Wednesday, May 22, 2024

Finding E.G. Swain and M.R. James in an Unexpected Place

In The Visitors’ Book: A Family Album (1978) by Christopher Simon Sykes, I found the following interesting passage about Mark Sykes (1879-1919), the "Grandpapa" of the writer Christopher Simon Sykes:

At Cambridge his tutor, the Rev. E. G. Swain of King's College, immediately recognized that, while Grandpapa had no interest whatsoever in the drudgery of preparing for exams and the like, here was a remarkable young man who was head and shoulders above most of the other undergraduates in his knowledge of the world and of the things that matter, and who was also excellent company. As such he introduced him to Dr Montagu James, the great writer of ghost stories and then Dean of King's, with whom Grandpapa struck up an instant friendship. Every evening was open house in the rooms of Monty James and in his autobiography he wrote of 'the delirious evenings in which it was perfectly useless to think you could get anything done the moment you saw Mark put a round, enquiring face (into which he would throw the expression of a stage yokel) round the edge of the door'. He would soon be sitting cross-legged on the sofa holding the company spellbound, perhaps with one of his many impersonations, such as a Yorkshire tenant or a Turkish official speaking French, or maybe with a re-enactment of some melodrama he had seen recently, in which he would take all the parts himself. His “amazing skill” as an actor greatly impressed Monty James. “Whatever it was,' he wrote, 'there was genius in it.”

A bit of further digging produced a long passage in Shane Leslie's Mark Sykes: His Life and Letters (1923), which I quote here.

He was coached by the Rev. E. G. Swain, of King’s, whose impression remains fresh in spite of the years which have elapsed. He writes:

“I soon discovered that he had no more than the mildest curiosity about the examination, but a great readiness to receive and discuss any information that could be brought within the four corners of the subject. He had his own notions concerning what he wanted to learn, and was not to be diverted from them. He had also his own views about the importance of his engagements with me in relation to other engagements that clashed with them. About once a week his man McEwen appeared in his place with a message to the effect that Mr. Sykes regretted that he ‘could not attend upon my instructions that day,’ the words being evidently those of McEwen. Sykes was in no way well taught. There were many matters usually learned at school of which he was altogether ignorant, probably because he had no desire to learn them; I mean things like accidence and syntax. It was a side of language he had been allowed to neglect, and I doubt whether he would ever have acquired any precision in the use of language. A pupil of this kind was obviously not one to be kept in hiding. Sykes was soon introduced into the social circle in King’s that formed round Dr. Montagu James, who was then Dean. He never failed to be unobtrusively amusing, and, since none of us had had experiences like his, he was always interesting. His experiences of travel, acute observation, retentive memory and great powers of mimicry supplied him with means of entertainment such as no one else possessed, and it was unusual for an evening to pass when we were together without Sykes having impersonated a Yorkshire tenant or labourer or soldier, or a dragoman or sheikh or Turkish official. The performance always contained something new, if one may give the name of performance to what he did so simply and unassumingly. It was never twice alike. He could have taken the ordinary degree easily enough if he had set himself to do it, but it never seemed to him worth doing. He seemed to be always looking round the University to see how it might best serve him, and to follow his own conclusions without considering the views of other people or whether his practice were usual or unusual. He seemed to me to do this with great sagacity, and I heard from him many criticisms of University studies and organization which would have been heard with attention in a Senate House discussion. He was full of acute observation and criticism of everything about him. I remember, for example, that I profited greatly by some observation of his in relation to the work of chaplains in the Boer War. He was surprisingly mature, and in this respect different from the ordinary undergraduate. He had a line of his own in everything. The power of close application to what did not immediately interest him, if he ever had it, was lost before he appeared at Cambridge. He had plenty of purpose, and his aims were serious and worthy. It would be hard to find another instance of a wealthy young man, completely his own master, who lived so simply or held so firmly to high principles. The pleasures purchasable with money had no place in his life, and he pursued his own good way, whether at home or abroad, entirely unmoved by the temptations incidental to his circumstances and leisure. I am inclined to think that Cambridge did a great deal for him. He became intimate with men of great learning and saw how work was done. He was always observant and appreciative, and I know none of these men whom he did not greatly interest or in whom his early death did not occasion unusually deep regret.”

