Maurice Bowra was a renowned as the archetypal Oxford don. He was as jovial and as life affirming as can be.
The Times obituary of him said, ”By his death Oxford has lost the most remarkable figure of his time in the university.” Few would have questioned this summation.
Cecil Maurice Bowra was born in China on Good Friday 1898. He was the second of four children. His birthplace was Kiukiang which lies beside the Yangtse River. He was always known by his middle name and never by his Christian name. His family hailed from the fair shire of Kent. He was descended from the Marquess of Cornwallis. Bowra’s descent from Lord Cornwallis was through his great grandmother who was conceived the wrong side of the blanket.
C M Bowra’s ancestor Edward Bowra had invented the mackintosh and the gym shoe. The family were practical types and included cricketers of great virtuousity. This was not a gift inherited by Maurice.
Maurice’s grandfather Edward Charles Bowra had gone to Italy to join Garibaldi. E C Bowra fought with the Redshirts. Italian unification was then a cause celebre among British progressives. Indeed when the Liberal Party was founded in 1859 the one thing they could agree on was approval for Italian independence. He wrote an account of his participation in Il Risorgimento. E C Bowra was a forerunner of his grandson’s enthusiasm for grand and fashionable international causes.
Bowra’s father was a senior customs official. Bowra’s grandfather had also worked in China in a similar position. Maurice Bowra said he grew up completely bilingual in Chinese and English. He claimed that his ability to speak Chinese later atrophied. Some have doubted that he was ever as good Chinese as he said he was.
When Maurice was six his father took a few months leave to bring him to his ancestral homeland. C A V Bowra described his son’s first view of London, ” I took Edward [Maurice’s elder brother] and Maurice for a day’s sightseeing in London. We went to the Tower and St Paul’s and ate at a chop house. Maurice was only six years old and our sight seeing involved some long and weary trudging but so great was their interest and keenness that they went through it without a murmur and returned home in the highest spirits. ” This gobbet demonstrates that C A V Bowra had some sense of history and was not as philistine as perhaps his son painted him. Maurice and his brother then lodged with their grandparents in Putney, London as their parents returned to China. One might have expected a close bond to develop between Maurice and his senior sibling Edward. They were thousands of miles from their parents and in a country which until them was foreign to them. Unhappily the two brothers were not in sympathy. They had radically dissimilar outlooks. Edward was very conformist and not at all academic. They grew apart. In 1925 Maurice wrote of Edward, ” He is a poor thing. His intelligence is not so bad but he is unfathomably envious and he has an enormous inferiority complex. As he is too cowardly to admit this nothing can be done for him. Also he expects me to spend all day playing games with him. ” Maurice’s relationship with his two younger sisters was not much better. His dysfunctional family life possibly explains why he was such a dear friend to so many. They were his surrogate family. He also evinced a loathing for those who over emphasised ‘family values.’
Edward and Maurice attended Willington Prep School in Putney, London. They enrolled in 1905. The school was situated on Richmond Road London. Maurice excelled there. The one subject in which he was only average was Mathematics.
Bowra was sent to boarding school in the United Kingdom as a 7 year old. At the age of 11 he and his brother travelled to China to visit his parents. They travelled by way of the newly opened Trans Siberian Railway. It was the bitter winter 1909 -1910. Nonetheless they braved the gelid temperatures to ride ponies to visit the tombs of the Manchu emperors.
The return to the UK was by sea. They took in Hong Kong, Ceylon (Sri Lanka), Italy and Algeria en route. The fact that he was very well travelled gave him a cosmopolitan outlook. On a later visit to China he passed through St Petersburg and saw the last of that city in its belle epoque. He reached intermediate level in Russian. He was passed through Petrograd (as it then was) again in 1917. He spent a few weeks there and was extremely fortunate that this happened to be between the February and the October Revolutions. There was already a severe paucity of food. He developed a close relationship with a young Russian woman there. Whether this was amorous or platonic is a matter of conjecture. The relationship became very intense very quickly as is often the way in wartime. He left and wrote to her but received no reply. He reflected that she may well have fallen victim to war, revolution or starvation.
