Saturday 19 August 2023

Guest Review: Not Far From Brideshead: Oxford Between the Wars By Daisy Dunn

 Oxford thought it was at war. And then it was.

After the horrors of the First World War, Oxford looked like an Arcadia - a dreamworld - from which pain could be shut out. Soldiers arrived with pictures of the university fully formed in their heads, and women finally won the right to earn degrees. Freedom meant reading beneath the spires and punting down the river with champagne picnics. But all was not quite as it seemed.

Boys fresh from school settled into lecture rooms alongside men who had returned from the trenches with the beginnings of shellshock. It was displacing to be surrounded by aristocrats who liked nothing better than to burn furniture from each other's rooms on the college quads for kicks. The women of Oxford still faced a battle to emerge from their shadows. And among the dons a major conflict was beginning to brew.

Set in the world that Evelyn Waugh immortalised in Brideshead Revisited, this is a true and often funny story of the thriving of knowledge and spirit of fun and foreboding that characterised Oxford between the two world wars. One of the protagonists, in fact, was a friend of Waugh and inspired a character in his novel. Another married into the family who inhabited Castle Howard and befriended everyone from George Bernard Shaw to Virginia Woolf. The third was an Irish occultist and correspondent with the poets W. H. Auden, Louis MacNeice and W. B. Yeats.

This singular tale of Oxford colleagues and rivals encapsulates the false sense of security that developed across the country in the interwar years. With the rise of Hitler and the Third Reich came the subversion of history for propaganda. In academic Oxford, the fight was on not only to preserve the past from the hands of the Nazis, but also to triumph, one don over another, as they became embroiled in a war of their own.

Review: This is a factual book about Oxford and its university during the period between the First and Second World Wars. It focuses on three academics in classics, Gilbert Murray, Maurice Bowra and Eric Dodds, and the writers, such as W. H. Auden, T. S. Eliot, Evelyn Waugh and W. B. Yeats, that they influenced. Evelyn Waugh was the author of the novel “Brideshead Revisited”, published in 1945, which evokes Oxford during the inter-war years. In the novel, the author based some of his characters on people he encountered as an undergraduate at Oxford University during this time. In addition, the acclaimed television series of the book used Castle Howard, a stately home in Yorkshire, as a location for Brideshead Castle. Gilbert Murray married into the Howard family, owners of Castle Howard. This explains the reference to Brideshead in the title of Daisy Dunn’s book.

The book highlights the differences between the 1920s and the 1930s in Oxford. During the former, there was an optimistic mood as people emerged from the First World War and the Spanish Influenza pandemic of 1918-1919. This may explain the excesses of this period among the Oxford undergraduates. However, the economic crash at the end of the 1920s and the rise of fascism in Europe during the 1930s, led to a more pessimistic outlook, with another war appearing more and more likely. The rivalry among the various academics is also described.

Not having any knowledge of Ancient Greek and Roman writers meant that most of the references in the text to their works were lost on me. I also found that the narrative tended to jump around at times. However, as a snapshot of a bygone era and the way that teachers can exert an influence on their pupils, I found this book to be an interesting read.

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