An M.R. James Letter

introduced and annotated by

Jack Adrian

(from Ghosts & Scholars 8.)
Reproduced by kind permission of N.J.R. James and Jack Adrian.

During the 1970s I had an on-off acquaintanceship with Nicholas (Nico) Llewelyn Davies which, as such relationships often do, took the form of the odd letter here, the odd phone-call there. We never met.

Our paths crossed initially in the field of book-collecting. He had a mild interest in Edgar Wallace, a strong one in E. Phillips Oppenheim. I had - have - a strong interest in Wallace, not much of one in Oppenheim. He was at that time trying to beat Sir Rupert Hart-Davis (no relation, of course) to the punch in the matter of getting together a complete Oppenheim collection, although whereas Sir Rupert was only after First Editions, Nico simply wanted good sound reading copies of each title. I managed to push one or two tough items I'd fallen across in my own book-hunting forays his way, and he was duly grateful. He usually rang for a natter about books in the evenings, say once every three or four months or so; every so often I'd get a triumphant letter when he'd managed to track down some particularly choice piece of Oppenheimiana.

He was a pleasant, cultivated man about whom at the start I knew next to nothing of a personal nature except that he was, or had been, something to do with the publishers Peter Davies. In fact, the eponymous Peter was an elder brother who had started the firm in the mid-1920s and was highly regarded in the trade, even by his rivals. He committed suicide in 1960.

It's entirely likely that the cause of this tragedy had its roots deep in Peter's childhood - indeed, the childhood of all five Llewelyn Davies brothers, George, Jack, Peter, Michael and Nico; for their adolescence was inextricably linked to that odd, enigmatic figure J.M. Barrie who, after the death of their parents, became their guardian.

The Llewelyn Davies brothers were in fact Barrie's "lost boys", for whom he wrote Peter Pan. His relationship with them was a curious one. It would be no exaggeration to say that he was not only devoted to them but obsessed to the point of morbidity, although it is doubtful that this obsession, as some have argued, took any overtly sexual form. The precise nature of Barrie's sexual leanings in any case will almost certainly remain a mystery always, though probably the truth of the matter was that he didn't much care for it one way or the other.

Nevertheless, it's clear that Barrie got intense pleasure, even at times happiness, from their close association. He was also plunged into the depths of wretchedness and despair. His two favourites died young; George on the Western Front, Michael (perhaps the best-loved of all) in a drowning accident (possibly suicide) at Oxford. And Peter Llewelyn Davies himself grew to hate the linking of his name with that of Barrie's most famous creation (actually Peter was named after the hero of George du Maurier's Peter Ibbetson; it was George Llewelyn Davies, if it was anyone at all, who was 'Peter Pan', although all five boys contributed to the character in one way or another simply by existing in the first place). Only Nico appears to have recalled Barrie with anything like affection, and seemed able to view his youth with a certain objectivity.

Most of this I discovered much later. One tended to discover things bit by bit, usually sparked off by something else entirely.

We were talking, once, about major coups in the hunt for books, and I related a favourite story of how one morning I managed to be particularly quick off the mark on the phone and secured what was clearly a thumping error of judgement on the part of the booksellers, Bell, Book & Radmall: the First of MRJ's Ghost Stories of an Antiquary in excellent nick for a mere £8.50. (I say "mere" although £8.50 in 1971 or thereabouts was worth rather more than it is today; even so it was a bargain). That same day I nipped down to Long Acre to pick it up personally and was greeted by a rueful Chris Radmall who, once I'd paid for it, offered to buy it back again for fifteen quid. It appeared that the phone had not stopped ringing all morning and they could have shifted the wretched tome twenty times over.

I related this, gleefully, to Nico and he laughed and pondered a bit, and then said he couldn't be sure exactly but he rather thought all of his MRJ ghost story volumes were signed by MRJ himself.

As a conversation-stopper, book-lover to book-lover, this was hard to beat. Nevertheless I ploughed on and discovered that Nico had been to Eton (all went to Eton save Jack, who suffered an horrendous five years at Osborne Naval College), starting there two years before MRJ had been awarded the post of Provost. He was fifteen when MRJ arrived and was thus of the intake (not too young, not too old) most likely to be befriended by the new Provost. Nico's recollections were pretty much on a par with those of his peers; it was clear that he'd been immensely fond of this (to his generation, unaware of MRJ's high echelon scholarly reputation) kindly, amiable, dryly funny man.