Maurice did not have an affectionate relationship with his father. This is partly owing to Maurice having been sent thousands of miles away to school at a tender age. The two were also wildly different in temperament. Maurice’s father (Cecil Arthur Verner Bowra) had the sort of attitudes that Maurice found rebarbative. In 1926 Maurice recorded his father’s table talk. C A V Bowra said of the Tory leader Stanley Baldwin: ”I like him, he may not be clever but at least he is honest.” C A V went on to say of the Irish ”a hopeless people not out stock.” This last statement is apparently specious since Maurice claimed to have an Irish forebear who even fought with Wolfe Tone to break Ireland’s connection to Great Britain. C A V Bowra was also a Freemason. Maurice viewed this mafia of the mediocre with disdain. C A V also had a Victorian sense of moralism that Maurice found to be distasteful and repressive. Maurice’s parents had a very strong marriage. Their passion for each other was so intense that it seemed that that had little love to spare for their progeny.
As a child he met Henry James, the renowned American novelist in London. It was to be the beginning of a lifelong obsession with works of literature. His father had little time or tolerance for his son’s cloud dwelling and bookishness.
Bowra won a scholarship to Cheltenham College. This is a middling quality public school in the west of England. Bowra is one of its most famous sons. C A V Bowra had selected this school because it seemed to suit his firsborn Edward. Edward was keen to become an army offcer and Cheltenham had a good record of getting boys into the Royal Military College at Woolwich. Woolich trained officers for the Royal Engineers, the Royal Artillery and other less glamorous arms of the military. Maurice’s preferences or inclinations played no part in his father’s decision making. The martial ambience of Chelthenham was not to his taste. It suited very conventional boys. There was a huge emphasis on team sports and Bowra was not a team player in most senses. The headmaster wrote a report on Maurice saying he was, ”a nice quiet boy, … making good progress… with a most wonderful general knowledge about decidedly quaint and interesting things. We are trying to interest him in football.”
Bowra excelled at Classics (Latin and Greek). He disliked sports. Being an able sportsman was the surest route to popularity at school at the time. Some boys disliked him for being so academically talented. They were covetous of his seemingly effortless ability to carry off all the glittering prizes. As the First World War was on athleticism and physical courage counted for more than intellectual accomplishments. He was able to deal with bullies with devastating verbal putdowns. This survival mechanism was something that he later to used to entertain countless dinner tables. His epigrammatic insults were droll and savage. Unsurprisingly Maurice’s father stated that he wanted his son to become a barrister. Maurice had the intellectual flair, the love of performance and the ability to improvise.
At Cheltenham Maurice had to enlist in the Officer Training Corps (OTC). This meant a few hours of army training a week. It was a very class stratified epoch. Boys from the upper class were to become officers. For a working class lad becoming an officer was almost impossible. Maurice sought quality not quantity in friends. His unusual family background, his strained relationship with his brother, his corpulence, his modest stature and his immodest intellectual ability made him a target for bullies. He had a few very close friends who were scholars and dissidents like himself. He found the school to lack cultural depth. There was little in the way of Music or theatre to vivify the place.
Maurice found a way to disarm the bullies and even get them on his side. His sharp mind was adept at coming up with jokes. ”I set out to amuse other boys and by such simple devices as imitating masters or inventing fantasies about their private lives I got myself accepted.” The tongue is mightier than the bicep! Maurice was to become a renowned raconteur. His wickedly accurate impressions of famous people would have tears running down his friends’ faces. He was already honing his showmanship.
After he left Cheltenham he was to write coruscatingly about public schools. However, his sentiments about Cheltenham were note unmixed negativity. After his death the school initiated the Maurice Bowra Lecture to honour him.
In 1917 Bowra visited his parents in China for the last time. He returned to England via the Transsiberian Railway. He spent three weeks in St Petersburg. There he formed a romantic liaison with a Russian girl. It was the only heterosexual relationship in his life. He corresponded with her after he left Russia. Suddenly the letters stopped. He later discovered she had died in the Russian Revolution. Bowra composed this verse to recall his love:
Dim shadowed in silvery mist
The city lies,
The moon, swooning, as though swooning to be kissed
Upon her dies
The river from her source afar
Is locked in rest
And holds a single trembling star
Within her breast
Alone in perfect quietness
I wait for thee
And soon shall feel they loveliness
Grow one with me.
