Category Archives: QOTD

QOTD (2014-02-05); or, Everyday Homosociality

Much has been made (often, ahem, by literary critics) of the steamy nature of Victorian homosociality; according to some, all you need to do is get half a dozen Harrow sixth-formers or pre-Raphaelite artists in a room together and they will all be sodomizing each other before you can say “eros.” But I rather suspect that this passage, from G.B. Grundy’s (kind of boring and badly-written) Fifty-Five Years at Oxford: An Unconventional Autobiography is more illustrative of the many elite contexts in which male homosociality flourished in the late-Victorian period:

A surprising incident of a kindred nature took place one night in Corpus Common Room. Cuthbert Shields, who was a great and not infrequent critic of the looks of women, said in that way of his… that he considered that Mrs. Vinogradoff [the wife of the Corpus Professor of Jurisprudence] was a very good-looking woman. Women’s looks were not a very favourite topic in Corpus Common Room, so no one took up the challenge, and there was an appreciable interval of silence. [Professor of Latin Robinson] Ellis, who had apparently been asleep in the chair on my left, woke up at this and said across me to Lightfoot [no idea who he is], who was sitting on my right, ‘I sometimes think, Lightfoot, that your wife is quite a good-looking woman.’ He was right, for Mrs. Lightfoot was at the time a very beautiful girl.

Apparently (says Chris Stray in one of his many books about the history of classical scholarship in this period) a classicist called Gilbert Norwood commented in 1923 that “many dons are simply sixth-form boys who have kept on,” and I think that’s true in a variety of ways: I have learned more about Victorian male homosociality as a widespread social institution by talking to modern-day young English men who attended single-sex secondary schools (still, I would argue, neo-Victorian institutions, hence their usefulness as historical comparators) than I ever could by reading the literature about homosexuality. This is what makes writing about Sidgwick so different to writing about Symonds, even though the two were good friends and moved in the same circles: women were simply not interesting enough to Symonds for interacting with them to be a significant factor in his life, but Sidgwick was interested in them as people and as sex objects and as an “other” his single-sex upbringing had not always prepared him to relate to as real, fully-fledged human beings. When I look at Victorian homosociality and heterosexuality, I see a series of fascinating tensions within the lives and thoughts of men who are attracted sexually and personally to women and often are theoretically in favor of women’s intellectual and social equality, but have grown up avoiding them, fearing them, seeing them as a constraint on propriety, and generally being reduced to paroxysms of awkwardness whenever they enter the room or come up in conversation. The parallels to conversations in today’s university common rooms and department lounges are, perhaps, worth noting, but I leave such matters to the reader.

QOTD (2014-02-02)

Last term, a Christ Church undergraduate made student-paper headlines for bringing a homemade flamethrower to a college “bop” (party for all the undergrads in college). But we junior deans and equivalent officers who lie awake at night worrying that such things will happen on our watch should be relieved that matters are no longer as they were in the late-Victorian period, as described by M.C. Curthoys in the History of the University of Oxford, vol. 7:

One outward sign of the new seriousness was the exclusion of dogs, whose nocturnal howlings had occasionally disturbed the peace of the unreformed colleges; Warden Sewell carefully enforced the rules against them at New College in the early 1860s, while George Bradley made their removal an issue at University College. Supper parties, a long-standing target for moral reformers, were suppressed at Trinity during 1857 and 1858 by the dean, Frederick Meyrick, who detested their ‘noisy and ill-conducted’ proceedings, ‘gross language’, and ‘filthy songs’. Gatings and rustications were imposed on attenders at rowdy wine parties in the following decade….