Somewhere, he said, he had letters from MRJ. I pressed him to dig them out. Unfortunately, Nico's pretty extensive collection was somewhat higgledy-piggledy around his house; much of it, he admitted, affected by damp. And as he said, "I find it hard enough to find something I received two years ago, let alone fifty". However, after some mild prodding from me he finally managed to locate one letter and sent it to me to copy.

It is in many ways a remarkable - indeed, highly significant - letter, for it contains what is almost certainly the earliest critique of a writer and a work, both of which may be regarded as seminal in the development of weird fiction. The writer was the American H.P. Lovecraft, the work his 30,000-word essay Supernatural Horror in Literature, which, for all its and its writer's faults, must be regarded as the first serious attempt at an overview of the genre.

The essay had been written for W. Paul Cook's amateur publication The Recluse, and Lovecraft had spent eight months in its composition ("the job nearly killed me" he told his friend Frank Belknap Long). It was published in 1927, revised and updated in 1934 for inclusion in another amateur magazine The Fantasy Fan, and later included in the Arkham House Outsider and Others (1939). The first separate issue was published by Abramson in 1945.

But how on earth had MRJ come by a copy? It is hardly to be supposed that he was an enthusiastic subscriber to the many mimeographed effusions issued by American amateur journalists. In any case MRJ was not at all enamoured of the American style of horror story ("merely nauseating" was one comment he made about the Weird Tales school), and The Recluse was full of fiction, Lovecraft's essay being the only serious article.

The simple explanation is that someone (almost certainly Cook himself) had sent him a copy because Lovecraft, in his piece, had devoted an adulatory section to him ("Dr James," Lovecraft wrote, "[is] a literary weird fictionist of the very first rank"). It is clear that this tickled MRJ; equally clear that, while he admired to a certain extent Lovecraft's labours, he didn't take The Recluse entirely seriously and, as always, was on the alert for any hint of the bogus, or the pretentious. His comments on Lovecraft's and his friend the poet Samuel Loveman's stylistic habits are short and to the point.

What is so delightful about this letter is that, in a mild kind of way, MRJ lets his hair down. In the various articles about ghost stories he wrote during his lifetime he was, on the whole, pretty circumspect about those writers who were of his, or a younger, generation. In private correspondence he was rather more forthcoming and we get here some idea not only of his likes (which we knew anyway) but his dislikes. It is perfectly plain, for instance, that he did not merely find Arthur Machen a disagreeable character, but actively detested him (despite the fact that Machen once sent him a fan letter).

Some background: Nico wrote to MRJ in this instance asking him to come up with a list of authors and titles for a weird fiction collection that he was starting. It was a happy coincidence that the letter arrived when MRJ was relaxing at Gwendolen McBryde's for his usual Christmas vacation and at a time when The Recluse was to hand. The letter is printed in its entirety, although in transcribing I have added one or two commas where the sense might otherwise be vague. I have included some Notes at the end.

One important point. The original letter is of course handwritten. MRJ's handwriting is, as he implies in his PPS and as others have attested, by no means legible; indeed, at times it is virtually a foreign language. There are still about half a dozen words which, even after long meditation and at some risk to the eyes, have quite simply defeated me. I have made a stab at these - in squared parentheses [ ] - and it may well be that about half are in fact correct. Words in ordinary parentheses and starred - e.g. (it*) - are my own additions where MRJ, in his haste, has simply missed them out. All other parenthesised words are MRJ's own.

12 Jan 28
The Woodlands,

My dear Nicholas (if this familiarity is lawful),

Your letter finds me in the country with few engagements, & I think I can manage some sort of answer.

You seem to have got a very good nucleus.

I can't be very systematic in my suggestions. I shall have recourse to a funny American thing which was sent me the other day. A periodical, apparently, "The Recluse, issued by W. Paul Cook for His Own Amusement - this being the First Number".(1) In it is a disquisition of nearly 40 pages of double columns on Supernatural Horror in Literature by one H.P. Lovecraft, whose style is of the most offensive. He uses the word cosmic about 24 times. But he has taken pains to search about & treats the subject from its beginnings to MRJ, to whom he devotes several columns. No doubt this is why I am favoured with a copy. Well, looking through his bits I pitch first on Melmoth the Wanderer by C.R. Maturin, 1820, as one of the [terrific]. It's long & absurd but does contain some almost unwarrantably horrid things. (The Monk by M.G. Lewis is really not fit to be read). Then there's a fuss made about Mrs Shelley's Frankenstein, which fails to impress me as it should. Good old Ainsworth comes in for a [knock]. If you get hold of a set of the Christmas Numbers of All The Year Round you would find one or two very respectable tales by Dickens & others. Lytton? Well, besides his tale of the Haunters & Haunted, boomed rather above its merits, I believe Zanoni & A Strange Story have some points, but I don't know them. Wilkie Collins' The Haunted Hotel is far from bad.