Like most of Bowra’s poetry this poem is experiential. What effect did his lost love have on him? Could it be that no other woman could equal this nameless girl? That might be one of the reasons that he decided he was gay.
Maurice Bowra was called up by the army. Because of his public school education he was commissioned as an officer. He trained at St John’s Wood Cadet School which has long since closed.
Bowra was commissioned into the Royal Artillery. He commanded a platoon and saw some of his men get killed. This was a time of class stratification. Moreover, many working class boys had not attended school beyond the age of 12. He was sent to fight in France. There Maurice participated in some of the grimmest battles of 1918. Maurice was anything but violent by nature. Once again humour got him through a bad situation, ”We conducted our duties with fits of laughter and uproarious jokes.”
Bowra did his best but found it difficult to conceal the fact that he loathed war. He said, ‘‘Whatever you hear about the war remember it was inconceivably bloody – nobody who wasn’t there cannot imagine what it was like.” He had a lifelong distaste for armies and battles. He was only too glad to be shot of the army. His brother Edward elected to remain in the British Army after the war was over. Maurice cattily but correctly said the army suited Edward since he was an unclever man.
Though Maurice detested war he wrote later, ”A large paradox of War is that it is actually welcome by the great majority of those who find themselves caught up in it.”
After the war Bowra won a scholarship to New College, Oxford. He read Literae Humaniores (Classics). Maurice came up to Oxford in 1919. He was still technically an army officer but the army was letting him attend university. He did not resign his commission until Fool’s Day 1920 – a date that must have delighted his impish sense of drollery. He was elated to be at Oxford. He was delighted to have survived the war and got to Oxford on which had long set his heart. He wrote that he was, ”Light in head and pocket but infinitely relieved and ready for anything.”
The Warden of New College was the redoubtable William Spooner. Spooner is the man who invented Spoonerisms – the queer old dean and all that. In some respects he was a role model for Maurice. Spooner was the archetypal eccentric don of his era.
He took a double first. He managed this in three years rather than the usual four. Thereafter he stayed on as a don. In those days it was perfectly possible to have an academic career without having an advanced degree. He has one of the top results in Classics in his age cohort. They university knew he was clever enough. Why should he not start lecturing and publishing straightaway? Oxford had only started issuing substantive doctorates in 1917. A doctorate at Oxford is called a D.Phil and not a Ph.D. as at almost every other university in the world. Prior to that doctorates at Oxford had only been honorary. He became a Fellow of Wadham College, Oxford. He was later awarded the honorary degree Doctor of Letters but did not use the title ”Dr”. It is the custom not to use this title if the degree is not substantive.
Bowra’a father offered him scant praise for his scholastic achievements. He could never sympathise with his son being such a bookworm. For C A V Bowra university was supposed to lead to a handsomely remunerated career and not teaching at a university.
Cyril Connolly gave this description of Maurice Bowra’ appearance and persona, ”his massive head replete with value judgments, innumerable lines of poetry in many languages, a complete card index of stories about his friends… years of discrimination, affection, love, memories of old battles, all rendered in an unforgettable voice with its fastidious rasping musical glow, an epigram whistling over like an untakeable service, a qualification or pun woven into a verdict. Meanwhile the eyes cast a cold look, blue eyes wide apart in a low forehead over which brown hair used to fall…’‘
Anthony Powell matriculated at Oxford just after Bowra became a fellow. Powell limned Bowra thus, ”Noticeably small, this lack of stature was emphasised by a massive head and tiny feet, Bowra – especially in later life – looked a little like those toys that cannot be pushed over because they are heavily weighted at the base; or perhaps Humpty Dumpty, whose autocratic diction and quick fire diction were also paralleled. As against that, the short ringing laughs likely to accompany Bowra’s comments were not all characteristics of Humpty Dumpty… The Bowra style of delivery was loud, stylised and ironic usually followed by those abrupt bursts of laughter…” Everyone said that Bowra had presence.
