By Richard Lofthouse
With a flicker of heat left in the sun, we have Edith Wharton’s Summer in its first UK edition (Oxford World’s Classics), which reverts to the author’s preferred text and corrects many errors in the original US edition from 1917. Wharton (right) tells the tale of a young woman, Charity Royall, condemned to a life of boredom in a small village in New England. One day her life is turned upside down by a handsome young man who breezes into town. The ending is harsh, indeed shocking on account of a theme of incest which haunts the narrative, yet the psychology of the novel is far ahead of its time, beautifully expressed, and still instructive as to the fate of women in societies where they have no agency or power. Wharton fans will not be disappointed.
On a much lighter, not to say amber-shaded and intoxicated note, Dave Richardson’s Oxford Pubs, offering 96 pages of selected Oxford pubs, covering the city centre, just beyond the Plain, and North Oxford and Jericho and beyond. It’s for tourists, and yet it updates the Oxford pub scene in the era of the Campaign for Real Ale. If you were a devotee of the Gardener’s Arms in Plantation Road, or the Rose and Crown in North Parade, or the Perch at Binsey, well, it might be time to go and discover another pub next time you visit Oxford. I for one did not know that The Chequers – that strange pub down the alleyway off the High – had once been a sort of makeshift zoo, with a camel from Cairo in 1757, and ten years later a sea lion, supposedly.
Moving on, A New History of St Edward’s School, Oxford 1863-2013, by Malcolm Oxley. If you’ve never heard of ‘Teddies’ don’t be alarmed. There are very few Oxford undergraduates who know their way around Oxford’s schools, and why should they? One value of this carefully written, almost monumental, 500-page work of historical research, is to remind us of the extent to which Oxford’s physical expansion and character in the later Victorian years was shaped by the influence of the High Church Tractarians, those chaps headed by John Henry Newman, who wanted to return Anglicanism to its Catholic birthrights but without saying yes to the Vatican (until some did). It wasn’t just Keble College, begun in 1867, but the then-working class suburb of Jericho, and the towering presence of St Barnabas (1869-); todays’ Wycliffe Hall Theological College, originally a Tractarian women’s community; St Margaret’s Church in Rickett’s Lane, and of course Pusey House. To this we must add the handsome buildings of St Edward’s, build grandly and outrageously in defiance of economic realities by the first Warden, Algernon Barrington Simeon, whose extended circle reached intimately back into the acquaintance of John Keble. The current buildings off the Woodstock Road, were put up in the 1860s and 70s. If this all sounds terribly dull, there is a proper treatment of mutual masturbation on page 307-8 and one is left reeling, as ever, at the habits of the British and the uniquely unequal nature of their education system. Naturally the school is Nothing Like That Today.
Continuing where Keble left off, but radically shorn of vestments, we have OUP’s publication of Backpacking with the Saints by a US theology professor emeritus, Belden C. Lane. The sub-title is, Wilderness Hiking as Spiritual Practice. It has all the appearances of a lovely book, with themed chapters such as Desire and Disillusionment; Discipline and Descent, aligned to all manner of religious Greats ranging from Teilhard de Chardin to Jelaluddin Rumi (to show that spirituality can cross religions, although the bias here is still firmly towards Christianity). There is a warning sticker: the author notes early on that he is trying to free himself from the sticky, wordiness of being a former academic. He does wrestle a bit, lapsing into non-self-explaining phrases such as the ‘interiority of things’, which of course mean nothing to the vast majority of readers.
Our penultimate volume is Magna Carta in 20 Places by Derek J Taylor (Christ Church, 1965). A former Middle East Correspondent for ITN, Taylor possesses that terrific journalistic zest that so often eludes academics and knows how to tell a story.
He traces the ‘real history’ of the Magna Carta, puncturing its many myths but chasing down its development and geographic odyssey across time and space, from Medieval England to France and on to America. It’s a wonderful book and deserves to be very widely enjoyed.
Finally, a new anthology of Rudyard Kipling, again sitting like Wharton in the Oxford World’s Classics series produced by OUP. It’s all updated with a new Bibliography, copious notes, you name it – but arguably the nicest addition are Kipling’s own illustrations for beloved hits like ‘The Cat that Walked by Himself’, one of the Just-So stories from 1902. The captions for these are worthy treasures in their own right, highly particular as to incidental detail and occupying a deliciously whimsical mindset.
Images by St Edward's School, OUP, Oxford World’s Classics