Paula Byrne

When Oxford life resembled a great satirical novel

Sardonic dons, their eccentric wives and ‘satanic’ undergraduates all figure in Daisy Dunn’s vivid portrait of the university between the wars

When Oxford life resembled a great satirical novel
Maurice Bowra was hugely popular with undergraduates, charming them with his wit and expertise. [Getty Images]
Text settings

Not Far From Brideshead: Oxford Between the Wars

Daisy Dunn

Oxford University Press, pp. 304, £20

Evelyn Waugh’s Oxford friend Harold Acton, immortalised as Anthony Blanche in Brideshead Revisited, once bumped into the wife of John Beazley, a lecturer in ancient Greek pottery, while she was exercising their pet goose in Christ Church’s Tom Quad. Hopping over the bird, Acton intuitively doffed his hat. Here, Marie Beazley declared, was ‘a true gentleman’. Mrs Beazley was famous in academic circles for her unpredictable remarks. Over dinner with undergraduates she once announced: ‘My husband can make sparks fly from my loins.’ Her daughter married the poet Louis MacNeice, who made his own pithy observation of the dons of Oxford as ‘scraggy-necked baldheads in gown and hood looking like marabou storks, giant turtles reaching for a glass of port with infinitely weary flippers’.

If Oxford University has long had a reputation for treating the wives of its dons badly it is hardly surprising, when one considers that it was illegal for dons to marry until 1877. After that, the dons and their families moved to the sprawling houses of north Oxford and Boars Hill. Wives had a new power (the department store Ellistons on Magdalen Street had a private entrance solely for the wives of dons and heads of houses) and they exerted it at the dinner table. None more eccentrically than Lady Mary Howard (of Castle Howard fame), who in 1899 married the Australian scholar Gilbert Murray, the future Regius Professor of Greek.

Daisy Dunn’s Not Far From Brideshead is described as a classicist’s portrait of Oxford University between the wars. It focuses on three scholars: Murray, Maurice Bowra and E.R. Dodds. Such was Murray’s cleanliness of body and mind that Virginia Woolf supposed ‘a great nurse must rub him smooth with pumice stone every morning’. He and Lady Mary, ‘one of Oxford’s fabulous monsters’, were vegetarians, abstained from alcohol and gathered an eclectic group around their luncheon table at their house on Boars Hill, including undergraduates, politicians, a token foreigner and their loyal gardener Edginton. Eric Dodds, an Irish citizen and a friend of Aldous Huxley and T.S. Eliot, who would later replace Murray as Regius Professor of Greek, recalled that these occasions offered an ‘unpredictable experience’ at which ‘anything might happen’. Anthony Powell remembered an undergraduate asking: ‘Are you interested in incest, Professor Murray?’ Never ruffled, Murray replied: ‘Only in a very general sort of way.’

Perhaps unsurprisingly, some of the Murrays’ five children became drunkards, including their son Basil, described by his friend Waugh as ‘satanic’ and the part-model for his comic creation Basil Seal. Several of the people in Dunn’s book were models for Waugh’s comic genius, including Bowra, who was cruelly caricatured as Mr Samgrass in Brideshead Revisited. As Dunn reminds us, Waugh barely knew Bowra during his undergraduate years. When Bowra asked him why this was so, Waugh replied: ‘When sober I was inconspicuous; when drunk I avoided senior members of the university.’

In fact Bowra was hugely popular with the undergraduates, charming them with his wit and expertise. Isaiah Berlin called him ‘the greatest English wit of his day’. He was famous for his bons mots, one of which was ‘buggery was invented to fill that awkward hour between evensong and cocktails’. His exploits were legendary. He arranged for roses to be grown at the entrance to the Botanic Garden opposite Magdalen, knowing that the college president despised them. Bowra described Woolf as ‘remote, beautiful and ethereal, but flashing suddenly into keen comments on human foibles’. But when she failed to take much interest in him, she was ‘a bore’. Of Lady Mary he would say that she had ‘decided that, if she still had any claims to looks, she would make the worst of them’.

Not Far From Brideshead is teeming with gloriously witty and cruel anecdotes, worthy of the place where an ‘Oxford secret’ is a piece of malicious gossip (usually entirely untrue) that you tell to one person at a time. But one of the joys of Dunn’s fascinating book is her ability to control the comic tone and leaven it with sober and often moving details. Bowra, who fought bravely in the trenches, carried with him a collection of Thomas Hardy’s poetry, and when Hardy came to receive an honorary degree in 1920, Bowra was there, ‘remembering how he had clung to Hardy’s Moments of Vision in the trenches’. The grand old writer now looked like ‘a very good, shrunken English apple’. Bowra’s unwittingly disastrous part in Operation Valkyrie, the thwarted plot to assassinate Hitler, is rendered brilliantly, showing Dunn’s acute abilities as a storyteller.

