Delighted to See Himself

Stefan Collini

  • Maurice Bowra: A Life by Leslie Mitchell
    Oxford, 385 pp, £25.00, February 2009, ISBN 978 0 19 929584 5

What is the best case that can be made for Maurice Bowra? In his day, and it was a long day, he was the most celebrated don in Oxford, and therefore in England. Born in 1898, he became a fellow of Wadham in 1922; he was elected its warden in 1938, holding that office, astonishingly, until 1970; he died a year later. He wrote or edited some thirty books, mostly semi-scholarly, semi-popular expositions of the imperishable qualities of the ancient Greeks, though also studies of, and translations from, modern European poetry. But, as his friend Isaiah Berlin later wrote, ‘those who knew him solely through his published works can have no inkling of his genius.’

What Bowra did best was talk. ‘I hear you are the funniest man in the world,’ was the opening gambit of one visiting politician, who, predictably, was snubbed. All accounts of Bowra emphasise his wit: quick, sharp, sometimes riotously inventive, often savagely satirical, much of it (to judge by quoted specimens) exhibiting a rather Wildean posiness. But the talk could also be serious, learned and cultivated, as well as incisive, frank and shocking (he liked to shock). Accounts by admirers, of whom there were many, stress his role in ‘liberating’ them from the conventionality, philistinism and moralism of their backgrounds. This involved a good deal of talk about the Greeks, about European literature, and about sex.

Bowra was widely renowned for his talk, but he was not, as suaver operators often used to be described, a ‘good conversationalist’. Bowra talked at you; if, unwisely, you tried to interrupt, he talked over you. His goal was intellectual seduction; that failing or being out of the question, he talked for victory; in cases where that seemed too benign, he pressed on to annihilation. When he was at the top of his game, as he often was in the 1920s and 1930s, it could be, the admiring accounts concur, heady stuff. And it was not as though the inner circle of his admirers was composed of dummies: Berlin, Betjeman, Kenneth Clark, John Sparrow, as well as, a little later, Noel Annan and Stuart Hampshire – all capable of the odd spot of talking themselves. But they acknowledged Bowra as their master, which was fortunate since no other terms were on offer.

With the young, Bowra’s preferred pedagogical resource was the dinner party. The chosen young men were not so much being instructed in a ‘subject’ as inducted into a civilisation. The Greeks had taught us how to live: it was an aristocratic code, requiring a lot of leisure (there were servants to do the messy bits); it expressed a stoic view of life, meeting the arbitrary cruelties of existence without flinching. Above all, it was a civilisation that accorded pre-eminence to poetry, the perfect fusion of form and meaning. Bowra cared passionately about poetry and he led others to care too. His best writing was invariably about poetry, ancient and modern, and some of the leading poets of the age seem to have reciprocated his regard. Edith Sitwell, thought by some (including herself) to come into this category, hailed The Heritage of Symbolism, published in 1943, as ‘the most important work of criticism of our time’. Few others perhaps, particularly among professional literary critics, would have agreed with this judgment: even by the 1930s his belletristic style of appreciation was beginning to seem old-fashioned and amateurish. But several of his books, including Sophoclean Tragedy (1944) and, especially, The Greek Experience (1957), met a need in communicating some of the flavour of Greek literature to an increasingly Greekless readership.

Yet even as one is trying to make out the best case for Bowra, he has a way of emerging as a complete monster. It was already clear while he was an undergraduate, as Leslie Mitchell acknowledges in this stylish, indulgent biography, that ‘Bowra’s company was not for the squeamish.’ He ‘aimed to be the arbiter of everything that was said and done’ in his circle. It was emphatically his circle: he recruited to it, and he excommunicated. Only those who bent the knee could be admitted, and he was implacable in dealing with those who crossed him. As Mitchell neutrally observes: ‘To Bowra, these contests of will were of supreme importance.’ He aimed to dominate any gathering he attended. ‘Maurice entered a room “like a naval vessel”, with all the guns run out’; perhaps more tellingly, a character in an Elizabeth Bowen novel based partly on Bowra is said, when entering a room, to be always ‘delighted to see himself’. He spoke with a booming voice, which got louder as he got deafer: ‘He really ought to be fitted with a silencer,’ one friend winced.

