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."

"Almost certainly Bowra was not exclusively homosexual," writes Leslie Mitchell, his biographer, who adds that "to worry too much about Maurice's sexuality was somehow to miss the point. He was to be considered as sage, jester, or ringmaster, but not as lover." Late in life, Bowra himself, according to Mitchell, "dismissed 'buggery' as being merely useful for filling in that awkward time between tea and cocktails."

For a man with the reputation of an intellectual bully, Bowra was, as perhaps many bullies are, vulnerable and insecure. He felt himself vulnerable about his homosexuality--fearful that it might be used against him, even in less than notoriously heterosexual Oxford society, and undermine his authority. And he felt a strong element of intellectual insecurity, bestowed upon him as an undergraduate, the gift of a fiercely pedantic tutor at New College named H.W.B. Joseph, whom he had for the Greats (or historical and philosophical) portion of his degree in classics. Joseph did his best weekly to humiliate him and convince him that his wasn't a first-class mind. As Leslie Mitchell writes, "Much decorated and applauded [later in life] though he was, Bowra was never completely convinced of his credentials as a scholar. Joseph remained a demonic presence throughout his life."

Writing Maurice Bowra's biography, the first on its subject, cannot have been an easy chore. The power of an Oxford don is finally, whatever its charm, narrowly circumscribed. To make things more difficult, Bowra was a notable conversationalist--the philosopher A. J. Ayer claimed Bowra, Isaiah Berlin, and Cyril Connolly were the three great conversationalists of his day--shooting off mots, puns, aperçus,
and lacerating put-downs at rapid fire, and glittering conversation, like beauty and goodness, is neither easily nor persuasively captured on the page. A man of prodigious vitality, an unrelenting tornado of energy, the chief presence and centerpiece in any room he entered, Bowra dominated by force of his wit and intelligence.

"His influence stemmed from his being the cleverest and funniest man one had ever met," Mitchell, who knew Bowra when himself an undergraduate, reports. No one parted company with him without taking away a memorable riposte, deliciously oblique irony, or thumping take-down. Mitchell has collected many of these, and sets them out to good effect in this lucid and nicely measured biography.

Bowra was not a dreary, or even a dull, writer; yet, because not so dazzling a writer as a talker, he tended to be, for those who knew his talk, either through personal experience or legend, a disappointing one. Attempting to account for this, Mitchell suggests that some of this may have been owing to his deliberate decision to keep his personality out of his writing, especially his scholarly writing about the ancient Greeks. Cyril Connolly nicely captures the temper of Bowra's mind as exhibited in his prose: "He has the quality which certain judges possess of cutting through the nonsense and assessing human worth; he is anti-fusser, an anti-bunker rather than a debunker, who wears his humanism like a bullet-proof vest." Far from unproductive, he turned out some 30-odd volumes of criticism and translation.

Mitchell reports that Bowra's family knew nothing of his academic distinction, and people who knew Bowra for decades were unaware that he had brothers and sisters. This speaks to how thoroughly anchored in Oxford his life was. He went to Oxford from Cheltenham, a public school meant to train boys for a military career, in which he had no interest. He began at New College, where he earned a first-class degree, whence he was appointed a tutor, then dean, and finally warden of Wadham College, a post he held for 32 years, between 1938 and 1970, so that, as Mitchell notes, "Wadham and Bowra's name became synonymous."

The differences setting off one Oxford (and Cambridge) college from another are neatly set out by Mitchell's mention of the game of the time in which they were compared to European federated republics. Thus, New College was England; Christ Church was France; Balliol, America; Jesus College was Yugoslavia; Exeter, Romania; Corpus Christi, Denmark. What country Wadham was properly compared to isn't specified, though Bowra greatly raised its prominence.
Stuart Hampshire claimed he wanted to make it into "Czechoslovakia, small but enlightened and respected," which he seems to have done through careful appointment of fellows and selection of undergraduates and, most of all, through the force of his own powerful personality.

