I am infatuated. He doesn’t even know I exist. He’s older, learned, cultured, patrician, creative, pious and something of a snob. His intimates come from the very best circles; knowing him confers power. He’s fluent in Latin and Ancient Greek. He knows British prime ministers, Nobel Prize winners, critics, writers, historians and artists. I’m in love with Oxford— the city and the university— you see.
I mope about, a lovesick teenager, mentally writing his name over and over on an imaginary pencil case: Oxford, Oxford, Oxford. I’m sure Oxford is a he; the university was an all-male bastion for centuries. Men couldn’t marry without losing their fellowships until 1877. Women couldn’t attend college lectures until 1873 and weren’t awarded degrees until 1920. It was still a bachelor’s institution in Oscar Wilde’s day, which probably accounts, at least in part, for the veil of nostalgic affection Wilde drew over his Oxford years.
I’ve been hoarding mementos of Oxford the way a stalker might steal the beloved’s knickers; there’s a certain amount of shameful obsession involved. Novels about Oxford. Histories of Oxford. Souvenir postcards and calendars. DVDs of Another Country and Inspector Morse. I discover that the Snake’s Head Fritillary, the County flower of Oxfordshire, grows in few places. Also known as the Frog Cup, the Leper Lily, the Checkered Daffodil and the Lazarus Bell, the fritillary favours water meadows and flourishes in two Oxford locations in particular: Oscar Wilde’s college, Magdalen (pronounced ‘maudlin’, just to make the uninitiated feel foolish), and the Oxford University Shop, in the form of a necklace for lovelorn tourists.
I read Jan Morris’s Oxford, Richard Tames’s Oxford: A Traveller’s History, John Dougill’s Oxford: A Literary Guide and sigh over John Baxter’s coffee-table book of Oxford photos. I devour Brideshead Revisited, The Whores’ Asylum (a recent novel set in Victorian Oxford), and Max Beerbohm’s satirical Oxford novel, Zuleika Dobson. I start squirreling away other Oxford books like love letters: Waugh’s Decline and Fall, Kersting and Ashdown’s The Buildings of Oxford, Compton Mackenzie’s Sinister Street. It is not enough. I want to turn the books upside down, hang them by their spines and shake them in the hope that Oxford might fall out from between the pages like a dried flower. Yield to me, Oxford, lest I crack your stony heart.
My short and tantalising exploration of the Ashmolean Museum was symptomatic of the love affair with Oxford. My mother and I were trying to find the Print Room, ignoring a dispiriting note in our brochure about opening hours. A tall, well dressed man with grey hair spotted us hesitating near the information desk.
“Can I help you, ladies?” he asked with a delightful smile.
“We were hoping to see the Ruskin drawings, but I think we’re too late. Is the Print Room closed for the day?”
The helpful gent’s brow wrinkled in exaggerated consternation. “Damn it.” (Did he really say what I think he did? I asked myself. It seemed out of keeping with his refined tones, but I was a little distracted by his azure eyes.) “I’m afraid it is, but it will be open again in the morning.” He graced us with a smile so lovely you would think he was all eager anticipation, keen to see us once more at dawn’s first light. I must have spent too long amongst the Pre-Raphaelite paintings. All that Rossetti goes to your head. I’d be swooning like one of Dante Gabriel’s bless-ed dam-o-zels next.
“Oh, we won’t be able to come back, unfortunately; we have to leave Oxford in the morning.”
The gentleman made a little pout of disappointment.
“We’re on our way again first thing; we’re not from around here,” my mother adds.
“No, I suspected you were from somewhere somewhat farther south,” he drawled, leaning towards us.
“How did you guess?” I laughed, trying not to lapse into the kind of tittering excusable only in the young and pretty.
The helpful gent (he could have been the Museum’s Director, for all I know) made some suggestions and we went on our way. “I think he was flirting with you,” my mother said as soon as we were out of earshot, or what passes for ‘out of earshot’ in a hard-of-hearing family.
“No, he was just being charming. That’s his job. Will we go to the Egyptian Room next?”