Bowra had a wicked conversational style. Apropos of an academic topic he began one conversation, ” Are you interested in incest, Professor Murray?” To which the reply was ‘‘In a general way.”
The Times described his writing style as ”eminently orderly and lucid… tends to lack vitality.” On the other hand his conversation was, said the Times, ”scintillating, shimmering and sometimes thunderously witty.” He was known for his mordant and even dark humour. He remarked that a certain head of house had been very ill but unfortunately was recovering. Maurice Bowra also quipped that the undergraduate suicide rate was slightly higher than it should be.
Maurice Bowra knew Latin, Greek, French, Spanish, Portuguese, Italian, Russian and Chinese. He had a range of literary reference and historical allusion that left other professors dumbstruck. He could win any argument or make light of any situation with a deft quotation. His encyclopedia-like knowledge of world literature was unparalleled.
In 1933 he published ‘Ancient Greek Literature’. This is a superb precis of the subject and is perhaps his most widely read work today.
Bowra strove to remain above politics. He was a contemner of the Conservative dominated government of the 1930s. Maurice joked that he led the Immoral Front. This represented all the elements that the Tories detested such as leftists and gays.
By the late 1930s he began to perceive Nazism as so odious that action most be taken. He rightly regarded anti-Semitism to be rebarbative. He was horrified by his experiences in the First World War. He thought campaigning for peace was a noble cause but in this case anti-Nazism trumped that. He threw his weight behind the anti appeasement candidate Dr Lindsay in the famous 1938 Oxford by election. To his lasting regret in the Second World War he was not given any war work to do.This is possibly because Maurice Bowra was felt to be such a chatterbox that he would not keep things confidential.
In Bowra’s day it was possible for a boy to be admitted to Oxford largely on the strength of his sporting prowess. Even then he could not be a complete dunce. Attending Oxford was not the same as graduating from Oxford. A youth might go up to Oxford to row or play rugger. He might well come down after a few years without a degree. Bowra remarked acidly, ”With one or two exceptions we expect our players of games to be reasonably literate.”
Bowra was offered professorship at Harvard. He mulled it over for a long time but eventually turned it down. He was so quintessentially British he could not have coped. An American once inquired if Bowra had any connection to the United States. Mr Bowra said, ”Not since my great-great grandfather surrendered at Yorktown.” He naughtily quipped that his ancestor achieved America’s independence through military incompetence. Maurice visited the United States first in 1936. He spent a year lecturing at Harvard. He returned on several occasions thereafter.
Professor Bowra was a man of outspoken opinions. He divided humanity starkly. A man was either ”a nice man” or else ”a shit of hell.” When one head of house was indisposed Bowra commented, ”the head of house was very ill but unfortunately is recovering.” He never pretended to like people he didn’t.
He had similarly forthright views on literature. He viewed George Eliot and Jane Austen as both being banal and hugely overrated. He deprecated most sports. He especially despised the futility of mountaineering.
One of the most notable aspects of his personality was his flamboyant homosexuality. Such acts were illegal in England and Wales until 1967. In intellectual and theatrical circles such conduct was not unusual. It was quietly tolerated at Oxford. But Bowra was far from discrete. He continued Edwardian high camp into the 70s.
There was a bathing place by the River Isis (Thames) in Oxford known as Parson’s Pleasure. A parson is title for an Anglican priest. At Parson’s Pleasure dons and male undergraduates would sunbathe nude. Ladies were not permitted to approach. An island in the river preserved the modesty of the naked sunbathers. Undergraduates sometimes punted their girlfriends past this spot. But these boys would always punt their boat around the far side of the island so that the ladies would not see these men in all their glory. On one occasion an undergraduate made a mistake and punted the boat with his girlfriend in it by the wrong side of this island! The sunbathers saw the boat approach with a woman in it! The grabbed their hats and held their hats over their groins. Bowra grabbed his hat and held it over his face. The punt went by and the horrified lady was screaming to see a man in his birthday suit. When the punt was out of sight the men lowered their hats. One don asked Bowra, ”We all covered our loins with our hats. Why did you put your hat over your face?” Bowra replied tartly, “I don’t know about you, gentlemen, but in Oxford I, at least, am known by my face.”
