The Guru of Gossip

Maurice Bowra: A Life by Leslie Mitchell

Academia Books Classics History Literature

I remember a conversation with the historian Lord Dacre (Hugh Trevor-Roper), not long after he had taken up residence as Master of Peterhouse in Cambridge. He was commenting, as he often did, on the provinciality of Cambridge social life and the stunted intellectual life of Cambridge dons. The surest sign of their inadequacy, he said, was that they needed to have a “guru” – someone whose doctrine, imposed by means of a mysterious personal charisma, had to be accepted without question. (F. R. Leavis was the main example he gave, followed by Ludwig Wittgenstein.) The phenomenon of the guru, he said, was quite unknown in Oxford.

“What about Maurice Bowra?” I asked, thinking of all the stories I had heard about this dominant Oxonian figure (Warden of Wadham College for 32 years), who had mesmerised generations of students there from the 1920s to the 1960s. “What?” he said, with a look of astonished amusement, “Bowra? Anyone less like a guru would have been hard indeed to imagine.” At which point, knowing that this was an argument I could not win – I had kicked the ball dangerously far into his home ground – I let the matter rest.

But now, after reading the first ever full-length biography of Maurice Bowra, I wonder whether I was right to give up quite so easily. Here was a man who magnetised Oxford, with some people being powerfully (and deliberately) repelled, but with many others lining up like iron filings in a force-field. The metaphor was used by Sir Isaiah Berlin at Bowra’s memorial service, when he commented: “His unique accent, idiom, voice, the structure of his sentences,
became a magnetic model which affected the style of speech, writing, and perhaps feeling, of many who came under its spell.” Habits of speech were not the only things that had rubbed off on Berlin himself. Twenty years earlier, reminiscing in a letter to Bowra, he had written that “I owe to you a transformation of my entire mode of life and attitude toward it.”

Many such tributes are recorded in this book. Elizabeth Longford said that Bowra presided over Oxford like a combination of Voltaire and Louis XIV – that is, with a salon that was also a court. Favoured protégés were known as “Bowristas”; and these included characters as varied as John Betjeman, Kenneth Clark, Cyril Connolly, Cecil Day-Lewis and Hugh Gaitskell. Being a Bowrista could be a strenuous business: one act of disloyalty could lead (as Connolly discovered) to instant expulsion from the circle, and the need to serve a probationary decade, at least, before readmission.

What was the secret of Bowra’s influence? A hugely dominant personality, certainly: here was someone who took over the conversation in any room into which he had poked his bull-necked head. Unusual intellectual energy: he was a classicist who also wrote about 20th-century poetry, and about much of world literature in between. He also had a knack for meeting all the most interesting people; few others, one supposes, could recall conversations with both Henry James and Adolf Hitler. (The popular story that he replied to Hitler’s “Heil Hitler!” by raising his arm and shouting “Heil Bowra!” is, however, an invention.)

But there was something more. Maurice Bowra did believe that western culture depended, for both its development and its preservation, on an elite – meaning not a social class, but a minority that was educated to the point that the true values of that culture were fully embodied in it. The role of a university was to educate such people, and the role of a Bowra within a university was to pick out and cultivate the best among them. As Leslie Mitchell shows, Bowra was influenced here by the charismatic German poet Stefan George, whose “circle” of talented and good-looking young men had been a shrine to the principles of truth, beauty and Stefan George’s personal authority. That Bowra himself was (in Mitchell’s phrase) “largely homosexual” seems merely to complete the picture.

So was Bowra a guru after all? There is much in the dossier that could be used to support the accusation. Yet, in the end, the charge cannot stick, for one simple reason. There was no Bowra doctrine to be passed on, no theory to be imposed. On the contrary, what the Bowristas stood for was a determination to think for themselves. The first step, therefore, was to scoff at any unthinking acceptance of convention or dogma. Not for nothing did Bowra call himself the leader of the “Immoral Front”. But his immoralism was either a way of challenging others, or a way of expressing his own instincts (sexual and otherwise); it was never an “ism” in the doctrinal sense. And his distaste for closed systems of belief ensured that his own coterie, unlike its Cambridge counterpart in the 1930s, never became a recruiting-ground for communist spies.

Now, 38 years after his death, the number of surviving people who knew him well is rapidly dwindling. His influence may linger on in indirect ways, but the impression given by this richly detailed biography is that his main achievement was to change the lives of those around him – which is, by its very nature, not a long-lasting achievement. On almost every page there are examples of his wit and good sense (and occasional cruelty), his talent for letter-writing and his skill at satirical-pornographic poetry; but the overall effect is to make him seem central not to the world of 20th-century intellectual life, but to the world of anecdotage and academic gossip. Nevertheless, Bowra was a considerable scholar. His many books are dealt with very summarily here, and some major works, such as his extraordinary study of “Heroic Poetry”, are hardly mentioned. He was, after all, a campaigner for what he felt were the values of his civilisation. It would be good to know more about his thoughts on the contents of that civilisation, even though this might offer the reader less entertainment than the conduct of the campaign.