Great Thinkers: Uta Frith FBA on M.R. James FBA

by Professor Uta Frith FBA

6 May 2019

There is something that interests me as a psychologist and that is why the ghost stories had such a lasting influence. Why is it that we just love to be frightened?

Uta Frith FBA

M.R. James, the writer behind some of Edwardian Britain’s most terrifying ghost stories, also happened to be a respected medievalist and a Fellow of the British Academy. In this episode, psychologist Uta Frith delves into the origins of James’s unsettling stories and what they reveal about our love of a good scare.

M.R. James (1862-1936) was a palaeographer, antiquary, and cataloguer of important libraries. An established figure in academia, he was also a master of King’s College, Cambridge; Vice-Chancellor of the University of Cambridge; director of the Fitzwilliam Museum; and provost of Eton College.

Colour portrait shows Montague Rhodes James in front of a bookshelf, looking at the viewer through round spectacles.
Montague Rhodes James by Sir Gerald Kelly. Oil on canvas, c.1936, © National Portrait Gallery

He was elected to the Fellowship of the British Academy in 1903. His biographical memoir in the Proceedings of the British Academy 1936, written by his friend Stephen Gaselee, highlights his work investigating medieval manuscripts and producing catalogues of the libraries found in Cambridge colleges. Gaselee mentions James’s work as a writer, noting somewhat dismissively, “he could also write other than learned works, I never greatly cared for his or any other ghost stories but experts tell me that they are among the best of their kind.”

Everyone seems to recall the time when they first listened to one of the M R James ghost stories or one of the haunting films made for TV.

M.R. James made a tradition of reading a ghost story every year at Christmas Eve to his students which has since inspired many TV adaptations, including Ghost Stories for Christmas. His stories Canon Alberic’s Scrap-book and Number 13, quoted in this podcast, were published in Ghost Stories of an Antiquary (1904).

Eerie black and white drawing of Canon Alberic sitting at table while a ghostly spectre hovers over him

Illustration for the M.R. James story Canon Alberic's Scrap-book by James McBryde.

He uses Latin liberally and I think this heightens the feeling of being in contact with an original source.

James was fascinated with the manuscripts of secret texts and slightly offbeat forms of knowledge and of history. A large portion of his published Biblical studies were on the apocalypse and on the apocryphal texts, such as Bel and the Dragon of the Book of Daniel. His ghost stories, most of which feature an antiquary hero and are set in the scholarly world, took inspiration from his studies and drew on his own life experiences investigating mysterious objects from the past.

James’s academic background was clearly a great influence on his vivid ghost stories. His popular collections of short fiction combined with his immense scholarship show that he was a multi-layered great thinker whose influence is still noticeable today.

Professor Uta Frith is a Fellow of the British Academy and Emeritus Professor of Cognitive Development at University College London. She was a presenter on the BBC Horizon documentary, What makes a psychopath?

Dr Christopher De Hamel is a specialist in medieval manuscripts and a Fellow of Corpus Christi College, Cambridge. He is the author of Meeting with Remarkable Manuscripts.

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