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Oxford Blues

By John Phipps

Zuleika Dobson, or An Oxford Love Story

Max Beerbohm, Blackwell’s, 2019

‘I was a modest, good humoured-boy ... it is Oxford that has made me insufferable.’ I don’t know where in Max Beerbohm’s oeuvre those words appear. I cannot source them and suspect they may be apocryphal. I know them because, like many men studying at Oxford, I have seen them on a poster above the right-hand urinal in the Covered Market toilets.

Now, no-one, idling at the pissoir, would imagine that Beerbohm meant Oxford, the city. Oxford: founded in the eighth century; city status since 1542; population 154,000; metropolitan area 17.6 sq. m. (45.59 km²); Lord Mayor Colin Cook (since 2008); chief industries car manufacture, scientific research, tourism and education. When Beerbohm said ‘Oxford’ had made him insufferable, he meant Oxford University, or more generally the set of institutions, rites of passage and habitual poses that might broadly be grouped under the umbrella term ‘Oxford life’ (the University, here as elsewhere, swallows up the city’s identity with its own).

In the last few years these institutions, rituals and poses have been condemned by both the left and the right. The Guardian has published almost 30 articles about Oxford University in 2019 alone. Journalists have burned through miles of column inches cataloguing the crimes of student Facebook groups. Oxford students are champagne-quaffing Buller members, soaring to power on the wings of educational privilege – that is, whenever they’re not busy ripping each other’s throats out for political incorrectness and drying their guilty tears with pages torn from Judith Butler’s Gender Trouble.

They say that extreme cases make bad law. They also make excellent copy. ‘University Students Confused, Youngish Bunch, Mostly Just Working Things Out’ isn’t a great headline, however accurate it might be. Most of the students I knew felt half excluded from the private school network that still dominates university life, half guilty about suddenly belonging to something called ‘the Oxbridge elite’. After all, who would choose to be part of the nation’s oppressor class?

The city’s tourist board, meanwhile, repackages the myth and sells it on to tourists, throwing in gratuitous Harry Potter references as they go. Beerbohm’s witticism exemplifies the kind of semi-fictional sophistication that some people find repulsive about the ‘Oxbridge elite’. The place I encountered it – behind graffitied laminate above a municipal urinal – indicates that the ITV-Brideshead dream of Oxford remains commercially viable and, to some, very appealing.

The University has a strained and dissonant self-image. On the one hand, there is the general admission that attending Oxford might be bad for your soul. On the other, there is the obvious appetite for more of this stuff: more hallmark quotes about Oxford, more books about Oxford, more TV shows set in Oxford. More listicles and quizzes about ‘classic Oxford experiences’. The university’s political superego might want to change for the better, but its self-regarding id seems to know that the only thing worse than being talked about is not being talked about. Oxford’s perennial psychological war is the pain of exclusion versus the strangeness of inclusion; it has dogged the University for well over a hundred years. So, are you in or are you out?

The first novel that could be called an ‘Oxford novel’ – simply put, one in which the University and the town play an outsize emotional part – is Thomas Hardy’s Jude the Obscure. Jude is a young man from a poor, rural family living in the hills above ‘Christminster,’ a fictional analogue of Oxford. His one dream is to enter the University. A villager sets Jude straight: ‘such places be not for such as you – only for them with plenty o’ money.’ When he moves to Christminster, the realisation comes to Jude that he will never be a scholar:

Those buildings and their associations and privileges were not for him. From the roof of the great library, into which he hardly ever had time to enter, his gaze travelled on to the varied spires, halls, gables, streets, chapels, gardens, quadrangles, which composed the ensemble of this unrivalled panorama.

Jude’s destiny, he sees, lies ‘among the manual toilers ... unrecognized as part of the city at all by its visitors and panegyrists, yet without whose denizens the hard readers could not read nor the high thinkers think.’ Plus ça change. As a stonemason, the majority of his work is done on University buildings he cannot enter. He is locked into the University’s orbit like a distant moon. ‘Why should you care so much for Christminster,’ says one character, ‘Christminster cares nothing for you, poor dear!’

Jude The Obscure’s climax is braided with the end of the summer term. Jude can’t become a student, but his life is in hock to the academic calendar, and the novel’s tragic momentum is channelled along a painful, ironic contour. As things progress towards their grisly conclusion, Jude lingers to hear the Latin speeches at graduation. ‘Listen,’ he says, ‘I may catch a few words of the Latin speech by staying here; the windows are open.’ The windows are open but the way is shut: all Jude hears is the occasional ‘um or ibus.’ ‘Well,’ cries Jude, ‘I’m an outsider to the end of my days!’

If Jude had secured a place at Christminster, would he really have been ‘in’? Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited and Philip Larkin’s Jill, published in 1945 and 1946 respectively, give radically different perspectives on the University. Jill is a picture of an excluded insider: John Kemp, a fiercely intelligent boy from a poor northern town, wins a scholarship to Oxford. There he finds himself sharing a room with Christopher Warner, a bully from a minor boarding school, who is prone to florid, sporadic acts of violence. Kemp’s one desire is to be accepted by Warner’s privileged southern set, who spend freely, doss off their work and drink every night.

