Maurice Bowra: A life, By Leslie Mitchell

The witty Warden of Wadham taught the art of living life to the full to generations of Oxonians
Click to follow
The Independent Culture

Once described by Elizabeth Longford as “Voltaire and the Sun King all rolled into one”, Maurice Bowra dominated Oxford University, and perceptions of Oxford by the outside world, for almost half a century. As Warden of Wadham College, a position he held from 1938 to 1970, Bowra waged war on the side of civilisation against the forces of philistinism with intrigue, wit, and a clear-eyed view of what the purpose of a modern university should be.

As Leslie Mitchell shows in this deeply illuminating and carefully researched |biography, the experience of fighting in the Great War transformed Bowra’s attitude to life and to education. The bare fact of having survived the trenches liberated Bowra from conventional pieties, and made him the embodiment of the new spirit of a more carefree age. He described himself as “the Immoral Front”, and joked that he was “anti-prig, anti-élitist, anti-solemn”. Bowra detested pretension and pomposity. He believed in freedom and the young. Most of all, he loved life and deliberately set himself against anyone, or anything, who put death or religion at the centre of their world view.

Maurice Bowra’s personal philosophy, which he endeavoured to hand on to generations of Oxford students, was firmly buttressed by his academic work as a scholar of ancient Greece. Life, as the lyric poet Pindar had said, should be “sweet as honey”, and Bowra maintained that the first task of the classicist was to revive, as best he could, the inner life and values of the Greeks through a close examination of their literature. This brought him into conflict with many of his classical colleagues, who prized a narrow, technical expertise in language, but undergraduates responded enthusiastically to Bowra’s mission to encourage them to live like the Greeks.

Bowra’s hold over the young was extraordinary. Young men arriving in Oxford “suppressed, un-self-expressed, unventilated” were recast as individuals with a new sense of their human worth. They welcomed Bowra’s unbridled talk about people, sex, art and poetry, and imitated the Warden’s mannerisms, his rapid, gunfire mode of speech, and the compelling sharpness of his retorts. Mitchell’s book is at its most entertaining when regaling us with the best of these. Bowra described Isaiah Berlin’s study of Karl Marx as an excellent work, though he also wished that it had been written in English; Rosamond Lehmann’s “fluffy dressiness” led to Bowra labelling her “the Meringue Outang”, an appellation which allegedly kept Edith Sitwell “happy” ever after.

Prominent “Bowristas”, as they were known, who experienced the magnetic attraction of Bowra’s personality, and shared his defining beliefs, included John Betjeman, Kenneth Clark, Cecil Day-Lewis, Stephen Spender, Osbert Lancaster and Henry Yorke. Anthony Powell and Evelyn Waugh, according to Mitchell, “enjoyed what might be called country membership”. Equally, there were those dark forces, encouraging inhibition, prejudice, and obedience to blind convention, for whom no dose of verbal strychnine, personally administered by Bowra, could be too strong. The President of Magdalen, TSR Boase, presented an especial dislike, denounced as an intellectual poseur and time-server. On one occasion, Bowra persuaded an American benefactress to establish a rose garden opposite Magdalen, knowing full well that the President hated roses. The area was then dubbed “the Boase Garden”.

It was inevitable, given the array of talent circulating at the Warden’s court, that Bowra should find himself immortalised in the books written by friends and disciples. Evelyn Waugh’s Mr Samgrass, the oleaginous don in Brideshead Revisited, may be too set on his own social advancement to be an exact portrait of Bowra, but many believed that Waugh had used his old friend as a model for the character. On surer ground, another friend, Elizabeth Bowen, created a thinly veiled version of Bowra as Markie in her novel To the North. Markie “having no neck… veered bodily from the waist, which gave one an alarming sense of his full attention.” Since he looked like “the Frog Footman”, he repeatedly proclaimed that he was “not the sort of person anybody could marry”.

Mitchell eschews sensationalism for accuracy in his discussion of Bowra’s private life. “He had certainly loved men and had probably loved women.” One of these women, Elizabeth Harman, later Longford, was surprised to receive a proposal from Bowra at the conclusion of a tutorial with him. Fear of rejection and ridicule, together with an increasing unwillingness to risk exposure in his sexual adventures, made Bowra a demanding friend who dreaded the solitary existence of life outside the |college community.

Bowra lived long enough to see his beloved Oxford under threat from government, opposing the university’s financial independence, and from the students of the 1960s, whose expressions of violent unrest sorely tested even Bowra’s libertarian values. Leslie Mitchell’s vivid and accomplished study reminds us above all of an old-fashioned faith in the value of a university education as an end in itself.