Bullying in the House?

In the 1960 BBC interview of Evelyn Waugh in the Face to Face series, presenter John Freeman posed a series of questions about Waugh’s career at Oxford. Among them are these relating to his children:

Q. Are any of your children old enough now to be at Oxford?

A. One’s gone down, one’s up there now.

Q. Are either of them at your own college? –well, one’s a girl, I believe?

A. The girl’s gone down, she couldn’t go to Hertford, no. The boy’s at the House. (CWEW, v. 19, A Little Learning, p. 558)

Neither of them feels it necessary to explain that Waugh’s answer refers to his son Auberon’s recent matriculation at Christ Church. For the record, Freeman’s college was Brasenose.

The Guardian recently reported something of a scandal at todays’s Christ Church. The present Dean, who has sought to reform some of the college’s arcane procedures and practices, is being “investigated” in a proceeding started by what is described as a “formal complaint […] filed against the Very Rev Martyn Percy with the college’s governing body. Few people know details of what is being alleged, or who is behind the move. Even Percy is largely in the dark, according to his friends. The complaint is believed to centre on issues of governance; no one is suggesting improper personal conduct. It will be heard by a tribunal, which could dismiss Percy. A date for a hearing is yet to be set.”

To provide some context, the article, by Harriet Sherwood, opens with this description of the college:

It is a quintessential institution of the establishment, producing 13 British prime ministers, 10 chancellors of the exchequer and 17 archbishops. Among its former students are King Edward VII, Albert Einstein, Lewis Carroll and WH Auden. One fictional alumnus, Lord Sebastian Flyte, came to personify its privileges in the pages of Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited.

The Guardian, which seems to sympathize with the Dean in this case, questions whether he is being bullied by a cabal of insiders who want to stop his reforms.

Waugh’s placement of Sebastian at Christ Church was probably at one with his snobbish reference to his son’s college in the BBC interview. Sebastian’s primary models, Alastair Graham and Hugh Lygon, were at Brasenose and Pembroke, respectively. Waugh himself told John Freeman that his own first choice would have been New College where his father was a student.  But Christ Church was socially superior to any of those, in Waugh’s eyes at least. And it was the college of his friend Harold Acton, a contributor to the character of Anthony Blanche, who, in turn, recited The Waste Land from a Christ Church balcony.

Auberon in his 1991 autobiography Will This Do? (p. 137) explains that in June 1960 when his father was interviewed, he was unaware that Auberon would not be returning to the “House”, having failed his preliminary exams:

I had done no work and realized that I had no chance of passing. […] My father had generously said he would pay for the long vacation holiday on condition that I passed prelims. Since the results would not appear until the end of vacation, he had to accept my assurance that I would pass.



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