As an Oxford don, Bowra thought himself in the tradition of Gilbert Murray: someone who did intensive scholarship yet wrote for intelligent general readers, keeping the tradition of Greek culture alive while disseminating it as widely as possible. He translated Pindar, wrote an important book on Homer, and, though his work in Greek scholarship came to be thought old-fashioned, he was not in the least reluctant to continue working in this vein throughout his life: first, because he believed the ancient Greeks still supplied the best model available of the good life, and second, as Leslie Mitchell writes, because "his Greek studies were so intimately entwined in aspects of his personality that they could not be easily readjusted."

If Bowra may be said to have been a proselytizer, it was on behalf of the Greek ideal and of the centrality in life, to the cultivated classes, of the elevation that great poetry made to the enhancement of life. When young, Bowra wished to write serious poetry himself, but recognized it wasn't in him to do so. His taste in contemporary poetry was less than infallible; among the poets he admired and promoted were Yeats and Edith Sitwell, Dylan Thomas and Sidney Keyes. He wrote well on Dante, Milton, Pushkin, and others, and thought himself a servant to poetry. But most assuredly, to no one or nothing else.

Cultivating the young was, for Bowra, both a way of exerting his influence and a way of alleviating his loneliness. Apart from mornings working at his desk, he seems seldom to have been alone. Once, on a rare occasion when he went off on holiday by himself, he reported: "I found myself--a horrible discovery. I have been trying ever since to lose myself." He was a thoroughly social being, lonely as only a deeply gregarious bachelor can be, a man, by nature, of the group, the clique, the coterie. He held, as his friend the medieval
historian Ernst Kantorowicz put it, that "happiness is not to be found in power nor in money, but in good food and truth and wine."

The roster of Bowristas, as Bowra's young acolytes were known, is impressive, and includes: C. Day-Lewis, Kenneth Clark, A. J. Ayer, John Betjeman, Noel Annan, Stuart Hampshire, Isaiah Berlin, Anthony Powell, Henry Yorke (the novelist Henry Green), Cyril Connolly, John Sparrow, and Hugh Gaitskell, who disappointed Bowra by wasting his life in politics and becoming leader of the British Labour party. To be a Bowrista was to be taken up as a friend to Bowra, who always remained first among equals.

The reward was, from most accounts, to feel a sense of liberation. Under his spell, life seemed filled with promise, charm, comedy. Bowra taught the chosen undergraduates, as Mitchell puts it, "that life could be about what was possible, rather than what was allowed." Yet if one lingered too long under Bowra's influence, the result could be an uncomfortable domination. "I think," Anthony Powell wrote, "for young men who wanted to develop along lines of their own--it was best to know Bowra, then get away; if necessary return to him in due course to appreciate the many things he had to offer."

To be among the chosen was to be invited to attend Bowra's dinners, at which splendid food accompanied radiant talk, much of it expressed in Bowra's own pointed language of derogation. Up for slaying were smugness and pomposity; so too the confidence of scientists in their superiority and the self-importance of politicians, whose posturings Bowra enjoyed seeing crushed by scandal.

Among the Bowristas, one could be cruel only if also witty. Of an Oxford character known for his false geniality, Bowra remarked that at their last meeting the man gave him "the warm shoulder." Of a mediocre figure rising in the world, he remarked: "You cannot keep a second-rate man down." He once allowed that the suicide rate of undergraduates was "higher than it ought to be." The term homintern, denoting the assumed cabal of homosexuals, a play on the Communist Third International, was his invention. "You don't get the best value out of your selfishness," he once remarked, "if you're selfish all the time." Bowra could in fact be extraordinarily generous to friends.

The devastating yet understated put-down has long been a specialty of the house at Oxford and at Cambridge. If not started by Maurice Bowra, it was given a great boost by him. Although I attended neither school, I experienced it in ample measure through the conversation of my friend Edward Shils, who was a fellow of King's College and Peterhouse at Cambridge and was a talker, I believe, the equal of Bowra in his powers of subtle derogation. Of Isaiah Berlin, for example, Edward would say, "He is a charming man and has doubtless given great pleasure to his friends." Uncoded, this meant that Berlin's writing was shallow and he was utterly without intellectual courage. (Edward also told me that behind Berlin's
unwillingness to speak out against the student uprising of the 1960s was his fear of the disapproval of Maurice Bowra and Stuart Hampshire.)

