Maurice Bowra: A Life by Leslie Mitchell - review by Adam Sisman

Adam Sisman

The Don of Dons

Maurice Bowra: A Life


Oxford University Press 397pp £25

Maurice Bowra does not seem to have survived his death. There can be few people now under the age of sixty who remember him. For the rest of us, his reputation as the most famous Oxford don of his era is somewhat mysterious. Whatever contribution he made to scholarship is no longer obvious; his books are rarely read. The scurrilous poems he recited to private gatherings were too scabrous to be published in his lifetime. As John Sparrow, his literary executor and one of his most intimate friends, used to say, poor Bowra had cut himself off from posterity: ‘his prose was unreadable and his verse was unprintable’.

Isaiah Berlin described Bowra as ‘the most fascinating man I know’. There is abundant testimony, from discerning witnesses, to the exhilarating effect of Bowra’s presence. And yet Bowra’s domineering personality, so captivating to his contemporaries, appears much less appealing in retrospect. The person portrayed in memoirs and biographies

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