Then Mr Lovecraft takes a [flight] to the Continent & mentions de la Motte Fouqué. Undine & Sintram are certainly good tales but of a different complexion.

Meinhold's Amber Witch & Sidonia the Sorceress are extraordinary performances, purporting to be original documents of (the*) 17th century: quite absorbing in their way. Prosper Merimeé has one dreadful story about the Venus d'Ille. But of the foreigners far the most satisfactory to me are those (stories*) of Erckmann-Chatrian. Hugues le Loup, La Maison Forestière, Contes des Vosges, Contes des Bords du Rhine, Contes Fantastiques (I think), are the chief volumes, curiously hard to get now, but really beautifully done.

Then we have a long discourse about Poe, & another on Hawthorne (whom I don't really know), & another on Bierce who as you say is undoubtedly great in his line but to my thinking oversteps the mark. What tosh, by the way, critics do write. Here I find a passage quoted from one Loveman(2) who says "In Poe one finds (it*) a tour de force, in Maupassant a nervous engagement of the flagellated climax. To Bierce, simply & sincerely, diabolism held in its tormented depths a legitimate and reliant means to the end". This appears to me to have no meaning.

The King in Yellow by R.W. Chambers & The Maker of Moons are horrid & nasty. Mary E. Wilkins' The Wind in the Rosebush: quite successful domestic New England: I like it.(3) Lafcadio Hearn has some good ones, I believe: he is much in fashion now. Bram Stoker you know all about, no doubt.

A good mark is given to F.B. Young's Cold Harbour: I don't know it. Walter de la Mare is certainly worth your attention.

W.W. Jacobs is [familiar]. E.F. Benson's Visible & Invisible. Arthur Machen has a nasty after-taste: rather a foul mind I think, but clever as they make 'em. Percival Landon's Raw Edges has a horrid one called "Thurnley Abbey" which is included in A Muster of Ghosts by Bohun Lynch: almost too horrid.

Lots & lots of collections get into print now which are very indifferent, to my thinking. Lady Cynthia Asquith's Book of Ghosts (sic) I found very little use.(4) Burrage's Some Ghost Stories, not altogether bad. As for Elliott O'Donnell!!!

But the moderns are apt to be either woolly or too nasty for me.

I see I've been more systematic, at any rate more chronological, than I thought I could be - thanks to Mr Whatsisname.

Yes, do let me see you & your wife at Eton when next you come. It would truly be a great pleasure.

The VP(5) is somewhere abroad in the back regions of the Riviera I think, & I hope in sunshine. He has been really pretty well this last half (which is more than I can say for myself).

I now carry on the Shakespeare Society in succession to my tutor.(6) We meet in Electors Hall & I must say I enjoy it extremely.

The papers made more fuss than necessary, the Bursar(7) tells me, about the damage to the Wall. The patch will be about 6 ft long & 3 ft deep at the worst point & they'll repair it with old bricks. I hope it won't be very noticeable.(8)

By the way, I commend to you The House by the Churchyard. Chapters XI & XII have some very good ghost stuff, but the whole book is one I admire.

Ever yours truly,

M.R. James

(PS) I expect to return to Eton very shortly.

(PPS) This will have been a nice exercise for you in cryptography.


(1) W. Paul Cook was a printer by trade and an enthusiastic amateur journalist. He was a close friend of Lovecraft and printed his amateur periodical The Conservative, as well as his own magazine The Vagrant in which a good deal of Lovecraft's weird fiction first appeared. The Recluse was meant to be issued on a regular basis but Cook had personal problems (including the illness and subsequent death of his wife) and a second issue never appeared.

(2) Samuel Loveman. Another close friend of Lovecraft and another amateur journalist, although he seems not to have been a bad poet in the Romantic vein. He was a bookseller and, astonishingly for a friend of the more than mildly anti-Semitic Lovecraft, a Jew.

(3) MRJ seems to have been keen on novels and stories set in a New England locale. Gwendolen McBryde says that Sarah Orne Jewett's Country of the Pointed Firs was a firm favourite, read by MRJ again and again.

(4) Even so, in less than a year he was agreeing to Lady Cynthia's request to print "Rats" in her forthcoming Shudders (postcard in the writer's collection).

