'A Warning to the Curious' : The 'Nicely Managed' Mind of M. R. James

by Maria Purves

April 10, 2009


The ghost stories of M. R. James, considered by many to be the best in the English language, are currently enjoying critical attention. Yet despite their richness in imagery suggestive of modern critical concerns - sexuality, cultural/political anxieties - this paper argues that James's gothic imagination was spurred by a particular cognitive condition which distinguished the scholar/author. Arguing that James's intellectual outlook which was noted as perplexing by his contemporaries and biographers, was the result of an autistic spectrum condition, this paper aims to demonstrate how James's cognitive style dictated his choice of literary form and narrative style. The analysis explores the way in which James's insistence on 'reticence' in the creation of horror reflects his own essential nature, and argues that James 'managed' his fear of change and the uncontrollable in and through his fiction - all of which resulted in significant innovations in the ghost story form.


In his Informal Portrait of M. R. James, Michael Cox writes of James’s ghost stories:

It is misguided to approach the ghost stories as if they were examples of the highest artistic and literary endeavour. They are amongst the very best of their kind; but it is easy to claim too much for them, and even easier to impose on them a weight of critical analysis and speculation they can hardly bear. A clever professional psychoanalyst, with some justice, or a foolish amateur one, with none, may discern significance in certain images, names or situations for, as Algernon Blackwood once remarked, ‘the subconscious always dramatizes’. But this is to miss the point and character of Monty’s stories. 1

In this warning to the curious, Cox’s aim is to preserve the stories from psychoanalytical dismemberment. According to Cox the stories were ‘the work of a moment’: fireside entertainments written by a great scholar who also happened to be a connoisseur of ghost stories. Herein lies their ‘point and character’, and not in the possible instances of dramatized subconscious to which psychoanalyitical critics may be drawn, alerted perhaps by the richness of imagery suggestive of modern critical concerns.2 However the very fact that James started writing (in earnest) Victorian ghost stories at the beginning of the twentieth century, a period of unprecedented social upheaval and technological advancement, is enticement to speculation enough. It is difficult to ignore the fact that Victorian ghost stories are an odd choice for a writer facing the new age of modernism; difficult not to read in that choice a kind of retreat from the modern world, and to be curious about why such a retreat was preferable. This paper constitutes an attempt to discover why M. R. James made the fictional choices he did thereby perhaps skirting Cox and his William Ager-esque aims,3 yet still looking a little more closely at M. R. James and his tales than a study informed by his own research principles might permit: principles with which Cox’s horror of ‘psycho-critical speculation’ (p. 141) are entirely in keeping.

To the outside world James had solidly Victorian tastes and one of these was for the Victorian ghost story. He loved the deliberation, the leisurely pace - one might almost say the Victorianness – of the form (by contrast, he found the style of the new writers such as Joyce highly objectionable 4). A formidable and accomplished manuscript scholar and provost of two traditionalist educational institutions, James was characterized by a profound sympathy for tradition and orthodoxy. This attitude, friends and colleagues agreed, limited him intellectually. As a scholar James was a paradox: intellectual, yet as his lifelong friend Arthur Christopher Benson said, ‘inaccessible to all ideas’ and with a hatred of discussion and speculation.5 In his personal life too James was paradoxical,6 he was popular, his ‘kindly bonhomie’ and ‘quaint character’7 drawing friends and admirers of all ages throughout his life. Yet he was undemonstrative almost to the point of emotional deficiency and ‘constitutionally opposed to intimate self-revelation’ (Cox, p. ix). Cox notes an alarming lack of introspection in his private papers. It seems that a dislike of scrutiny and analysis was central to James’s character. This is an extraordinary observation regarding a writer of fiction. Yet the fictional form James chose was one in which lack of clarification can be a very successful feature. James understood this: ‘The reading of many ghost stories has shown me that the greatest successes have been scored by the authors who…when the climax is reached, allow us to be just a little in the dark . . .8 This paper argues that a link exists between James’s intellectual inhibition and his choice of literary form and narrative style. It will, I hope, provide some insight into James’s imagination and the narrative innovations that have promoted his stories to the forefront of the English ghost story tradition.

