- Oxford in English Literature: The Making, and Undoing, of “The English Athens.”
A place that has been inspecting and celebrating itself and its antiquity in its own legends and fantasies for nearly eight hundred years will not produce, or figure in, many volumes discussed in the pages of this journal. The determination and ingenuity with which Oxford fended off, and the intellectual frivolity with which it finally absorbed, modernism complicate few of the several hundred “Oxford novels” written in the last hundred years.
The features that enable Oxford to slide so elegantly into poetry, ruminative prose, tourism, and detective fiction spoil it for our purposes. Its rivers, hills, walls (on which John Dougill is especially insightful and eloquent), walks, and gardens do not entice the footsteps of the flâneur, while its architecture resonates to periods and purposes dead to the brittle acoustics of modernity. The intellectual (or rather, rhetorical) skills, academic certainties, and assorted privileges that its inhabitants have cultivated for centuries do not belong in modern structures, architectural or literary. Exclusiveness, abstraction, detachment, complacency, introspection, impressionability, and eccentricity require preserves more picturesque and archaic.
When alienation reaches Oxford, as, for example, in Philip Larkin’s Jill (1946), the place dwindles, as Dougill shows: “bereft of adjectival colour [. . .] [t]here is no sense of awe, no evocation of the past, no reflection on the insignificance of the individual.” To my mind, the book that best depicts why Oxford is inhospitable to modernism (while conveying its rhetorical and procedural resilience) is Daniel Topolski’s True Blue: The Oxford Boat Race Mutiny (1989). Its hearties are the descendants of those at whom Anthony Blanche declaimed The Waste Land as they made their way to the river; their modernism has no affinities with either poetry or fiction.
Dougill’s skillful summaries and well- (and widely-) chosen quotations emphasize “[t]he aristocratic nonchalance, the country house manner [a frequent, and fruitful, theme], the college pride, the cliquish élitism, the peripheral nature of study, [and] the sense of Englishness.” Add a long-standing antipathy to science and insert “the student hero” as the soft center of its fictions, and you get the fantasies of Charles [End Page 1070] Dodgson, Max Beerbohm, C.S. Lewis, and J.R.R. Tolkien, and many pleasant, but not noticeably modern, poems. While others were learning, or doing, existentialism, “the Republic lay open on every table and couch in Oxford and the spirit of Plato breathed from its pages like the odour of a cherished flower.” Modern fiction pressed few flowers in its pages.
Thus Oxford found its modern poetry in John Betjeman, its modern criticism in C.S. Lewis, and its best fiction in Evelyn Waugh and Dorothy L. Sayers. (Has it produced any modern art beyond the aquatint?) We do not often turn to the Oxford novels of those modern writers with Oxford connections (Aldous Huxley, Graham Greene, John Fowles, John Wain). Kingsley Amis (père), Malcolm Bradbury, and David Lodge abandoned Oxbridge to Tom Sharpe, while Iris Murdoch fixed her penetrating gaze altogether extramurally.
Dougill is excellent with Oxford’s (mostly pre-modern) literary eminences, Geoffrey Chaucer, Anthony Wood, Mark Pattison, Cardinal Newman, Matthew Arnold (in particular), and Louis MacNeice, and its powerful eccentrics, Archbishop Laud, Benjamin Jowett (who did the most to make Oxford both eminent and Athenian—Dougill’s other frequent and fruitful theme), Francis “Sligger” Urquhart, and Oscar Wilde.
The book has few weaknesses. A lax sense of literary influence, especially in the case of Newman, combines with a fondness for shallow psychological explanations. Curiously, given Oxford’s exceedingly bookish propensities, this is not a bookish book. It mentions several hundred titles, but we get few references to libraries, a single bookshop (anent Brian Aldiss), and no sense whatever of books on anyone’s shelves, or, for that matter, in anyone’s life. Anthony Blanche’s glib declaiming is all too representative.
The numerous summaries and discussions, though able, seem directed to those who have not read the books, and have little intention of...