History in the House: Some Remarkable Dons and the Teaching of Politics, Character and Statecraft by Richard Davenport-Hines - review by William Whyte

William Whyte

Scholarship, Slander & Sherry

History in the House: Some Remarkable Dons and the Teaching of Politics, Character and Statecraft


William Collins 416pp £26

For those who fancy studying there, choosing an Oxford college can seem a daunting task. On paper – and online – they all present themselves as essentially the same. Their prospectuses uniformly claim that candidates will find them friendly, inclusive, supportive. Inevitably, they have at least one image of a suitably varied mix of students walking past ivy-covered walls. There’s almost always someone using an iPad to signal modernity too. Yet for all the apparent homogenisation, different colleges do feel different. Some are large and impressive; others are small and intimate. A few are very old and the latest was founded only a few years ago. 

Christ Church is, without a doubt, the grandest of the grand. It is not the oldest or the richest. At various periods in its history, it was not absolutely the smartest either. But it is irrefutably swanky. Originally created to celebrate the wealth and power of Cardinal Thomas Wolsey, it was refounded by Henry VIII and has educated (or, at any rate, enrolled) no fewer than thirteen British prime ministers. Endowed with ample estates after inheriting the substantial remains of an ancient priory and having erected over the years a series of grandiose new buildings, it seems more like a university campus than a college. Its chapel, for heaven’s sake, is also Oxford’s cathedral.

Infused throughout this grandeur, there is, I always think, an indefinable but nonetheless pervasive melancholy – particularly in Tom Quad, the huge front courtyard. Perhaps it’s because it is so big and so often empty (aside from the koi carp occupying the pond at the centre). Still more, it is, of course, unfinished. 

A product of Magdalen College, a late-medieval foundation, Wolsey hoped to outbuild his alma mater. His college would have a taller tower, a much bigger chapel and still more impressive cloisters. As with the rich man in the parable, however, his fall from power and early death brought a halt to this extravagance. The foundations and springing points of the cloisters still stand as a memorial to what might have been. Christopher Wren elegantly solved the lack of a vertical element with his Tom Tower, but it was less imposing than what had been planned, and the massive chapel Wolsey had envisaged – even bigger than the one at King’s College, Cambridge – was never, and will never be, built. Christ Church is a monument to hubris. No wonder it feels somewhat sad.

‘The House’, as Christ Church’s members often call it, has inspired a huge variety of literature – poems, plays and novels. There’s more than a little of Christ Church to be found in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. In recent years, the current college archivist, Judith Curthoys, has produced three excellent histories, each thoroughly based on serious research in the muniment room. Now, and in part inspired by the historian Keith Feiling’s delightful little book of 1960, In Christ Church Hall, Richard Davenport-Hines has made his own contribution to this daunting range of publications. Among the great qualities of his marvellous book is that it manages, with infinite subtlety and tremendous charity, to capture both the grandiosity and the melancholy of the place. 

The book opens with a pitch-perfect historical introduction. This is followed by a collection of biographical essays about eight of the men (and they were, until recently, all men) who taught modern history at Christ Church. By almost any measure, they were an impressive lot. Two went on to become Regius Professor of History and two rose to become heads of other Oxford colleges. Another would serve as master of a Cambridge college, and another still would become Chichele Professor of Modern History. Three were knighted and three were ennobled. One, Patrick Gordon Walker, even served as a cabinet minister. Not all, to be sure, were equally important. But even the most obscure, Arthur Hassall, was a prolific author, a committed teacher and a powerful presence.

Christ Church offered spacious accommodation and gracious living to these ‘Students’ (as tutors at the college are called). It was, as one of the book’s subjects, J C Masterman, put it, ‘magnificent yet friendly, regal yet tolerant’. As a tutor, he was advised to observe two principles: first, ‘that no gentleman works after dinner’, and second, that ‘no gentleman works after lunch.’ He owed his job, incidentally, to an interview that consisted of four questions. ‘Mr Masterman, are you a candidate for this lectureship?’ He answered, ‘Yes.’ ‘Mr Masterman, are you married?’ He answered, ‘No.’ He similarly said ‘no’ when asked whether he was involved in any ‘entanglement’. Finally, when asked, ‘Mr Masterman, what do you do in the afternoons?’ he responded, ‘It depends on the weather.’ And so his career began. 

Naturally, there were downsides to the grandeur. In 1899, the crown prince of Siam presented himself as a candidate for modern history and soon proved incapable of mastering the subject. Undaunted, his tutor, Hassall, directed his attention towards a single theme. Week after week, the young royal produced essays on the War of the Polish Succession, enabling Hassall to declare that he had so far exceeded any requirements for the degree that he should simply publish the results as a small book. ‘Most copies’, Davenport-Hines records, ‘were exported to Bangkok, where they were admired if not read.’

History in the House is full of similar stories. Still more valuable than that, it is replete with reflections on lives devoted to the study of the past. The whole book, indeed, is in part a meditation on the nature of history: how it should be taught and why it should be studied. Many of these men were not scholars. They nonetheless all shared a sense of history’s significance – its claims as a subject of general importance rather than merely antiquarian interest. It is a sentiment that Davenport-Hines evidently finds sympathetic.

But he is too good a historian not to acknowledge the snobbery, sexism and racism that could also be found in the House. Above all, he captures a certain existential sadness that seems to have united these otherwise quite different men. Some of the problems were personal. Roy Harrod had a horrifically intense relationship with his mother. Hugh Trevor-Roper, by contrast, was left emotionally damaged by his icily distant parents. Some of their problems were professional. Gordon Walker was never allowed to forget that he graduated with a second. Masterman complained that dons ‘spend so much of our lives criticising the work of others that we can’t bring ourselves to be creative. We’re continually polishing and refining and altering what we’ve done, and the world gets nothing.’

Above all, the reader can’t help but feel that the problems were institutional. Horribly rude to each other and ruder still to visitors, the Students of Christ Church were perhaps in Auden’s mind when he wrote about those who ‘hate for hate’s sake’. ‘Now that the season of Good Will on Earth and Peace towards Men – or whatever they say – is over,’ Robert Blake wrote to Trevor-Roper, ‘I feel I can write to you. Who, I ask myself – and you – can we ruin next?’ It is a depressing as well as a revealing enquiry, speaking of influence but also of a certain lack.

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