The problem presented by what I have termed James’s intellectual inhibition has puzzled his biographers and critics. James had no desire to make an intellectual impact on the academic world in which he was employed. He undertook scholarly projects for reasons of self-fulfilment rather than from any desire to further human knowledge.9 Cox states that he had ‘difficulty.. in accommodating radical shifts of thought and intellectual innovation’ (p. x): it was even said of him that he hated thought. Thus it is unsurprising that his research was of a particular kind - note-making, collecting, labelling and cataloguing: taxonomical rather than analytical. He admitted a lack of ambition in this direction (indeed, in all directions) in a letter to a James Mcbryde in 1922:

I believe there never was a time when I have had more of a programme than to find out all I could about various matters…It has not been a case of amiable modesty, but something more like indolence or if a long word is better, opportunism.10

Cox attributes James’ inhibited intellectual persona to his adherence to the values instilled in him by his father’s ideas of learning (p. 97). Herbert James (a rector and celebrated preacher) turned to the ‘Book of Books’ for guidance in matters intellectual and tended to condemn ‘ill-regulated speculation’ (p. 9). Cox implies that it was Herbert’s privileging of theology which shaped not only James’s obsession from an early age with Biblical Apocrypha, medieval manuscripts, stained glass windows and hagiography, but his circumscribed attitude to intellectual enquiry. While clearly plausible, this explanation hardly does justice to the complexities of James’s intellectual character - complexities with which Cox overall seems unwilling to engage.

Although Jayne Ringrose states that James’s catalogue descriptions are reminiscent of ‘a world where a gentler scholarship prevailed’,11 when it came to productivity James was hardly gentle. In his letters Luxmoore refers to ‘the strange tide of work and achievement flowing on all the time’ beneath James’s placid exterior.12 From an early age James was phenomenally industrious, reading, writing, sketching, visiting places of religious and archeological interest, and most significantly collecting facts and making endless lists and notes (his private studies as a schoolboy were, notes Cox, ‘quite astonishing in their scope and detail’ (p. 34)). James’s early ‘habit of systematic notetaking’ was, Cox acknowledges, a ‘compulsive acquisition of facts’ with no rationale behind it (p. 14) (his appetite for reading widely and jumping from one subject to another seemed to contribute to an episode of mental instability at Eton). Later James’s contemporaries commented on his capacity for gathering and retaining data. Stephen Gaselee, a prominent scholar and churchman of the time, wrote that James had a particular faculty for locating information, and Benson wondered at James’s ‘extraordinarily accurate and minute’ knowledge that was ‘mainly concerned with unimportant matters’ and his ‘immense and accurate memory for details’ (without the least ‘constructive or poetical power’). Benson concluded cattily ‘I don’t suppose anyone alive knows so much or so little worth knowing’.13 Throughout his life James’s output was formidable, and even as an old and infirm provost at Eton he maintained, as Ringrose states, ‘a full output of publication’ in terms of catalogues, and ‘a constant production of letters, reviews and important articles’ (p. 29). James was, then, something of a powerhouse of research activity, very different from his father whose scholarship consisted of retreading well-ploughed furrows. Yet all of James’s industry was undertaken for seemingly insubstantial ends, for he was truly uninterested in whether his work connected with the academy. Rather than dismiss this indifference however, it might be profitable to read James’s intellectual inhibition in physiological terms.

I want to argue that James’s intellectual outlook could have been the result of an autistic spectrum condition. In a recent study of high-functioning autism and Asperger’s Syndrome, Simon Baron-Cohen offers a profile of a typical child with the condition, which he terms a ‘cognitive style’ rather than a disorder. James as a child and as an adult fits the profile remarkably: it lists for example a strong drive to collect categories of information; a fascination with systems, lists and patterns; an extreme accuracy at perceiving the details of information; a strong preference for experiences that are controllable rather than unpredictable; a tendency to follow one’s own desires and beliefs rather than paying attention to, or being easily influenced by, others’ desires and beliefs; strong, persistent interests; a view of what is relevant and important in a situation which does not coincide with that of others, and a tendency to show relatively little interest in what the social group is doing, or being a part of it.

James’s dislike of unfettered thought and discussion becomes significant in the light of this possible diagnosis. Nathaniel Wedd remembered an evening when James demanded that two undergraduates engaged in a philosophical debate stop ‘thinking’, and notes:

“Thought” in this sense really did disturb Monty throughout his life….The eager pursuit of truth along many paths, regardless of where the path would lead and what obstacles would be thrust aside or destroyed in blazing the trail – this, which is the hall-mark of a living college, was not to Monty’s taste’.14

James was seen to openly distrust, even fear, the uncensored, uncontrolled intellectual experience, a response which is central to reading his work as a product of his inhibited intellect: Benson is characteristically frank: ‘…his mind is the mind of a nice child – he hates and fears all problems, all speculation; all originality or novelty of view. His spirit is both timid and unadventurous…I feel he is a kind of child.’15

