The Ghost of Oxford: What Do Cicero, Cucumber Liqueur, and Catholicism Have in Common?

In the fall of 1984, when my wife and I arrived at Oxford, we joined a community of 12,000 students—including 800 Americans — and participated in a venerable educational enterprise both epic and comic. Several years later, we came away with an abiding fondness and gratitude for England in general and Oxford in particular. Matthew Arnold aptly described Oxford as “Whispering from her towers the last enchantment of the Middle Ages … home of lost causes, and forsaken beliefs, and unpopular names, and impossible loyalties.” Arnold means that Oxford is essentially severe, uncompromising in her fidelity to truth, but also beautiful, dissolute, quaintly ridiculous, and perhaps all the more lovable for her eccentricities.

What is one to make of Oxford, a community with 25,000 bathtubs but not a single shower? A rainy city unable to sell a good cheap umbrella? Oppressed by a plumbers’ union so powerful that even new wash basins have separate faucets for hot and cold water? Where undergraduates in white tie and gown are examined in sumptuous, palatial rooms by dons who consider students a nuisance? A town of extraordinary public buildings unheated in winter? A population of 100,000 served by only one dry cleaner, whose customers are scolded for bringing in dirty clothes?

For the aspiring scholar, the archetype of Oxfordian sublimity and ridiculousness is the Bodleian, the fifteenth-century university library of 5 million books and priceless manuscripts. Its gorgeously painted ceilings, ornate bookshelves, and dusty reading rooms are only dimly illuminated with fluorescent, World War II-vintage tube lighting. Should the sun glimmer for an instant through dark clouds, all lights are immediately extinguished. Should the temperature indoors ever rise above 55 — a rare occurrence — all windows are immediately opened to “let in the air.” Books are catalogued only by author, in old leather volumes with entries pasted in individually by hand, and in separate catalogues for books published before 1920 and after. American colleges catalogue a new book in about a week; at the Bodleian, the process takes more than three years. In order to photocopy a single page, one must fill out in triplicate three separate forms on two separate floors, a process which may take four days.

While town and university bumble along, the university’s 40 approved colleges prosper exceedingly. The college — not the University — is responsible for the education of each undergraduate. His college provides his tutor, chaplain, doctor, library, rooms, meals, sport, and much of his social life. My college, Worcester, was average in size, with about 300 undergraduates and 100 graduates. The former were almost exclusively English, while half of the latter were foreigners. Americans were by far the largest (and least popular) non-English minority, but there were also Scots, Aussies, Irish, Kiwis, South Africans, Zimbabweans, Canadians, Hong Kong Chinese, Japanese, and the occasional Indian, Pakistani, African, or European.

Worcester’s main quadrangle was a felicitous combination of early fifteenth-century Benedictine cottages and early eighteenth-century neoclassical. The cottages were remnants of the old Benedictine college, Gloucester, whose chapel, library, and books had been destroyed by Henry VIII in the 1530’s. The library and the austere, chandeliered dining hall were part of the neoclassical edifice, whose design had been approved by Hawksmoor in the eighteenth century. During Victoria’s reign, this neoclassicism was rejected as not conducive to the inculcation of religious sentiment. The Victorians also excavated Pompeii, and together, Victorian values and Pompeii inspired Burgess’s nineteenth-century renovation of the chapel, which gained a gilded interior with terra cotta pilasters, stained glass, pseudo-patristic mosaics of English saints and the four Doctors of the Latin Church, and a temperamental organ. Hence Worcester, an Enlightenment college, found itself with an exaggeratedly Romish chapel and more monastic housing than any other hall in Great Britain. It had many students from Ampleforth, England’s famous Benedictine public school. It seemed Catholic.

Oxford’s academic standards come as a shock even to well-prepared foreigners. I arrived at my first patristics seminar with a self-satisfied air: in addition to an English translation of the assigned text, I had brought with me — and was able to negotiate ever so slowly — the original Greek. But when I looked around the room, I discovered that, aside from the other Americans, I was the only person present who needed an English translation. The British had read the 200 pages assigned for the first week in the original.

