- Oxbridge Men: British Masculinity and the Undergraduate Experience, 1850–1920
Oxbridge Men is a study of undergraduate masculinity at Cambridge and Oxford between 1850 and 1920. It explores the formation of Britain's professional elite: [End Page 216] the future politicians and civil servants; colonial administrators and lawyers; schoolmasters, university lecturers, and clergy. Drawing chiefly from undergraduate reviews and magazines, Paul Deslandes seeks to give voice to the undergraduates themselves. His goal is to understand how the masculine culture of Oxford and Cambridge fostered, perpetuated, and defended an elite, a masculine sensibility complete with an esprit de corps among these young men as well a firm sense of superiority. What it meant for these privileged, upper middle class males "to be a man" is the central query of this study, and Deslandes is strongest at describing what he sees as the cultural meanings of masculinity for the Oxbridge men at the turn of the century. His central argument is less apparent and, in the end, what we are left with is a very fine description and analysis of undergraduate life at Oxford and Cambridge. But the implications of the competitive, elitist masculinity that Deslandes portrays, as it entered the worlds of politics, finance, imperialism, education, and the church, are left to our imagination.
Deslandes's work is indebted to two historiographies: that on modern education and the university (Reba Soffer, immediately comes to mind) and secondly, and more so, on modern manhood and masculinity (particularly, John Tosh). He positions his Oxbridge men well past the "cult of domesticity" to the era of what David Newsone has called "muscular Christianity" with its emphasis on physical strength, fortitude, action, competition, and valorization of military and imperial adventure. Yet, the future, as Deslandes points out in his Introduction, for the new manly men was anything but comforting. If the suffragettes and socialists were not frightening enough, there was the utter destabilizing nature of World War I and its aftermath.
The body of this book more narrowly concentrates on the culture Oxbridge undergraduates made their own: their rituals and traditions as well as their anxieties about the women and non-whites entering the universities, and how these young men sought to cultivate and protect their privileged position. The university became their own little world, a well-defined social space, separate and above the world of the town around them (whose merchants they often failed to pay) and the wider world of their mothers and sisters (who patiently awaited their letters) and the still wider world of the effeminate peoples of countries like France and, naturally, of the empire. Oxbridge men had their own rooms and special dress, (the cap and gown) and customs which Deslandes generously describes. Outfitting their "digs" gave undergraduates a space for "self-fashioning: warm and welcoming retreats." (72). But the Oxbridge male's retreat was to undergo serious strain with the introduction of increasing numbers of women and colonial students to campus. Men responded in typical fashion. They labeled female students as an inferior brand of their sex, unattractive, sexually neutered, and in over their heads, and treated foreign students, particularly non-whites, to outright hostility and infantile racial caricatures.
Deslandes, who originally became interested in Oxford and Cambridge from reading literature like E. M. Forester's Maurice and Evelyn Waugh's Brideshead Revisited, is also interested in same sex eroticism and desire among these undergraduates, but finds rather that "Heterosexual romance, courting, and liaisons, not romantic friendships with other men, dominated the sexual development of most undergraduates." (30) Despite this conclusion, we later read suggestions [End Page 217] such as this about the importance of social intercourse and conviviality: "The warming intimacies of friends, tea, and coffee were charged in this and by other instances with homoerotic overtones, reflecting the multiplicity of meanings that undergraduates could assign to these events." (80) It is a shame that Deslandes resorts to such ambiguity because it mars this otherwise commendable description of university life. It is also unfortunate that Deslandes makes so...