Mitchell spends some time denying that Bowra was a snob, but there is a good deal of incidental evidence for the prosecution in his biography. Though officially the champion of intelligence over status, Bowra proved susceptible to titles, including for himself, and he loved to shine in the salons of famous hostesses such as Margot Asquith and Ottoline Morrell. ‘Part of the fun of life was “to cause pain” to enemies,’ Mitchell records; cattiness about the dull and untalented was de rigueur. A rival elected by another college was denounced as a man ‘of no public virtues and no private parts’ (the Wildean inheritance is audible here). In his day heads of colleges could exercise largely unconstrained powers over undergraduate admissions, and Bowra’s hierarchy of preferences was said to be ‘clever boys, interesting boys, pretty boys – no shits’. When it came to university business, especially anything to do with elections and appointments, Bowra schemed and bullied mercilessly to get his own way: ‘Integrity was an empty concept to him,’ Berlin recalled. Yet, as Mitchell reports, he was a capable administrator and an admired, if intimidatingly brisk, chairman, qualities that earned him spells as vice-chancellor of Oxford and president of the British Academy.

Admirably cosmopolitan in his literary tastes, Bowra was extraordinarily parochial in his sphere of operations. Oxford was what mattered, and what mattered went on in Oxford; this focus may (or may not) have served him well during his apparently successful stint as vice-chancellor in the early 1950s. Apart from writing accessible books about the ancient world, his energies were not directed to reaching out beyond the walls. He was in some respects the protégé of Gilbert Murray, whom he hoped (and failed) to succeed in the chair of Greek in 1936, but he played none of his mentor’s public and political roles. He was an occasional signatory of letters to the Times, but never set himself up as a commentator on contemporary society and politics. He lived through what some have seen as the golden age of media opportunities for well-connected Oxford dons, but he mostly didn’t write for newspapers and periodicals and made few appearances on radio or, later, television. Bowra remained the kind of scholar-aesthete whose heyday fell between the 1890s and the 1920s: cultivation was his forte. Inevitably, this involved a taste for Mediterranean life, but, that apart, most of what interested him in the present took place within a few hundred yards of the Warden’s Lodgings.

In the 1920s, one might have been forgiven for thinking that Bowra had elements of a minor English Nietzsche. He represented an antique paganism, at once austere and hedonistic: conventional morality was dismissed with a contemptuous wave of the hand, to be replaced by a strenuous ethic of intellectual rigour, aesthetic responsiveness and unswerving loyalty to one’s friends. Vitality was to be cherished: all forms of deadness were shunned, including social conformity, dreary scholarship and most aspects of public life. Any attempt to make writing about literature impersonal was a mistake (no other kind of writing seemed to matter much). The most prized literary genre was the epigram. There was even the hint of a Nietzschean scheme of history: the human spirit had soared in ancient Greece, but had then pretty much gone underground for more than two millennia, starting to resurface only in the 1880s with Symbolist poetry. However, such a comparison soon turns into another attempt to make a good case for Bowra which ends up instead drawing attention to how far short of these heights he fell.

Perhaps surprisingly, Bowra’s own writing (at least, such of it as I have sampled) neither scintillates nor rhapsodises: it is clear, serviceable prose which, while not parading its author’s considerable learning, devotes itself to enlightening an educated but non-specialist readership. This is an important task, but fulfilling it did not place Bowra at the cutting edge of his discipline, which was tending to become either more minute in its focus or more analytical and sociological in its approach. He did, it is true, value exact scholarship, and he was not slow to point to inexactness in the scholarship of others; but he saw his business as the shaping of the whole human being, not the manufacture of pedants. Mitchell reports a revealing episode when Adorno, having met Bowra in Oxford in the mid-1930s and been impressed by his talk (‘one of the most intellectual and cultivated men I know’), invited him to contribute an article to the Zeitschrift für Sozialforschung, which Max Horkheimer was by then editing from New York. When the article arrived it was found to be inadequate: ‘It is much too general and has only the tone of good journalism,’ Adorno told Horkheimer, and it failed to relate its material ‘to the underlying social reality’. (In the end, a revised version was accepted, so he became one of the less likely names to have appeared in the house journal of Frankfurt School social theory.) It was not only exigent German social critics who found Bowra’s approach wanting. Mitchell writes, with palpable sympathy, that ‘in his academic studies Bowra suffered the inconvenience of becoming old-fashioned,’ but the situation was worse than this suggests. From the outset, Bowra wrote in a manner that had more in common with the critical essays of Edwardian men of letters than with the Quellenkritik of the leading European classical scholars, though in this respect he may not have been unique among British classicists of his time.

