Yesterday was my 21st birthday: age of majority and all that jazz. In the past year, I’ve really started to think of myself as an adult, and so I feel as if this birthday marks something real that my 18th didn’t. Of course, I’m still in the process of Becoming, and always will be—but I feel much more myself than I did three years ago, back when I lived in the suburbs and, although I knew I was an academic brat, didn’t know I would come to call the world’s great universities my home.
Now I am living in a room that looks out onto Broad Street, and I spend my days reading Victorian history. In particular, I spend a lot of time thinking about John Addington Symonds and his circle of friends and colleagues, most of whom he’d known since he was an undergraduate right here on Broad Street, at the college next-door. I spend a lot of time thinking about men who, in my mind at least, were Eminent Victorians, and how their biographers trace their success and literary acumen back to their undergraduate careers. Symonds and Wilde: two double firsts (Wilde’s was the highest first in Greats Magdalen had ever seen, if I remember correctly); two Newdigate Prize for Poetry winners. Two men who, when they were my age, walked around this town in gowns reading Plato. When Symonds was 21, he was being coached towards his first by Benjamin Jowett, one of the greatest dons of Victorian Oxford. When Symonds was 21, his world was changing as his head-over-heels love for the boys who sang in the choir at Bristol Cathedral collided with his study of Plato, and he began to see things between the Greek lines that Jowett wasn’t telling him. When Wilde was 21, he swanned around Oxford being clever, impressing his tutors and his classmates, and spending far too much money on furnishings for his room.
Yesterday, I spent £3 on postcards for my wall, which didn’t particularly strike me as extravagant. Today, I exchanged a series of emails with my advisor sorting out what I’m going to say about Symonds for the purposes of my spring junior paper. I can’t read Greek, and my poetry is shit. I don’t think I even know what a heroic couplet is.
And yet I had a chilling sense of almost-deja-vu two weeks ago, when I was sitting in the Radcliffe Camera reading Thomas Arnold’s edition of Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian War (Arnold’s bits in English, obviously; not Thucydides’ bits in Greek, as we’ve just established the only words I can read in Greek are ones like παιδεραστια, ερως, ἐραστής, and ερωμηνος). For it is not improbable that, 150 years ago, Symonds sat in the Radcliffe Camera reading Arnold’s edition of Thucydides too, just as I know for a fact that he must have taken the same path that I do every day, east down Broad Street to the Bodleian. It’s a funny, funny thing—and it makes me wonder why I haven’t done the equivalent of reading my prizewinning poem at an honorary degree ceremony in front of dozens of dignitaries including Matthew Arnold, as Symonds did in 1860.
The comforting thing, though—and, in part, why I’m drawn to spending my days thinking about this man—is that Symonds was no Wilde. He was a well-reviewed author and scholar who held the esteem of many of the greatest intellectuals of his day, and counted heavyweights like T.H. Green and Henry Sidgwick among his friends, and Swinburne and Pater and Wilde himself among his eager readers. But when he died too early in Venice in 1893 it was not in the flames of martyrdom or in the glow of celebrity. It was quietly, of the accumulation of years of consumption and years of nervous breakdowns, with a modest but unheroic reputation which, for fear of scandal, was quickly covered up by a literary executor who knew too well what Symonds was saying behind the elaborate Hellenic metaphors of his poetry, and was one of the earliest recipients of his privately-circulated essays about what a much more famous Newdigate Prize-winner would, two years hence, loudly proclaim to be “the love that dare not speak its name.” (Symonds, rather sadly and sweetly, called it in some of his letters and poetry “l’amour de l’impossible.”) Symonds quickly faded drab, against the flashiness of Pater and Wilde, and when the critics talked and talked through the twentieth century about Jowett’s Oxford and the Greats curriculum, the texts in the back of their minds were Studies in the History of the Renaissance and The Picture of Dorian Gray, not a pamphlet printed in ten copies called A Problem in Greek Ethics.
When Symonds was 21, he may have been at the peak of the fame and glory he would accumulate during his lifetime—which seems to me all the more reason to sit and worry that I haven’t got a JP topic yet, never mind a prizewinning poem, though I have got a pretty awesome set of mentors, tutors, and advisors who I don’t hesitate to say could give Jowett a run for his money. And it makes me wonder what I will write that will be reviewed by the Walter Pater of my day in the popular literary press, and it makes me wonder what I will do to advance the discipline of cultural history, and it makes me wonder what I will privately circulate that will become the basis for my posthumous reputation. It makes me wonder how the person I am going to become will manifest herself in my work. And it makes me wonder whether I will die quietly in Venice, and whom I will die with: my long-suffering wife and cherished daughters? My doted-on gondolier?
Symonds was not, really, Eminent, as Victorians go. But he was a scholar who put his heart into his writing and into his many loves, who fathered three daughters, who loved the hills of Rome, of Switzerland, and of the village outside Bristol where he grew up. He also highly esteemed Middlemarch, which he read as it was published serially in 1871-2. The first time Symonds read Middlemarch, he was at the beginning of his career, barely starting on his massive five-volume cultural history of the Italian Renaissance, and only just starting to articulate what was so impossible about l’amour d’impossible. But I wonder if, later in life, he thought more about that book about ordinary people, about people whose lives are important for all their ordinariness, and who were important enough for one very talented woman to write a book about them. I wonder what Symonds would have thought of that, because I’m quite sure that he never would have countenanced the thought that there is a 21-year-old
girlwoman in Oxford today who maybe will never win the Newdigate Prize or read Greek well enough to pass an exam in anything remotely related to classical studies, but who could certainly see living a quiet cultural historian’s life—and maybe, just maybe, writing a book about another quiet cultural historian who, sure enough, rests in an unvisited tomb.