Books Reviews

Not far from Brideshead

Visiting during the Blitz, Vera Brittain noted that Oxford had not been bombed.

‘Well, they say here that Hitler’s keeping Oxford for himself,’ the Dean of Somerville told her. ‘He wants it to look as it always has when he comes to get his Honorary Degree!’

Hitler was never able to collect his honorary degree in person, but his evil shadow still fell on the city, even if his bombs never did.

A neo-gothic building in front of a green space stands
The Back Quad of Wadham College, where Maurica Bowra was head (Saabie via Wikimedia)

Daisy Dunn’s new book Not far from Brideshead: Oxford between the wars tells the tale of the acclaimed university in the 1920s and 30s.

The main characters are Maurice Bowra, Eric Dodds and Gilbert Murray, three Oxford classicists recognised more as names in scholarly bibliographies than historical characters. 

The announcement of a new Regius Professor in 1936 is the central drama which unites the three. One of Oxford’s oldest chairs, at the time it was in the gift of the Crown (e.g. the decision was made by the Prime Minister). A position so prestigious that newspapers would cover it with bated interest. It was akin to the choice of a British prime minister today: something most people had little power over and which little directing power over them in comparison to other forces, but which was still important.

Gilbert Murrary was a liberal of the Edwardian stamp. A vegetarian and pacifist, he married into aristocracy and lived in Castle Howard (which stood in for Brideshead in the 1981 television series). Adolphus Cusins, the protagonist of Major Barbara, an idealistic poet, written by his friend the playwright Bernard Shaw, was inspired by him. He was also a poet, writing well received translations of the major Greek dramatists which as Dunn admits tell their age when read or acted today. He had been the Regius Professor from 1908 to his retirement in 1936.

The two main contenders were Maurice Bowra and John Dewar Denniston, but it went to E.R. Dodds. Dodds was an Irishman, a poet and a scholar with an interest in the occult. Before he was called to the big time, his relationship to Oxford was mixed. He was forced to leave the university as a student in 1916 for a while due to his support for the Easter Rising. He had also left Oxford to continue his academic career, working at the University of Birmingham for 12 years and specialising in the then relatively neglected field of neo-platonism. Dodds work is perhaps the best read of the three scholars in Dunn’s book. The Greeks and the Irrational and Pagan and Christian in an Age of Anxiety are both erudite and readable accounts of a field that would become more prominent in the second half of the Twentieth Century. Dodds was particularly fond of poets and knew several including Louis MacNeiece who became a colleague for a time at Birmingham.

The loser of the Regius Race, Maurice Bowra, was a noted wit and bon viveur, the warm heart of Oxford, a one time hunky war hero. He inspired the character Samgrass in Brideshead Revisited and perhaps Sillery in Dance to the Music of Time. (Powell denied this). He was also gay, during a time in which Homosexuality was illegal. (He signed an open letter urging decriminalization in 1959, but this law was only passed in 1967 when Bowra was 69). As Dunn shows, awareness of his sexuality may have held him back from preference at Oxford and during the Second World War. He never got over his defeat in the Regius professor challenge.

A man in a robe reads a book.
Gilbert Murray (Public Domain via Wikimedia)

The title of the book is perhaps unfortunate. It doesn’t really give a sense of the multitudes contained in the book and it only alludes to Brideshead Revisited in passing. 

This is a group biography of the very loosest kind. It has a vast supporting cast including several important authors like Anthony Powell, Evelyn Waugh, Robert Graves, Mary Renault and Jane Harrison.

The most memorable is Mary Beezley. Bored by the tedious Tudors (if asked, like many of us, she could not tell who came first – Queen Anne or Queen Elizabeth), she was sophisticated and eccentric. She was often  seen walking the family’s goose in Christ Church’s Uncle Tom quad. At one dinner party, she told the assembled guests that her husband ‘can make sparks fly from my loins’. Her husband, John Beazley, was an expert of ancient Greek pottery. For many visitors to Oxford today, he will be the most visible of the many names in this book. The Ashmolean prominently display part of their Greek ceramic collection according to his almost Hermetic identification system.

There were several ‘remarkable’ women in Oxford at that time. This is more telling given the institution’s misogynist culture. From 1927, the number of women was capped at 840, roughly a sixth of the student population. This wasn’t enough for some men. In March 1928, the Oxford Union voted ‘That the Women’s Colleges of this University should be levelled to the ground’. Nevertheless, several important women members of staff became highly respected, not least Hilda Lorrimer, who tutored women students in classics at Oriel. She is most famous in Oxford history for stoutly guarding the female students living in Oriel during the war from the sex starved recuperating male soldiers.