(5) The Vice-Provost of Eton (since 1920) was MRJ's friend of long-standing Hugh Macnaghten, who had also been Nico's house-master.

(6) Odd that. Perhaps typically Jamesian. He is here referring to H.E. Luxmoore, who had not in fact been his tutor for nearly 50 years. And yet it is clear from this, and many other similar references, that he still thought of Luxmoore as such; certainly Luxmoore seems to have had a profound influence on him. He died, full of years, in 1926; hence MRJ taking on the Shakespeare Society.

(7) The Bursar at this period was P.A. MacIndoe; his son is the present Vice-Provost.

(8) MRJ's comment about "damage to the Wall" is obscure. It is pretty clear that he is talking about the Wall, against which the Wall Game is played, and somewhere I have heard or read of part of the Wall falling down at some time during the 1920s. No reference to this, however, appears in any of the major books on Eton, although clearly something fairly drastic must have happened for it to have been taken up by the newspapers. David Rowlands discovered that the Eton-Slough road was remetalled and, as he says, "there may have been some incidental damage". But that was in 1928 itself, and it seems that whatever the damage was it must have happened very late in 1927 or at least a week before the 12th of January (the date of MRJ's letter) to have gotten into the papers and for Nico to comment on it. In a letter, Brian Johnston, the writer and broadcaster (who was at Eton from 1925-31, knew Nico very well, and recalls having supper with MRJ and MRJ reading P.G. Wodehouse aloud), told me: "I'm almost sure that the Wall (of the Wall Game) was damaged on the road side by a car accident". He went on to say that he was not sure about the year - but it does sound to me about right. A car-smash would certainly get into the papers, and the dimensions of the damage, as quoted by MRJ, would fit. Odd, though, that damage to the Wall, even the other side of it, should not have found a place in any of the Eton sourcebooks such as P.S.H. Lawrence's An Eton Camera, Vol. II, 1920-1959 (1983), or R.A. Austen-Leigh's Guide to Eton College (rev. R.C. Martineau, 1964). Perhaps because it was the other side. No, perish the thought.


Andrew Birkin, J.M. Barrie and the Lost Boys (Constable, 1979).
L. Sprague de Camp, Lovecraft: A Biography (Doubleday, 1975).
M.R. James, Eton and King's (Williams & Norgate, 1926).
M.R. James, "Some Remarks on Ghost Stories", The Bookman Special Christmas Number (Hodder & Stoughton, 1929).
Gwendolen McBryde (ed.), Letters to a Friend (Arnold, 1956).
Richard William Pfaff, Montague Rhodes James (Scolar Press, 1980).

I'm grateful to Rosemary and Darroll Pardoe, for some tedious donkey-work on MRJ's wretched handwriting; David Rowlands, for information on Eton personalities and for lending me Lovecraft's Supernatural Horror; Brian Johnston, for thoughts on the Eton 'Wall'; Nicholas James, for permitting MRJ's letter to be printed; and to the late Nico Davies, for allowing me to see and copy the letter in the first place.

Copyright (c) 1986 N.J.R. James (letter)
Copyright (c) 1986 Jack Adrian (introduction and notes)



Not so odd, actually (Note 6, above), as my colleague Michael Cox pointed out to me soon after this piece originally appeared. MRJ is merely providing a graphic demonstration of how Etonian ways and habits become a part of the Old Etonian's soul. One's tutor is always one's tutor, unto death. The phrase "my tutor", incidentally, is actually pronounced "m'tutor", to this day. Not so long ago my wife and I were at a dinner party at which one of the other guests, in his late-40s and with no particular accent, in agreeing laughingly with some slightly arcane proposition, said "Oh, I think even m'tutor would go along with that". And he paid up when I bet him a fiver I could tell him which public school he'd attended.

On re-reading MRJ's letter I was struck for the umpteenth time by how unfanciful he seems always to have been - unfanciful in the critical, or commentatory, role, that is; far from unfanciful when it came to storytelling. Even when he was being circumspect - i.e. deliberately not overly critical of living authors, as in his public utterances such as the Introduction to Ghosts and Marvels (1924) or his "Some Remarks on Ghost Stories" in the 1929 Bookman Christmas issue - he was invariably sensible and reasonably down-to-earth (not always the same thing). Aside, of course, from his barmy penchant for all that maundering 19th century fustian as served up by such as de la Motte Fouqué, Erckmann-Chatrian and the rest of the ghastly crew (I suppose I had better not add Sheridan Le Fanu to the list to spare myself the dreary Pavlovian reactions from all the usual suspects). I still cherish MRJ's baffled response to Samuel Loveman's flatulent critique - "This appears to me to have no meaning". The ultimate put-down really. Alas, there's still an awful lot of ludicrously inflated critical commentary around.