King’s College preserved such an intellectual ascendancy among the other colleges that of the neighbouring St. Catherine’s it was only allowed that “a cat may look at a King,” and Jesus men were seldom called into King’s circles unless to improve the style of a racing crew. Mark was an exception, and, though a little contemptuous of the academic mind, showed a real friendship for Dr. Montagu James. To admire Dr. James was really a liberal education, for he was equally qualified to step upon the Attic Stage or into the Alexandrine Library or into a Renaissance Cardinalate. He was an entirely novel luminary on Mark’s horizon, and Mark, with his instinct for great men, never lost sight of him. He personified miraculous learning, the power of easy knowledge, and slightly Olympian companionship. Dr. James was almost uncanny in the rapidity and sureness of his scholarship. Already legend played like an aureole over his unpuzzled brow. As an Eton boy he had been noticed muttering gutturals of an unknown tongue while reading from what his masters mistook for a book upside down. This proved to be a Coptic Gospel, which Master James translated and sent to Queen Victoria without ceremony. Sir Henry Ponsonby returned the translation to the headmaster, who, being without imagination or Oriental knowledge himself, felt called upon to swish the learned writer for tese-majestt. Dr. James’s accuracy in literary detection had enabled him to pick out so many hidden quotations from the lost Gospel of St. Peter that he actually reconstructed the Gospel before it was rediscovered as a whole. His knowledge of mediaeval bookmarks had enabled him to catalogue several non-existent libraries which had been scattered since the Reformation. He could not only give the date and diocese of an illuminated missal placed in his hands, but he could often recognize the very handwriting. One of his best monographs, on the Lady Chapel in Ely Cathedral, he actually finished by writing on his knees in the train between Cambridge and Ely. A specimen of Dr. James’s learning may be given in a note to Mark (June 12, 1912) : “The fragment is from a very fine English Bible of cent, xii. It is the initial of the Book of Obadiah, and represents Obadiah — not really the prophet, but Ahab’s steward, who was always identified with the prophet in old times — feeding the prophets of the Lord by fifties in a cave. I believe it would be worth while to take it to the Lambeth Library and see whether it does not conform to MS. 3 there, which is a fine Bible of that date. In that book there is no pictured initial to Obadiah. Possibly yours may be a fragment of that very book. There are few Bibles of the kind about. The big Bible at Winchester Cathedral also seems to have no Obadiah picture.”

Dr. James seemed to work outside the usual bounds of time and space, and accordingly he had leisure to entertain those who were wise enough to invite themselves to his rooms. The frequentation of Dr. James’s famous suite on the great court at King’s was a semi-social educative process known among Old Etonians as “ keeping Montem.” On the impressionable Mark this process made a great impression. Here was a striking contrast to the official pedant, for Dr. James’s rooms were neither didactic nor dreary. Manuscripts and priceless texts often strewed the table amid pipes and siphons, but the humorous yarn and the thrilling ghost story filled the longer pauses. It was often all that Mark’s wit could do to keep up with the scintillating conversation; but he generally could say something, and if he could not add to the general knowledge he could let loose his powers of mimicry. Dr. James himself admitted of lighter moments and allowed himself to repeat with exquisite drollery statements attributable to other members of the college corporation. On many a winter’s evening, while Mark recited cross-legged on a sofa, twisting and pounding his face to suit each story as he told it, Dr. James could be seen making interminable tea, his thin features laughing noiselessly behind his spectacles — the reserved and rippling laugh of the unvintaged sea. Dr. James used to be most pleased .when Mark imitated the Turkish officials. If the man of the world was amazed by the man of the study, the man of the study was amused by the man of the world. “Monty” James made a most pleasing and direct counterbalance to Monte Carlo in Mark’s education.

In Dr. James’s rooms Mark even learnt something about Thackeray and Dickens, as well as being inspired to search for Greek inscriptions during his Eastern travels. In the Lent term of 1898 he visited the Hauran alone with his Arab servants and discovered an inscription not recorded in the Corpus. Though he had been unable to face the Greek test in the “Little Go,” he brought back a notebook full of various transcriptions which Dr. James was able to pronounce “astonishingly faithful and intelligent.” [pp. 51-56]



  1. Wow! Many thanks, Doug, for sharing these passages about Mark Sykes, James and Swain. I knew a little about Sykes, but more about his son Christopher, whose Four Studies in Loyalty includes a brilliant short biography of his friend Robert Byron, who recorded their Central Asia travels together in "The Road to Oxiana." Christopher Sykes also wrote the first major biography of Evelyn Waugh. Quite a family.

  2. Thanks for this fascinating post! The things I don't know about Sykeses! Quickly following up, in the Internet Archive scan of the Robarts Library copy I find Winston Churchill saying (p. vii), "Though never widely read and now out of print and unattainable, his books contain passages which English writers as well as travellers may be proud to read." Happily, there are also scans there of four of the five books his Wikipedia article lists.

    And how my interest in the prolific Shane Leslie grows, most recently boosted by Charles Williams's very warm review for G.K.'s Weekly of the Anthology about which Tolkien writes so swingeingly in the 'Beowulf and the Critics' lecture notes.