His tastes in contemporary literature at first made him seem far more up to the minute – he promoted the claims of Eliot, Joyce and company in the 1920s – but his cultural pessimism soon came damagingly to the fore, as he insisted (dropping into the local examining argot) that there had subsequently been no new ‘first-class’ names in literature. In most respects, he found the 1930s a sad come-down from the 1920s, and the postwar world was even less to his taste; the 1960s, though they were full of the ‘liberation’ he was supposed to favour, were simply unspeakable. In writing his memoirs, he defiantly stopped at 1939: nothing of importance had happened since, he liked to maintain – partly to annoy the bien-pensants, but chiefly because that expressed a truth about his own inner life. His exclusive devotion to the masterpieces of past literature earned him the soubriquet ‘Big Stuff Bowra’; in the last decade of his wardenship, the undergraduates referred to him as ‘Old Tragic’.

It is notoriously difficult to recapture good talk, and Bowra’s reputation during his lifetime now seems far in excess of his achievements. Mitchell, a retired Oxford tutor in modern history, makes a spirited effort to bring Bowra back to life: he draws a perceptive and sympathetic portrait, one which allows us to hear distant echoes of the voice and to persuade ourselves that we have some inkling of his power and charm. Mitchell has been enormously diligent in tracking down correspondence by, to or about Bowra, and whole swathes of the book consist in snippets from these letters sewn together with minimal commentary. If you are fascinated by what Isaiah wrote about what John thought about what K. felt about what Maurice said, then you will find this book deeply rewarding. There is very little analysis of the wider context of Bowra’s activities, and practically nothing about the social and cultural forces that made possible Oxford’s enormous sense of its own importance during his lifetime. The life of a minor classicist, however amusing, who spent his entire career at, say, Leicester or Hull would never have attracted the volume of published commentary that has been devoted to Bowra. Come to that, such a figure would surely not have been knighted at the relatively early age of 53 (just before his stint as vice-chancellor) or made a Companion of Honour the year before his death. Bowra rode the Oxford chariot across English society with imperious confidence, and that society duly accorded him its plaudits and its prizes.

One would need to be quite engaged by the minutiae of Oxford life, and quite drawn to a certain kind of donnish performance, to undertake the biography of such a figure, and just occasionally Mitchell seems culpably complicit with the idiom. Just how complicit (and how culpable) is suggested by the following passage about Bowra’s election as warden:

On the day of Bowra’s election, the omens were not propitious. During a thunderstorm, one of the fellow’s wives retired to a gardener’s shed, and committed suicide with the assistance of ‘a large saw’. Someone as knowledgeable about the Greek world as Bowra might have found the episode daunting. Instead, he thought the coincidence of all these events mildly comic and dined out on retailing them. In fact, his insouciance in the face of sinister events was fully justified. Bowra would be warden for 32 years. It would be one of the most talked-about reigns in Oxford’s history.

It’s hard to know where to start. The suggestion that there was one fellow with many wives is just a slip, but the non-sequiturs are more substantial. And then there is the faux-scholarship of the quoted phrase; a footnote tells us that the evidence for the size of the saw comes from Noel Annan’s commonplace book, so we’re on solid ground there, then. But it’s the willed effort at comedy that is chilling. No doubt Bowra did dine out on the story and no doubt toadies and others laughed. But would it be tiresomely moralistic to think that, if there is any truth in this silly, horrible story, then it ought to be talked about in a different way?

