Best chair in the house

“Mr Maurice Bowra / Gets sourer and sourer, / Having been in a hurry / To succeed Gilbert Murray / And is now (poor soul) at the bottom: / Ie Warden of Wadham.” TS Eliot’s wartime doggerel about this “vulgar little fat Head of a House” is not its finest moment. But it’s a suitably waspish précis of the academic spat animating Daisy Dunn’s lively and readable account of interwar Oxford, which focuses on three unable scholars of ancient Greek.

Joining the fray with Murray (1866–1957, Regius Professor of Greek 1908–1936) and Bowra (1898–1970) is the Irish Classicist ER Dodds (1893–1979, who became Regius Professor in 1936). The successes and failures of this queer trio are fascinating and Dunn is illuminating, despite the welter of material already in print. For a start, none of them was raised to expect easy passage through the establishment; and although all three enjoyed considerable academic success, all felt that they were working outside, or even against, that system. Murray and Dodds were tireless political campaigners, as well as paid-up proselytizers for psychic telepathy. Bowra played the university game with unparalleled cynicism, thereby forging a uniquely influential mode of academic banter.

It may seem a little cosy for an ex-Oxford classicist, as Dunn is, to condense this whole gaudy epoch into the crucible of her own subject. But the Faculty of Classics still had such prestige in the 1930s Oxford that it employed more than one in five of the university’s academic staff. And the German SS had clear views about the subject’s significance: their Sonderfahndsungliste GB, detailing all those who needed rounding up after a successful invasion of Britain, lists both Murray and Dodds alongside FL Lucas, Eduard Fraenkel and Alfred Zimmern as the classicists beyond the pale.

War tears at the fabric of society, and in Oxford after the First World War the communal spirit was threadbare. Dunn well describes the awkward undergraduate divide between former officers who had stared into hell and ex-schoolboys itching to show they could be real Oxford men. In a microcosm where, Revd Spooner of New College wearily remarked, “undergraduates recur”, men – and younger women – were desperate to make their mark somehow.

Our main guide through these turbulent decades is Gilbert Murray. Having left Australia with his widowed mother aged eleven, the young Gilbert rose with terrifying speed: so spectacular was his spell at St John’s, that at the absurd age of twenty-three this “utterly unknown young man” was appointed Professor of Greek at Glasgow . Parallel to this unmatched feat, Dunn charts Murray’s rollercoaster campaign to marry Lady Mary Howard (1865–1956), daughter of the Earl of Carlisle and Rosalind, “the Radical Countess”.

Yet, after a decade in Scotland, Murray wanted out: he spent the next six years working hard as only the unemployed scholar can. Not only was his output massive but it was designed primarily to enthuse the public. His translations and introductions brought Classics to the masses. Hundreds of thousands of copies of his Euripides translations were sold, dramatized onstage and, in turn, on the radio. Murray’s friend Wilamowitz had his doubts: “I sometimes find it questionable whether Euripides felt everything that you put into him.” But the books kept selling and, come 1908, he was the obvious candidate to take up the Oxford Chair. His friend, the scholar-poet AE Housman told Murray that he now took over the mantle of public intellectual from the Victorian classical grandees Benjamin Jowett and Richard Jebb.

For all his public presence, though, Murray remains something of a mystery. Like Housman, his life was unusual enough to be dramatized in the twentieth century (Murray stars in Bernard Shaw’s Major Barbara and Tony Harrison’s FrameHouseman in Tom Stoppard’s Invention of Love). But his twenty-eight years as Oxford’s professorial primate were a mixed bag; his teaching was off-topic, or even combative. Dissatisfied with the immutable Literae Humaniores (or Greats) syllabus, he organized a parallel “circus” of lectures not just on Greek literature and history but archaeology, epigraphy, papyri, anthropology and beyond. Dubbed the “Seven Against the Greats”, this campaign helped lay the grounds for real curricular reform later in the century.

Yet who should follow Murray as the Regius Professor in 1936? JD Denniston was the leading philologist of contemporary Oxford, but Bowra was the man more likely to emulate Murray’s public prominence – if not his globetrotting diplomacy for the League of Nations Union (now the UN). Then again, Bowra’s homosexuality was whispered abroad, and his enemies burbled. The Abdication Crisis meant that both the king and prime minister had little time to research the Regius appointment themselves. So, with perfect imppriety, Murray nudged Stanley Baldwin in the direction of a little-known former pupil.

Eric Dodds had achieved a First in Greats, despite being asked to absent himself because of his wartime pacificism. Although his political record debarred conventional career progression, he cadged a post at Reading, and was later elevated to Birmingham, which turned out to be much of his happiest home. But, to the surprise of everyone and the anger of most, he was airlifted into the Regius Chair at Oxford. That spectacular pettiness which only Oxbridge breeds led Classics dons to encourage student boycotts of Dodds’s lectures, and to leave him sweating silently in combination-room corners. The appointment was inspired, nonetheless. Dodds was a profound scholar of astonishing breadth and versatility – and, unlike Murray and Bowra, his books (notably The Greeks and the Irrational and his edition of Euripides’ Backchae) are still read in earnest today.

Bowra’s failure to secure the chair was the devastating moment of his life. Dunn describes him as “cunningly” publishing his edition of the Greek poet Pindar to help secure the post, but she obscures the reality that this slipshod book was annihilated by anyone competent to judge. Even his generation- defining wardenship at Wadham (1938–1971) did not quite compensate. It is telling that Bowra chose to end his autobiography of 1966 in 1939, though it’s a shame that Dunn reduces his five influential years as Professor of Poetry (1946–1951) into one sentence.

At Wadham, Bowra fashioned a new life. Whereas Murray abstained from meat, wine and tobacco, Bowra rarely left his seat at the other end of the table. Conviviality sustained him: his ability to hold court – with booming voice and carefully crafted barbs – was a phenomenon, one since imitated but rarely with success by scores of academics. Although few have turned up details of homosexual affairs, Bowra was the sort of man who hid his head rather than genitals when caught swimming naked: “I, at least, am known in Oxford by my face”.

The shared careers of these men conceal their very different outlooks. Murray expressed his preference for the “feeling and understanding” of amateur British scholars over the professional German focus on “knowing”. Yet his instincts that classical scholarship wanted more “gush” proved wrong. A plaque in Poets’ Corner describes him as a “paragon of true humanity” (verae humanitatis exemplar): Murray devoted his life to showing how the “spirit of Classical Greece” could teach us real human virtue; Dodds devoted his to showing how disturbing those lessons can be (and he pointedly chose to work on Euripides’ Backchae, a play of murderous madness). As for Bowra, an obituary in The Times presciently forecast that “posterity will have no measure of his true greatness”.

The bush is thick, but Dunn manages to cut a path that is worth treading, even to those who feel they’ve seen enough of this period. Her prose is spry and racy, although the odd phrase raises eyebrows (eg “academics, locals and bus drivers”). For such a colorful period, the illustrations are surprisingly dull, save for Amanda Short’s beautiful reimagining of the 1930s Oxford on the dust jacket. And what of Brideshead Revisited in the book? We glimpse it occasionally. Murray married into the family who called Castle Howard their own. Bowra was contorted into the hapless Mr Samgrass of the novel. And there’s a vignette of John Betjeman clutching his teddy Archie (who sired Sebastian’s Aloysius). But Waugh himself rarely fell in with senior academics and sympathized little with the dynamic forces that make this book really hum. Perhaps the Wavian narrative now proves more restrictive than elucidatory – not just for Dunn but for most of us?

David Butterfield is Fellow in Classics at Queens’ College, Cambridge, and Editor of the Classics website Antigone

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