(YET ANOTHER) YANK AT OXFORD

November 26, 2015 - Richard Wendorf

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Shortly after the Boston Athenaeum reopened its brass-studded, red leather doors in 2002, I was asked, as its director and as an Oxonian, if I would host the annual Oxford and Cambridge Society’s Christmas dinner.  I was something of a veteran of these affairs, both in Chicago and later in Boston, and I usually looked forward to them with a mixture of anticipation and dread: anticipation because I enjoyed seeing old friends and making new ones, dread because of the empty toasts and sometimes mind-numbing speeches.  In Chicago, the more exuberant participants would declare the night still young after the final benediction and go out dancing (and even more drinking), which explains why I twice discovered a long-lost credit card in the pocket of my dinner jacket an entire year later.  In Boston, on the other hand, everyone would bid each other a polite goodnight and head straight home to bed after a mildly soporific evening. But once, just once, I was able to listen to an after-dinner speech in Boston that was both clever and quite funny, and I had therefore been wondering for some time whether I, too, might be able to carry off such a nuanced performance. And so I screwed up my courage and told the Society’s secretary that I would indeed host the annual dinner – and that I would present the after-dinner remarks as well.

My decision was based partly on the opportunity I would have to show off the Boston Athenaeum following a renovation and expansion program that took three years and over $30 million to complete.  But I was also moved by the way in which that earlier speaker, Ved Mehta, had been able to hold his audience in the palm of his hand by re-creating his experience as an ingénue at Oxford: Indian by birth, blinded by illness when he was four, schooled in the United States, and then magically transported to England. Mehta’s years at Balliol were presented as a succession of surprises and misunderstandings about which his younger self could only ask “Would you believe this?” and “Would you believe that?”  How, precisely, could I, so different from Mehta in every possible way, approximate the blend of humour, nostalgia, and acute judgment that had made his remarks so . . . remarkable? I was worried, to say the least, but I had decided to take a chance.

And now a short digression. I had known and admired Ved Mehta’s writing for many years, introduced to his memoirs of life in India with his mother (Mamaji) and father (Daddyji) in the pages of the New Yorker before moving on to his own early autobiography in Face to Face. And just a few years earlier, while sitting in my office at Harvard’s Houghton Library, I had received a phone call from my secretary asking whether I would be willing to speak to “a Ved Mehta, who is on the line.”  Indeed I would – and did – and this led to an exchange of books and lunches that meant a great deal to me. To anyone seriously interested in the sound and texture of English prose, Mehta was (and still is) a modern master.

I had therefore set my sights rather high, and I had further elevated my anxiety index by inviting my wife, my brother Jim (Christ’s College, Cambridge), Jim’s wife, and various Bostonian worthies, including some of my trustees. But I knew that I had two important factors certain to work on my behalf: in the first place, the subtle beauty of the rehabilitated Athenaeum, which would absolutely glow on a cold December evening; and in the second, and perhaps even more important place, the sheer amount of decent wine that my audience would be drinking before, during, and after our dinner. I wasn’t the main course, I reminded them; I was the dessert; and by the time I got up to speak, they were in a very jolly and pliant mood indeed.

I began by describing how perplexing Oxford could be, with its rules and regulations and traditions, many of which were never written down and some of which we were paradoxically expected to violate. I had rather odd introductory conversations with the college physician (“you don’t really need to take that medication, do you?”) and with the college’s quite formidable provost, Lord Franks, who asked me to evaluate the importance of Samuel “Hudibras” Butler, whose works had been meticulously edited by my principal tutor, John Wilders. Like Ved Mehta before me, I quickly wondered what exactly these people were up to.  At the end of my two years, the college physician made an even more problematical remark (which I cannot repeat here, much as I would like to), and the provost, noting that he was about to receive an honorary doctorate at Princeton shortly after I was to arrive there for my doctoral work, smiled and said that he would be pleased to say hello to me if we were to meet on the pavement there.

