such as lectures by Ruskin (who interrupted himself and stood rapt to hear the college clock strike nine) and Gladstone, are interesting, but occasionally hard work, as James rarely explains the arcana of the society – Liberty, Newcastle, Election, Field and Wall, etc., etc. He arrived at King’s in autumn 1882, at a period when the college, as a result of the University Commission of the 1850s, was no longer governed by the centuries-old Founder’s Statutes. These had established a college of seventy men (students and fellows) ruled by a provost, and all the men came from Eton – as many in any year as there were vacancies, caused by death, acceptance of a living, resignation, or of course marriage. There was no obligation to take an examination in order to proceed to a bachelor’s degree or a fellowship, which (barring any of the events listed above) was for life.
The new statutes of 1861 ‘opened the College to non-Etonians, and ordained that there should be 24 Eton and 24 open scholarships, and 46 Fellows’. A further commission led to the statutes of 1882, which made two crucial changes: fellows could marry, and fellowships were limited to six years, unless the holder had other college or university posts. In James’ first undergraduate year, there were fifteen students, of which he was the only Etonian, and the total undergraduate number was sixty-seven.
The chapters on King’s are very much an account of friendships rather than work: J.K. Stephen (son of James Fitzjames Stephen and nephew of Leslie: he died young after a head injury which affected his brain); John Willis Clark, the historian of Cambridge; A.C. Benson, author of ‘Land of Hope and Glory’. Notable King’s characters such as Oscar Browning and the bibliographer Henry Bradshaw are described at length, and there are brief sketches of scientists such as Stokes and Cayley; Lord Kelvin apparently laid on electricity in Peterhouse for the sexcentenary of the college.
To my surprise, I have shared one frightful experience with James: he describes attending a lecture by J.E.B. Mayor, at which he was one of an audience of two. Later in the series, his companion abandoned him: ‘After that, I was alone: alone with Mayor in a small dark room in the Divinity Schools. The thing became a nightmare very soon, but motives of delicacy prevented me from deserting.’ He was braver and kinder than me: when I found myself alone in a room in the Mill Lane lectures rooms one Saturday morning (I believe it was very soon after this that my Faculty stopped scheduling lectures on Saturdays…), I simply couldn’t face the prospect of turning up the following week, even though the elderly lecturer had attempted to direct the lecture to any particular interests I may have had – I was far too petrified to respond helpfully, and I can no longer remember even the subject: only the acute embarrassment remains.
Although James was mostly a bibliographer, nothing in the past was beyond or beneath his interest: he was very involved in the restoration of the stained glass windows at King’s, wrote on the glass at Canterbury and, as a boy at Eton, hung around when G.E. Street was creating the new organ screen in the chapel, and saw previously hidden medieval frescoes (alas, damaged by workmen after the sudden death of Street, who, James feels sure, would have gone out of his way to preserve them). The various foreign settings of some of the ghost stories reflect James’s own travels: from his sixth-form days at Eton, he travelled abroad (often using a bicycle to get around) almost every summer, exploring the churches of Scandinavia, Germany, and especially France, which was undoubtedly his paradise on earth – apart from Eton and King’s of course. His epilogue ends by quoting the prayer spoken by representatives of Eton and King’s every 6 December, when lilies and roses are laid on the tomb of their founder, King Henry VI, at St George’s chapel in Windsor.