Last year, when I wrote a column in praise of heritage skills, a man on Twitter took exception to me telling young job seekers to get up on cathedral scaffolding in the rain while I “sat on my Oxbridge-educated bottom”. I like the idea of a bottom having an education. A secondary-modern bottom, a Red-Brick bottom, an Ivy-League bottom, etc.
Anyway, the point is that “Oxbridge” is a dirty word. Some people, for understandable reasons, hate it and all it stands for. If the words “Christ Church”, “Cherwell” and “Cousin Jasper” make you see red (bricks, or otherwise) Not Far from Brideshead is not the book for you. If, however, your shelves heave with Brideshead Revisited, Zuleika Dobson, Gaudy Night, Northern Lights and Inspector Morse, you’re going to love Daisy Dunn’s dons. It’s niche, but it’s nice.
Dunn, who read Classics at St Hilda’s College, Oxford, is the author of In the Shadow of Vesuvius, a biography of Pliny the Elder and Pliny the Younger, and Catullus’ Bedspread: The Life of Rome’s Most Erotic Poet. She has written a Ladybird guide to Homer and has a gift for making the arcane accessible and the forbidding more friendly.
Not Far from Brideshead is a love letter to learning. In her preface Dunn pays tribute to the tutors who “taught me to think”. Her heroes aren’t Greek warriors, but dusty professors in dustier studies.
If your shelves heave with Brideshead Revisited, Zuleika Dobson, Gaudy Night, Northern Lights and Inspector Morse, you’re going to love Daisy Dunn’s dons. It’s niche, but it’s nice.
Her portrait of Oxford between the wars is structured around the careers of three Oxford professors of Classics: Gilbert Murray, regius professor of Greek between 1908 and 1936, Maurice Bowra, the charismatic troublemaker who was expected to succeed him, and ER Dodds, the quieter soul who did.
“Though they could hardly have been more different in personality and style,” Dunn writes, “one, a libertine and veteran of the Western Front with an appetite for good food, society and praise [Bowra]; another an Irish pacifist and amateur hypnotist [Dodds]; the third an elegant Australian of Victorian reserve [Murray] — this trio inspired some of the most brilliant writers and thinkers of the 20th century.”
There are walk-on parts for John Betjeman (plus teddy bear), the writers Vera Brittain, Iris Murdoch, Virginia Woolf, Kenneth Clark, CS Lewis and Henry Green, and the poets Cecil Day-Lewis, WH Auden, TS Eliot, Louis MacNeice and Edith Sitwell.
Evelyn Waugh, not himself a classicist, was in the Bowra circle. Bowra was the inspiration for Samgrass, the genial and oleaginous professor in Brideshead Revisited. (Betjeman’s bear would become Aloysius, teddy to Sebastian Flyte.) In a further Brideshead connection, Murray married into the Howard family of Castle Howard, the setting for the 1981 ITV adaptation. Dunn proposes that Waugh, who visited Castle Howard in 1937, found inspiration for his novel in Murray’s in-laws and his wife, Lady Mary, “who became something of a Lady Marchmain figure herself”.
Dunn’s heroes aren’t Greek warriors, but dusty professors in dustier studies.
Dunn begins with the hollowed-out Oxford of the First World War. In July 1914 3,079 undergraduates and about 100 graduates were enrolled at the university. By 1916 it was only 550. Almost a fifth of the 14,561 members and alumni who served in the war would be killed.
Vera Brittain was turfed out of Somerville, one of the few women’s colleges, when it became a military hospital. Most of her contemporaries were relocated to Oriel College where the passage that separated their quad from the men’s was filled in with what one local journalist described as “a purpose and determination that were worthy of the mediaeval bricking-up of nuns”. Dunn is good on the struggle of women undergraduates to gain recognition and degrees.
After the war there was a divide between the schoolboys, too young to have fought, and the ex-soldiers and officers who were confident but scarred. The antagonism between the “athletes” and the “aesthetes”, the “hearties” and the “arties” would be satirized by Waugh in Decline and Fall when the Bollinger Club (based on the Bullingdon) ransacks Scone College, destroying pianos and dipping a Matisse in a lavatory. Blameless Paul Pennyfeather is sent down for the Bollinger’s crimes. One of Bowra’s tutors was “crucified” — pinioned with croquet hoops — on the college lawn by such bullies.
After serving on the Western Front, Bowra went up to New College, Oxford in 1919. Less than three years later, he was appointed dean of Wadham, fellow and lecturer in Classics before he had even received his (first-class) degree. As a scholar, he sought to show how ancient Greek poetry could live alongside modern verse.
Bowra, Dunn writes, “was a gossip and a raconteur, a libertarian, a showman and a scholar”. I’m afraid Bowra rather steals the show from Murray, who translated Euripides and resurrected such plays as Medea and The Bacchae, and Dodds, who was regarded as the greatest Greek scholar of his generation, but lacked Bowra’s flair.
The antagonism between the “athletes” and the “aesthetes”, the “hearties” and the “arties” would be satirized by Evelyn Waugh.
Bowra was homosexual, but necessarily discreet. He gets all the best lines. He once declared that “buggery was invented to fill that awkward hour between evensong and cocktails”. Of Murray’s wife, he quipped that she had “decided that, if she still had any claims to looks, she would make the worst of them”. During a supervision he interrupted a rambling Day-Lewis with: “Cecil, conversation should be a vehicle of, not a substitute for, thought.”
He reported gleefully on an exchange about Greek proclivities at Murray’s lunch table. When asked by a visitor: “Are you interested in incest, Professor Murray?” Murray replied: “Only in a very general sort of way.”
Murray retired in 1936 and Bowra was passed over as regius professor in favor of Dodds, who after studying Classics at Oxford became a professor at Birmingham. Bowra was bitterly disappointed. It is possible that Murray was “tipped off” about Bowra’s sexuality and lifestyle.
Maurice Bowra was homosexual, but necessarily discreet. He gets all the best lines. He once declared that “buggery was invented to fill that awkward hour between evensong and cocktails.”
Oxford between the wars was “a flawed Arcadia”, Dunn writes. As the Second World War approaches, plover’s eggs and supper parties feel ever less important. Dunn eloquently captures this short-lived, vanishing world.
One last anecdote, probably apocryphal, but too fun not to tell: when caught nude at Parson’s Pleasure bathing site by a party of ladies, every other man covered his genitals, only Bowra covered his face. He knew which part would be recognized in gossipy Oxford.
Laura Freeman is a U.K.-based book-and-art critic, and the author of The Reading Cure: How Books Restored My Appetite