Many of the qualities displayed by those diagnosed with an autistic spectrum condition may well appear childish to others; and whilst childishness certainly characterized James’s close relationships, in which horseplay was a particular feature, there was also a lack of empathy in James which friends such as Benson, who noted it repeatedly, tended to regard as immature.16 In this again James seems to present an example of the ‘extreme male brain’ described by Baron-Cohen which has ‘a particularly intense drive to systemize… and an unusually low drive to empathise’. Perhaps the most significant instance of this lack of empathy was during the 1914 war when James was provost of King’s College, Cambridge. Friends and colleagues were alarmed by his seeming indifference to the suffering around him as he insisted that daily life at King’s remain unchanged.17 However there were many less public occasions. James described one particular friendship of his as ‘hedged about with reticences’18 and thus could all his friendships have been described. He was unable to share his feelings with anyone, even his oldest friends, and although he acknowledged this incapacity, which affected his professional conduct, he did not feel the need to try and overcome it.19 In a letter from James in which he spoke about a dear friend’s death, Benson noted his ‘curious effort…not to dive deep’.20 This phrase could be said to describe James’s attitude towards both his work and his personal life, although perhaps it was no effort at all: extreme emotional discretion, as well as his dislike of change, of ‘novelty of view’ (his blind loyalty to Eton, and his return there later in life, is noteworthy in this sense) all imply Asperger’s Syndrome.21 This suggests that throughout his life James was experiencing a different cognitive style to that of his contemporaries, defining the shape of his scholarship and his academic aspirations and achievements, and significantly shaping both his imagination and prose style as a writer.

As is now well known, many of James’s ghost stories were written to be read at Christmas time after dinner to a group of friends in his rooms at King’s. James was very fond of this Christmas ritual which he described as ‘very pedestrian and Anglican and Victorian and everything else that it should not be’, indicating an awareness that his tastes might be considered anachronistic. In the prologue to Madam Crowl’s Ghost and Other Tales of Mystery (a collection of Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu’s stories which James collected and published in 1923), he writes that ‘the ghost story in itself is a slightly old-fashioned form’.22 In this way, it suits James’s personality perfectly. His cognitive style, I am arguing, was to retreat from new and progressive forms, discourses and ideas, to prefer ‘controllable’ rather than ‘unpredictable’ experiences. Given these dominant characteristics, the opportunity to withdraw offered by the ghost story makes it an ideal form of creative outlet. For ghost stories, as James says in his prologue, require ‘a slight haze of distance’ and thus allowed him to inhabit a space within which he was most comfortable - the recent past (the Victorian era). Of course not all of the tales are set in the mid-to-late nineteenth century, some are set further back than that, and some later: but the form of the ghost stories is Victorian. In the preface to More Ghost Stories of an Antiquary (1911) James was clear about his intention to represent a specific literary form whose lineage goes back only as far as the nineteenth century,23 to his childhood favourites Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu and the magazine stories which amused the family circle. Le Fanu, as Cox states, had been part of James’s literary upbringing, and I want to argue that James’s gravitation towards the Le Fanu ghost story when it came to his own choice of fictional mode again corresponds to the Asperger’s profile in terms of a preference for the controllable familiar experience.

In terms of style, James insists on what may be termed Victorian attributes. The most significant of these is ‘reticence’. In an article entitled “Ghosts – Treat Them Gently!” James lists reticence as ‘not less necessary’ than ‘horror’ and ‘malevolence’.24 Writing in 1929 he admits that ‘reticence may be an elderly doctrine to preach’ but it ‘conduces to effect’, whereas ‘blatancy ruins it, and there is much blatancy in a lot of recent stories’.25 Certain popular American ghost story writers he finds ‘unbelievably crude and sudden …they wallow in corruption’ (Ghosts and Scholars, p.19). Even Bram Stoker’s Dracula is, for James, spoiled by ‘excess’ (‘the butter is spread far too thick’). His insistence on reticence as a crucial element of ghost-story writing extends naturally to the ‘final flash or stab of horror’ - the ‘crescendo’- which he asserts should be ‘nicely managed’. This typically unpretentious phrase with its suggestion of neatness, tastefulness, understatement, and perfect timing, hints strongly at a desire to keep control: in this case of a narrative situation which has the potential to tip over into hyperbole, the realm of gory nightmare. James’s tendency to hide his giant and complex intellect behind modest language indicates perhaps that for him ghost stories were a veil in a similar sense – a predisposition which could be attributed to the tug of familiar, childhood behaviours on his adult personality.