I received a further shock when I joined Worcester’s January reading party in the Lake district. We were quartered in the manor of the family which had dominated the area for three centuries. (They had been recusants; a priest’s hole was cleverly concealed above the fireplace.) As we labored at our desks, I glanced at my neighbor, a fourth-year undergraduate in Greats. A thick sheaf of papers lay on her desk.

“Are those papers your notes?” I queried.

“Well, not exactly. It’s my translation of Plato’s Republic.”

“You yourself translated the Republic?”


“All of it?”

“Very nearly. Everyone does.”

I had not known until then — at Oxford it is considered very unsound to talk about work.

Graduate students are more autonomous than undergraduates and often have an extramural supervisor. My supervisor was a welcoming, charming, and decidedly other-worldly Jesuit from Campion Hall. Dr. M. was erudite, witty, and orthodox — a combination of traits still not uncommon for English members of his order. He had both the body proportions and the nobility of soul of an El Greco subject. As an undergraduate he had written his dissertation on St. Gregory of Nyssa, a fourth-century Greek. He was in late middle age; six feet, four inches tall; very pale; balding; white-haired; and black-gowned. But for his Roman collar, his attire was indistinguishable from that of Oxford’s innumerable Anglican divines. Like all Oxford theology dons, he was a razor-sharp schoolman, quoted important Greek passages from memory, and read Latin with the Renaissance English pronunciation so alarming to American and German ears. He had already trained an entire generation of students before I met him at a reception for theology graduates where he was capriciously reciting Schiller in the German, to a flummoxed and dumbfounded Teuton.

Dr. M. was offhand and diffident in our tutorial sessions — so much so that I was often on my way home before I realized that my most recent paper was absolute rubbish: “I read your M.A. thesis with the greatest interest. Now its main point is that St. Justin was influenced by Johannine theology: isn’t that impossible if Justin never speculates upon the relationship between the Father and the Son? Just wondering.” As my work improved, Dr. M. became proportionately less articulate. In our last session before my returning to America, I had given him a hundred pages of my best: “Hmm-hmm. Yes. This was actually rather interesting. Yes….” It was an effort for him to conceal his surprise.

Our English friends were brilliant, bursting with life, and wonderfully decent. They wore their extraordinary erudition in a disarming, unassuming manner. They were without exception remarkably different in taste, manners, and disposition from the average American student. Our dear friend James, an aspiring barrister, was an Ultramontane, a naughty gossip, an admirer of Franco, a church organist, a solid Latinist, a classical and liturgical music enthusiast untouched by rock ‘n’ roll, and an enthusiastic waltzer. James enjoyed striking a pose in his scholar’s gown. He amused himself by reading historical monographs, biographies of famous English politicians, and papal encyclicals. He was generous to a fault, loved cigars and port, never missed an episode of “Dallas,” and adored my wife.

Our friend Alan, a transplanted Ulsterman, was writing a dissertation on a deliciously obscure topic: early twentieth-century liberal Anglo-Catholicism at Cambridge. Alan had a Latin epigraph suitable for every occasion and sported the coal-black bangs of a medieval cleric. When not pursuing his research or scrounging tea at our flat, Alan was making twice daily visits to a splendorous, medieval Anglican church, teaching himself biblical Greek, and lounging in his dark aerie, which I referred to as Raskolnikov’s garret. He was a brilliant conversationalist, a considerate friend, and in prose and epistles displayed near perfect command of the English language.

We met Myfanwy on our first evening at Oxford, at my college’s reception for new graduate students. She walked up to my wife, stuck out her hand, and said, “Hello, there aren’t many of us here.”

“How’s that?” my wife replied.

“English girls studying at Worcester College.”

“I’m sorry,” my wife said, “I’m neither English nor studying at Worcester. I’m an American, and my husband is the student.”


