Frazer was born 1 January 1854 in Glasgow, and after graduating MA in 1874 from the University of Glasgow, entered Trinity College with a scholarship. He was Second Classic in 1878, and a year later was made a Fellow of the College on the strength of his dissertation, "The Growth of Plato’s Ideal Theory”. This Title Alpha Fellowship, for which no duties were required, was renewed as a Title B fellowship (for those 'engaged in the systematic study of some important branch of literature or science') in 1885 and 1890, before becoming qualified to hold a Pension Fellowship in 1895, at which time it became tenable for life.
“The Golden Bough”, the work for which Frazer is best known, was first published in 1890. The book drew on a comprehensive amount of data and traced common evolutionary patterns in the development of seemingly disparate cultures worldwide. His evolutionary theory of societal development, in which societies moved from a belief in primitive magic, to religion, to science was expanded over three editions, which ballooned from two, to three, to twelve volumes, with an additional volume (“Aftermath”) twenty years later.
Frazer followed “The Golden Bough” with other anthropological works, including “Totemism and Exogamy” (1910), “The Belief in Immortality and the Worship of the Dead” (1913-1924), “Folk-Lore in the Old Testament” (1918), “The Worship of Nature” (1926), “Myths of the Origin of Fire” (1930), “The Fear of the Dead in Primitive Religion” (1933), and the four volume “Anthologia Anthropologica. The Native Races of Africa and Madagascar [and Australasia, Asia and Europe, and America]” (1938-1939). His first published work was the revised edition of George Long’s “C. Sallusti Crispi Catalina et Iugurtha” (1884); he continued to produce works of classical scholarship at intervals, with editions of “Pausanias’s Description of Greece” (1898), Apollodorus’s “The Library” (1921), and Ovid’s “Fasti” (one for Macmillan, 1929, one for Loeb, 1931). He also produced more literary works, editing the letters of William Cowper (1912) and essays of Joseph Addison (1915), and writing a series of articles in Addison’s style, “Sir Roger de Coverley” in “The Saturday Review” (1915, published as a book in 1920).
In 1896, he married Lilly Grove (born Elizabeth Johanna de Boys Adelsdorfer in 1854/5), a French widow with two children, Charles Grenville Grove (1878-1949) and Lilly Mary Grove (c 1880-1919). Lilly’s first husband Charles Baylee Grove had been a captain in the British merchant service; they married in 1877, he died in January 1889. Lilly was a French teacher who produced French schoolbooks and plays and promoted the use of phonographic records in the teaching of languages. Her publications include “Scenes of Familiar Life” (1896), “Berthes aux grands pieds” (1902), “Histoire de Monsieur Blanc” (1910), and “Je sais un conte” (1911). She was working on a book on the history of dance when she met Frazer (“Dancing”, 1895), and later wrote a book for children based on “The Golden Bough”, entitled “Leaves from the Golden Bough” (1924). She also translated one of his books, “Adonis” in 1921, and several works by French scholars, including Albert Houtin’s “A Short History of Christianity” (1926) and François Aulard’s “Christianity and the French Revolution” (1927). In the 1930s she commissioned an operetta based on her story “The Singing Wood”, and co-authored a book with James, a small book entitled “Pasha the Pom: the Story of a Little Dog” (1937).
Lilly had a highly developed business sense, and stepped into the role of James’s manager and press agent, promoting him in Britain as well as the continent, where she arranged for his works to be translated into French. James received many honours, most notably a knighthood in 1914, followed by the Order of Merit in 1925. He was named to the first chair of social anthropology in Britain at the University of Liverpool in 1908, was inducted into numerous societies, awarded a number of honorary degrees, and was particularly pleased by a lectureship in anthropology established in his honour in 1922. He was very often in the news, referenced whenever folklore or myth were discussed, and wrote a number of articles for both academic journals and popular newspapers, including a much-reproduced opinion piece in “The Morning Post” in 1925, in favour of forgiveness of the French war debt.
After James suffered a dramatic loss of sight while giving a lecture in May 1931, he and Lilly travelled to Switzerland for a number of eye operations, which were temporarily helpful, but failed to stave off an eventual near blindness. Secretaries were employed as James revised and added to earlier works in the later 1930s. Lilly became increasingly deaf herself. In the late 1930s, they moved from accommodation in London to 7 Causewayside in Cambridge, where they died within a day of each other: James on 7 May and Lilly on 8 May, 1941.