Clearly opposed to the more modern (i.e. unpredictable) tendency towards explicitness, James finds and founds his narrative style in the expression of reserve, an ‘elderly’ yet familiar (controllable) principle. Reticence is also one of his own fundamental character traits, and I want to suggest that his fictional method in this instance is dictated by his cognitive style. The reticent mode is one in which he functions best, and thus it finds its expression as both dominant motif and directional force in his work. The reticence of which James writes is demonstrated by the way things are only partially disclosed or described in the tales. The demon in Casting the Runes is illustrated in a magic-lantern show (‘a horrible hopping creature in white’26), but the reader is never given a first-hand description, and neither is Karswell’s fate described as he is followed on board the boat at Dover by what the ticket inspector thinks might have been a dog (but can’t be sure: ‘I could ‘a’ swore ‘e wasn’t alone’ (p. 266)). This partial revelation is an extremely successful suspense technique which James employs confidently, and his confidence, which contributes so much to the stories, comes from this innate tendency on James’s part to privilege non-revelation. He is adept at non-revelation, because here he is on sure ground. There are many more examples in the tales. In A Story of a Disappearance and an Appearance - which of all the stories has the most genuinely horrific moments - the murder of the narrator’s uncle is shown to him in a dream in which the crime is acted out by a malevolent Punch in a Punch and Judy show. The scene is disturbing enough, but James adds to the impression of distortion and disorientation first by presenting the entire narrative in epistolary form, which gives a sense of dislocation, and then by the visual effacement of the ghost’s final vengeful appearance (in a Punch and Judy showbox). The ghost of William Ager in A Warning to the Curious is witnessed by his victim Paxton only through the reactions of others: ‘..when I began to meet people going to work, they always looked behind me very strangely…And the guard (at the train) held open the door after I’d got into the carriage- just as he would if there were somebody else coming, you know’ (p. 576). When the reader does ‘see’ Ager, it is through a narrative ‘impression’ of his supine form – one of the characters tells Paxton that he has left his overcoat at the barrow wherein he has just replaced the haunted Saxon crown: the narrator looks back ‘And I certainly did see it – the long dark overcoat lying where the tunnel had been. Paxton had not stopped, however: he only shook his head and held up the coat on his arm’ (p. 579). In Rats, the narrative is in the third person, and the moment of disclosure – when Thomson comes face to face with the ghost behind the closed door of the inn – is executed through a series of questions, a distancing tactic which is effective as a way of placing the reader not behind Thomson’s eyes, but in his head as his brain rapidly questions itself:

A scarecrow out of the garden, of course, dumped in the deserted room…Yes; but here amusement ceased. Have scarecrows bare bony feet? Do their heads loll on to their shoulders? Have they iron collars and links of chain about their necks? Can they get up and move, if never so stiffly, across a floor, with wagging head and arms close at their sides? and shiver? (p. 617).

The advantage of being inside Thomson’s imagination in this way is that the reader experiences his rising, engulfing sense of panic, giving this moment and the next – ‘The slam of the door, the dash to the stair-head’ – a startling intensity. But significantly we are not invited to analyse the situation from our privileged position in Thomson’s head – we are given too little information (in terms of plot 27), and the moment is too hurried, for that. James’s characteristic opposition to analysis and scrutiny, his reticence, is continuing to work even though his reader may be unaware.

Thus the more discreet modes of behaviour associated with the past spoke to James’s cognitive style, which in turn directed his imagination. There are other ways in which reticence is manifested in the tales. The economy of the moment in Rats described above for instance, indeed the economy of the tale itself, speaks of reticence in another form: James favours economy and fragmentation as a narrative style. Benson recognised this: he asserted that James’s stories lacked depth, and there is a narrative pattern in James which supports Benson’s claim. Frequently there is a lack of explanation of events, of prĂ©cis. Neither the whistle in Oh, Whistle And I’ll Come To You, My Lad nor the demon it calls, are explained: all the reader finally learns is that they are linked to the Knights Templar.28 The story appears therefore to lack any real depth of plot, as the reasons behind the whistle’s existence are not revealed. And yet the essential superficiality of the haunting, the fact that the whistle is not provided with a past but merely arrives in the present and opens a door on pandemonium without insight, without justice, and therefore without tragedy (to paraphrase Jack Sullivan29), is what makes it unbalancing and disturbing. What we are left with is not the grim world view of Le Fanu’s Green Tea, but rather an unsteady world view in which a shrieking hell can be unleashed into the most peaceful of lives on the flimsiest of pretexts. We can read in this something of James’s own attitudes: what James feared most was the uncontrollable experience. Sage asserts that Professor Parkins, the finder of the whistle, is ‘a parody of James himself, described as a man “somewhat henlike in his ways”. Indeed, James often used to stay in Aldeburgh after the First World War, and the whole thing is obviously a joke about himself’ (p. 62). While the observation of the likeness between James and Parkins is sound, the idea that James is having an internal joke is debatable. James had come through the First World War only to find that many of his friends were gone and the world was a very different place. The sudden pandemonium of Oh, Whistle can be read as a metaphor for his sense of unease.30 Indeed every ‘ominous thing [putting] out its head into this calm environment’31 in James’s gothic world can be read as a metaphor for the unknown, the unpredictable experiences that can cause distress for those Baron-Cohen describes as having a different cognitive style, symptomatic, as perhaps in James’s case, of some form of Asperger’s Syndrome. As Baron-Cohen asserts, people with Asperger’s are made anxious by new situations. As manager of the ‘nicely-managed crescendo’, however, James was able to process and ultimately contain (on the page, in the written word) the ripples of his emotional response to upheaval.