When remarks such as these came my way, I often wondered if they were prompted by the simple fact that I was an American: that I was somehow being addressed as a generic figure – too friendly, too innocent, too over-medicated – rather than as the person I knew myself to be (or at least aspired to be). And, in all fairness, American students in the early 1970s did tend to congregate together, perhaps all the more so because of limited living accommodations, marriages, and a tendency to have a little more disposable income in our pockets and bank accounts than many of our British counterparts. We were often given the impression that we were different, even supernumerary (to invoke one of those wonderfully creaky Oxonian terms). And thus many of us realized that we needed to try harder, needed to downplay our relative affluence, needed to become part of the social fabric of the place.

Fortunately for me, my academic and “moral” tutor at Worcester College, John Wilders, very much liked America and Americans, had studied and taught at Princeton, and would eventually split his academic year between Oxford and Middlebury College in Vermont. John was a breath of fresh air at Worcester, writing plays for the radio, insisting that we drink sherry with him as we read our tutorial papers, and then coaxing me out the back door of his rooms so that we could play a few games of squash on the college grounds: before noon, of course, and therefore breaching one of the college’s unwritten rules. When I purchased a pair of grey bellbottoms and a red bowtie, both in velvet, from Herbie Frogg on Jermyn Street in London, he quietly confessed that he wished he were young enough to wear them himself. And he certainly would have. John was not theatrical in person but very much a denizen of the theatre; years later he would write introductions to Shakespeare’s plays when the BBC commissioned productions of all thirty-seven of them. They remain, to my mind, models of their kind.

But John was not my only tutor. I studied early seventeenth-century English literature with him and with a recent Harvard graduate, Fred Fisher, once a week, both Fred and I producing short essays on either drama or poetry. But we also had to study medieval English literature as part of the undergraduate curriculum, and we therefore met every two weeks in a small seminar with the college’s other tutor, whom I shall call Mrs Taylor.  Mrs Taylor was youngish, energetic, and eccentric – a combination that I would discover in several members of the English faculty. Unlike John, she enjoyed but a single room and had devised an unusual filing system in her cramped quarters: instead of placing essays and assignments in a filing cabinet, she tucked them away in a large series of Viyella shirt boxes, presumably inherited (or borrowed) from Mr Taylor. She was well-known throughout the university – or at least among the young men at the university – for wearing short skirts and paying scant attention to what they often revealed. When we met for the first time, she described the outline of our work together that Michaelmas term, distributed various pieces of paper from various Viyella boxes, and then turned to me and said, “Mr Wendorf, would you please prepare an essay for the seminar on the lais of Marie de France for our next meeting? Thank you very much.”

Only at the college for a week, I thought to myself, and already singled out for conspicuous duty. But I purchased the English translation of the lays of Marie de France at Blackwell’s, read through them until I could say something remotely intelligent, and then wrote an essay that I presented to the group in two weeks’ time. I cannot, in all honesty, remember whether my remarks prompted any discussion among my counterparts or whether Mrs Taylor decided to use the essay as a point of departure for her own contribution to the seminar. But you may well wish to forgive me my failing memory because, at the end of our session, she turned to me once again and said, “For our next meeting, Mr Wendorf, I wonder if you would present an essay on the lais of Marie de France. Thank you very much.” And with that she stood up and proceeded to place her notes in one of those blasted shirt boxes.

There was dead silence in the room. I looked down; everyone else, I’m told, looked at each other in utter amazement. Once we were out the door, Fred Fisher asked me what in the world I was going to do. “Only one thing to do,” I told him. “I need to have a talk with John Wilders.”

I was, of course, handing John a tricky dilemma because, although Mrs Taylor was his junior colleague and a university lecturer rather than a fellow of the college, there were (it occurred to me) certain shadowy conventions that probably obtained in such cases. Worcester didn’t have anyone else who could teach me medieval literature, and it was not advisable, he explained, for me to be sent to another college for tuition, as it was called. So, he concluded, either I remained in the undergraduate program and continued with Mrs Taylor or I could apply, with his reluctant support, to enter into a graduate program, incongruously entitled a bachelor of philosophy degree: two years of tutorials with specialists in a specific field followed by examinations. John was willing but not entirely happy to nominate me for such a program, he said, because he thought that I had a good shot at obtaining a “first” in my current program.  I would also, he pointed out, be starting the graduate degree a term late, thus ruling out the option of writing a mini-thesis during my second year. I hemmed, I hawed, I consulted my friends, I talked with students already in the graduate program, and I finally decided to see if I could make the leap. And that decision, I hoped, would lead me to an extraordinary cohort of scholars, all specialists in Restoration and eighteenth-century literature, which was the historical period I had chosen.

