…Not Far from Brideshead is a love letter to learning. In her preface, author Daisy Dunn pays tribute to the tutors who “taught me to think”. Her heroes aren’t Greek warriors, but dusty professors in dustier studies. Her portrait of Oxford between the wars is structured around the careers of three Oxford professors of Classics: Gilbert Murray, regius professor of Greek between 1908 and 1936, Maurice Bowra, the charismatic troublemaker who was expected to succeed him, and ER Dodds, the quieter soul who did.
“Though they could hardly have been more different in personality and style,” Dunn writes, “one, a libertine and veteran of the Western Front with an appetite for good food, society and praise [Bowra]; another an Irish pacifist and amateur hypnotist [Dodds]; the third an elegant Australian of Victorian reserve [Murray] — this trio inspired some of the most brilliant writers and thinkers of the 20th century.”
There are walk-on parts for John Betjeman (plus teddy bear), the writers Vera Brittain, Iris Murdoch, Virginia Woolf, Kenneth Clark, CS Lewis and Henry Green, and the poets Cecil Day-Lewis, WH Auden, TS Eliot, Louis MacNeice and Edith Sitwell.
Evelyn Waugh, not himself a classicist, was in the Bowra circle. Bowra was the inspiration for Samgrass, the genial and oleaginous professor in Brideshead Revisited. (Betjeman’s bear would become Aloysius, teddy to Sebastian Flyte.) In a further Brideshead connection, Murray married into the Howard family of Castle Howard, the setting for the 1981 ITV adaptation. Dunn proposes that Waugh, who visited Castle Howard in 1937, found inspiration for his novel in Murray’s in-laws and his wife, Lady Mary, “who became something of a Lady Marchmain figure herself”. […]
I am not so sure that the attribution of Waugh’s inspiration for Lady Marchmain will withstand close scrutiny. Waugh in 1937 visited Castle Howard more likely as a day tripper than a guest. It is more generally accepted that the Lygon family living at Madresfield Court in Worcestershire were the inspiration for the Flytes. The book goes on to describe the careers of the three main characters as depicted in Dunn’s book and closes with this:
Oxford between the wars was “a flawed Arcadia”, Dunn writes. As the Second World War approaches, plover’s eggs and supper parties feel ever less important. Dunn eloquently captures this short-lived, vanishing world.
One last anecdote, probably apocryphal, but too fun not to tell: when caught nude at Parson’s Pleasure bathing site by a party of ladies, every other man covered his genitals, only Bowra covered his face. He knew which part would be recognised in gossipy Oxford.
A review also appears in the Literary Review by Richard Davenport-Hines. It opens with this:
White men, superlatively educated, exclusive and discerning in their social and cultural tastes, who have no respect for ill-thought-out majority opinions and scorn Little Englander nativism are not à la mode. Daisy Dunn’s ‘conversation piece’ study of three 20th-century Oxford classicists is consequently a book of obstinate integrity. It is, too, eager and sprightly, sometimes laugh-aloud funny, sometimes saddening, and narrated with the affability of a good-natured and digressive raconteur.
Alexander Larman also apparently reviewed it in The Oldie:
Her erudition and energy are thrillingly applied…The effect is both refreshing and inspiring, like the first glass of champagne of the day… this is a witty and deeply researched book. It is full of revelations. She writes in an authoritative and hugely readable fashion and avoids anachronistic value judgements.