When I introduced Edward to the bounderish English journalist Henry Fairlie, he said: "Mr. Fairlie, you wrote some brilliant things in the 1950s [the year was then 1978], but now I understand you have become a socialist. Justify yourself, please." Fairlie answered that he had been turned by hearing Michael Harrington lecture in Chicago,
to which Edward, without missing a stroke, replied: "Michael Harrington in Chicago--surely a case of worst comes to worst."

To be thought a disappointment to Bowra was, among the Bowristas, a serious blow. "I have known what it is to be hated by Maurice," wrote Cyril Connolly, "and I have spent several years in the wilderness; it was a devastating experience. One would wake up in the middle of the night and seem to hear that inexorable luncheon-party voice roar over one like a bulldozer." Bowra once introduced Connolly, whose lassitude was famous, by announcing, "Coming man." Pause. "Hasn't come yet."

John Sparrow, warden of All Souls and, like Connolly, another well-known under-producer, was another Bowrista who disappointed Bowra. When Sparrow published his once-famous essay on what Lady Chatterly and the gamekeeper were really doing in the sack, Bowra wrote to him:

Well done. It is good to see the old cause of dirt so well defended, and I admire you very much for your skillful argument and even more having been able to read and remember the book, which must have been a
grueling experience for you. I comfort myself with the thought that now I need never read it.

Sparrow, with whom I had spent some time, began a dinner we had together by asking me whether it was true that Americans believed that all men were created equal. I averred that one of our key documents did so state. "Well," he said, "I suppose they had better believe it, for there's no actual evidence for it." On another occasion, after a dinner in his honor at the University of Chicago, Edward Shils and I repaired to Sparrow's room at the Quadrangle Club, where he, in dinner clothes, clutching a bouquet of roses, perhaps one-and-a-half-to-two-sheets to the wind, began to attack dogs. He attacked them for their subservience, for their sucking-up propensities, for their uncritical adoration of their masters; so much less interesting were they than cats.

"Mr. Sparrow," I said to him, "I have to confess to you that I own a dog. He is a small dog, to be sure, but I love him."

"I see," he replied. "Very well, then, keep him. But when he dies, pray do not replace him."

Englishmen, as has been said, are divisible into two groups: boys and old boys.

Slight though Bowra's renown is today, it lives on, or so many people believe, in his being the model for Mr. Samgrass, the snobbish Oxford don who sucks up to the Marchmains in Evelyn Waugh's Brideshead Revisited. Bowra spotted this, and pretended to enjoy it. Waugh was a borderline Bowrista, but relations between the two powerful personalities were never easy. Bowra thought that Waugh's best writing was inspired by hatred, and when Bowra was knighted, Waugh, no slouch at derogation himself, wrote to Nancy Mitford: "It is really very odd as he had done nothing to deserve it except be head of the worst college at Oxford and publish a few books no one has ever read."

Leslie Mitchell finds the character of Mr. Samgrass, however interesting in himself, well off the mark of its life model. He notes that Bowra's snobbery was not social but entirely intellectual: "He preferred clever people to stupid people. The only entry qualification into his court was intelligence." One is reminded here of Bowra's own hierarchical order for admitting undergraduates to Wadham: "Clever boys, interesting boys, pretty boys--no shits."

On the snobbery front, Bowra did not find Bloomsbury at all appealing, and of Virginia Woolf remarked that "I find her a bore, dislike her imagery, suspect her psychology." As for Bloomsbury generally, he found it pretentious in the extreme, "with its ridiculous little philosophy about beautiful states of mind." The Garsington of Lady Ottoline Morrell, whom he described as "a baroque flamingo," was more to his liking. He was also a regular guest at Margot Asquith's literary salon, where a combination of political and literary figures was on offer, and which gave him a cachet, upon his return to Oxford, as a man of the great world outside the university.