I had to undergo an interview first, of course. The director of studies was the Reverend Graham Midgley, fellow and dean and chaplain and vice-principal of St. Edmund Hall.  I adored him at first sight: a tall, gangly, mostly bald Yorkshireman with incredibly long fingers, dressed in comfortable corduroys and with a mischievous look in his eye.  His rooms were a wonder to behold. Leather everywhere: on the spines of most of his books, on the patches on his sleeves, on various satchels and briefcases and gun bags. He didn’t offer sherry, only a Martini that he referred to (as certain people did in those days) as a “gin and French.” The antique furniture and running bookcases were punctuated by modern pieces of sculpture, which I later learned were the work of those long fingers of his. Years later he asked if I’d like to take a look at his bedroom: white walls, an old-fashioned servant’s bed, a crucifix hanging above it, and a shotgun propped in the corner.

As preparation for my interview, I had been told by a friend that Midgley had recently delivered a talk on “cats in literature” at the local women’s institute. True, he answered, “but I don’t really like them, cats that is. Fred! Come here, old boy!” Seated as I was, in a very low chair, the yellow Labrador that made his entrance into the room looked as large as the proverbial hound of the Baskervilles. And he was enormously friendly, almost frighteningly so. “You do like dogs, don’t you, Richard? Because Fred is part of the company here.” As he said this, he took a postcard off his desk and presented it to me: it was a photograph, sold by the college, of the Reverend Graham Midgley and Fred appearing as modern gargoyles on top of a recently restored Anglo-Saxon tower at Teddy Hall. When Fred died several years later, Graham wrote a short epitaph for his gravestone:

Beneath this turf the Dean’s dog Fred

Without his master, goes to Earth, stone dead.

But on the tower, stone Dean and Fred together

Enjoy the sunshine and endure bad weather.

“Nice likeness, don’t you think?” he asked me. “Especially of Fred.”

That was question number two. The third was more academic. Students in the program had to choose a special author for one of their examination papers. Only four were listed: John Dryden, Jonathan Swift, Samuel Richardson, and Samuel Johnson. I knew Dryden’s work fairly well – and would soon study it again with Graham and John Wilders.  Ditto with Swift.  Richardson was an unknown quantity: I only knew Pamela, and only the first of those two volumes, and my heart sank as I thought about how many volumes were devoted to Clarissa and Grandison. “Don’t blame you,” Graham said; “entirely too sentimental.” Had I been able to choose Pope I would have done so; but Johnson was the other important figure during this period, and I welcomed the variety and vitality of his work.  So there it was: I liked dogs, I liked Fred, and I liked Johnson. I had answered all three questions correctly and had been accepted into Graham’s orbit, filled with muscular authors, muscular dogs, muscular sculpture, and muscular Christianity.

And what an orbit it turned out to be!  In addition to working with Graham and John, I had the chance to study the eighteenth-century novel at Balliol with Roger Lonsdale, with whom I had earlier studied at Trinity College, Oxford, during the summer between my third and fourth years at Williams. Roger had agreed to write on my behalf as I applied to enter Oxford on a full-time basis, remarking to me that he would not be writing an “American-style” recommendation suggesting that I was the next T. S. Eliot. Whatever he wrote, it seemed to have worked, and he and I have remained scholarly colleagues ever since. I was also “farmed out,” as people were in my program, to other colleges throughout the university: to David Fleeman at Pembroke, the bibliographer of Johnson, whom I wished I had been able to work with on a much more protracted basis, and to Michael Gearin-Tosh at St. Catherine’s, whose baroque lectures on satire I could make absolutely no sense of.  He and Mrs Taylor, I later realized, served as similarly eccentric bookends to my experience at Oxford. But firmly placed in the heart of that experience was the time I spent with two remarkable figures, both of whom would have a lasting influence on my development as a scholar.

