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Gilbert Murray: the Oxford don who made Greek chic

Daisy Dunn’s charismatic interwar history of Oxford illuminates the wide influence of the celebrated classicist and his circle.

By Leo Robson

Daisy Dunn describes her new book, a follow-up to inventive biographies of Catullus and Pliny the Elder and Younger, as “a classicist’s portrait of Oxford University between the wars”. Lucid, agile, juicy, nuanced, it provides an account of the two-and-a-bit decades in which the city was home to an extraordinary parade of scholars and writers. Dunn emphasises her identity as a practitioner of ancient history – and a graduate of the degree known as literae humaniores or Greats – to explain the focus on the transplanted Australian Gilbert Murray, who from 1908 to 1936 served as the regius professor of Greek, and his most gifted former students: the bon viveur and schemer Maurice Bowra and the Ulsterman, pacifist and occultist ER Dodds, best known today for his 1951 study The Greeks and the Irrational. As Dunn shows, during a period characterised first by uncertainty, then fear, all three men drew on classical precedent for a source of wisdom, analogies, and warnings.

Familiar names of the period – David Cecil, AL Rowse, AJ Ayer – are absent from Dunn’s story. There’s no reference to JL Austin, the future philosopher who in 1931, as a second-year classicist, was awarded the Gaisford Prize for Greek prose, or George Stuart Gordon, the Merton professor of English literature, who argued for the potential of his own, comparatively new discipline – it would “save our souls and heal the state” – in his 1922 inaugural lecture. But Dunn makes a persuasive case that the Oxford within Murray’s orbit exerted the greatest intellectual and creative influence. (She also explains in an endnote that in 1937 more than a fifth of the university’s teaching staff belonged to the classics faculty.)

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Murray, as Dunn sets out in one of many terrific summaries, was the leading classical scholar of his day. With his translations, he resurrected the work of Euripides who, following an eclipse in the Victorian period, could now be celebrated, Murray argued, as an “aggressive champion of women”. Passages from Murray’s version of Medea were read out at women’s suffrage meetings.

His central academic contribution was as a historian of Roman religion, a subject dominated by the formidably erudite Cambridge academic Jane Harrison, whose scholarship Murray “built upon” and “challenged”, for example by re-establishing the religious importance of the Olympian gods, whom Harrison had disparaged in favour of primitive rituals. Murray’s translations, though mocked by AE Housman and TS Eliot, were popular and often staged, and his scholarship commanded amazingly wide recognition. Of the Harvard lectures published under the title The Rise of Greek Epic, Theodore Roosevelt – not, it seems, a born reviewer – said that they were “as interesting as the most interesting novel”.

Dunn’s title is somewhat misleading. It comes not from a quotation, as one might have expected, but from a spurious passage towards the end of the book, in which she argues that the world of Murray, Bowra and Dodds was “never far from Brideshead”. She is referring to Evelyn Waugh’s novel, not the seat of the Marchmains – Brideshead Revisited, not Brideshead Castle – and what she seems to be arguing is that Oxford between the wars had something in common with its portrayal by an errant former undergraduate.

This is true as far as it goes. Maurice Bowra, according to Nancy Mitford, called the novel’s Oxford sections “perfect”. But Waugh had nothing to say about scholarship or college administration, let alone the mechanics behind electing a new regius professor – the subject of an engrossing section of Dunn’s book. Bowra may have been portrayed in the novel as “Mr Samgrass of All Souls”, a plump young historian, but this was only his louche, pampered side – Samgrass is an “intellectual-on-the-make”, and gives “the general appearance of being too often bathed” – not the First World War soldier, the pained homosexual, the celebrated wit, the loyal friend, the inspiring mentor of John Betjeman, Henry Green, Cyril Connolly and Kenneth Clark, or the readable expositor of Sophocles and Rilke.

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Although in Brideshead Revisited, Anthony Blanche, a friend of the narrator Charles, is described at one point reciting The Waste Land through a megaphone (“I, Tiresias, have foresuffered all”), Waugh depicts a landscape untouched by modernist upheavals – both WB Yeats and Eliot make repeated appearances in Dunn’s account – and none of the characters is a classicist. In this sense, not only the book’s title but the epigraph – an aristocrat writing to Waugh about “English society of the 1920s” – could be considered a cheat.