As proctors during 1882-3, Scott Holland and A.L. Smith of Balliol conducted a purge against prostitution in the town, declaring their priority to be ‘protecting the Undergraduates from needless temptation by vigilantly attending to the public decency of the streets’. Their actions… were reinforced by the University branch of the Church of England Purity Association, founded in 1883, whose 800 members in 1887 included about 30 per cent of all undergraduates in residence…. Membership at Keble, where the association seems to have originated, was almost universal; Oriel and Worcester also provided substantial support. Sexual vice was thereafter a diminishing concern among disciplinary officers; entering a college after hours, though still an offence, ceased to be automatically associated with gross moral turpitude, and ‘climbing in’ over the college walls could become a relatively good-natured test of ingenuity. In other matters it proved more difficult for college deans to take concerted action. L.R. Farnell, Sub-Rector of Exeter from 1882, complained of their failure to agree a common policy towards college bonfires, undergraduate celebrations usually of sporting victories, which threatened to get out of hand in the mid-1880s. Some colleges treated them as occasions for licensed uproar, like bump suppers (previously disreputable occasions but which became sanctioned as official college events). These provided essential outlets for the violent energies of the young men confined within college walls. During the restoration of the Bodleian, when the Schools tower was covered in wooden scaffolding, rockets, bombs, and sparks from a vast bonfire blazing in the nearby front quadrangle of Hertford, in celebration of the college going head of the river in 1881, presented an alarming prospect. The conflagration, ‘fed with tables and chairs by a mad set of undergraduates who were chiefly occupied in dancing insanely about it’, had the permission of the Senior Proctor. A Harvard graduate visiting Queen’s witnessed Provost Magrath looking on benignly at a bonfire circled by undergraduates variously hanging from trees or bashing tin baths.

Spectacular breakdowns of control, widely reported in the press, showed that the establishment of a new order in the colleges was not uniformly smooth. Rapid expansion in student numbers during the 1860s placed additional strains on the colleges’ disciplinary resources. An early sign of trouble was the gating of the whole of Merton College following a bonfire in the college on 5 November 1865. All the undergraduates at Trinity were threatened with rustication in Hilary term 1867 after a succession of incidents, including the blocking up of a passageway with snow to prevent access to morning chapel and the cutting of the chapel bell-rope. The same sentence was threatened at University College in March 1868 after a fellow had been ‘screwed up’ (i.e. shut in his rooms by the insertion of screw into his outer oak door), and the rooms of an undergraduate vandalized, apparently in the wake of an unpopular decision of the governing body. At the end of November 1868, the governing body at New College actually carried out the sanction of mass rustication when the undergraduates reused to give up the names of those responsible for smashing an unpopular student’s windows. The culmination of this turbulent period was the Christ Church library riot…. Further outbreaks occurred at the end of the 1870s. Discipline broke down in Wadham after eights week in 1879 when the authorities prohibited the holding of a college concert. In the following summer Bradley rusticated the whole of University College after the undergraduates refused to incriminate those responsible for screwing up the oak of a tutor, who was also Senior Proctor; they were subsequently taken back when the culprit owned up.

Milestones and Mattering

Finished Middlemarch. Cried. After all, I’ve spent at least the last five years growing up enough to be able to read it.

I don’t know how to write about it yet–though I do think that in the parade of meaningful authors it’s interesting, and telling, to have gone from Forster to Eliot.

But one thing that struck me rather unexpectedly was the backdrop of the Reform Bill. It brought me up short from the privileging of political and constitutional history that Oxford has been leading me unconsciously to do. How can you read Middlemarch and still think that the movement of the Reform Bill through the Lords carries anywhere near as much moment as the struggles and disappointments and loves that seems to touch us more directly?

People often pin cases for why history, and the humanities, matter on Reform Bills: on what history and knowledge of it do to help us to become citizens, on how we as thinking people engage with the body politic. But that primes them to envision a smooth sine curve, or worse yet, the graph of a plain old exponential function: history as a series of Reform Acts, as the story of a citizenry instead of a people. But I am more moved by a history that looks more like what happens as you turn a radio dial: loud bursts of static and brief moments of Debussy or electric guitar or the news, voices fading in and out of each other and sometimes amounting to nothing at all. Middlemarch is a historical novel, and I am moved by a history where the narrative of Reform Bills is elusive and forgettable, but small human voices trying their best echo out of the static. I can see why Middlemarch might appear to some readers as saccharine and self-righteous, but as for me it’s a way of telling the past that gives me hope that we are not doomed to our future—that it gets better and that we can better ourselves. Which also, as it happens, is the thought that keeps me and my soul alive.

