07 March 2009

A very British don

Later this weekend I'll get back to the Harts' visit and, I hope, to our stay in Barcelona, but for now I'm going to dump in a fascinating article I came upon by chance this morning. It will only interest the few friends who like me who enjoy a gossipy piece where lots of famous names jostle together. I was looking for some background on Cavafy and this Sunday Times review of a new biography of Maurice Bowra came up, both men coincidentally mentioned in very separate bits of my last post.

February 15, 2009

Maurice Bowra: A Life by Leslie Mitchell

Maurice Bowra was the most talked-about Oxford don of his generation. Illustrious alumni - Evelyn Waugh, John Betjeman, Kenneth Clark, Hugh Gaitskell, Osbert Lancaster - came under his influence. At his dining table, you'd be likely to find WB Yeats chatting to Nancy Mitford or place-settings for figures ranging from Shostakovich to Charlie Chaplin. Abroad, he rubbed shoulders with Princess Margaret (“a tremendous bloodsucker, and, like her sister, a bit of a sour puss”), and dined with Jackie Kennedy at her first supper party after her husband's assassination. But his private life (he was, his friend Noel Annan said, “at the centre of the great homosexual mafia...of the 1920s and 1930s”) kept him in dread of scandal.

A son of the British empire, born in 1898 to a father who was a high-ranking administrator in China, Bowra had a boyhood that was a whirl of exoticism: mandarins, Ming vases, pony rides to the tombs of the Manchu emperors, a hair's-breadth escape downriver during the Boxer rebellion. At the age of five, he was in San Francisco just before the great earthquake. He celebrated his 12th birthday in Algiers. Subsequent immersion in boarding-school life in Cheltenham came as a sad letdown. Military service on the western front proved traumatic.

As soon as he could, he sought to reopen the broad, bright horizons of his youth. During almost half a century as an Oxford academic (a fellow of Wadham for 16 years, warden of the college for 32, and vice-chancellor of the university from 1951 to 1954) he vigorously embraced the far-flung and polymath. References in his books and lectures ranged from esoteric European poets to the Yamana of Tierra del Fuego. Paul Valéry, Pablo Neruda and Octavio Paz were championed for honorary degrees. His vacations were spent, often in the company of some favoured undergraduate, in Germany or Greece.

Yet for all Bowra's cosmopolitan reach, this first biography of him makes cruelly clear, he increasingly succumbed to the clutch of parochialism. Rarely can a career have been so riven by almost farcical contradictions. To his chagrin it became evident that there was “a certain lack of quality, precision and reality in his scholarship”, as his distinguished mentor Gilbert Murray put it when denying him the Oxford Chair of Greek. Reviews of the numerous volumes he churned out as a classicist confirmed this.

Seeing himself less as a college tutor than “a liberator of personality”, Leslie Mitchell explains, Bowra shunned the tedious details of education, preferring to encourage his pupils “to live as the Greeks and poets had lived”. In practice, this lofty venture seems to have boiled down to browbeating them into tattling about their own and other students' sex lives and listening to him booming on about the need to combat “suburban” small-mindedness, scientists and other “fearful bores”.

At supper parties in his rooms, when not holding forth about his tiffs with rival dons, he regaled his inner circle of acolytes with the smutty verses he took to writing after it became apparent, even to him, that the serious poetry by which he hoped to make his reputation was abysmal. “His conversation was all sparkle,” Mitchell assures us. But Bowra witticisms quoted here could hardly be dimmer specimens of laboured gamesomeness (“Merry Syphilis, Clappy New Year”).

Notably at odds with Bowra's image of himself as a bold free spirit was his belief, in Mitchell's words, that “the pursuit of sexual adventures might be better undertaken abroad, where the mocking laughter of Oxford would not follow”. Foreplay, it seems, generally entailed pulling out his passport. Weimar Berlin was for him, as for so many homosexuals between the wars, a much-frequented mecca. But he also, Lady Longford was “rather startled” to hear him divulge, “used to dash over to Paris now and again for ‘a French tart'”.

Going to such lengths to ensure discretion seems unexpectedly cautious in a self-proclaimed leader of what he called “the Immoral Front”. But it's of a piece with Bowra's nervous refusal to write a preface to a volume of Cavafy's homoerotic poetry and declining to take part in the ceremony when André Gide received an Oxford honorary degree. The flagrant antics of his crony Lord Boothby, whose sex life straddled the Kray brothers and Lady Dorothy Macmillan, left him gasping.

Priding himself on his subversiveness, Bowra acquired a knighthood and cultivated grandes dames such as Edith Sitwell and Ottoline Morrell. The Oxford establishment provided him with a protective carapace within which to operate until his death in 1971. He was in his element domineering over committees, bending rules to help a favourite, plotting the discomfiture of an academic enemy, or plumply enjoying the amenities of his college - a life-support system to him as a not very resourceful bachelor. The emptiness of the vacations threw him into panic. Disrespect for Oxford provoked fury. Anthony Powell's ill-advised admission that he hadn't really liked the place sentenced him to 35 years of “no speak”, the ostracism that was Bowra's ultimate penalty.

Other Bowra idiosyncrasies - such as his “absence of a welldefined neck”, which “meant that a square head sat on top of a compact, rectangular body” - are catalogued here. “No Oxford academic has been so frequently portrayed in literature,” we're told. To ascertain this, Mitchell has scrutinised fiction of the period for sightings of near-neckless dons of an imperiously opinionated disposition. Lookalikes are unearthed in several murder mysteries (never, surprisingly, as the victim). Bowra's friend Elizabeth Bowen put him in her novel To the North, as Markie who, “having no neck...veered bodily from the waist”. Whether Mr Samgrass, the creepy, crawly tutor in Evelyn Waugh's Brideshead Revisited, is or isn't a portrait of him is pondered by Mitchell.

But, you can't help thinking, he overlooks the fictional creation who most resembles Bowra. Surrounding himself with a chosen set of pupils, demanding their unwavering loyalty, seeking to dictate their futures, using them as surrogates for his purposes, involving them in his scorn for his colleagues and bombarding them with talk of “vision” and the horrors of philistinism, Bowra was - though coarser and less sympathetic - Muriel Spark's Miss Jean Brodie to the life.

Maurice Bowra by Leslie Mitchell
OUP £20 pp385

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