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Oxford love can hurt like this

Franziska Rauh reflects on whether Oxford novels are soothing or just painful as an all-remote Trinity term nears.

Okay, I thought, when I found myself two weeks into lockdown: NOW is the time to finally read that copy of Brideshead Revisited I bought at Blackwell’s in my first week at Oxford. I opened Evelyn Waugh’s much beloved masterpiece and read its opening description of a sunny June day in Oxford. But the references to cobblestones, punting on the Isis, walking down High Street, and passing Carfax tower gave me a sharp pain in the chest. I could not read them while feeling that I had been torn away from all this beauty and excitement by a global health crisis; that, in all likelihood, there would not be any days of June in Oxford for me in the foreseeable future (being on a one-year graduate course, I could not soothe myself by hoping for better luck in Trinity 2021, either). I was too heartbroken. So with a sigh, I put Evelyn Waugh back on the shelf, where he had been since October; only, this was now the bookshelf in my childhood bedroom somewhere in Bavaria, and not an Oxford college bookshelf anymore, which had given my earlier failure to read one of the most famous Oxford novels at least some kind of glamour before.

I browsed my mother’s bookshelves instead, in search of light entertainment, captivating enough to keep me from thinking about the pandemic or the academic work I was not doing. I settled for the crime section and decided to revisit a man who rarely fails to cheer me up: Lord Peter Wimsey, Dorothy Sayers’ charming gentleman detective with impeccable manners. Deliberately, I did not go for Gaudy Night, the famous case in which he, once again, comes to the aid of Miss Harriet Vane, herself a writer of detective stories who has returned to her former Oxford college haunted by mysterious incidents, culminating in attempted murder. I read Have His Carcase first, a story set in Wilvercombe and not in danger of harming my feelings. Only when I had thus reacquainted myself with Wimsey and Vane did I dare to give Oxford novels a second try, and reread Gaudy Night (after a first reading last summer, in preparation for Oxford life). Gaudy Night is a very rich novel, giving you food for thought way beyond your typical detective story. So at first, the Brideshead Revisited effect held off. Maybe because I already knew the novel, and the reading was not imbued with the high expectations of a first encounter with a literary classic that had put me under pressure trying to read Brideshead Revisited; maybe because I had a captivating mystery to solve, Sayers’ witty language to admire, and her protagonist’s thoughts on female empowerment to evaluate, and could not dwell on my broken heart (blessed with an astonishingly bad long-term memory, I was not restrained by already knowing the ending of the story).

Still, the more I imaginatively delved into college life again, the more I felt I had been bilked out of something. Strolling around Christ Church, where Harriet meets Lord Peter’s spoilt but amiable nephew? That should have been me in an hour of leisure I just had not found yet, because there was always an essay to write when I wanted to go visit other colleges! Harriet and Lord Peter romantically resting in a punt on the Isis? That should have been me and my equally charming Oxford love interest still to be found at one of the college balls I was now not going to! Girls running around college in panic because they cannot find their gowns? That should have been me before my Trinity exams, dressed up in sub-fusc and in a rush to get to examination schools (okay, that might not be a totally attractive idea to everybody, but you get the point). In her foreword to Gaudy Night, Sayers writes, with reference to the mixture of fiction and reality that forms the novel’s setting: “However realistic the background, the novelist’s only native country is Cloud-Cuckooland, where they do but jest, poison in jest: no offence in the world.” But I was offended. Sayers’ Cloud-Cuckooland bore enough resemblance with the Oxford I knew for that.

At some point, I intended this to become a well-balanced piece of writing which would retrace my journey from anger to acceptance, where I would tell you how reading Gaudy Night had been a source of calm and solace to me, where I had been disappointed at first, but ultimately found a way to look at all the fun Oxford stuff depicted in the novel with gratitude: for I had been a part of this amazing world for a while, and I still was, even if only remotely. But you know what? I am not going to lie. I am not there yet. I am still in the anger stage. I am aware that I am incredibly privileged because the only major effect this pandemic has had on my life so far is that it has interrupted my year abroad, at Oxford. I am not intending to compare. Yet I also do not think it is helpful to deny oneself the right to feel angry, disappointed or sad. I think that having these feelings about the abrupt ending of my Oxford time means to maintain a pinch of normality in this crazy world. Because under normal circumstances, if I had to return home from Oxford in haste, if I was not able to carry on living a dream of mine I had cherished for years and I had finally seen come true, I would be exactly that: angry, disappointed, and sad. And so, no, reading Gaudy Night did not soothe me by imaginatively letting me return to Oxford. It made me realize even more clearly what I had lost and thus kindled my anger. I intend to stay angry for quite a bit longer. But I’ll be fine eventually. And after some time, I may be able to pick up Brideshead Revisited again, or any other Oxford novel, and maybe the thought of sunlit cobblestones will not make me flinch anymore. Maybe a reference to the Rad Cam will not hurt so much. Maybe I will be able to think about High Street or Queen’s Lane as just some street I used to know. But I doubt it. 

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