Sir James never ceased to regard Dorothea’s second marriage as a mistake; and indeed this remained the tradition concerning it in Middlemarch, where she was spoken of to a younger generation as a fine girl who married a sickly clergyman, old enough to be her father, and in little more than a year after his death gave up her estate to marry his cousin—young enough to have been his son, with no property, and not well-born. THose who had not seen anything of Dorothea usually observed that she could not have been ‘a nice woman,’ else she would not have married either the one or the other.

Certainly those determining acts of her life were not ideally beautiful. They were the mixed result of young and noble impulse struggling amidst the conditions of an imperfect social state, in which great feelings will often take the aspect of error, and great faith the aspect of illusion. For there is no creature whose inward being is so strong that it is not greatly determined by what lies outside it. A new Theresa will hardly have the opportunity of reforming a conventual life, any more than a new Antigone will spend her heroic piety in daring all for the sake of her brother’s burial: the medium in which their ardent deeds took shape is for ever gone. But we insignificant people with our daily words and acts are preparing the lives of many Dorotheas, some of which may present a far sadder sacrifice than that of the Dorothea whose story we know.

Her finely-touched spirit had still its fine issues, though they were not widely visible. Her full nature, like that river of which Cyrus broke the strength, spent itself in channels which had no great name on the earth. But the effect of her being on those around her was incalculably diffusive: for the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.

QOTD (2013-07-10); or, Adventures in the Archives

Arthur Sidgwick to Catharine Symonds, 15 July 1893 (almost 120 years ago!):

My dear Catharine,

I have just emerged—not yet fully emerged,—from the hardest and fullest and most unbroken years’ work I have ever had. All through last term I have been waiting & hoping for a quiet time to write to you—and in vain. I must seize the first moment of leisure, lest it pass and leave me again in bonds.

I saw Mrs Green on that day in April when she had just got the telegram, and was about to start for Italy. The exact place remains in my mind where I heard that I was never to hear or see again the voice or face of that friend who stands apart from others in my memory and in that of all of us who knew him. Mrs Green was very quiet, and all she said was that it had always been his wish when death came that it should not come as slow decay painful to all: and that she was glad it had been for his sake. That is so: but it does not make it less bitter that it shd come when he was away from home and from all but one of you. And though the strangers were no doubt very good, still they could do little, and they were strangers. And it is no use dwelling on what the sudden news was to us, to think we should see him no more nor hear again his wonderful talk, in which when he was at his worst physically there was more than in any other man’s whom I have ever known. For myself I have always regretted the sadly broken intercourse I have had with him of late years, since increasing business & manifold difficulties intervened, and never more painfully than now when all chance of better using opportunities, and struggling more successfully against circumstance, is over for me in this world as far as he is concerned. We can’t do this, and we can’t do the other: but it remains true that if we were better and stronger, and tried more, we could: and these things come painfully home when the chapter is closed. But on his side there was never a one of my friends who was always more absolutely the same in spite of absence & distance & silence: none with whom one began so easily & certainly & richly where one had left off. And in my heart, as in that of all his many friends—alike those who kept up intercourse and those (of whom I was one as I sadly realise) who fell very short of what they wished & ought to have done—in all of our hearts alike he had a place that was his own, which now is empty and will remain so, except for manifold memories.

