The Magazine

The Oxford Man

Maurice Bowra, tutor to the stars.

Sep 14, 2009, Vol. 14, No. 48 • By JOSEPH EPSTEIN
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Maurice Bowra

A Life

by Leslie Mitchell

Oxford, 400 pp., $50

The Immoral Front, which may have escaped your notice, was led by a short stocky man, an Oxford don named Maurice Bowra, and was in business from the early twenties until 1971, when its leader died at the age of 72.

A classicist by training, an iconoclast by temperament, Bowra was a disciple-maker by instinct. He cultivated the young, even when quite young himself, cultivated them toward the end not of supporting any specific line or precise doctrine but of standing opposed to all that was stuffy, dreary, or closed one off to harmless pleasure and widening experience. Better to be immoral, the unwritten motto of the Immoral Front might read, if conventional morality ended in deadening the spirit. The Immoral Front, as Noel Annan noted, "embraced all those of whom the smug Establishment of the age of Baldwin disapproved--Jews, homosexuals, people whose odd views, or ways of life, or contempt for stuffiness made disreputable."

"He was the most celebrated Oxford character since Jowett, whom he surpassed in scholarship and warmth of character," Hugh Lloyd Jones wrote of Maurice Bowra. "Using the word in its time-honored sense," wrote Annan, "he was beyond doubt or challenge the greatest don of his generation." Lest one be lulled by the eulogistic note, consider, please, the other side, a piece in the London Observer that noted of Bowra that "he seemed to convey to bright young men the dazzling possibility that malice might be a form of courage and gossip a form of art." No one who knew him could be neutral about Maurice Bowra. But then, Bowra himself did not view the world neutrally either, seeing it instead as implacably divided between friends and enemies.

Oxford during Maurice Bowra's years was a Versailles for intellectuals; picking up on this notion, Elizabeth Longford called Bowra "Voltaire and the Sun King rolled into one." The university was filled with complex intramural machinations, refined backstabbing, played out by a cast of extraordinary characters. "I really ought to keep Oxford memoirs," Isaiah Berlin wrote to a friend, "so many funny things happen between my colleagues, such cold persecutions, such peculiarly grotesque views of one another."

Born in 1898, son of a father who spent his professional life as a high-level customs official in China during the age of British empire, Bowra was just old enough to fight in World War I.
(When greeting E. R. Dodds, a contemporary who was a conscientious objector and whose candidacy won out over his for the Regius Professorship of Greek, Bowra is supposed to have said, "So what did you do during the war, Doddy?") He visited Russia before the Revolution and, along with an English public schoolboy's impressive knowledge of Greek and Latin, soon acquired reading knowledge of Russian and of all the major European languages. The most English of Englishmen, he nonetheless had a cosmopolitan spirit, and claimed to feel more at ease in Asia and the Middle East than in England.

Bowra early came by a distaste for authority and a pleasure in breaking rules. If he had a politics--he accorded politics generally a low rank in the scale of human importance--he was perhaps a libertarian of the left. Without indulging in snobbery, he was nonetheless a thorough elitist, a boy and then a man who hated the establishment, any establishment, and hated it, so to say, as such. This lent a nice contradiction to his career, for he was keen for official praise and recognition, delighted in all the honorary degrees, the Oxford Professorship of Poetry, and other offices and prizes that came his way, including a knighthood over which, in the best Oxonian spirit of sniping, some of his friends mocked him. John Sparrow, himself later warden of All Souls College, proposed, according to Isaiah Berlin, to write congratulating Bowra "on his baronetcy (due to faulty intelligence), explaining how much more distinguished this was than a paltry knighthood, which nowadays went to every Tom, Dick, and Harry."

The sexual preference for every Englishman of Bowra's generation has to be stipulated, and his own was homosexuality, at least during the years of his early manhood. He was later infatuated by many women, proposed marriage thrice, and was once even formally engaged. When someone noted of his courting Sir Thomas Beecham's niece that she was reputed to be a lesbian, he riposted that "buggers can't be choosers."