Posterity judges us by what we do, our friends by what we are. People whose lives have been more essence than action are frustrating subjects for biographers. If those who remember him are to be believed, it seems unlikely that Michael Cox’s ‘informal portrait’ of M R James can have captured the essence of the man about whom he quotes Jo Grimond as writing:
It is impossible to compare him with Churchill or De Gaulle, wrapt about in the aura of their achievements. But in force of personality he struck me, perhaps because I was younger when I knew him, and knew him better, as more redoubtable than either.
Michael Cox’s portrait shows a rather bloodless kind of man, who as a result of a fundamental lack of seriousness failed to achieve all that a man of his brilliant intellect should have achieved, and became instead a kind of highbrow Mr Chips. The facts more or less fit; but James left behind him, as well as the ghost stories and a great many catalogues of mediaeval manuscripts, a personal reputation far higher. He was Provost of King’s, Vice Chancellor of Cambridge, and Provost of Eton; at the end of his life he was an OM. There is no indication that he ever wanted more than all this; in fact, in so far as the administrative duties of his various Cambridge roles were often irksome, he might have been pleased with less; he wished however to be ‘useful’. People who knew him found him learned, good, and funny; but the learning was largely in fields remote from most people’s concerns, and goodness tends to appear as mere sunniness of disposition unless it is seen to be tested in adversity, and there was not much adversity in James’s life. As for funniness, since he left little matter behind him it has to be taken on trust – the more so since some of it consisted of mimicry. Altogether Mr Cox’s task has not been easy. Perhaps what he has most conspicuously failed to convey is just what young Etonians like Jo Grimond so much admired, that is to say James’s style, which seems to have expressed a moral authority quite unsullied by any form of pomposity or undue worldliness.
An ‘informal portrait’ my imply gossip; here there is none. Neither sex nor celebrities seem to have appealed to James, and he must have been the least backbiting of dons. He admired physical beauty, mainly in young men; but apparently felt no need to give physical expression to his admiration, or if he did feel a need was able to suppress it without too much trouble. The two great loves of his life were neither boys nor girls but institutions, and to one of them in particular he gave a devotion which was at times almost ecstatic and which he would probably have said had been amply repaid; for the last eighteen years of his life he was cherished by Eton as her most loved and honoured Provost. Even as a schoolboy his affections were caught by the place rather than by any particular friendships. ‘Eton is simply heavenly in the Summer Half’, he wrote to his father, the Rector of Livermere in Suffolk, ‘Evenings am a terrestrial paradise …’
Loaded with academic honours, he went on from Eton to King’s College, Cambridge, in 1882. King’s was going through a period of transition, loosening its ties with Eton in order to make itself a less exclusive and more academically virile college. There were tensions between Etonians and the increasing number of non-Etonians. James’s instincts were those of a peace-maker, but his sympathies were with the Etonians. Though no games-player himself, many of his friends were sportsmen. One of them ‘came to my rooms and I speedily orginated a rag by his hat on a coal scuttle. Marshall and Thomas thought my bookcases were falling and came to see if they could render any assistance. We were at that moment somewhat mixed on the hearth-rug…’ Eton habits died hard.
James stayed at King’s as Fellow, Dean and finally Provost, and was throughout a force of humanity and stability, and against change. The advent of J M Keynes, who was made a Fellow in 1909, can have been nothing but disagreeable to him; Mr Cox suggests that the fact that the tide of opinion was moving in the direction of Keynes and change, and away from tradition, contributed to James’s disenchantment with University life towards the end of the First War, and his relief at being able to return to Eton, his his and deepest love.
His field of scholarship was highly specialized. He was expert on Apochryphal texts and mediaeval manuscripts, of which he published a series of catalogues. His extraordinary memory enabled him to build up an immense store of miscellaneous knowledge, of which his sharp-tongued friend Arthur Benson observed, ‘I don’t suppose anyone alive knows so much or so little worth knowing!’ He loved abstruse knowledge for its own sake, a delight which he had already discovered as a precocious prep-school boy, when he wrote to his father, ‘I want to know what LEPRECHAUNES and CLURICAUNES are. They are a kind of supernatural beings but that’s all I know about them … I am making now of traditions in a note book … I have onected about 200 apocryphal works Old and New Testaments.’ As he wrote later of these schoolboy researches, ‘Nothing could be more inspiriting than to discover that St Livinus had his tongue cut out and was beheaded, or that David’s mother was called Nitzeneth.’
This happy recognition of the essential frivolousness of much scholarship may in part account for James’s failure to fulfil the hope of his early mentors. His tutor at Eton, Luxmoore, who remained in close touch with him throughout his life, was a little mystified by his failure to ‘produce’. Even the very best of schoolmasters (which Luxmoore certainly was) does expect the first-class brain to go on to claim the glittering prizes, but perhaps along with the sex instinct James lacked the will to power. Both have caused a lot of trouble in their time. There is a certain moral beauty in a life devoted to research so recondite that few can be concerned about its outcome and loving service to ancient institutions which in the nature of things are bound to change. Perhaps there is another aspect, and perhaps James’s life demonstrates the essential gentleness and frivolity of the male when left to frolic in time-honoured cloisters, undisturbed by female realism.
However it is, one feels that Mr Cox has failed to capture the positive qualities of his subject. It may simply be that he does not understand how a boys’ boarding school on the banks of the Thames, with some good building and some desirable possessions, can so master the soul of a certain kind of boy as to provide a perfectly satisfying emotional centre for the rest of his life. But then, nor do I.