The weeks go on, but I find no difference as to the strangeness and the sadness of the news on that April day that he was dead. I have been thinking often in the last two months of the earlier days of our acquaintance beginning in that hot summer in the pension at Dresden: it is hard to believe it is 29 years ago. I remember still some of the afternoon walks & talks—with a sort of shame and gratitude mixed. He was younger, and yet so much older & wiser in everything that mattered: and I had never seen anybody so able to deal effectually with the peculiar sort of confident ignorance which must have been my principal characteristic in those days. He was so easy to talk to: so naturally adapting himself to all moods and frames of mind: so full and bountiful of thought & talk: so gentle & wise & yet so instructive without ever dogmatising or setting himself to instruct. And in my two visits to Davos, and in the few times I have seen him in England, it has been just the same. Old intercourse & affection taken up just as before, with the edges fresh: even the changes in each of us making no difference except a new interest.

All this was only one side of him, & there were many others, of which, most notably, the long and heroic struggle to do his work & deliver what he had to say, in spite of weakness and absence & all obstacles. This is what all the world has felt, and it has been good for all of us to see it. But for myself the most potent thing was the influence he had on me in early days, and the long affection it led to, tho’ interrupted as I have said.

I don’t want you to answer this at all. I shall hear of your plans and welfare from Mrs Green. I hope we may meet before long. This is only written as a sign that my many weeks’ silence—though there is much on my side for years’ past that needs forgiveness—does not mean that I have forgotten or am unthankful for the past,—and for the kindness & affection and many other good things I have received from him.

Yrs ever most truly
A Sidgwick

For the benefit of those just tuning in, my current research subject has written this lovely letter to the widow of my former research subject. And once you have burrowed so deeply inside a long-dead person’s head—read all his extant correspondence, his poetry hidden from all but his closest friends, learned to recognize his handwriting instantly and spent many, many hours sitting in the rooms he sat in and walking the paths he walked, trying to guess at how he might have thought through a given subject—you can’t help a warm rush of recognition when you unexpectedly find a document in which someone else says that dead person meant a lot to him, too.

QOTD (2013-06-20); or, The Special Relationship, Antecedent

From Corpus Christi College’s Pelican Record, 9:1 (Dec 1907), p. 4:

It is probably generally known that Princeton University some time ago applied to the College for leave to have a copy made of the Corpus Pelican, to be erected in their own University buildings. The leave was given, the copy made and transported; the function has now been held, and the Pelican has been duly inaugurated in its new home. Our readers will be glad to know that on the day of the ceremony the President sent to Princeton the following telegram, the exact words of which he has kindly communicated to us. It ran as follows:–

‘Corpus Christi College, Oxford, sends greeting, and rejoices that Princeton University has erected a reproduction of Turnbull’s dial in its original form.’

The last words refer to the fact that the American dial stands, not on a square pedestal like ours, but on an octagonal base, such as is shown in the C.C.C. MS. by Hegge, who died in 1629. This earlier base was recently discovered beneath the square pedestal of the Corpus dial, the insertion having been made at a considerably later date.

The President has received the following letter from the President of Princeton University:–

Princeton University, Princeton, N.J.
November 1, 1907.
President’s Room.

My Dear Sir–
We had yesterday the pleasure of unveiling the beautiful reproduction of the Turnbull sun-dial which stands in the quadrangle of Corpus Christi College, presented to us by Sir William Mather. The Right Honourable James Bryce, the British Ambassador to the United States, made the address of presentation; the weather was brilliant and perfect; and all who were present wished me to convey to you the warm thanks of Princeton University for the courtesy shown by yourself and the Fellows of Corpus Christi in permitting this copy of the dial to be made and presented to us. It will always be for us a visible symbol of the connexion we already sensibly felt between our traditions and the traditions of Oxford. I hope that you may yourself some day visit Princeton and judge whether we have suitably placed the interesting column on our own grounds.

With much respect,
Sincerely yours,
Woodrow Wilson.

QOTD (2013-05-01)

Forster, The Longest Journey:

“The cow is there,” said Ansell, lighting a match and holding it out over the carpet. No one spoke. He waited till the end of the match fell off. Then he said again, “She is there, the cow. There, now.”