Jill was inspired by Christopher Isherwood’s Lions and Shadows, a novel-cum-memoir about a middle-class private schoolboy’s interactions with the ‘poshocracy’ at Cambridge in the thirties. Many of Larkin’s observations about university life still ring true. It is an indication of what a small distance we have travelled. Here is Larkin, filtered through his protagonist John Kemp, on private schoolboys reminiscing:

... they would sigh and gaze sadly at the fire, as if they were exiles fathered together far from their homes … it seemed to him that in their schooldays they had won more than he would ever win during the whole of his life. At first ill-treated, they had lived to be oppressors, whose savagest desire could be gratified at once, which was surely the height of ambition.

Larkin wrote Jill aged twenty-one, while studying at St. John’s. (In Jill, he abides by the near-universal convention of setting the story in an unnamed or fictional college that is recognisably the same college the author attended.) Waugh on the other hand, wrote Brideshead Revisited aged 42. Brideshead is more phenomenon than book, a novel that was consumed by its own reputation until the title became an epithet. I never read Brideshead Revisited as an undergraduate because I was petrified I might be caught reading Brideshead Revisited as an undergraduate.

In Jill, John Kemp attends something that is recognisable as a university. He takes an entrance exam, gets lost upon arrival, attends tutorials and writes essays. In Brideshead there’s no mention of the entrance process, the rituals of college life, the academic labour. For John Kemp, Oxford is an event. For Waugh’s protagonist, Charles Ryder, it is just what happens: school breaks up for summer holidays, and by mid-September there you are at Christ Church.

Though Waugh wasn’t quite to the manor born, he often found himself invited. He was a Conservative – big C, large print. (One letter to Nancy Mitford ends ‘Socialist spies read our letters abroad now so forgive me for saying FUCK THE SOCIALISTS.’) He wrote novels about the decline of the upper class, to which he never quite belonged. While his stories were never short of ingenious punishments for weak-minded aristocrats, the attention that he pays the upper classes reveals a deep, solicitous fascination.

He had a clear eye for nastiness and stupidity, but he also believed in tradition, nation and the Catholic God. His aesthetic attachments were deep enough to rank with his religious ones: if the nation’s original sin was its middle-class Protestantism, the upper classes’ was tastelessly renovating their country houses. And for Waugh, it is this world of country houses, with their private chapels, walled gardens and baroque fountains, that is the true seat of privilege. Oxford is full of tweedy bores.

Charles Ryder, Brideshead’s narrator, is initially accosted by earnest young men. It is only when he meets Sebastian Flyte, a charismatic, drunk undergraduate of aristocratic descent, that the novel gets going. In Brideshead, the portal that opens into an exalted world of privilege is not the college door (as for Jude), or an invitation to tea (as for John Kemp), but the ground floor window of the narrator’s room, through which Flyte is one day violently sick.

It is a startlingly similar entrance to one made by Charles Warner, the private-school mastiff in Jill, who stumbles into a bedroom and throws up in the bin. Both Warner and Flyte are drunk, privileged and utterly indifferent. They are the same thing viewed from different angles, their creators both subject to the parallax displacements of class. Larkin sees in Charles Warner that the privileged are careless, and that this unconcern permits their acts of violence. But Waugh was able to paint the allure of that same carelessness more vividly, so he got the TV show.

Any large institution is a set of overlapping circles, some more exclusive than others. Within the university are the colleges; within each college there are clubs, sets, liaisons, secrets. Few writers are more attuned to the way these groups intersect than Alan Hollinghurst. His most recent novel, The Sparsholt Affair (2017), begins in Oxford during the war, as a few male students sit around wondering which novelist they should ask to come and speak at their literary salon. One is a painter, another is the son of a novelist; all of them are hyperliterate.

In one way they are well-placed to join the intellectual elite. In wartime though, the literati are useless. One character looks over at breakfast, noting that the rowers are given extra rations. ‘It’s enough to make you take up rowing.’ At the same time, a strikingly handsome young man named Sparsholt (‘He is like a Greek god!’) arrives at the college. Sparsholt embodies an alluring but unflinching masculinity, ‘a sense of military indifference.’ ‘Spar ... sholt,’ says one character. ‘Sounds like part of an engine, or a gun.’

‘There was a careless glimpse of his sex in the open slit of his pyjamas.’ In the days of state-enforced chemical castration, there were many ways of not belonging, and the boys’ shared recognition of Sparsholt’s steely allure speaks to a clandestine sexual culture. To be an insider in this culture is necessarily to be an outsider in another. While the threat of discovery is terrible, the secrecy can also sharpen passion and excitement. Hollinghurst’s genius has always been to see both edges of the sword.

Hollinghurst’s Oxford is tastefully done, and there are nods to some of the novels mentioned above. The college is unnamed, but it is recognisably Sebastian Flyte’s Christ Church; as the story begins the narrator is pursuing a girl called Jill. Brideshead steers close to the edge, with its grey mists, gillyflowers and distant tolling bells (does anyone reading know a gillyflower by sight?). The most persistent Oxford-ogler in modern fiction is Philip Pullman, whose Northern Lights begins with a wealth of detail about the Retiring Room of Jordan College (read: Exeter, where Pullman studied). Pullman’s last book but one, La Belle Sauvage, went far enough that it was criticised by Colin Burrow for its touches of ‘Oxporn’.

