Oscar Browning: A Biography 
by Ian Anstruther.
Murray, 209 pp., £12.50, October 1983, 9780719540783
Show More
Show More

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.

Ian Anstruther in his new biography aims to set the record straight in this regard – although not, it may be said at once, at the expense of a full account of O.B.’s career as a teacher of near-genius and a far-sighted educational reformer. To some extent he has been at a disadvantage as compared with his predecessor. O.B. kept a diary: this was available to Wortham but has now disappeared – Mr Anstruther conjectures that it may have been ‘destroyed’. There are extant letters to O.B. from some ten thousand individuals, but gaps of possible significance: notably what must have been a substantial correspondence with Walter Pater. But an abundant supply has survived, including ‘nearly two thousand letters from boy-soldiers and sailors, and other less reputable young men’. Of these, Mr Anstruther has probably read a good many more than his predecessor did – and to an effect of useful discrimination, as will appear.

O.B. was no doubt odd from the cradle, but the burgeoning of that oddity – its ultimate grotesque hypertrophy – may in part be attributable to his having spent long periods in two notably odd communities. The first was Eton. In consonance with an immemorial custom there, an incoming headmaster was presented by the Captain of the School with a birch elegantly tied with pale-blue ribbons. Incoming small boys were likely to meet the birch from a different point of view. Moreover, as Mr Anstruther, himself an Etonian, records, ‘the delights and depravities of vice were imposed on the youngest without restraint.’ On the other hand, warmly supportive sentimental relationships between boys, and between masters and boys, were equally traditional within what was essentially a confident and patrician environment resistant to the nervous rigidities of puritanism. Yet the scene was changing. The Eton to which the young O.B. returned as a junior master was beginning to admit the obsessive concern with the ‘purity’ of boyhood which had rapidly been taking root in newer and lesser public schools. O.B. himself caught this infection, or this crusading zeal. It was his intention, Mr Anstruther tells us, to put an end to ‘the prevalence of homosexuality which had so disgusted him’ when himself a Lower Boy in the school, and this was why he was regularly on the look-out for those sexually attractive boys whose virtue might be particularly at risk. Whether they were in his own house or not, such boys could always come to him for confidential counsel in this delicate area.

There may have been a lack of full self-knowledge in such behaviour, but I cannot see that, initially at least, there need have been hypocrisy. Nothing is clearer from the record than the fact of O.B.’s possessing ‘the Socratic gift of maieusis’ that Lowes Dickinson attributes to him. Under his influence you found yourself. You matured, becoming aware alike of your potentialities and your responsibilities. The process, of course, depended upon that intimacy between master and pupil which appears to have been so widely diffused as to have become an important element in the tone of the school. It had its hazards, the more so because of a lingering tradition of the seemliness of giving mild physical expression to friendship between males. But there is no direct evidence whatever that O.B. at this time went in for ‘spooning’ at all. The matter of George Curzon is relevant here. O.B. was an outrageous snob and sublimely tactless as well, and he paraded his relationship with this personable scion of an ancient house in a manner that gave considerable offence to colleagues. But when he was sacked from Eton on a petty technicality and it was rumoured that young Curzon had been in the picture, the boy’s father, Lord Scarsdale, continued – as did many parents of lesser eminence – to hold O.B. in the highest regard. George himself, on leaving Eton for Balliol, wrote O.B. a long and admirable letter expressing his sense of ‘how good and great an influence’ O.B. had been on him. Twenty years later, when he had become Viceroy of India, he invited O.B., by now notoriously among the most tiresome of men, to go out and visit him. O.B. went, and had the whale of a time.

And here it is hard not to sum up on O.B.’s dismissal from his housemastership at Eton to this effect: there was a patent pretext in his having breached a small regulation on the number of boys a Tutor might receive into his house; there was a kind of sub-pretext in the suggestion of sexual indiscretion; and below both these there was the valid and sensible reason that as a subordinate colleague in a school – and Mr Anstruther illustrates this abundantly – the man was an awkward and irritant presence from the start.

But there is, I am afraid, a fly in the whitewash. Now at Eton, as later with young hairdressers and waiters and crossing-sweepers, O.B. would suddenly dismiss his swans as untouchable geese. There was no appeal. Out they went, often to be traduced with considerable malignity thereafter. The reason for these falls from favour is nowhere apparent, and it is difficult to resist the conclusion that they resulted from miscalculations on O.B.’s part; from sudden advances to insufficiently prepared youths which had been rejected in a manner wounding to a would-be lover’s pride. Nothing very definite need have been proposed. An impulsive kiss, a straying hand would be enough to bewilder and revolt an unsuspectedly innocent boy. ‘Greek’ love, Uranian love is all very well. But we don’t know that even Phaedo wasn’t put a little on edge by that habit of Socrates’s of passing a hand through his hair.