I long for some token of Oxford to carry with me always. I want a perfume: Essence of Oxford. No, not a perfume. I desire a locket, a charm, a gadget. A gold contraption would open with a click and a faint whir. The little device would begin to shake and hum. Sand would escape with a puff of air and dance a saraband, beginning as a little cloud and growing into a whirling sandstorm. Suddenly, the sand would begin to coalesce and shapes would become discernible: steeples and domes, ancient stone walls, stained glass windows. Narrow mediaeval streets would grow longer, ducking and diving around me. The city would unfold and unroll around me, a pop-up illustration weighty and solid with age, a carpet of cobblestones.
Academics in gowns would emerge from the alleys and whiz past on bicycles; students with carnations in their lapels (white for their first exams, red for finals, pink for those in between) would spring from the cloisters. Millions of books, old vellum tomes and cheap paperbacks, would appear in the air, flapping their covers before shooting through archways to take their places on library shelves. Trails of ink would run through the gutters and snake through the quads.
The sound of water on stone would alert me to the river beneath the bridge. Charles Dodgson would float past in a punt, telling little Alice Liddell about her adventures in Wonderland. I’d spot Kenneth Grahame sitting beneath a willow, talking to his young son about Mr Badger, Ratty, Mole and Toad. John Ruskin would walk the streets, extolling the virtues of Gothic architecture. John Fowles would be nearby, hatching Daniel Martin. Colin Dexter would plot murders for Inspector Morse to solve and in North Oxford, Ian McEwan would muse on hot air balloon accidents and missing children. Tolkien would be sitting in the Eagle and Child, seeing Hobbits in his glass of ale. Over here, the artist and designer William Morris would fall for his Guinevere, Jane Burden. Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s eyes would be roving all over Jane while he distracted his unsuspecting friend Will with a conversation about The Inferno and plans for a painting of Beatrice. Oscar Wilde would reinvent himself, discarding his Irish brogue for an Oxonian drawl, and shock both Town and Gown by strolling down the High in a particularly flamboyant checked suit. He would be following hard on the heels of Walter Pater and Ruskin, but turn their ideas into something they dared not own.
Oxford is a city made of stories, a city made of myth, as haunted by legend as London or Paris. If only I could hold Oxford in the palm of my hand, spring the latch, turn the key and walk through the small door in the wall.
We left Oxford all too soon. We returned to Australia, to work, to routine.
My thoughts stray to Ashmolean Man. I daydream that he will draw me into a new life in Oxford, but then realistic thoughts intrude. How will I get a job in Oxford? How could Ashmolean Man’s friends —who probably make their after-dinner quips in Latin— bear a monolingual Australian, Australis Ignoramus? How could he stand me? I have no palate for wine, don’t know my Handel from my Haydn, and attended university in the colonies, which is the same as not being educated at all. Ashmolean Man is representative of all things Oxford: attractive, urbane, cultured and way out of my league.
I create a cinema in my mind where Merchant Ivory-like films are all set in Oxford. I am too old to be cast in the role of Miss Lucy Honeychurch from E.M. Forster’s A Room with a View. You, dear reader, would cast me in the role of Charlotte, Miss Honeychurch’s annoying spinster aunt, but I’m the director of the adaptation unspooling in my head, so forgive me if I throw a late-afternoon glow over the proceedings.
The camera makes a long tracking shot along Broad Street, past the Emperors’ heads outside the Sheldonian Theatre. The camera turns into Parks Road and lingers at Hertford College’s Bridge of Sighs before turning towards the Bodleian Library and sweeping over the dome of the Radcliffe Camera. We look down over Oxford’s steeples and spires before floating back to earth in the High Street. The golden hour lends warmth to the stone walls. There are punts floating gently along the Cherwell. We dawdle in the cloisters of Magdalen College before strolling in its water meadows. The camera zooms in on the deer (it’s spring, and there are fawns sniffing the air) and the fritillaries in Magdalen’s Grove.
Alas, I am not a Miss Honeychurch to be embraced amid a field of wildflowers to the swelling sounds of Puccini’s O mio babbino caro, and Ashmolean Man is nowhere to be seen. The Merchant Ivory film of my imagination is rudely interrupted; the Puccini soundtrack stops with the ugly squeal of a needle skating across a gramophone recording. It turns out that I’m not Miss Honeychurch, but Leonard Bast from Howards End, destined to be killed by my own aspirations. The camera records the finale in slow motion: a bookcase falls on top of me, crushing me and stopping my lovesick heart. The camera pans over the avalanche of books and then zooms in to reveal the colophon on one of the deadly tomes: Oxford University Press.
© JD Ellevsen 2012