I should lay my cards on the table. Oxporn sells. The dream of the inside, the magic door to the secret common room – it sells, and everyone buys it. But with every step you take towards the centre, you isolate yourself from the world outside. It is a narrowing and not a liberation. This is not to say that there shouldn’t be a serious conversation about whether it is healthy or equitable for graduates of one or two universities to dominate the offices of cultural, financial and political power. It is simply to say that almost no-one feels like an insider. Beyond the magic door is only another door. There will always be a better party.

Zuleika Dobson: An Oxford Love Story is a novel about the ultimate insiders. First published in 1911, it has recently been reissued in an elegant new edition by Blackwells’ publishing imprint. Zuleika (pronounced zu-leek-a) is a young stage magician who arrives in Oxford to stay with her grandfather, the warden of Judas College (read: Merton, where Beerbohm studied). Zuleika’s stage act is a hackneyed, second-rate affair: her real magic trick is that every man she meets falls in love with her.

Simple enough to understand, but difficult to reproduce. At Oxford, she meets the exception to the rule, the ultra-dandyish, old-Etonian aristocrat John Albert Edward Claude Orde Angus Tankerton (‘pronounced as tacton’) Tanville-Tankerton (‘pronounced as tavvle-tacton’), fourteenth Duke of Dorset, Marquis of Dorset, Earl of Grove, Earl of Chastermaine, Viscount Brewsby, Baron Grove, Baron Petstrap, and Baron Wolock. At dinner he hardly glances at Zuleika. She falls for him immediately. Unbeknownst to her, the standoffish Duke has also fallen for her. They retire, lovestruck, to their rooms.

Unfortunately, they have both dived headfirst into very shallow water. When Zuleika comes to see the Duke, he declares his love. Instantly, she falls out of love with him. He insists he will go on loving he, so she gives him a tutorial in formal logic:

‘I left off loving you when I found that you loved me. There is the premise. Very well! Is it likely that I shall begin to love you again because you can’t leave off loving me?’

The Duke groaned.

You could, if you really wanted to, criticise Zuleika Dobson as a sexist portrayal of female shallowness. But you would be short-sighted; Beerbohm’s big idea is that we are all this shallow. In Zuleika’s eyes, the Duke has been moved from the thrilling category of ‘thing I cannot have’ to the ontologically indifferent one of ‘haveable thing’. Who could blame her for losing interest?

Zuleika Dobson’s author, Max Beerbohm, was a writer and caricaturist, who worked almost exclusively in miniature forms: sketches, essays, parodies. Adam Gopnik, writing in The New Yorker, suggested that this was the result of ‘a certain catastrophic form of Englishness ... the cult of the little, the diminutive and the unambitious.’ Gopnik’s easy substitution of nationality for critical insight is quintessentially American (how do you like it, Adam?), but the broader suggestion – that Beerbohm never tried to Tell the Truth About Life – has things the wrong way round. For Beerbohm, caricature was the truest form of portrait. For all its surreal touches, Zuleika Dobson has an iron truth about human relations at its core: we want the thing we can’t have. Look, we’ve all been there. The inverse statement of the idea is famous – ‘I wouldn’t want to be part of any club that would have me as a member’ – and it is as true of relationships as it is of institutions. In Zuleika Dobson, this idea is twisted to a deadly extreme as the novel progresses towards its ghoulish conclusion: the entire student body vows, as one, to kill themselves out of love for Zuleika.

We’re a long way here from Jude listening hopelessly at the window. The Duke is a member of every club: a pianist, a poet, a scholar. The phrase ‘effortless brilliance’ comes to mind. Everyone wants to be his friend; his isolation is almost total. As for Zuleika, all the doors in the world would open for her – only, after the novel’s deadly climax, there is no one left to open them.

If you have had the immense privilege of being educated at an institution like Oxford, the cost is that you become identified with it. You can be sneered at, or unjustly favoured, for that fact. But in both cases you are reduced to your circumstances. In Jude the Obscure, Sue Brideshead wonders about the strange process by which our inner selves are translated into things called identities. ‘I have been thinking,’ she says:

...that the social moulds civilization fits us into have no more relation to our actual shapes than the conventional shapes of the constellations have to the real star-patterns. I am called Mrs. Richard Phillotson, living a calm wedded life with my counterpart of that name. But I am not really Mrs. Richard Phillotson, but a woman tossed about, all alone, with aberrant passions, and unaccountable antipathies...

After the mass suicide of the undergraduates, Zuleika says the same thing to her grandfather: ‘I had always thought of myself as a creature utterly apart.’

‘Ah, that is how all young people think of themselves,’ he replies. ‘It wears off.’

JOHN PHIPPS read English at Magdalen and New College. He is currently working on a memoir entitled, ‘No, My Struggle’.

Art by Isabella Lill


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