I think most book bloggers will identify with this situation: THE book we read and never got around to reviewing. Of course, there are dozens that would fit that category, but I imagine we all have one in particular which we wish we’d reviewed at the time – either because it was so good, or because we’ve wanted to link back to it on many occasions. But the memory of reading it has simply faded. That book, for me, is Oxford by Jan Morris, given to me by my father when I came up to Oxford – and read about five years later, which isn’t bad going for my reading schedule. It’s absolutely fantastic, that much I remember – but not much else.
In order for it to avoid a similar fate, I shall now write about Oxford (1903) by Edward Thomas. Imaginative titles, these fans of Oxford come up with, no? This was a gift from my friend Daphne, although I can’t remember quite when. Being published in 1903, perhaps I should have saved it for a tricky year when I do A Century of Books again in 2014 (this is still the plan!) but instead it’s come under Reading Presently (I’ll give you a proper update in due course.)
All I knew about Edward Thomas before reading this came from Helen Thomas’s excellent biographies/autobiographies, and having read one or two of his poems (i.e. ‘Adelstrop’, twice). Well, Oxford didn’t teach me a lot about him either, as – understandably – he doesn’t write very much about himself. But his sensibilities are in every line. Supposedly he writes about Oxford past and present, through the lenses of the students, the dons, and the servants – but really he is writing prose-poetry. There are anecdotes and portraits, true, but he is clearly a poet rather than an historian or chronicler, still less the creator of a guide book (although he would later write some).
Would any of those professions give space for this description of a college garden?Old and stories as it is, the garden has a whole volume of subtleties by which it avails itself of the tricks of the elements. Nothing could be more romantic than its grouping and contrasted lights when a great, tawny September moon leans – as if pensively at watch – upon the garden wall. No garden is so fortunate in retaining its splendour when summer brusquely departs, or so rich in the idiom or green leaves when the dewy charities of the south wind are at last accepted.
It’s lovely, and accordingly I love it (as mentioned before, I am much more at home with poetic prose than poetry) – but you will understand why I shan’t try to give a factual précis of the material Thomas covers, because the writing is everything here. I read Oxford very slowly, over the course of a few months, and I think that’s the best way to read it. It certainly shouldn’t be taken out on the High Street if you want to find the bus station, not least because the book is over a hundred years old.
I have lived in Oxford for nine years, but there was very little in here that I recognised as being here today – perhaps the fields in Grandpont, and the view over Port Meadow (for now…), but not the rest. The people have changed, the environment is no longer the way Thomas saw it. Things change more slowly in Oxford than elsewhere, perhaps, but the ignorant rich no longer have access to Oxford (whatever the tabloid press might suggest.) Legions of servants who know each undergraduate by time are similarly products of a bygone era.
Having said that, his portraits of personality types in ‘undergraduates of the present and past’ did hit home. Once the trappings of the 1900s were tidied away, there still exist, in outline, the figures he depicts. The mediocre student who does a bit of sport, a bit of studying, a bit of everything… the arrogant ‘intellectual’ who becomes disillusioned by the ignorance of his tutor… the man who speaks at the Oxford Union, ‘There and at afternoon teas with ladies he is known for the lucidity of his commonplaces and the length of his quotations’. I wonder which of Thomas’s portraits was I… This section of the book was probably my favourite. Not as poetic as the rest, but the only section where his aim was humour – and very amusing it was.
So, for a guide to Oxford, Oxford is hopeless. Even as an historic record, it is hugely flawed. But as a beautiful book, occasionally funny and always luxuriously written, it is a huge success, and I heartily recommend it. For a more cogent and calm history, with writing beautiful in a very different way, make sure you also pick up Jan Morris’s Oxford.