“You have not proved it,” said a voice.

“I have proved it to myself.”

“I have proved to myself that she isn’t,” said the voice. “The cow is not there.” Ansell frowned and lit another match.

“She’s there for me,” he declared. “I don’t care whether she’s there for you or not. Whether I’m in Cambridge or Iceland or dead, the cow will be there.”

It was philosophy. They were discussing the existence of objects. Do they exist only when there is some one to look at them? Or have they a real existence of their own? It is all very interesting, but at the same time it is difficult. Hence the cow. She seemed to make things easier. She was so familiar, so solid, that surely the truths that she illustrated would in time become familiar and solid also. Is the cow there or not? This was better than deciding between objectivity and subjectivity. So at Oxford, just at the same time, one was asking, “What do our rooms look like in the vac.?”

“Look here, Ansell. I’m there—in the meadow—the cow’s there. You’re there—the cow’s there. Do you agree so far?” “Well?”

“Well, if you go, the cow stops; but if I go, the cow goes. Then what will happen if you stop and I go?”
Several voices cried out that this was quibbling.

“I know it is,” said the speaker brightly, and silence descended again, while they tried honestly to think the matter out.

Rickie, on whose carpet the matches were being dropped, did not like to join in the discussion. It was too difficult for him. He could not even quibble. If he spoke, he should simply make himself a fool. He preferred to listen, and to watch the tobacco-smoke stealing out past the window-seat into the tranquil October air. He could see the court too, and the college cat teasing the college tortoise, and the kitchen-men with supper-trays upon their heads. Hot food for one—that must be for the geographical don, who never came in for Hall; cold food for three, apparently at half-a-crown a head, for some one he did not know; hot food, a la carte—obviously for the ladies haunting the next staircase; cold food for two, at two shillings—going to Ansell’s rooms for himself and Ansell, and as it passed under the lamp he saw that it was meringues again. Then the bedmakers began to arrive, chatting to each other pleasantly, and he could hear Ansell’s bedmaker say, “Oh dang!” when she found she had to lay Ansell’s tablecloth; for there was not a breath stirring. The great elms were motionless, and seemed still in the glory of midsummer, for the darkness hid the yellow blotches on their leaves, and their outlines were still rounded against the tender sky. Those elms were Dryads—so Rickie believed or pretended, and the line between the two is subtler than we admit. At all events they were lady trees, and had for generations fooled the college statutes by their residence in the haunts of youth.

But what about the cow? He returned to her with a start, for this would never do. He also would try to think the matter out. Was she there or not? The cow. There or not. He strained his eyes into the night.

Either way it was attractive. If she was there, other cows were there too. The darkness of Europe was dotted with them, and in the far East their flanks were shining in the rising sun. Great herds of them stood browsing in pastures where no man came nor need ever come, or plashed knee-deep by the brink of impassable rivers. And this, moreover, was the view of Ansell. Yet Tilliard’s view had a good deal in it. One might do worse than follow Tilliard, and suppose the cow not to be there unless oneself was there to see her. A cowless world, then, stretched round him on every side. Yet he had only to peep into a field, and, click! it would at once become radiant with bovine life.

Suddenly he realized that this, again, would never do. As usual, he had missed the whole point, and was overlaying philosophy with gross and senseless details. For if the cow was not there, the world and the fields were not there either. And what would Ansell care about sunlit flanks or impassable streams? Rickie rebuked his own groveling soul, and turned his eyes away from the night, which had led him to such absurd conclusions.