It’s a compliment to Dunn’s book as a work of popular intellectual history – and a reflection of her fidelity to this cause – that for the majority of its pages both Brideshead and Brideshead are invisibly distant. Dunn mentions, in a footnote, that Castle Howard – which was owned by the family into which Gilbert Murray married – was a potential basis for the house in Waugh’s novel; the Samgrass character is involved in a discussion of Bowra’s taste for scandal and friendship with students (not all of them classicists); in an epilogue, she deals briefly with the novel’s publication. One of the models for Sebastian Flyte (Alastair Graham) gets half a sentence, while the surname of the other (Hugh Lygon) appears in another footnote. Harold Acton, one-third of Anthony Blanche – as Waugh claimed – pops up fleetingly. The other two-thirds, Brian Howard, is never mentioned.

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So Dunn’s book doesn’t belong in the company of DJ Taylor’s Bright Young People, or Paula Byrne’s Mad World: Evelyn Waugh and the Secrets of Brideshead. But it has a close companion in another superb book by a young literary historian concerned with a high-toned yet gossip-laden locale – in that case, Bloomsbury – in the period during the wars, Francesca Wade’s Square Haunting (2020).

The virtue of these books is their brisk pen portraits, their patient explanation of ideas, and their dexterity with sources, not only the many books by their subjects, about their subjects, or both, but archival material. Eyewitness testimony does a lot of the work – Dunn, in one of many enjoyable moments, quotes Virginia Woolf’s view that Murray was “so discreet, so sensitive, so low in tone & immaculate in taste that you hardly understand how he has the boldness to beget children”.

In their different ways, both authors use their ingenuity to construct a story – Wade by writing about a succession of disparate female writers (among them Murray’s sparring partner Jane Harrison) who happened to live in the same square, Dunn by funnelling everything through Murray and his extended network. But Dunn’s book is more of an exercise in discovery, or uncovering. The connections exist, but she has made them legible and vivid, while largely avoiding creaky transitions, the adverb “meanwhile”, or other traps of the genre.

Any book with the word Oxford in the title, let alone one extensively concerned with Maurice Bowra, is liable to parochialism. It was a book of tributes to Bowra that prompted John Carey’s polemical essay “Down with Dons”, in which much is made of Bowra’s frivolity, snobbery, and “the awful donnishness of his jokes”. But Carey was forced to acknowledge that Bowra’s “positive qualities were immense” and he ended by praising the “breadth of his learning” and his ability to challenge his students and inspire them to creativity.

Daisy Dunn offers an inversion of this formula. She begins with a misty tribute to her alma mater and devotes 200 pages to her Oxonian cast. But she is clear-eyed about Oxford’s less appealing habits. She pokes fun at the terminology, and casts her attentions beyond the city, sometimes to historic houses such as Castle Howard or Garsington Manor, where Bowra saw Winston Churchill “carrying a sponge of heroic dimensions”. But there’s also a surprising extended visit to Birmingham (“everything that Oxford was not”), home in the later 1920s to ER Dodds and recent graduates WH Auden, Louis MacNeice and Henry Green, all of whom wrote about the city, and also crucial fleeting references to Frankfurt and Freiburg, where the great philologist Eduard Fraenkel was forced out of his post in 1934. (He was soon named, with Bowra’s help, Oxford professor of Latin.)

While Dunn brings in worldly themes such as women’s rights, war trauma, industrial action, international diplomacy, homophobia and the legacy of colonialism, she is centrally concerned with the power of the humanities, and the virtues and dangers of invoking the past. At the end of the First World War, Gilbert Murray achieved a sense of clarity by comparing Britain to the Greek city-state after the Peloponnesian War. Within 20 years, Hitler and Nazi theorists such as Hans Günther were invoking the “Nordic” blood of Plato and the Spartan treatment of disabled children, and it mattered more than ever what the ancient world could truthfully be said to represent.

Not Far From Brideshead: Oxford Between the Wars
Daisy Dunn
Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 304pp, £20

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This article appears in the 04 May 2022 issue of the New Statesman, Dictating the Future