- Oscar Browning: A Biography by Ian Anstruther
Murray, 209 pp, £12.50, October 1983, ISBN 0 7195 4078 X
Oscar Browning – universally known as O.B., and in modern times only rivalled as Cambridge’s most celebrated don by his fellow Kingsman, J.M. Keynes – died in Rome in 1923 at the age of 86, having extracted from a nephew, Hugo Wortham, a promise to undertake his biography, and in return making Wortham his heir and literary executor. The biography, which appeared in 1927, earned a good deal of informed approbation. Goldsworthy Lowes Dickinson, who as an undergraduate had been much influenced by O.B., admired it greatly. E.M. Forster, briefly O.B.’s pupil (or at least a reader of essays to him while he slumbered under an enormous red handkerchief), described it in 1934 as ‘one of the best biographies of the last few years – quite unsparing and completely sympathetic’.
These praises had been hard won. As O.B.’s heir, Wortham inherited £294: not a sum that would go far towards buying the leisure to write a book. The documentation bequeathed was, on the other hand, overwhelming. O.B. had preserved approximately one hundred thousand private papers. This was daunting in itself, yet something with which common sense and judicious sampling could probably cope. A more formidable difficulty lay at the very core of the project. As a recognisable character, an integrated personality, O.B. simply refused to add up. Faced with the need to describe him, friend and enemy alike were apt to produce a mere jumble of adjectives. ‘Falstaffian, shameless, affectionate, egoistic, generous, snobbish, democratic, witty, lazy, dull, worldly, academic’ is Dickinson’s list, which Forster records with his own additions: ‘a bully and a liar’. Better balanced, if more merciless, was A.C. Benson, that expert in pinning into his diary the writhing anatomies of his intimates. He receives a letter from a 68-year-old O.B., whom King’s is preparing to superannuate:
A long letter from O.B., & a very sad one ... All this is very pathetic; & what makes it more so is that there is not one single person who wants him to stay, or wd be sorry if he died.
It is an awful picture – So greedy, vain, foul-minded, grasping, ugly, sensual a man on the one hand; & on the other, the traces of an old glory about him, like faded and tarnished gilding. A youth, a spring, an energy, a love of beauty – so sweet in themselves, yet harbouring so ill in this gross & tun-like frame.
O.B., then, was like Dryden’s Zimri: not one, but all Mankind’s epitome, a creature so protean as to test severely any biographer’s skill.
But Wortham faced what, in his day, was a yet stiffer fence. O.B. was homosexual. Moreover (which was not the case with Keynes) much of his career is unintelligible except in terms of the fact. It is an aspect of his ject that Wortham plainly determined to play down. It is there, but it isn’t prominent. For example, Wortham’s account of O.B.’s being dismissed from his post at Eton focuses very little on the allegation that he had conducted an injudicious love-affair with a boy called George Nathaniel Curzon, later to be Viceroy of India.