Myfanwy (Welsh for “little loved one”) was of the English rural gentry, an avid horsewoman and fox huntress, a Shakespearean, and, like Alan, a person of profound literacy, insight, and writing ability. We went punting with her on many occasions, and despite her best efforts we always avoided capsizing. She spoke perfect French, could mimic any English accent, laughed with the joyous clarity of a Mozart flute solo, and raised money for her father’s Catholic charities by parachuting from airplanes.

In December of our first year, we happened to lunch at the White Horse Pub. The White Horse is next door to Blackwell’s, Oxford’s famous bookstore. As we hunkered over our tiny table, tore at our tasteless sausages, and squinted at one another in the smoky gloom, a woman landed at the table next to ours. Her magpie ensemble included three sweaters, two scarves, a wool skirt, a sueded coat, a stocking cap, and tennis shoes. She carried three heavy bags spewing papers and full of large books. She was perhaps 60. Her bright eyes peered at us. She smiled and chirped, “My, isn’t Blackwell’s crowded for a Christmas Eve?”

“I don’t know, ma’am. We’ve never been there before at Christmastime, but it looked to us like they were doing a pretty good trade.”

“Oh, you’re Americans aren’t you? I love Americans. They were so kind to me when I went to Barnard to read my poetry. Do you watch ‘Dallas’? I don’t —I only watch ‘Dynasty’ now.”

“No, I don’t. But my wife watches it avidly. Tell me, are any of your books on the shelves at Blackwell’s?”

“Oh, I don’t know.” Then coyly, “One or two.”

Our conversation flitted to and fro, and at length we introduced ourselves. She was Elizabeth Jennings, England’s foremost Catholic poet, and Blackwell’s has half a shelf devoted to her many fine works. I plucked up my courage and asked her if we could interview her for a student magazine I edited. When she graciously accepted, I invited her to tea. We saw each other rather often during the next three years. We appreciated her terse, honest poems with their antistrophic, Christian conclusions. We delighted in her ability to make un bon mot and heard all about her sojourn in Rome, devotion to the Holy Father, and correspondence with Sir John Gielgud.

Oxford continues to bear fruit in the most important sense: many of her dons and students still convert to Catholicism. While I was in residence, two respected college chaplains came over. One of them, Peter Cornwell, announced his defection from his pulpit, the extremely prestigious university parish church of St. Mary the Virgin — where Newman had mustered the Oxford Movement. Rumor had it that a third conversion was imminent, and Archbishop Runcie of Canterbury took the extraordinary step of telephoning each chaplain personally to ascertain his intentions. When asked by the “Arch” if he were next, one chaplain purportedly answered, “No, but I could be.” Most recently, Walter Hooper, the warm and charming executor of C.S. Lewis’s papers, has poped.

Conversions continue apace despite the frankly disappointing leadership provided by Oxford’s Catholic clergy. Most scandalous are the Dominicans of Blackfriars’ Hall, many of whom are virtually Marxists. Fortunately, no one takes them seriously. More encouraging are the hospitable and predominantly orthodox community of Benedictines at St. Benet’s Hall, the small but thriving Opus Dei community at Grand Pont, and the new bishop — Crispin Hollis, former Catholic chaplain of Eton — at St. Aloysius Church.

In the absence of Catholic leaders like Monsignors Knox or D’Arcy, why is Oxford so amenable to Catholicism? More generally, why is it that orthodox Catholics who are miserable at Harvard, Yale, or Princeton are happy at dissolute Oxford? The answers have to do with Anglicanism, English traditionalism, and the English Oxonians themselves.