‘Bowra was allowed the licence that overwhelming personalities always command.’ Mitchell’s book does not question this truth, and more generally it allows its subject, and the Oxford of his time, a great deal of licence. But it is worth asking why people who behave appallingly, even if in an entertaining way, should be allowed any licence at all. Why do we make special rules for those egocentric individuals who always hold the floor, hold the opinions, hold the rest of the company hostage with their wit and assertiveness? At this distance, the overwhelmingness of Bowra seems more to compound than to reduce his dislikeableness, but that reaction clearly fails to register something to which a lot of people, including some extremely clever people, were susceptible, and which allowed the Bowra legend to grow. In 1954, Berlin put to Sparrow what sounds, even now, like an unnervingly frank question: ‘How much are you prepared to pander, and for how long? I am, quite a lot; for quite a long time. But why? Affection? Habit? Gratitude? Can you answer?’ They none of them could, it seems, beyond registering that Maurice was Maurice.

One of the saddest passages in this inadvertently sad book comes in another letter from Berlin to another long-time Bowra disciple celebrating the fact that ‘the Old Boy’ (a few years before his death) had not come to stay that summer:

Every day this freedom, this marvellous freedom from the pathetic, oppressive, demanding, guilt-inducing, conversation-killing, embarrassing, gross, maddening, at once touching and violently repellent, paranoid, deaf, blind, thick-skinned, easily offended presence is a source of relief and almost joy: how disloyal, how awful.

Even allowing for Berlin’s pleasure in his own rhetorical excess, it’s a sobering indictment. Like the outlines of a skull becoming clearer as the flesh falls away, Bowra in his late sixties, largely stripped of his winning qualities, revealed his essential structure in its dreadful starkness.

It would obviously be reductive to try to explain Bowra’s social monstrousness entirely in terms of early trouble with girls, but it’s tempting. He spent his first years in China, where his father worked in the Chinese Maritime Customs, rising to the top of that European-staffed organisation as chief secretary (and thus becoming, though Mitchell can be forgiven for not remarking the connection, Perry Anderson’s father’s immediate superior). Sent back to England to boarding school in 1910, the child was starved of affection, and he built his defences early and strong. He was always conscious of being short, with hardly any neck; one observer saw him as Humpty Dumpty, another compared him to ‘one of Beatrix Potter’s pigs’. The dazzling talk, as Nietzsche irreverently suggested about Socrates, may have developed partly as compensation for a lack of conventional attractiveness. Mitchell has uncovered one or two early crushes on young women which may have been more than that, and later there were sadly comic proposals to some of the few eligible women in his milieu. But, in best Greek fashion, he mainly reserved his attentions for young men, though it seems his passion was rarely if ever requited. Buggery in Berlin in the early 1930s met some needs; he became more circumspect in Britain as he became more prominent. He never lived anywhere but in all-male institutions from the age of 12 till his death. The centre of a glittering circle, it is possible that he lived a life of profound loneliness.

To the credit of both Bowra and Mitchell, we do get one or two peeks beneath the carapace. A year or so before his death, he acknowledged the thought that ‘life would have been happier if I had known any girls in my youth.’ Stuart Hampshire, who knew him well (and succeeded him as warden), declared flatly that ‘he was frightened of women.’ A whole world of high-table maleness might be read into these and similar remarks about others of Bowra’s generation. Most poignant of all, in a fragment of a letter to Cyril Connolly, written late in life, Bowra laments that he had never known enough love: ‘Life without it is a terrible, impoverished affair, and the older one gets, the worse it is. I find myself drying up, without lust or rage to sting me on.’ Rage seems to have had a better airing than lust in Bowra’s life, though it’s hard to know. His admission stirs one’s sympathies and also provokes uneasy thoughts about what might count as a successful life. Did Bowra, returning to his college rooms after another evening shining and dominating, exult in his triumphs and look forward to the pleasures of the next day’s combat? Did he take down a volume of Pindar or Wilde and contentedly pass the closing minutes of the day in unfailingly congenial company? Or did he silently howl like a lone beast in a forest, racked by the immensity of his solitude?