Another story with an obscured, fragmented denouement is Canon Alberic’s Scrap-Book. Here the demon is given more of a provenance than the demon in Oh, Whistle, but still little is explained. A scholar buys a scrap-book of pages from illuminated manuscripts from a sacristan in a French church. One of the pages is a drawing from the seventeenth century of “The Dispute of Solomon with a Demon of the Night”. The demon in the picture is vividly described, and in a chilling scene at the end of the story appears behind Dennistoun as he sits with his pipe poring over his acquisition. However we are only offered fragments by way of an explanation for its existence: a note by Canon Alberic on the back of the drawing (‘I have sinned and suffered, and have more to suffer yet’ (p. 18)); Dennistoun’s ambiguous quotations from Ecclesiaticus ‘Some spirits there be that are created for vengeance’ (p. 18)) and his comical request for Mass to be said for Alberic’s rest. The explanation or background plot is implied, alluded to via fragments, rather than unpacked in a prĂ©cis. Similarly, at the end of Mr. Humphreys And His Inheritance, we discover that the globe at the centre of the maze (part of the inheritance of the title) contains ashes, and we assume they belong to Humphreys’s sinister ancestor, James Wilson. Then almost as an afterthought, the narrator tells us that a Latin inscription was found on the stones which used to line the maze: ‘Penetrans ad interiora mortis’. This the reader is left to decipher. The conclusion is given in a humourous tone, via other characters:

Mr. Cooper’s view is that, humanly speaking, all these many solemn events have a meaning for us, if our limited intelligence permitted of our disintegrating it, while Mr. Calton has been reminded of an aunt…who..had been lost for upwards of an hour and a half in the maze at Covent Gardens, or it might be Hampton Court (p. 358).

The tale itself disintegrates into humour and ambiguity - we are left unassisted in the labyrinth of its meaning like Calton’s hapless aunt. Why is enlightenment delivered obscurely, piecemeal, via fragments of conversation and anecdote? Sometimes it seems as if James simply runs out of steam, and this reliance on implication as opposed to extraction supports Benson’s critique of James’s fiction, that it lacks depth. However what is interesting about this method is the way it mirrors James’s scholarship (much as so many characters in the stories mirror James himself, which I will discuss presently). Firstly, and perhaps obviously, Canon Alberic’s Scrap-Book like many of the tales, resembles one of James’s notebooks: it contains descriptions of a church’s interior, Latin legends accompanying holy pictures, and of course the scrap-book itself with its collection of priceless leaves: ‘Here were ten leaves from a copy of Genesis…twenty leaves of uncial writing in Latin…Could it possibly be a fragment of the copy of Papias “On the Words of Our Lord”, which was known to have existed as late as the twelfth century at Nimes?’ (p. 9). The tale is a composition of the kinds of scraps with which James was uniquely familiar. He was at ease – he himself would say obsessed - with fragments, he worked with them all his life, and it is not surprising that they would appear as a leitmotif in his fiction. Yet we can read more into the trope. James’s academic work ‘lacked depth’ too, in the sense that he was interested in cataloguing, involving abbreviated description, and not in the close reading or unpacking of texts. His cognitive style, informed by symptoms of Asperger’s Syndrome, predisposed him towards cursory methods, and that his prose style in fiction was merely proving consistent with his prose style in research. His implied plots, endings and explanations make sense in this context: impatience with lengthy extraction – or, more likely, the conviction that lengthy extraction is unnecessary, born of an habitual, even constitutional, ‘shorthand’ approach to his subject - informs them. With James, the tale itself will sometimes resemble a fragment. The plot of The Diary of Mr. Poynter is thin: a Cambridge-educated antiquarian buys a diary in which is pasted some wallpaper whose pattern resembles flowing hair. He has curtains made from the pattern and is haunted by a crouching human figure, with no discernable face, only hair. Going back to the diary, Poynter finds a reference to the designer of the wallpaper, a debauched Cambridge undergraduate with long hair. The tale ends without any justification of the haunting, but with a reported observation from Mr. Cattell, the Shakespeare-quoting curtain-maker, which ‘began with the words “There are more things”’ (p. 411). It seems that James had a good idea for a haunting situation but little interest in developing it too much.32 Indeed in his essay Stories I have Tried to Write – a patchwork of notes, unfinished plotlines and tableaux, written in the disjointed, economic style of the practiced notetaker – James admits to an inability to commit to the ‘labour’ of fleshing out a particular idea (p. 646), indicating a lethargy which was perhaps habitual. Stories I have Tried to Write is significant when read against the symptoms of James’s cognitive style. As a piece of prose it does not read well, other people’s notes rarely do, and one might wonder why James published it at all, except for the fact that we know that he was persistently interested in collecting fragments and scraps. So much so in fact that his character eventually reflected his compulsion: in sketching James’s personality, Sage unwittingly describes a human fragment - ‘his fussy, apparently timid, retiring persona…seems totally abstracted from anything around him’ (p. 61).