Augmenting the gossip, there is an important argument on the importance of classical studies in contemporary society.

A deep browed mature men, pensively stares into the middle distance
ER Dodds in 1949 (Anonymous photographer. Public Domain via Wikimedia)

There has been a flurry of books about the twenties recently, which struck me as odd until I remembered we are, of course, coming onto various centenaries of this seminal decade. For the last six years or so, I have had the uncanny feeling that our times resemble more closely the 1930s. A growing feeling of world dread caused by an emboldened and growing far right in the UK and around the world, the pandemic, the war in Ukraine and a worsening climate crisis.

This search for historical parallels is common to both historians and the general public.

Gilbert Murray wrote that the Peloponnesian War and the Great War were ‘curiously similar’. In a lecture in 1919, he noted not just the brutal slaughter, but the deadly pandemics which marked both conflicts and the swiftly broken peace treaties between Athens and Sparta which were to prefigure the bitter legacy of the Versailles Treaty signed the same year.

The rise of Nazism in Germany and also the UK is an important theme in the book. If Hitler wanted the buildings of Oxford left the same, then he had grimmer plans for academics who opposed him. Several people, including Oxford academics, were named in the ‘Black Book’ of notables who would be sent to concentration camps after a Nazi conquest. Dodds entry says ‘Professor, propagandist against Franco and involved in the International Front Against Germany’, as honorable a description as anyone would want.

All three men supported several Jewish academics in Germany, helping them seek refuge and jobs in Britain. Murray was a member of the Academic Assistance Council which assisted 2,600 Jewish scholars. Renamed CARA, the organization still does important work around the world to protect at-risk academics.

Oxford benefitted from this influx of expertise. Eduard Fraenkel was forced to flee the University of Freiberg, then led by the prominent Nazi Rector Martin Heidegger. Fraenkel became Professor of Latin at Oxford in 1934, leading the writers of Sunday Times (then as now the voice of Reactionary Conservatism) to sputter into their cornflakes. He brought in continental styles of teaching, but was known for ‘wandering hands’.

‘I expect he’ll paw you a bit’ Iris Murdoch’s tutor told her, ‘but never mind’.

Oxford classicists also became involved in the battle against Nazi use of classical history. Dunn argues that Bowra’s Ancient Greek Literature was an important weapon in this war.

While students and academics were disgusted at the rise of the Nazis, the chance of war horrified them. A debate in early 1933 on whether students were willing to fight went to the pacifist side. It was international news. Winston Churchill later argued that many countries took it as a sign that Britain would not fight in a future war. This seems to have been Hitler’s belief at the time, but whether a student debate early in his reign led him to this position, is another question.

When war came, many students did fight.

A handsome young man in a suit smiles to camera.
Maurica Bowra in the 1920s taken by Lady Ottoline Morrell (Cropped from another photo, Public Domain via Wikimedia).

The book resembles Square Haunting by Francesca Wade, yet where that book had an almost random assemblage of subjects which somehow made the connections between them clearer, Not far from Brideshead  does the opposite: it takes a seemingly inter-connected group and shows the spaces between them. 

This creates a more dynamic book, which sketches a vivid world in flux – the introduction of motor cars is noted first in the concern of Dons and then by Bowra’s observation that it prepared the students for flying Spitfires and Hurricanes – almost like the syncopated rhythms of jazz.

Yet the Oxford of 20s and 30s was a fundamentally different world: a Liberal-Conservative enclave, where professors were in contact with Prime Ministers and other important people

We glean hints of Porterhouse Blue. When Bowra traveled to America and tasted Turkey for the first time he was not impressed. Presumably he was used to goose, even if he never hand-raised it like the Beazleys.

Perhaps out of sensitivity to its readers, Dunn glosses over the high life of Oxford during a time of mass unemployment and labour unrest. 

In Brideshead Revisited, Sebastian and Charles, borrow a car and drive out of Oxford to have a picnic of strawberries with a bottle of Chateau Peyraguey (“which isn’t a wine you’ve ever tasted, so don’t pretend. It’s heaven with strawberries” says Sebastian). The privilege is clear. In Dunn’s hand, Boar’s Hill is a bucolic location, the stomping grounds of ‘artists and poets’, without the sheen of elite privilege which Waugh so lightly conveys.

Then, as now, Oxford is a king maker (Out of 56 prime ministers, 29 went to Oxford and 14 to Cambridge).

Any history of an institution like Oxford, also writes an unspoken counter-history as insubstantial but stark as shadow, of those excluded, those who were not able to attend the university or partake in the intellectual highlife. The Jude Fawleys, the Okonkwo twins. We get the impression Oxford would carry on regardless of these people, but the world is a poorer place.