Bowra was not political. From the 20s to the 80s communism was an intellectual fad in the UK. Many dons were thought to be members of Communist International (Comintern). Comintern was an organisation devoted to disseminating Communist notions around the globe. Bowra quipped that he was in Homintern. He was dedicated to spreading homosexuality around the globe. Communists subscribed to agreements called the First Working Men’s International – for short ‘the first international’ and then the second international and so on. Bowra joked that he was a member of the ”69th international”. On his frequent European holidays Bowra would socialise at bars that were known to be centres of the homosexual demi-monde. Bowra said half jokingly that he was part of the ‘Immoral Front’. By the Immoral Front he meant homosexual and assorted dissenters who were certainly regarded as immoral by right wingers.
Maurice Bowra was a Labour supporter. He sympathised with the General Strike of 1926. This was a deeply unfashionable opinion in the varsity at the time. He had a long friendship with the Labour leader Hugh Gaitskell. Yet Bowra was not a blinkered loyalist and could be critical of the party. He recognised some merits in the policies and people of other parties.
In 1938 the wardenship of Wadham became vacant. Bowra applied even though he was aged 40. For an Oxford head of house 40 is positively infantile. He was supported by many people of consequence even those whose political opinions were very much at varince with his. Maurice Bowra was a wag and a gossip. Some saw him as a loose cannon. He seemed to be a very risky proposition. But the college took a calculated risk. It turned out to be perhaps the most astute decision the Fellows of Wadham ever made in electing him.
Bowra was made Warden of Wadham College, Oxford. Wadham was fast gaining a reputation as the most stridently left wing college. Michael Foot attended it in the 1930s. Foot went on to be the Labour leader and is widely seen as the most left wing leader that party ever had. People began to refer to Wadham as the People’s Republic of Wadham. Its homosexual subculture led some to dub Wadham ‘Sodom’.
The Second World War changed Oxford even more than the First. Undergraduates were not permitted to marry. After the Second World War many freshers were in their mid 20s and some of them were already married. The rule was changed. Bowra made sure that married men felt welcome. The Butler Education Act made third level education affordable for all. Maurice Bowra welcomed these egalitarian changes whereas some crusty dons loathed them.
Maurice Bowra was the man who made homosexual rhyme with intellectual. He was the very model of the louche bon viveur Oxford don. In the 1974 anthology of memories of him entitled ‘Maurice Bowra: a celebration’ he man’s homosexuality is frankly declared by Lord Noel Annan.
Bowra once got engaged to a woman who noticeably free of pulchritude. When asked why he had become affianced to her her replied, ”Buggers can’t be choosers.” He later broke off the engagement. The trouble is that the expression ”buggers can’t be choosers” is also attributed to Churchill when the commented on one of his notoriously gay MPs becoming engaged.
The Times said of Maurice Bowra’s character, ”he could appear a formidable and disturbingly frank and sometimes unsympathetic figure and non-conformist to the old (he was a free thinker, an epicure and an uninhibited advocate of pleasure) determinedly old fashioned to the young.”
Maurice Bowra published numerous poems. Yet none of them is seen as a classic and he was never regarded as an outstanding poet. In 1946 Bowra became Professor of Poetry. This is a an elected professorship. All Oxford graduates are entitled to vote. He was a dear friend of the poet Cecil Day-Lewis. He secured Day-Lewis at teaching post at his old school Cheltenham. Cecil Day-Lewis went on to be Poet Laureate. He is also the father of the Hollywood actor Daniel Day-Lewis. Some of Bowra’s blue verse was seen as too risque to print at the time.