In a broad sense I am arguing that James was innately suited to the art of ghost story writing. The reticence essential to his own personality succeeds in the ghost story form. James was not only enabled by his cognitive style to excel at writing ghost stories, but the (in his opinion) correctly-executed ghost story seemed a highly proper form to him. Other literary forms did not appeal, as he himself claimed: ‘I never cared to try any other kind’ (Stories, p. 643).

Finally, another element in James’s stories which may be attributed to the influence of his cognitive style is his milieu. Benson bemoaned the fact that ‘the people [in James’s stories] are all elderly dons’,33 and of course James was predisposed to write about that which was familiar to him. In an M. R. James story, the calm environments into which pandemonium is unleashed are those of James’s own world - they are the quiet backdrops to his solitary pursuits: the library, the study, the church, the deserted beach or hill of archeological interest. But in reproducing that which was familiar, James brought something entirely new to the genre. The academic settings, the spurious documentation and the antiquarian details were innovative and, again, the confidence with which James handles them – the confidence of a writer not only at ease with his milieu, but in being closed off to any other, entirely the master of it – gives the stories the authentic foundation they need to project a sense of security, which is then whisked away by the ‘nasty epiphany’ (Sage, p. 64). Consequently if James’s imagination constitutionally turns to his own milieu, it is unsurprising that the majority of his stories feature himself or facets of himself. The main character in Canon Alberic’s Scrap-Book, Dennistoun, is a Cambridge man given to ‘jocular’ remarks and burying himself ‘deep in his notebook’ (p. 2). The setting for the story is, famously, a church in the Pyrenees which James himself visited and faithfully recreates. Even in the original illustrations for the tale by James McBryde, Dennistoun resembles James. I have already noted Sage’s remark on the similarity in character (‘henlike’) between Parkins and James in Oh, Whistle, and of course Parkins is like James a Cambridge professor. Indeed most of the tales feature a protagonist whose work or interests are those of James himself: Mr. Fanshawe in A View From A Hill is ‘a man of academic pursuits’ (p. 533); Mr. Lake in An Episode of Cathedral History is ‘a learned gentleman who was deputed to examine and report upon the archives of the Cathedral of Southminster’ (p. 412); Edward Dunning in Casting the Runes frequents the British Museum for research purposes, and is a man with ‘lots of hobbies’ who lives alone (p. 243); Mr. Wraxall in Count Magnus is ‘an intelligent and cultivated man…near to being a Fellow of his college at Oxford’ (p. 100); Mr. Anderson in Number 13 is ‘engaged upon some researches into the Church history of Denmark’ (p. 76); and Mr. Williams in The Mezzotint is a friend of Dennistoun’s (the ‘Cambridge man’ in Canon Alberic’s Scrap-Book) and presides ‘over an art museum at another University’ (p. 36) (James was Director of the Fitzwilliam in Cambridge). Then there is the library-loving narrator of A Neighbour’s Landmark who parodies both James’s mannerisms and his Victorian fictional style:

“You begin in a deeply Victorian manner,” I said; “is this to continue?”

“Remember, if you please,” said my friend, looking at me over his spectacles, “that I am a Victorian by birth and education, and that the Victorian tree may not unreasonably be expected to bear Victorian fruit” (p. 514).

But we are very rarely given a physical or character description: a strategy which is consistent with James’s dislike of ‘intimate revelation’. It would not be an exaggeration to say that James would consider improper the description of a character’s personality, seeing it as an example of the inappropriate ‘blatancy’ of modern writing. Moreover it is important to remember that James had an ‘unusually low drive to empathize’: it is possible that it was beyond his imaginative powers to formulate an empathetic discourse between character and reader. There is a silence behind his characterizations, a space which James does not feel compelled to fill. The 1968 film of Oh, Whistle directed by Jonathan Miller captures this well: Miller uses the absolute minimum of dialogue and favours long silent sequences in which we see Paxton going about his holiday routine, speaking to no-one, simply existing in his own quiet, self-reflective space: a sort of mental hermitage. The resulting impression is of a glimpse into the world of the autistic. I am not suggesting that this perspective is achieved by design: rather it comes about through Miller’s astute recognition of the silence which is integral to James’s characters and their relationship with their surroundings.

It has been the aim of this paper to argue that the M. R. Jamesian ghost story was the product of a particular cognitive condition which distinguished their author. I contend that James’s strong preference for experiences that are controllable rather than unpredictable predisposed him to favour the ghost-story form in which he had been persistently interested from childhood, and specifically to choose the traditional Victorian ghost story which placed him emotionally in a familiar place. In addition his fascination with data collection and note-taking – with the fragmentary - as well as his extreme emotional reserve and tendency towards non-revelation, dictated the way in which the stories were written. James achieved stability through absorption into systematic work practices, and writing ghost stories was a way in which he could confront his fears about the life changes that imposed themselves on his quiet world. More specifically, the ghost story form meant that he could face those fears without analyzing them (emotional scrutiny being a process to which James was ever resistant). Much has yet to be written about James’s intriguing haunted spaces: the dolls’ house in which a miniaturized infanticide is re-enacted night after night; the maze into which the female sex is not allowed; the field glasses filled with boiled blood and bone though which one can see the past; the well in which two male bodies lie entwined; the fragments of paper which bring on a dark depression, and death – clearly, and in defiance of Cox’s warning given at the beginning of this paper, there is plenty here to complicate. For the present however I want to propose that for James, whose cognitive style did not allow him to ‘dig deep’, his hauntings were a way of describing fear in a controlled, playful way: fear in miniature, fear through the (field) glass, fear obscured, placed at the heart of a labyrinth. All these obstructions are, I would argue, constructions of an outlook proscribed by autism – of a mind ‘nicely-managed’, and cautiously displayed.

Also see:



1Michael Cox, M. R. James An Informal Portrait (Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1983), p. 149.

2 In the tradition of the ghost story and the Gothic from which it is derived, the stories of M.R. James offer plentiful opportunities for readings of homosexual angst, misogynistic fantasy, anxiety about the commodification of the past, and uncertainty about the future at a time of cultural and political transition

3 In James’s A Warning to the Curious the ghost of William Ager guards the barrow in which the last of the three holy crowns of East Anglia are buried.

4 See James’s letter to Eric Millar dated 5 February 1934, cited in Cox p. 224.

5 From the manuscript diary of A. C. Benson (Pepys Library, Magdalene College, Cambridge), diary entry October 1903; cited in Cox, p. 125.

6 Victor Sage terms James’s personality ‘complicated’ (Victor Sage, Horror Fiction in the Protestant Tradition [London: Macmillan Press, 1988], p. 62.

7 H. E. Luxmoore, from the Letters of H.E. Luxmoore, eds., M. R. James, A. B. Ramsay (1929).

8 Introduction to Ghosts and Marvels (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1924).

9 Benson remarked in his diary entry for 11th July 1905 that James had ‘no intellectual, religious or philosophical interests really. He just has some aesthetic perceptions, antiquarian tastes, and a wonderful memory’ (cited in Cox, p. 174).

10 Montague Rhodes James: Letters to a Friend, ed. Gwendolen McBryde (1956), letter to James McBryde, 13 January 1922, cited in Cox , p. 73.

11 Jayne Ringrose, “The Legacy of M. R. James in Cambridge University Library”, The Legacy of M. R. James, ed. Lynda Dennison (Donnington: Shaun Tyas, 2001), pp. 23-37, p. 36.