Ejected from Eton, O.B. returned to King’s, his college when an undergraduate, and in some particulars very much Eton over again. For centuries only Eton boys had been admitted; once admitted, they could claim degrees without examination and as of right; equally automatically, they could then enter into the enjoyment of Founder’s Fellowships for life. O.B. was already such a Fellow. He simply moved into residence and received such pupils as came to him.

Within such a peculiar institution as King’s it is not to be supposed that O.B. imported a hitherto unknown degree of eccentricity. He had well-entrenched rivals from the start. For example, there was J.E. Nixon, who figures in Mr Anstruther’s narrative only as a college official disposed to make heavy weather over O.B.’s having given a tip to a chorister. But we are assured by Forster that Nixon was quite as legendary a figure as O.B. himself. He moved about in the same fury of self-generated activity, and was equally intolerable on committees: he once put down a motion, spoke for it, spoke exhaustively against it, and finally voted against it with nobody else voting at all. He was physically grotesque, just as O.B. was to become. He was fond of saying, ‘I threw up my hands in amazement,’ but was actually possessed of only one hand – and of only one eye as well. Legend had it that two dons had been involved in a dreadful railway accident, and Nixon had been put together from the remains. It is a curious fact that amid all the conformities and decorums of Cambridge, or of Oxford, there is a lurking fondness for outré behaviour – and also, as here, for outrageous wit. Domestically and administratively, a rogue don may be a nuisance, but at the same time his college likes to think of him as perhaps the university’s reigning top eccentric. One has to appreciate this if one is to understand how King’s, although in many regards groaning under him, served as a power-base for O.B.’s later career. Eventually he became so consumed by insensate self-importance and obduracy that the college had to alter its regulations to get rid of him. But by then he had been Mr Browning of King’s for over thirty years.

Variously self-indulgent, grossly corpulent, charming, overweening, he was beyond everything else a man of enormous energies lavishly deployed in the pursuit, the simultaneous pursuit, of a bewildering diversity of interests. He worked hard to advance the study of modern history in the university, but was handicapped in that his own historical writing was far from scholarly, being rapidly composed for a popular readership and not too reliable in its facts and dates. More successful were his efforts to bring within the scope of the university the training as elementary schoolmasters of young men drawn from the simpler classes of society. He was a super-snob who – perhaps because mere aristocrats had been two a penny at Eton – regularly presented himself as the admired friend of royal persons. At the same time, he has to be described as one of nature’s genuine democrats, judging a young man’s pedigree to be of no account in comparison with his intellectual promise and his right to develop it. As Principal of the Cambridge University Day Training College he laboured devotedly for many years, undertaking a vast amount of personal tuition, thereby gaining a harvest of gratitude and devotion to which a long series of letters attests.

Not that the other O.B. was altogether in abeyance. Indeed, he was increasingly known to be fond of boys. People wrote and told him so: ‘Having heard of your kind interest in boys, I am venturing to appeal to you ...’ He paraded a good deal of curious behaviour. Pupils might receive tuition while scrubbing him down in his bath. Desmond MacCarthy recorded how at one of O.B.’s famous musical parties his host was spanked ‘by a Tommy in scarlet uniform’, apparently as a penalty for having performed inadequately at the piano. But although there were youths from the highways and byways of Cambridgeshire all over the place, and of course plenty of undergraduates as well, there is little sign of anything other than innocent if ostentatious indecorum taking place in King’s.

But of relevance here is O.B.’s having been provided by a wealthy and perhaps apprehensive friend with unobtrusive chambers in the West End of London. It was here in the main that he entertained his humbler young acquaintance, and notably those for whom he had obtained berths in the Merchant Navy. A great many letters from these and other youths are extant, and Mr Anstruther has had a good look at them. They divide. Many attest nothing but affection, and gratitude for what has been done for the writers; they are in fact plebeian variants of that letter from George Curzon on quitting Eton long before. But in others the tone is quite different. It is that of insolent familiarity. ‘Dear Old Chap,’ one begins. There are salacious details of visits to brothels: ‘I visited the skivy houses & had a short time price, 1 dollar, 2/6.’ ‘I said to the woman I will have the change upstairs ... so that was a cheap cut but I felt dead off in the morning.’ These are malicious letters; they tease and are meant to hurt; they could not have been written to a benefactor with whom the writers had experienced only a blameless relationship. But whether or not at this murky level O.B. often, or ever, got beyond a state of ineffective prurient excitement, Mr Anstruther wisely realises he doesn’t know. The point is unimportant. The picture is a sad one, any way on.

But O.B. kept his form. In his 87th year, in needy exile in Rome, he still has his eye on things at home. He has his eye on Eton, the lost paradise. ‘The Provost’ – he says in a letter to Professor Browne, a Fellow of Pembroke – ‘writes ghost stories and the Headmaster silly novels.’ So much for M.R. James and Cyril Alington: trivial and supine persons. At least he had not been like that.

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN


Please include name, address, and a telephone number.

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences