M. R. James: Boy, man, antiquary, and author

Monty James came to Eton as a King’s Scholar in 1876. He proceeded as a scholar to King’s College, Cambridge where after obtaining a first in classics (and many prizes) he became a fellow. In 1905 he became Provost of King’s, and so Senior Fellow of Eton, effectively running both colleges once Provost Warre became incapacitated with Parkinson’s. He became Provost of Eton in 1918, and the College Archives hold the letter informing MRJ of his appointment on 29 July. Among many honorary degrees and awards he was appointed to the Order of Merit in 1930. He died in what is now the Library office.

His knowledge of early Christian iconography and traditions, in all mediums but especially manuscripts, was enormous and he became Director of the Fitzwilliam Museum in 1903. M.R. James was the first to produce a modern scholarly descriptive catalogue of Eton’s manuscript collection. He first worked with the manuscripts whilst a boy at the school, and his teenage notebooks were the starting point for the catalogue, published in 1895.  The letters of Saint Gregory the Great (c.540-604), 13th century, is an example of one of the Eton mss. he describes which are still in the Eton collection. This compilation of letters by Pope Gregory the Great was bound by the ‘bat binder’ (image below) for William Horman (1475-1535), Head Master and later Fellow of Eton College. James went on to produce an astonishing series of catalogues of public and private collections.mrj11

It is thought that most of his famous ghost stories were written while he was still at Cambridge, for the choristers of the Chapel of King’s College, or for his friends to hear at Christmas parties. The Mezzotint relates the tale of a child being stolen away in the dead of night by a vengeful ghostly figure all seen through a mysterious changing engraving. The end of the manuscript held here at Eton has had an extra page (‘12a’; left) added in at the point of the pencil note in the final paragraph (‘12’; right). It was probably revised to further build the story’s suspense. However, some of his ghost stories were written for Eton boys, such as The wailing well, first heard around the fire at a Scout camp at Worbarrow Bay in 1927. The Eton figures featured in the story signed this copy where they appear. The setting for this grisly story could be seen from where the boys were sitting. It is marked on a copy of an OS map tipped-in to the front of this book.

By Louise Anderson, @LibrarianLCA