Maurice Bowra had many other literary friendships. He was a bosom companion of Anthony Powell, Cyril Connolly, John Betjeman and Kenneth Clark. This is Clark the art historian not the Tory politician. Betjeman wrote that Bowra was ”a loyal and formative friend.” Bowra was a young don when Evelyn Waugh was at Oxford in the mid 1920s. In fact Waugh came up in 1921 so they overlapped as undergraduates for a year. Evelyn Waugh was at Hertford as an undergraduate and Bowra at Wadham as a don. Oxford had fewer than 4 000 undergraduates at the time so they knew each other. Some suspect that the character Mr Samsgrass in Brideshead Revisited is modelled on Bowra. Professor Bowra seemed to know everyone who was anyone in 20th century British letters. He also knew Charlie Chaplin and he once played host to Chancellor Konrad Adenauer of Germany.
Maurice Bowra was also friendly with the Asquith family. This is the family of H H Asquith the Liberal Prime Minister. He was also a frequent guest of Lady Ottoline Morrell in her house at Garsington near Oxford. Dons mostly inhabited North Oxford. Bowra was wildly popular and he was invited to a dinner party every week.
Maurice Bowra often visited Greece. He once dined with the Queen of Greece. She remarked that the von Schlewsig Holstein von Sonderborg und Glucksburg family found compliments unbearably tiresome. Bowra piped up honestly, ”I can’t get enough of them.”
The professor visited Iran and helped to found the British Institute in Teheran. There he met Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi.
In the 1950s and 1960s Professor Bowra took cruises in the Mediterranean. He adored Mediterranean culture from its cuisine to its literature. The clime also suited him. Maurice had years before written ”Greece has done more than any other country to make people believe in themselves.” When the military assumed power in Greece Bowra discontinued his Mediterranean cruises. He felt it wrong to financially support a right wing regime of which he heartily disapproved.
Dr Leslie Mitchell came up to Wadham in 1962. He remembered his first impression of Bowra, ”My image of a head of house was confirmed. There was something strange and Olympian.” Mitchell and Bowra shared a disdain for rowing.
Prof Bowra is known for his jollity and boundless mirth. However, when it came to Hebdomadal Council he was very industrious and realised there was no time for flippancy in such matters.
The professor received numerous honours. He liked to be known for his coruscating wit as well as his scholarship. He was disarmingly frank. He openly acknowledge that he was vain. Some felt that this masked an inner sense of inadequacy.
Although Bowra did not appear to have a fervent faith he was a nominal member of the Church of England. He attended Anglican worship in his college chapel. This may have been out of a sense of obligation. He said that if he really believed in Christianity he would be Low Church. He professed himself enamoured of Buddhism. The Church of England preached that homosexual acts were a grave sin. Bowra seemed to regard this injunction with mirth and disdain. He said, ”Buggery was invented to fill that awkward hour between evensong and cocktails.” Evensong is an evening service in the Church of England.
Maurice Bowra was a highly emotional man. He was known to weep in public at poignant or affecting moments. His traumatic experiences in the First War afflicted him to the end of his life. On a cruise of the Mediterranean his ship stopped at the Dardanelles. There was a brief wreath laying ceremony in honour of the fallen. Bowra found it deeply affecting. He was obliged to return to his cabin and lie down so he could recover his composure.
Towards the end of his life Bowra received many honours both British and foreign. He published many books on Classics. Cecil Maurice Bowra also published an autobiography entitled ”Memories.”
Maurice Bowra died of a heart attack in 1971. His funeral was held at St Mary the Virgin in Oxford. A eulogy was delivered by no less a personage than Isaiah Berlin. Berlin described his dear friend as, ”endowed with a sharp, quick brain, a masterful personality, an impulsive heart, great gaiety, brilliant and ironical wit, contempt for all that was solemn and pompous, and craven, he soon came to dominate his circle of friends and acquaintances.”
Tributes poured in. Several of them remarked that he was the most outstanding Oxford don since Benjamin Jowett – the 19th century Master of Balliol.
He is interred in Holywell Cemetery in Oxford which he often visited with John Betjeman. A book on Homer by Prof Bowra was published posthumously.
Maurice Bowra is the subject of an adoring biography by his former pupil Dr Leslie Mitchell. This author is a former pupil of Dr Mitchell! Dr Mitchell’s book on Bowra is homage to a man whom he considers to be the consummate don.
Bowra was a wag, a roue, a hedonist and an awful lot fun. They don’t make dons like that anymore.