Of the publishing of books about Oxford there is no end. Here comes yet another, a new one-volume history of the University of Oxford. What insights can it offer? GR Evans writes that the “official” multi-volume A History of the University of Oxford ends effectively in the late 1960s. And much has happened since then that needs to be placed in the context of the previous 800 years. Evans brings impressive credentials: as Professor Emerita of Medieval Theology and Intellectual History at Cambridge and a graduate of Oxford (St Anne's 1963), she has already written a one-volume history of Cambridge University. The senior university now follows.
Evans begins with something of a canter through the 20th century, rightly reminding us that Oxford is a beautiful city that evokes dreams and fantasies. But the author is also well aware that dons chatting in The Broad are likely to be discussing national politics: “The reality of Oxford is that it is not at all a land of faery.”
In taking the story of the University into the 21st century, Evans provides a brief and useful account of some recent storms, not least the proposed reform of governance.
But the strength of this history lies in her telling of the less recent past. In short segments within each chapter, and in chronological order, we are taken from the origins of the University and how “scruffy” little Oxford emerged at the forefront of European learning, to its present world status. In between, Evans sketches key town and gown events: the birth of the University, the Protestant Martyrs of 1555 and 1556, Oxford in the Civil War and the 19th-century University reforms. And there's no shortage of accomplished thinkers and doers in the story: from Roger Bacon to John Ruskin, from Robert Grosseteste, the first Chancellor, to a recent eminent successor, Lord Jenkins. Here, Evans has an authority more certain than in her Preface and Introduction.
Inevitably, perhaps, there are a few misprints (Univ alumni will be surprised that Shelley was an undergraduate at the college from 1810 to 1911), but they are far outweighed by Oxonian plums and considered analysis on every page. Here is history that is idiosyncratic but highly informative as well.