October 04, 2010

Oxford in my time.

Lessons about Kant and crumpets, libraries and love notes- and friendships that last a lifetime.

by Angela, Class of 1961

In my day at Oxford, there were five male undergraduates to every female, a ratio that would make any maiden’s heart beat faster. Mine was hyperactive for the full three years I was there. (Oxford’s undergraduate degree course takes three years, unless you are studying Classics. The school’s 13th – century founders no doubt thought three years were enough in that heady atmosphere, and they were right.) When I was there, most of the male undergraduates were two years older than the females, having spent two years in the National Service after leaving school. Thus the men not only predominated, but they were also older, more sophisticated, more-experienced. What was a poor girl to do?

Easy. Sit in the Bodleian Library with one’s books and wait. The invitations were slow to take off at first, as the candidates squared off, whispered to each other, estimated potential. My first, I recall, was slipped under my notebook with such sleight of hand that for a moment I did not realize what had happened. I opened the slip of paper carefully, feeling sure my cheeks were betraying my inner turmoil. “Let’s meet for coffee at four this afternoon at the Cadena,” the note said in an almost illiterate, arrogant scrawl, the affectation of Old Etonians. I looked around for the sender, who was by this time back in his seat and gazing nonchalantly out the window. Fair, nice eyes, good chin, all right for starters. I nodded to him, which I was pleased to note, provoked a gratifying rush of color to his cheek.

Thus one became a fixture at the Cadena, a café above Carfax, the central hub of the city of Oxford. Notes would fly like Wagner’s Woodbird song between the desks of the Bodleian, directing us women to further adventures. Coffee at the Cadena soon progressed to tea and crumpets and, later still, champagne, in the glorious college rooms allocated to the male undergraduates of the university. Of the 22 men’s colleges at Oxford in my time, Christ Church, New College, and Trinity were the Big Three in terms of social and aesthetic desirability. Balliol was the choice of intellectuals, where along with the crumpets would come heavy discussions about Nietsche, Kant, and the “meaning of meaning.” Worcester had the best gardens as well as a strong theatrical bent for those destined for the West End stage. We never entered Queen’s, in spite of its handsome façade fronting High Street. Queen’s men seemed all to be geographers, regarded universally and inexplicably as the lowest form of intellectual life.

No one spent much time in the neo-Gothic or red brick institutions assigned to us gender-latecomers. The women’s colleges, built in the late 19th century when women started being admitted to Oxford, were typical of Victorian and Edwardian architecture, rarely inspiring the spirit to poetic expression as did the 400-year-old masterpieces inhabited by our male colleagues. (Woman were admitted as members in 1974.) Yet even our colleges had some form of rating.

Somerville was considered bluestocking ( I was surely the exception that proved the rule), Lady Margaret Hall contained the debutant types, and St. Anne’s, St. Hugh’s, and St. Hilda’s never attained rating status at all in those ruthlessly discriminating days.

The high point of each of my three years was the Commemoration Ball, or Commem-the June party that ended the summer term. Commems were held in different colleges each year, and the colleges chosen went all out to make their party the biggest, grandest, most memorable anyone had ever attended. Tents, champagne, food, music, punting on the river, dancing ‘til dawn-this was the pinnacle of the Oxford experience. Never mind that your partner’s only dance step was a rhythmic stomping on your satin pumps, or that your student of choice preferred to throw up in flower beds instead of bringing you breakfast at sunrise. Walking through the floodlit quadrangles of Christ Church, St. John’s, Lincoln, or Magdalen, with stars above, music in the sky, scented flowers in the air, you knew you were in a private magical world that would never be yours again.

Matthew Arnold called Oxford “that sweet city with her dreaming spires.” Sweet indeed. As for an education, well, I may not have benefited much from the books I studied, but the friendships I made have lasted to this day. Thanks to Oxford, I learned how to stay afloat in a punt, how to toast a mean crumpet, and how to tell a Balliol man to get lost. What better training for life could there be?


Ms Edna said...

O tempora, o mores! And all that.

Fine post, thank you.

Mrs. Guttman said...

Angela I did not know, that we shared this experience. Let's get together next time you are in town, and exchange stories. This should be interesting. O tempora, etc.