White men, superlatively educated, exclusive and discerning in their social and cultural tastes, who have no respect for ill-thought-out majority opinions and scorn Little Englander nativism are not à la mode. Daisy Dunn’s ‘conversation piece’ study of three 20th-century Oxford classicists is consequently a book of obstinate integrity. It is, too, eager and sprightly, sometimes laugh-aloud funny, sometimes saddening, and narrated with the affability of a good-natured and digressive raconteur.
Not Far from Brideshead is centred on three Hellenists and their worlds. The ascetic Gilbert Murray (1866–1957) was recommended by Henry Asquith for the crown appointment of Regius Professor of Greek at Oxford in 1908. The comfort-loving but non-luxurious E R Dodds (1893–1979) was appointed as Murray’s successor in 1936. The bon vivant Maurice Bowra (1898–1971) was disgruntled at not getting the chair instead of Dodds. Each of them was a huge character, striding in three-league boots through life. They had in common a gloriously fierce intelligence, a radical and internationalist outlook, and a hatred of war and national rivalries. There was nothing demotic or slovenly in their thought.
Murray began his education in an Australian bush school. He came to England at the age of eleven with his widowed and penurious mother. After a brilliant undergraduate career in Oxford, he fell ardently in love with a beautiful she-dragon, Lady Mary Howard of the Castle Howard family.