For this next thought I'm indebted to Rosemary Pardoe: she may well have solved a problem we didn't even know existed. Towards the beginning of MRJ's letter - in the first long paragraph, starting "I can't be very systematic" - he passes from pondering as to why he should be "favoured" with a copy of Paul Cook's The Recluse straight into his own suggestions for Nico Davies' ghost story collection, based on Lovecraft's Supernatural Horror in Literature, with the words "Well, looking through his bits I pitch first on Melmoth the Wanderer..." Thanks to Rosemary I am now absolutely and utterly convinced that "bits" is wrong and the line should read "Well, looking through his lists..." My certainty is based on an unusual piece of serendipity experienced by Rosemary but missed by me. In 1923 MRJ contributed a review to the Journal of Theological Studies of Dr C.C. McCown's edition of The Testament of Solomon, in the course of which he comments on the use of one of his own letters to McCown with the words " a quotation from a letter of mine on p.73, please read list for bit". So at least someone else made the same mistake as I when transcribing MRJ's execrable fist. (See Rosemary's Introduction to "M.R. James and The Testament of Solomon" in G&S 28, p.46.)

Just about all of MRJ's examples were well-known in 1986 and are well-known now. There is one author, however, who needs perhaps just the merest nudge further into the limelight. "A good mark", comments MRJ, "is given to F.B. Young's Cold Harbour: I don't know it". I suspect his words would be echoed today by all, or at any rate most, who read it.

"F.B. Young" was Francis Brett Young, a Worcestershire doctor and minor composer (mainly of songs) who gained fame and a considerable fortune writing skilfully plotted and utterly absorbing 'family sagas', such as Portrait of Clare (1927), the hugely successful My Brother Jonathan (1928), This Little World (1934), White Ladies (1935) and Dr Bradley Remembers (1938), during the inter-War years. Young's first best-seller was a non-fiction piece of autobiography, Marching on Tanga (1918), his account of the British campaign in German East Africa, and his own part in it. His subsequent disabilities were such that he was invalided out of the army and went to live in Capri , where he numbered amongst his friends Compton Mackenzie, Norman Douglas and D.H. Lawrence - though not Fred Benson who, by then, had ceased to visit the island. A special friend was the extraordinary Dr Axel Munthe, whose volume of idiosyncratic Capriean reminiscences, The Story of San Michele (1929), struck a popular nerve all over the world, selling a staggering quarter of a million copies in two years in America alone. Munthe is the dedicatee of Cold Harbour (1924), a tense and gripping psychic thriller whose elliptical approach owed a good deal to Walter de la Mare (not a man one usually associates with pace and non-cerebral excitement).

The book's narrative structure is unusual: the central action lasts for less than twenty-four hours, a week before the story opens, and is seen in flashback by two of the four main characters who take it in turns, extended chapter by extended chapter, to describe events. A third character fills in certain relevant background details; the fourth character, in a sense, takes the choric role, 'summing up' the action and interpreting (though, as it happens, incorrectly). The holocaustic climax (which involves a sacrificial knife and an inferno of fire) is revealed in a kind of waking dream experienced by all four. It is to be doubted that MRJ would have been all that keen on the book (which in any case features quite specific hints, at one stage, of child sexual abuse, almost unparalleled in such a book at such a time), although it is certainly one that deserves serious reappraisal. Brett Young's finest work is Portrait of a Village (1937), a quiet masterpiece of faction depicting with love and a reasonable honesty an English village of the inter-War years; superb woodcuts by a young Joan Hassall grace the text.

A final point is that Nico Davies certainly had other letters from MRJ. On one occasion he mentioned one he'd located - in which James talked of "theatrical matters" (though whether Etonian or Shaftesbury Avenue Nico didn't make clear) - but which was so affected by damp it was uncopyable, electronically or even by hand, parts of the paper having entirely rotted away. Nico expressed enormous guilt and embarrassment, I recall, at the state of his collection - many of his books were quite badly damp-stained - but at least (he said ruefully) he didn't have rats.

On which suitably Jamesian note (thanks to Rosemary, and also to David Tibet, who looked one or two things up) I believe I'll stop.

Copyright (c) 1999 Jack Adrian

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