The first was David Foxon, whose last name was already a point of reference in the scholarly world. David was Reader in Bibliography at Oxford, a position that, as it turned out, had ill-defined duties and a decent sprinkling of academic prestige. “Foxon” referred to the two fat volumes listing every individually published English poem between 1700 and 1750: a massive undertaking that Roger Lonsdale would later replicate by reading all of those poems as he prepared his editions of eighteenth-century poetry (and poetry written by women) for Oxford University Press. Graham knew that David was working on an ambitious new project, and he persuaded him to offer a seminar for one term, in the bowels of the New Bodleian Library, to which all six B.Phil. students would be invited. Some of my colleagues were sceptical, but I was intrigued, having been introduced to the Chapin Library when I was an undergraduate at Williams.

Foxon struck me, during the first session we spent with him, as more of a scientist – a forensic specialist – than as a literary scholar. He was interested in pinpointing certain changes within the publication of Pope’s poetical works and in demonstrating how carefully Pope prepared his manuscripts for publication, even to the point of designing introductions to his “ethic epistles” that looked as if they had already been printed. By focusing on Pope’s authorial methods, on his relationships with his printers, and on the various editions his poems passed through, Foxon concluded the session by suggesting that the editorial decisions of the scholars who had recently published the multi-volume Twickenham edition of Pope were essentially flawed. And with that pronouncement he called the seminar to a halt and said that he would see us again the following week.

But when a week had passed, there was no Reader in Bibliography in sight. Foxon had shown us quite different ways of thinking about the dissemination of literature, and he had drawn our attention to the importance of balancing manuscripts against the printed editions they would (largely) become. But, having engaged and tantalized us, he simply disappeared. We made inquiries, of course, but were never really given a proper answer.  Several years later, as I was working on an edition of William Collins’s poetry, which would become my dissertation and first book, I tracked him down, living on a small farm outside of Oxford. I had been told that he had relinquished his work as a bibliographer because of failing eyesight, and yet he rather proudly showed me the furniture he had been creating and restoring in his barn. He had, it turned out, been able to deliver his thinking about Pope and the eighteenth-century book trade as a series of Lyell Lectures at the university, and one of his students, James MacLaverty, later saw them into print. It is, I believe, one of the most interesting books published in my field, and his focus on the capitalization of common nouns during this period represents a strong precursor of my own work on the development of the modern book in English.

I must admit that I felt short changed by David Foxon’s sudden disappearance, but by that point, well into the second year of my studies, I had learned to take most Oxonian surprises in stride. What remained for me, in my final term, was an opportunity to work with Graham’s closest colleague in the program, Rachel Trickett, who was a senior fellow at St. Hugh’s. I had chosen “biography and autobiography” as one of my set subjects, and because Miss Trickett rarely had a student willing to undertake this rather eclectic set of texts, I was allowed to study with her. I dutifully made my way to north Oxford, wondering what it would be like to work with someone who was already a living legend among her students and peers.  Not perhaps as famous or formidable as Dame Helen Gardner, who ruled the English faculty and terrorized the staff of the Bodleian Library, but legendary in her own right.

As I attempt to reconstruct my experiences at Oxford, I am particularly aware of the succession of rooms in which I made my precarious way. First John Wilder’s comfortable set at Worcester, with its back door leading to the inviting squash courts beyond. Mrs Taylor’s much more cramped space, with its menacing shirt boxes. Graham Midgley’s masculine set, complete with gun and dog and martini shaker. Roger Lonsdale’s large room at Balliol, with eighteenth-century prints and a complete run of the Gentleman’s Magazine. The strange space in which we encountered David Foxon that one and only time: perhaps, in retrospect, a conservation laboratory in the lower depths of the New Bodleian. And then, finally, Rachel Trickett’s library, an elegant room suffused with light and featuring bookcases that reached from floor to ceiling. To my left, as I sat there with her for our first meeting, was a wide expanse of window looking down on one of the college’s quadrangles. Miss Trickett also took a seat, although she had a habit of rising every so often to find the right book or piece of paper. She was in her late forties when I met her and had already published an important book on eighteenth-century poetry and several novels, including The Course of Love. I found her to be a lively and yet comforting figure with a soft face and thinning auburn hair. But if she looked rather Miss Jane Marple-ish, that illusion quickly evaporated as she laid down the guidelines for our term together and began to dictate what I would read.