No doubt Bowra would have preferred to be more worldly still, but, with the outbreak of World War II, no one offered him interesting work--nothing diplomatic in America, nothing at Bletchley breaking codes, nothing doing spy work. He had to settle for being a member of the Home Guard. He felt wounded and left behind. Only later were his spirits revived, when he was made vice chancellor of Oxford and, later, president of the British Academy. He turned out to be an effective if always impatient administrator, setting records for the briefness of his meetings.

"Bowra had," Mitchell writes, "the confidence of a man who had belief." Belief, firmly held, gives one a point of view, and combined with the right temperament, a sense of humor. Bowra believed that the university was a sacrosanct institution, with barbarians always hovering just outside the gates. In the matter of honorary degrees, he felt, as Mitchell writes, that "whom the University chose to honor was a public statement of its own purpose." (Northwestern University, where I taught for many years, has recently awarded honorary degrees to Robert Redford, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, and Studs Terkel, which is certainly a fine statement of its own purpose.) As for appointments, he deemed it important that people who valued what he, Bowra, did be in place to carry through those things that most deserved to live on.

What Maurice Bowra valued was literary culture, anchored in ancient Greece. The literary point of view was what he admired above all; the quality of any nation, he felt, was to be found in the quality of its literature. He was properly suspicious of social science, and less than enthusiastic about science itself. No Bowristas were scientists. Organized religion, always a target for his humor, he called "marvelous rot," but claimed that without it "the boys will believe, alas, in science, and think it will cure all their ills, poor poops."

A one-culture man, he said, "I wish I knew why we had to keep up with technological developments, and suspect that much of it is bogus." Loathing bureaucracy, he feared the interference of government in university affairs. And while himself democratic in spirit, and welcoming to the grammar school boys who now had a chance at an Oxbridge education, he didn't believe that democracy otherwise had anything to do with education.

From all this one can see that Maurice Bowra was doomed to becoming a back number in his lifetime. When he wrote his memoirs, called Memories, he ended them in 1939. He did so because he understood that World War II and its aftermath would soon put paid to the Oxford he loved, and marked "the end of an era for the world and for me." He claimed not to understand the students of the 1960s, and found the entire time, in Leslie Mitchell's words, "often baffling and upsetting." Television, on which he refused to appear, appalled him: "All television corrupts," he said, "and absolute television corrupts absolutely." Evelyn Waugh knew the game was up for Bowra when he discovered that students at Wadham began referring to their warden as "Old Tragic."

Bowra was permitted to serve two years past the normal mandatory retirement age as warden of Wadham, and after his retirement was given rooms in the college. He was succeeded in the wardenship by a Bowrista, the philosopher Stuart Hampshire, which must have eased the blow of retirement somewhat.

Santayana says that, as we approach death, the world itself begins to look dark to us because we cannot imagine it being much good without us in it. Some of this darkness crept into Bowra's
conversation. The decline of classical education dismayed and depressed him; the fading of the importance of literature, now everywhere surpassed by government financing of science in universities, was connected to this. Add on the diminutions that that relentless spectre, age, brings to the party. Like so many great talkers, Bowra became hard of hearing; eyesight and memory were dimming.

"I am going deaf and blind, and losing my memory," he wrote to Noel Annan. "It is time I became a bishop." He began to give out his address as Reduced Circumstances, Oxford. He died, of a heart attack, as he had hoped, in 1971.

Anyone of the least imagination who has visited Oxford, but never went there when young, cannot but feel a strong yearning for a world one has never known. But it is not contemporary Oxford for which one yearns, but the Oxford of the years between the wars and shortly thereafter. This was the Oxford of high intellectual style and gaiety, of dash and slashing wit, of oddballs and eccentrics, of brilliance and the love of serious learning--the Oxford, in short, of Maurice Bowra.

Joseph Epstein, a contributing editor to THE WEEKLY STANDARD, is the author of the forthcoming The Love Song of A. Jerome Minkoff and Other Stories.