The English students and faculty are products of a Christian culture with a high ethical and intellectual tradition. For the most part, the English no longer attend church; however, there is a certain amount of inertia in the English culture, and for a time it will continue in its humane way even without the faith which once sustained it. For example, the English educational establishment still understands the importance of Latin, and it is a rare undergraduate English major who arrives without having encountered Caesar, Cicero, Horace, and Virgil in the original. American classics professors would envy their Oxford counter-parts, whose students arrive not only with Latin, but also ready to tackle Homer in the Greek. Theology majors arrive with a respectable knowledge of the Bible, Anglican doctrine, and church history. Thus even first-year undergraduates (“freshers”) are already imbued with the thought and morality which molded Jerusalem, Athens, and Rome. They may deny or question Christian belief, but they still see the wisdom and logic of its principles, and they adhere to its standards of fair play, charity, social grace, and even personal morality. The English cultural consensus makes it de rigueur that virtually every liberal arts undergraduate receive essentially a “great books” education from a faculty steeped in the great books. Eat your hearts out, Stanford grads.

Dons and college servants still understand the meaning of in loco parentis: they feel responsible for the well-being of the whole person in their care, not just his mind, as in America. They know students by name and keep an eye on them throughout their three years’ residence. Each graduate student has a “morals tutor” responsible for his well-being. Like the monks they replaced in the 1530’s, most dons are still bachelors and live in college with the students. They devote their whole lives to students and research (but not necessarily in that order). Because they tutor students individually, they sometimes play a positive role in character formation.

The second cause of Oxford’s proximity to Catholic wisdom lies in her Anglicanism. Anglicanism may not be Romanism, but it is far superior to arrant secularism and often better than Georgetown-type Catholicism. Religion still plays a major role in college life. Each college has its own chaplain who celebrates the Anglican liturgy daily. Each formal college meal begins with grace. Oxford’s Anglican cathedral is actually attached to a college, Christ Church. Oxford’s very buildings are triumphalistically religious. Oxford has three choir schools whose major purpose is to supply the colleges with trained choirs, and each college has an “organ scholar” responsible for liturgical music. The Anglican college liturgy is a thing of choral perfection and hallowed words in an exquisite chapel. The American Catholic college liturgy, by contrast, is often a guitar Mass in a barn-like auditorium with folding chairs, celebrated by a politicized, sandaled priest.

Anglicanism is, moreover, the established religion. Issues important to the Anglican Church are still debated in the Student Union and argued passionately in the London Times, Daily Telegraph, and Spectator. American Catholic students weary of radically pro-abortion faculties, student governments, and student newspapers marveled when the Union proposition — “This House condemns abortion” —was freely disputed and actually prevailed in a major student debate. In the Union itself one observes pre-Raphaelite frescoes of iconographic, quasi-religious style. It is natural for Oxonians to think often about God and Christianity.

The third aspect of Oxford’s right reason lies in her respect for tradition. English traditionalism means that colleges tend to do things in the venerable way, even if they no longer understand why. In fact, Oxford is so conservative that she never entirely reconciled herself to the Reformation. Thoughtful Anglicans admire the stubborn “soundness” of recusants and other strict Catholics and still view the Reformation as a disaster. The ideal Catholic university would be a lot like Oxford.

Latin grace before meals; chapels with medieval stained glass; black gowns in formal hall; afternoon teas; punting on the Cherwell; ancient cloisters; fiendishly funny speeches in the Oxford Union; serious grown men drinking sherry before dinner; sunbeams on Renaissance buildings of golden stone; student publications full of gossip and gleeful invective; eccentric bachelor dons with longish grey hair and beautiful manners; windy, dreary, drizzly days; immaculate lawns; obscure student organizations like the Prince Albrecht Society (dedicated to the restoration of the Catholic monarchy); evensong; croquet; decadent May balls in big top tents filled with chandeliers and flowers; British anti-intellectualism and analytical philosophy; cucumber liqueur and white-suited cricketers in summer; crewing and festive boat houses; drunken Old Etonians in flamboyant tuxedos; high academic standards; the ghosts of St. Thomas More, St. Edmund Campion, Dr. Johnson, Hopkins, Ronald Knox, Waugh, Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, and Newman; dozens of bookstores and churches in a quarter-mile radius — these are still the things of Oxford. In its innocent naiveté, her very waywardness is laughable, while her sometime fidelity to Catholic truth inspires love and conversion.


  • Charles Helms

    Charles Helms holds a D.Phil. in Theology at Oxford University.

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