12 Cox, p. 221

13 Cited in Cox, p. 156, 125

14 From the “Unpublished Memoirs of Nathaniel Webb”, King’s College, Cambridge; cited in Cox, p. 97

15 Cited in Cox, p. 125

16 James describes himself as immature in a letter to the widow of his friend (and illustrator of his first collection of ghost stories) James McBryde, adding that he had a ‘not much clearer vision of life than I had when I left school.’ Ibid., p. 210

17 Benson suspected that James was immune to real feeling: when James made a moving, widely-praised oration to the war dead in 1916, Benson remarked that he ‘only thinks these things, he does not feel them’ (cited in Cox, p. 189).

18 Ibid., p. 99

19 In a diary entry for the 18th June 1905, Benson notes an episode when James, as Provost of King’s accompanies the Duchess of Albany to a service at the college. James behaves strangely, his face frozen in a rictus of fear, and after the service walks out on the duchess without a word. This inability to empathize with the feelings of another and behave accordingly is consistent with autistic behaviour (see Simon Baron-Cohen, A. M. Leslie and U. Frith “Does the autistic child have a “theory of mind” ?’ , Cognition, 21 (1985), pp. 37-46.

20 Cited in Cox, p. 128.

21 In addition Asperger’s appears to be strongly familial, and James’s sister shared James’s empathetic shortcomings. Benson describes her in a diary entry for March 1910 as having an ‘hysterical wild foolish exterior, which she seems to regret as much as anyone’ - an evening shared with the eccentric fifty-year-old, who ‘behaves…like 22’, is a ‘horror’.

22 Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu, Madam Crowl’s Ghost and Other Tales of Mystery, collected and edited by M. R. James (London: G. Bell and sons, Ltd., 1923), p. vii. James’s commentary accompanying the collection is, I would suggest, illustrative of his preference for systematics. The preface in which he is called upon to speak personally about his reasons for collecting the stories, etc., is a scant two pages, whereas the epilogue comprising an extensive bibliography and notes listing repeated plots and the “many small emendations” in Le Fanu, runs to thirteen pages.

23 ‘I am well aware that mine is a nineteenth- (and not a twentieth) century conception of this class of tale; but were not the prototypes of all the best ghost stories written in the sixties and seventies?’ (M. R. James, More Ghost Stories of an Antiquary (New York: Dover Publications), p. v-vi).

24 M. R. James, “Ghosts – Treat Them Gently!”, Ghosts and Scholars, Ghost Stories In The Tradition Of M. R. James, selected, with introduction and notes by Richard Dalby and Rosemary Pardoe (Wellingborough: Crucible, 1987), pp. 17-19, p 19.

25 M. R. James, ‘Some Remarks on Ghost Stories’, The Bookman, December 1929, pp. 169-72, p. 171.

26 M. R. James, Collected Ghost Stories (Hertfordshire: Wordsworth Classics, 1992), p. 239. Subsequent quotations are taken from this edition.

27 The ghost’s history is very briefly sketched a few sentences later: the landlord and landlady of the inn tell Thomson that he was a former landlord who was hung on the heath for fraternizing with the local highwaymen.

28 See Sage on the religious politics of this text, pp. 61-8.

29 Jack Sullivan, “ ‘Green Tea’: The Archetypal Ghost Story”, Elegant Nightmares: The English Ghost Story from Le Fanu to Blackwood (Athens: Ohio University Press, 1978), p. 18.

30 It was towards the end of the war that he returned to his beloved Eton, which could be seen as a desire to reclaim some of that lost security. Cox calls the move ‘an honest admission of his “deeply Victorian” character’ (p. 199) – I have been suggesting, that that “deeply Victorian” character is the outward manifestation of high-functioning autism.

31 From the introduction to Ghosts and Marvels.

32 The richness of the tale lies in the characterization - Poynter’s exchanges with his aunt are comical, as is the Bermondsey artisan Cattell who has a long monologue in the vernacular. As is usual in an M. R. James tale the antiquarian detail and the ‘nasty epiphany’ are compelling, but these details resemble scraps in search of a substantial narrative frame.

33 In a diary entry for December 1903, cited in Cox p. 134.

To cite this article, use this bibliographical entry: Maria Purves "'A Warning to the Curious' : The 'Nicely Managed' Mind of M. R. James". PSYART: A Hyperlink Journal for the Psychological Study of the Arts. Available http://psyartjournal.com/article/show/purves-a_warning_to_the_curious_the_nicely_mana. April 12, 2024 [or whatever date you accessed the article].
Received: January 1, 2008, Published: April 10, 2009. Copyright © 2009 Maria Purves