Posted by: zhiv | June 4, 2010

Reading Notes: Oxford novels, Zuleika Dobson, Summer Reading Update

I buried a note about a connection to studying English at Oxford at the bottom of a previous post. This led me to do a little research on Oxford on my last library trip, and I brought home a few books. I still don’t get exactly how the system works, with the tutorials and the lectures, but I’m sure it’s simple enough. I found a book about the study of Classics at Oxford, which won’t be especially useful, but it should be fun to dip into it. I also got an illustrated history, which makes me think that a big part of “studying” Oxford would fall under the Art History category, and that’s a good thing. The last book seemed odd and eccentric–there seem to be a lot of those–but I grabbed it because it had a handy list of novels with an Oxford setting. It’s Oxford Now and Then (1970), by Dacre Balsdon. A completely random choice.

The nice thing about this short list and topic is the way it dovetails with my exploration of academic and teacher novels. Two birds with one stone, perhaps. I found some nice surprises in Balsdon’s list. The first title on it is Reginald Dalton (1823), by John Gibson Lockhart, the biographer of Walter Scott (and his son-in-law). This book may actually be fairly readable, but it will be a little challenging to find it. Next, and similar, is The Nemesis of Faith (1840), by J.A. Froude, who happens to be the somewhat controversial biographer of Carlyle. I have seen old copies of The Nemesis of Faith, and assumed it was philosophical or a religious tract, but I didn’t think about it much. As it turns out, the book was scandalous and Froude had to resign his fellowship. Mrs. Humphrey Ward based Robert Elsmere (1888) on Froude and the publication of this book. Lockhart and Froude are both significant figures on the list of 19th century biographers, and it’s an amusing note to find them on the short list of Oxford novelists. Set against The Nemesis of Faith is J.H. Newman’s Loss and Gain (1848), and Balsdon calls the two books “a wonderful pair of bad companions.”

Tom Brown at Oxford (1861), by Thomas Hughes, is on the list, and I actually read Tom Brown’s School Days at one point, though I’m not sure when. I kind of liked it. The sequel would probably be enjoyable, but I doubt I’ll get that far. Paired with Tom Brown is Julian Home (1859), as it says that “two books appeared about undergraduate life written by the authors of immensely successful school stories.” The author of Julian Home is Frederic W. Farrar, later Dean Farrar, and he is the author of Eric, or Little by Little. Big school book, never heard of it. I’ll also mention, concluding, that The Adventures of Mr. Verdant Green (1853-56), by Cuthbert M. Bede (Edward Bradley) marks the arrival of “the typical Oxford genre–high-spirited, rumbustious undergraduate life, with no damage done and wedding bells and a degree for Gig Lamps the hero to make a happy ending. …this book has never gone out of print… not because of its plot–it has none–but because, for all its burlesque, it gives a splendidly vivid and accurate account of undergraduate life.”

The list jumps ahead–“a long jump forward–to 1911 & 1913. In those years were published the two best known of all Oxford novels, Max Beerbohm’s Zuleika Dobson and Compton Mackensie’s Sinister Street.” I’m intrigued by Mackensie, which looks to be a small challenge to dig up. Balsdon says that “Zuleika Dobson… is the greatest novel about Oxford that will ever be written.” I have a copy of the book, from when it was put on the Modern Library’s Top 100, and I hadn’t heard of it then. Ma Femme read it at the time, but I don’t remember hearing anything about it. So I found the copy and dipped in a couple of toes the other day: it’s odd, but a spectacular book in its way.

I hope to breeze through it and write a post soon enough, but for now I’ll mention an association and make a segue to the summer reading list update. I feel like I had a vague sense of Beerbohm and his status before, but this recent glimpse made it coalesce. One thing that I’m noticing recently, a gap in my general knowledge, is the later pre-WWI time period, the Edwardians I suppose, really the 90s and the first decade of the 20th century. I think I have the basics, but I could use a review, and I’m curious about what I might have missed. I started thinking about this when I worked up the Summer Reading Ideas, and I wanted to have Meredith (b.1828), Hardy (b.1840), and Conrad (b.1857) on the list, not to mention Stevenson (b.1850) and Kipling (b.1865). Our student had just read Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde for one class, and Kim for another. Yesterday she read The Portrait of Dorian Gray, which provides a good link to Beerbohm and Zuleika Dobson.

We’re off to a good start. Wuthering Heights went quickly, as expected. Mill on the Floss took longer, but it was a successful and enjoyable effort, apparently. Dorian Gray was knocked out, just under the wire at the end of week two. Oliver Twist is now in hand. Like I said, so far so good, and we’ll have to see if there are any necessary adjustments coming up. It’d be nice (and fun) to fit Zuleika Dobson in somewhere, but let me finish it myself first, and we want to be sure not to get ahead of ourselves. Madame Bovary is looming, just up the way.

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