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Compton Mackenzie, Liberal Education, and the Oxford Novel: "Sympathy for the Normal" anna Bogen University of Sussex IN A KEY SCENE of Beverley Nichols's 1921 novel Patchwork, the main character, Ray Sheldon, eagerly arrives at Oxford only to find himself struck with an overwhelming sense of disappointment. For Ray, the contemporary university, "so sordid, so practical, so commercial ," represents a decline from the "silver city of dream and shadow" celebrated in Compton Mackenzie's 1914 novel Sinister Street.1 It is clear that, for Nichols's readers, Sinister Street would have provided an immediately comprehensible cultural referent. Nichols's evocation of what seems today like a somewhat paradoxical nostalgia for a fictional world reflects the immense influence of Mackenzie's novel before the First World War. Now often viewed retroactively as a typical example of the prewar middlebrow novel, it is not often remembered that Sinister Street was, upon publication, one of the most widely read and discussed novels of its day. Nor did its immense popularity—35,000 copies were sold in the first year alone—lessen its critical acclaim. In a letter to J.B. Pinker, Henry James rated Mackenzie highly, "putting one or two aside ... as very much the greatest talent of the new generation,"2 while Ford Madox Ford, comparing Mackenzie to D. H. Lawrence and Joseph Conrad , described Sinister Street as a modern touchstone, capturing "the history of a whole class, a whole region, during a whole period of life."3 Such praise seems ill-fitted to Sinister Street's current position within the loosely defined critical category of the "university novel," in which it is often treated as an isolated predecessor to the British and American campus novels that flourished from the 1950s onward. Such misclassification creates a situation in which Mackenzie's work jars uneasily for position alongside the faculty comedies of Kingsley Amis, David Lodge and Malcolm Bradbury, relegated to a genre often dis14 BOGEN : MACKENZIE missed as facetious and self-referential. Sinister Street is a novel about Oxford undergraduates rather than redbrick lecturers, and such an approach divorces the novel from its historical and literary context as a product of the early-twentieth-century Oxford educational experience, and inevitably compares it unfavorably to fiction with which it has very little in common.4 In order to trace the book's brief rise to fame, therefore , it is necessary to reread Sinister Street in terms of the Oxford that it emerged from and helped to shape, and in doing so to examine the ideological claims that lie at the heart of the early-twentieth-century phenomenon of the "Oxford novel." The years between 1890 and 1940 saw a boom in the publication of novels about university life, most of which centered on Oxford, whose dreaming spires were generally considered to be more suited to literary endeavor than the new redbricks in the north or the puritanical ethos that some Oxford novelists attributed to "the other place."5 Unlike, for example, Jude the Obscure (1895),6 these novels presented Oxford life as seen from the inside, characteristically telling the story of a typical undergraduate experiencing what David R. Jones has characterized as "the good old days at college."7 Although published early in the boom, Sinister Street was not the first of the new Oxford novels, but it was by far the most popular, reaching a wide audience almost immediately upon publication, largely due to circumstances that Mackenzie himself described as "artificial."8 By 1913 Mackenzie was an established, if not widely respected, author; his second novel Carnival (1912) had been a best seller the year before, coming second only to The Scarlet Pimpernel . The Daily Mail, expecting Sinister Street to match or exceed Carnival 's record, agreed to feature a column review of the novel on the front page, giving Mackenzie what he described as "one of the thrills of my life."9 Shortly before the publication of the first volume, however, the circulating libraries Boots and W. H. Smith refused to purchase it on the grounds of obscenity, leading to a two-week-long print battle in the Daily Mail christened the "Banned Books War."10 In fact, the "war...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1559-2715
Print ISSN
0013-8339
Pages
pp. 14-30
Launched on MUSE
2010-05-21
Open Access
No
Archive Status
Will Be Archived 2021
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