By the time I was released, I realized that a list of what I wouldn’t be reading that spring would be much shorter than the one I had in hand. Pepys and Evelyn, Johnson and Goldsmith, Boswell and Frances Burney – most of them in multi-volume editions that would make the attendants at the Bodleian groan for eight full weeks. And I also, of course, wanted to read the scholarship devoted to Boswell and Burney in particular, because we had agreed that I would write my essays on the two late eighteenth-century figures who were the beneficiaries of so much earlier biographical and autobiographical writing. I therefore spent three weeks immersed in Boswell’s Life of Johnson and its variegated predecessors before dropping off a rather long essay at St. Hugh’s in preparation for our next meeting. That encounter went rather well, I thought. Miss Trickett seemed not to be displeased with the shape of my argument (I choose the double negative deliberately, of course) and sent me spinning into the arms of the young Frances Burney and her mischievous diaries. I was in heaven, excited by what I was reading and now feeling, for the first time in my academic career, that I was genuinely on top of my subject. I found a nineteenth-century edition of the diaries at one of Oxford’s many antiquarian bookshops, wrote an even longer essay on Burney, and waited with anticipation for our final meeting.

That interview, however, went about as well as the young Jack Worthing‘s encounter with Lady Bracknell in Algernon’s handsome set of rooms in Albany. It wasn’t that Miss Trickett disagreed with what I had written; it was simply, she explained, that I was barking up the wrong Oxonian tree. “Richard, Richard,” she began, “you have written long essays that are fine in their own right, but they will not enable you to pass your examinations and receive your degree. You need to be synthetic in your approach. You need to tell your examiners that you understand the development of biographical writing in this period, with all of its twists and turns. It’s fine if you want to turn these essays into your doctoral dissertation, but you won’t leave Oxford with a degree unless you know how to write a proper examination paper.”

And then, as she rose and began to consult various books on her shelves, I was privy to one of those performances that had made her the object of so much interest. As she turned from one text to another, she knew precisely where to open the book and find the appropriate passage. As excerpt followed excerpt, so did the outline of biographical writing during this period.  Finally, as she searched for a text without success, she looked out that broad expanse of window and told me that she would have to dictate from memory – and this she did, for a considerable period of time. And this, I realized, was part of the mystique that enveloped her, based on an extraordinary power of memory that we might conveniently describe as photographic. But it wasn’t photographic, as I later learned – or at least it wasn’t entirely a case of remembering what she saw on the printed page. Her father, a postman in Wigan, had recited Shakespeare and Gibbon, Macaulay and Tennyson to her when she was a child, and she had been able to build upon that experience in her life as a writer and teacher. At the close of our meeting I felt chastised, I felt empowered, and I felt that I had been in the presence, if all too briefly, of a remarkable person.

The title of the talk I delivered to my well-lubricated guests at Christmastime in 2002 was “Down Thirty Years and Still Sorting It Out,” and I suppose that I am still engaged in that interpretive process today.  By focusing on the gifted and sometimes eccentric teachers who had given me tuition during my two years at Oxford, I was deliberately leaving out many other aspects of university life that we have also carried away with us, both for better and occasionally for worse. And thus in my closing remarks I also paid tribute to the friends we had collectively made during our careers there, the academic rituals we had passed through and, perhaps most importantly, the opportunities we had, as young Americans, to begin to see the world through rather different cultural and political lenses – some of them provided, free of charge, by the National Health Service. Re-entry into American life after two formative years abroad was not as smooth as I had thought it would be, even within the comfortable confines of the graduate school at Princeton. My experience in England had altered me in various ways, and it had also created a social and intellectual reservoir which I have been able to draw upon throughout the decades that have followed.

 

1 Comment »

  1. A wonderful insight into the delights and eccentricities of our universities – a very enjoyable read!

    Comment by Emma Russell — December 5, 2015 @ 1:17 pm

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