Upholding the proud traditions of Oxford

From Oxford, by Christopher Hobhouse, published in 1946:

    Though their numbers are so small, a casual visitor to Oxford might well gain the impression that the women form an actual majority. They are perpetually awheel. They bicycle in droves from lecture to lecture, capped and gowned, handle-bars laden with note-books, and note-books crammed with notes. Relatively few men go to lectures, the usefulness of which was superseded some while ago by the invention of the printing press. The women, docile and literal, continue to flock to lectures with mediaeval zeal, and record in an hour of longhand scribbling what could have been assimilated in ten minutes in an armchair…
     The assiduity of women undergraduates is stupefying. After the long morning’s round of lectures they swarm to the Bodleian. Radcliffe Square is dark with their bicycles. After dark, in their own college libraries or in their own comfortless little college rooms, they huddle for hours on end, stooping and peering over standard text books…
     The women have a truly Teutonic respect for their own dons, who in their turn take full advantage of it. Spinsters almost to a woman, the female dons present a terrifying caricature of the mediaeval tutor… Very few of the women take the least pains to be attractive or even mature…
     Their domestic background is equally repellent. Instead of a quiet pair of rooms, guarded by an impenetrable ‘oak’, upon a secluded staircase, each girl has a minute green-and-yellow bedsitter opening off an echoing shiny corridor. Instead of deep sofas and coal fires, they have convertible divans and gas stoves. Instead of claret and port, they drink cocoa and Kia-Ora. Instead of the lordly breakfasts and lunches which a man can command in his own rooms, they are fed on warm cutlets and gravy off cold plates at a long table decked with daffodils…
     In this setting the mind of an Oxford woman grows narrower day by day…

The above passages – and more of a similar ilk – are quoted in Mortimer Proctor’s The English University Novel, published in 1957 – that is, 78 years after women were first permitted to attend lectures and sit certain examinations at Oxford, and 37 years after being admitted to full membership of the university.

“Discussing modern Oxford, Christopher Hobhouse has written of its women students with the instinctive, unyielding revulsion of the man who sees his ancient university overrun by a race of bedraggled intruders,” comments Proctor with obvious sympathy. He then quotes Max Beerbohm’s assertion that, “Beauty and the lust for learning have yet to be allied”, before going on to remark on his own behalf:

Women, although they have been admitted to, have clearly never been fully assimilated by, the still predominantly male societies of Oxford and Cambridge. They have enjoyed at best a doubtful welcome there. The ‘undergraduette’, though she has her own colleges, is nevertheless suspect as a collegienne and is rather cruelly assumed to belong to a group that is plainly unattractive and fearsome in its devotion to learning…

Evidently, the ‘undergraduettes’ of 1946 weren’t the only ones to have their minds narrowed by Oxford.

What I find most puzzling about all this is that it comes on the back of seven chapters of Proctor’s book that are devoted (in a literary context) to, one one hand, a celebration of the Oxford experience as a character-building, life-changing rite of passage for young men; and, on the other, to praise and admiration of those men who suffered personal deprivation and hardships of all kinds to gain an Oxford education. We are left to ponder the mystery of why the same ambitions and sacrifices that evoke respect and approval in men should, in women, attract ridicule and abuse; and why experiences that open a man’s mind should close a woman’s.

Mind you… In the end, it’s not the big stuff that flummoxes me so much as the implications of that passage about “lordly breakfasts and lunches” and drinking “claret and port”. I get the distinct impression that for Mr Hobhouse, the Oxford experience had precious little to do with his education.

It was once said that youth was wasted on the young. On the basis of this tosh, I’m tempted to add that, Oxford is wasted on the Oxonian.

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5 Comments to “Upholding the proud traditions of Oxford”

  1. If one has been used to a male-only society, it’s very disconcerting to find women admitted; the tenor of the place changes. This may well be for the better, but that doesn’t make it any more pleasant at the time. And a place like Oxford has a very long memory.

  2. I might accept that if he was writing in 1926, but I think a quarter of a century – or three-quarters of a century, according to when you want to measure from – is long enough to get over the shock. Even at Oxford 🙂

  3. I came across your blog entry while looking for more information about Christopher Hobhouse. I do enjoy his Oxford guide for its outrageous opinions on many subjects but principally on architecture — especially because he holds a low opinion of my own college architecturally. Although the guide was published in 1945 or 46, Hobhouse himself served as a Royal Marine and was killed in action in 1940, so what we are reading here is a certain strand of pre-war opinion. Looking at his dates (b. 1910) I suspect really that what are seeing is a snapshot of the opinions of an Eton man who was at Balliol in the late 20’s. So Lyzardqueen is not far from the truth. Is it so sinful to enjoy the writing whilst not sharing all of the opinions?

  4. Heh! No, I’d say that was perfectly legitimate approach to it. In a strange sort of way I was enjoying it myself, or at least enjoying the feel of my hair standing up higher and higher on my head as I was reading. 🙂

  5. I would very much like to know a little more about Hobhouse such as how could he move from claiming not to be medically fit enough to be in the armed forces to finishing up in the Royal Marines although he must have been the oldest second lieutenant to have ever seen service. The speed with which his widow remarried is interesting.

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