‘Voltaire and the Sun King rolled into one’ is how Elizabeth Longford has described her Oxford tutor Maurice Bowra. As Fellow and then Warden of Wadham College from 1922 to 1970 and successively Professor of Poetry, Vice Chancellor of the University and President of the British Academy, this short, powerfully built, unbeautiful, but magnetic man for years gave the tone to the university. He was a brilliant wit and a challenging and imaginative college tutor. Late in his career, he fought an intelligent rearguard defence of the University’s independence. His biographer, Leslie Mitchell, well-known for his works on Whig history, has drawn on years of local Oxford knowledge and unpublished manuscript material for this penetrating portrait.
In tune with the mood following the end of the Great War, Bowra, the son of a domineering employee of the Chinese government, encouraged his pupils to turn their backs on parental tyranny and Edwardian shibboleths, and seek out the beautiful and finer things of life; these he himself had discovered on the Somme, as a gunner officer, by reading poetry as an escape from a detestable situation. He rapidly acquired a circle who rejected conventional morality and filial piety in favour of intellectual freedom, friendship and aesthetic ideals — comparable with the spirit of Bloomsbury but actually incompatible — far too tough-minded and dissipated, and intellectually more light-hearted, with wit rated higher than truth in conversation.
Bowra’s protégés over the years included Kenneth Clark, John Betjeman, John Sparrow, and Cecil Day Lewis. Isaiah Berlin thanked him for inspiring him with ‘what is a free, generous, life- and pleasure-loving, warm-hearted and intellectually anti-prig front.’ Bowra’s ideal was a Greek one — the happiness of the individual — the source of his own rebellious liberal views. He contrasted his life-affirming vision with the dry-as-dust textual approach of academic contemporaries, who considered him a dilettante. Supposedly for this reason he was turned down for the Regius chair of Greek — betrayed, he maintained, by his mentor Gilbert Murray, the retiring professor. Ambitious and competitive he felt the setback acutely
Bowra considered poetry the highest human activity, and it was a personal disappointment, that though an adroit composer of scatological verses, he had no real poetical talent. Instead, he passionately promoted the work of others, over a huge linguistic range, from Arabic and Chinese poets to Dante, Milton, Stefan George and Neruda. It was at Bowra’s suggestion that in 1945 Isaiah Berlin sought out the poet Anna Akhmatova, in St Petersburg, to bring her isolation to the world’s attention. A prolific writer, he deplored idleness, but the immensely wide scope of his scholarship laid him open to the charge of superficiality, unfairly, for his intellectual standards were high; while his admirers found his writing over-cautious and dull compared with his compelling conversation.
As a talker his style was stirring — as on Greece or Pasternak — or outrageous and paradoxical, a torrent of hilarious epigrams and puns, which in his deaf, shouting old age became too much of a monologue. ‘Able’ was for him a favourite word of abuse, to be used ironically: an imaginary example might be: ‘Very able man, got a first in Greats, beat his grandmother to death, embezzled half-a-million pounds from the college, very able . . . etc.’ He specialised in dismissive mots: Keith Murray, a university administrator whom he blamed for undermining Oxford’s independence, was ‘at the best a male impersonator, and at the worst a mass of jelly’. Tom Boase, the President of Magdalen College, was ‘a man of no public virtues and no private parts’. The stout Juliana of the Netherlands looked ‘every ounce a queen’ and the Emperor Haile Selassie was ‘a nice, quiet, polite old murderer’. More genially, Ottoline Morrell, in her fantastical attire, looked like ‘a baroque flamingo’.
Bowra was predominantly homosexual — Wadham, when he was a young don there, was reputedly known as ‘Wadham and Gomorrah’. Fear of scandal may have been the real reason why Gilbert Murray decided against him as his successor. Bowra’s pleasures were mostly coarse and cynical — including trips to Weimar Germany to cruise the gay bars, or sometimes to Paris for a quick heterosexual adventure. He also fell in love romantically and unhappily with both men and women. He was far from misogynistic. On one occasion he proposed marriage to his pupil Elizabeth Harman, later Pakenham. She refused but was grateful for the compliment.
The workings of Bowra’s powerful intellect and his divided passionate nature — his loneliness, craving for approval and touchiness — are admirably conveyed in this absorbing book. Sadly, it misses an opportunity to evoke graphically the cast of characters who inhabited Oxford in this era. John Sparrow is a central figure, but there is little impression of his arresting appearance and personality, his cleft chin and serpentine smile. More would have been welcome on Audrey Beecham, the dashing niece of Sir Thomas Beecham, to whom Maurice Bowra was engaged for a whole year, with her charming gamine looks (in youth — latterly she grew to look like the older George Melly, for the same reasons). She relished combat, including an umbrella battle with Lady Harrod. She was fascinated by farm implements. Her poetry was wild and exciting; and because psychic, she was pestered by ghosts: the very stuff of a Bowra monologue.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated April 11, 2009Tags: Biography, Education, History, Non-fiction, Oxford