The outsider E.R. Dodds – an Irish republican and a socialist – was the least glamorous of the three, but the one whose work has endured. His book The Greeks and the Irrational and his edition of Euripides’ The Bacchae remain definitive, while Bowra is now regarded as a dilettante. As for Murray’s poetic translations of Greek tragedy, they have never recovered from the Cantabrigian A.E. Housman’s parody:

O suitably attired in leather boots 

Head of a traveller, wherefore seeking whom 

Whence by what way how purposed art thou come 

To this well-nightingaled vicinity? 

My object in inquiring is to know. 

But if you happen to be deaf and dumb 

And do not understand a word I say, 

Nod with your hand to signify as much.

Where Dunn is less effective is as a literary critic, and she makes some errors in her analysis of Waugh and the origins of Brideshead Revisited. She claims that Anthony Blanche is based on chief aesthete Harold Acton, Sebastian Flyte on Alastair Graham and Brideshead itself on Castle Howard, once the home of Lady Mary. In fact, Waugh’s modus operandi was far more cunning. His method was to conflate two characters so that if he were accused by one of his friends, he could simply reply that it was the other. Blanche, he said, was one-third Acton but two-thirds the Etonian Brian Howard, a protégé of Edith Sitwell. Brideshead was a composite of Castle Howard and Madresfield Court. The latter, like Brideshead, had an Arts & Crafts chapel with frescoes painted with the faces of Lord Beauchamp’s children, as in the novel. Madresfield was home to Waugh for a number of years, and he based Sebastian chiefly on Hugh Lygon, a hopeless dipsomaniac (though also using aspects of his love affair with Alastair Graham). When Waugh had finished Brideshead, he sent a copy to his inner circle, begging Nancy Miford to give him the consensus of opinion: ‘It’s the Lygons,’ she replied. Dorothy Lygon, the model for Cordelia Flyte, wrote to Waugh: ‘Sebastian gives me many pangs.’

Dunn overlooks the Lygon family, even though Waugh’s set knew that Julia Flyte was based on the beautiful Mary Lygon, who was slated to marry into the royal family until the scandal of her father’s homosexuality broke and he was exiled to an apartment on the Grand Canal in Venice. Hugh Lygon and Waugh visited Lord Beauchamp there, inspiring the visit to Lord Marchmain in the novel. Graham, Waugh’s Oxford paramour, was not an aristocrat. His home on the edge of Stratford-upon-Avon was a detached but modest house, hardly to be compared with Hugh Lygon’s family seat. The novel in which ‘Waugh would immortalise’ the ‘Roaring Twenties’ was not Decline and Fall, as Dunn says, but Vile Bodies. The Welsh boarding school to which the hero of Waugh’s debut is exiled on being sent down from Oxford is a far cry from the London of the Bright Young Things.

In a world largely populated by men, Dunn does a valiant job of uncovering the Oxford women who were influenced by her trio. Murray, in particular, was a great advocate of women and did much to promote them and their interests. Vera Brittain, Iris Murdoch, Virginia Woolf, Elizabeth Longford and Edith Sitwell all benefited variously from his ‘teaching, scholarship and friendship’. Brittain, who found Oxford an uncongenial place on the whole, comes alive in this narrative, though I longed for more about her seminal war memoir Testament of Youth. Indeed, a curious hole in this otherwise scintillating book, given the titular invocation of Brideshead, is the absence of the Oxford novel, which became so influential in the wake of Compton Mackenzie’s Sinister Street. It would have been good to hear, for example, about Robert Liddell, Barbara Pym’s great friend, who read Greats at exactly this time, then became an assistant in the Bodleian Library and went on to write his superb evocation of north Oxford, The Last Enchantments, its title a quotation from Matthew Arnold’s paean to the city of dreaming spires.

Nevertheless, this is an immensely readable and meticulously researched book, whose title perhaps obscures its intended meaning. Dunn, an Oxford woman herself, is clear-eyed about her alma mater’s ineffable charm and glamour, but she is patently aware of its dark side, epitomised so well by another phrase of Arnold’s: ‘Home of lost causes, and forsaken beliefs, and unpopular names, and impossible loyalties!’