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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"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.