The fire was dancing, and the shadow of Ansell, who stood close up to it, seemed to dominate the little room. He was still talking, or rather jerking, and he was still lighting matches and dropping their ends upon the carpet. Now and then he would make a motion with his feet as if he were running quickly backward upstairs, and would tread on the edge of the fender, so that the fire-irons went flying and the buttered-bun dishes crashed against each other in the hearth. The other philosophers were crouched in odd shapes on the sofa and table and chairs, and one, who was a little bored, had crawled to the piano and was timidly trying the Prelude to Rhinegold with his knee upon the soft pedal. The air was heavy with good tobacco-smoke and the pleasant warmth of tea, and as Rickie became more sleepy the events of the day seemed to float one by one before his acquiescent eyes. In the morning he had read Theocritus, whom he believed to be the greatest of Greek poets; he had lunched with a merry don and had tasted Zwieback biscuits; then he had walked with people he liked, and had walked just long enough; and now his room was full of other people whom he liked, and when they left he would go and have supper with Ansell, whom he liked as well as any one. A year ago he had known none of these joys. He had crept cold and friendless and ignorant out of a great public school, preparing for a silent and solitary journey, and praying as a highest favour that he might be left alone. Cambridge had not answered his prayer. She had taken and soothed him, and warmed him, and had laughed at him a little, saying that he must not be so tragic yet awhile, for his boyhood had been but a dusty corridor that led to the spacious halls of youth. In one year he had made many friends and learnt much, and he might learn even more if he could but concentrate his attention on that cow.

QOTD (2013-04-15); or, Oxoniana

Arthur Sidgwick, writing in Corpus Christi College’s newsletter, the Pelican Record, vol. ii no. 4 (June 1894):


It has been mentioned above that a curious question has arisen about this famous tale; and as I have been unwillingly mixed up in it, I have been asked to put down a plain statement of the matter as far as it has gone.

It appears that in 1865 Mark Twain heard this story from a Californian gold-miner who had witnessed the incident in 1849. How the tale was given by Mark to a paper—how the paper perished immediately afterwards—how fatal the Frog was to all who undertook to tell of it—Mark Twain sorrowfully informs us in the North American Review for last April. The story finally was translated into French; and that the Revue de Deux Mondes (in which it appeared) still continues to drag on a precarious existence, can only be accounted for (says M.T.) by the badness of the translation.

Anyhow, the story was included in Mark Twain’s works about twenty-five years ago; and when I was collecting simple tales for Greek prose exercises in the year 1876, I borrowed this tale, aong others, for the purpose. A Greek version of the same was printed in the ‘Teacher’s Key’ to the work.

Last year, however, a certain Professor Van Dyke, of Princeton, told M.T. that his story was not new, but was related by a Greek writer at least two thousand years ago: that he, Van Dyke, had seen both the original and a translation thereof, and offered to send him either. M.T. preferred the translation, because ‘Greek makes him tired.’ Accordingly he received from the Professor—a copy of the exercise in my Greek Prose Composition!

Hereupon M.T. writes his article for the North American Review, musing sadly on the hollowness of all earthly things, and especially on the impossibility of getting hold of a story which has not been told before. He sorrowfully compares the stories point by point, and gloomily admits that they are the same.

The English newspapers—it is the slack season at the end of the Easter Vac. [yes, it is—ER.]—follow suit, and most of them accept M.T.’s view, commenting (in the tone of weary anthropologists) on the oldness of everything. But the Daily Chronicle, in an amusing leader, suggests that the professor has been playing it very low down on his friend; and indicates the true character of the Greek original.

At that point it became my duty to intervene. I wrote to the D.C., confirming their divination about the Greek original, confessing my gross plagiarism, and protesting against the high antiquity attributed to me. When one is getting on in years, one grows testy about the question of age, and objects to being thought older than one is, even if it be only a trifling difference of 1946 years.

The points still to be cleared up may be put briefly in the form of questions, as follows:—
(a) Is the Professor a real person, or did M.T. invent him?
(b) If he is real,
1. Did he take M.T. in?
2. Was he himself deluded?
3. Did he and M.T. make up the jest together?
If (b 1) or (b 2) is the truth, the next move is M.T.’s.

Update: A Facebook correspondent has pointed out that there is a certain consonance between this and a riveting academic detective story in this week’s TLS, to which I commend my readers’ attention.