27 August 2017
A medievalist's mind can be bizarre to behold. If you had been drudging through a cartulary — a collection of charters copied into a single volume — for the last month, what would you choose to publish:
(a) its complete text, as the last word on the matter;
(b) a simpler calendar, as a guide to its contents;
(c) a ghost story?
If your name is M.R. James, the correct answer is the last one!
M.R. James (1862–1936) is esteemed for his many catalogues of medieval manuscripts (for collections at Cambridge, Lambeth Palace and elsewhere) and as a scholar on the history of libraries and apocryphal literature. In popular culture, he is far more famous for his ghost stories. A new hardback edition of his Collected Ghost Stories has just appeared, with a critical text and notes. The book’s editor, Darryl Jones, suggests that it was precisely James’ training that allowed him to write such brilliant stories. His detailed knowledge brings to life some of the most magical places that we see every day: churches, libraries, even trains.
The plot of James’ Casting the Runes, first published in 1911, turns on the consequences of the main character consulting a manuscript in the Students’ Room at the British Museum, opened in 1885 as a separate reading room for the Department of Manuscripts. He is stalked by a bitter academic whose paper he has just rejected for publication. The book is Harley MS 3586, which contains cartularies of Battle Abbey and Wormsley Priory, bound together after they entered the Harley collection along with some letters addressed to Edward Harley. One would usually think of this as the most innocuous of objects, and at first glance the pivotal scene has nothing sinister about it; but the main character’s life has just been put at stake:
It was in a somewhat pensive frame of mind that Mr Dunning passed on the following day into the Select Manuscript Room of the British Museum, and filled up tickets for Harley 3586, and some other volumes. After a few minutes they were brought to him, and he was settling the one he wanted first upon the desk, when he thought he heard his own name whispered behind him. He turned round hastily, and in doing so, brushed his little portfolio of loose papers on to the floor. He saw no one he recognized except one of the staff in charge of the room, who nodded to him, and he proceeded to pick up his papers. He thought he had them all, and was turning to begin work, when a stout gentleman at the table behind him, who was just rising to leave, and had collected his own belongings, touched him on the shoulder, saying, ‘May I give you this? I think it should be yours,’ and handed him a missing quire.
The choice of Harley MS 3586 does not seem to be random: in the manuscript of the work (Egerton MS 3141, f. 13r), he first started writing ‘30’ and changed his mind. A surprising amount of commentary has been written on why James used this particular manuscript. Jones suggests that it might have had something to do with the 1676 letter to Harley from Thomas Goad, whom James might have mixed up with the antiquary by the same name who died in 1638, an antiquarian who, like James, was based at Eton College and later King’s College Cambridge. The most plausible link appears in James’ edition of Walter Map’s De nugis curialium or Courtiers’ Trifles, which uses documents in the Wormsley cartulary relating to the author. Walter’s own work has been considered within the history of ghosts in culture. James is simply inserting himself into the story.
The British Museum's curators were so delighted by James’ story that, in November 1936, they purchased the autograph manuscript of the tale in his memory, now Egerton MS 3141. The story has since been adapted in film (Night of the Demon, 1957) and multiple times for television and radio.
M.R. James wasn’t the only writer to exploit the possibilities of the reading room as a setting for a thriller. John Rowland’s Murder in the Museum (1938), which the British Library republished last year, centres on the death of a scholar of Elizabethan drama. Dorothy Sayers, author of the Lord Peter Wimsey stories, expressed the contemporary appreciation for the Library in a letter to her mother dated 8 November 1921: ‘I spend all my time reading or writing crimes in the Museum. Nice life, isn’t it?’
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