“I’m doing research at the University” is what I told a well-meaning, very English, middle-aged priest who asked me what I was doing at Evening Prayer at Bristol Cathedral on a particularly sparsely-attended Sunday. Well, he didn’t put it like that; he said, “Are you visiting Bristol for the weekend?” But the subtext to the 21-year-old in jeans and sweater who had just spent the past hour realizing that she has managed to memorize an awful lot of Anglican liturgy in the past six months of church tourism and trying not to laugh at a sermon packed with unwitting phallic imagery was definitely, “What, in an age of declining church attendance, and on a day when there is not even a choir in residence, are you, casually-dressed young woman, doing in church?”
Well, “I’m doing research at the University” was my own delicate way of telling the priest, “I’m here for John Addington Symonds.” Because I have spent the past couple years knowing that the first boy with whom Symonds fell in love was a Bristol Cathedral chorister, and knowing that in his Memoirs he wrote that on one childhood visit to his local cathedral, “Some chord awoke in me then, which has gone on thrilling through my lifetime and has been connected with the deepest of my emotional experiences.” And here I am in Bristol for the next three weeks, preparing to dive in, tomorrow, to seventy boxes, ten linear feet, of the John Addington Symonds Papers, Department of Special Collections, Bristol University Library. And it was Sunday today, and so, absence of the choir and my complicated relationship to religious observances notwithstanding, of course I was going to the cathedral. Since there was no choir, the usher sat the dozen-strong congregation in their seats, and I found myself wondering if Willie Dyer, the teenager with whom Symonds, the spring before he went to Oxford, fell so deeply in love that for the rest of his life he gave his birthday as the date of their meeting, had ever sat in my seat—just as I always wondered, in Oxford, which luminaries had sat in the college pews from which I heard evening services there.
Symonds grew up, and sweet blossoming adolescent passion turned into a frustrated and often depressed life of failed attempts to sublimate his desire for Swiss peasants and Venetian gondoliers into Petrarchan sonnets or a biography of Michelangelo or problems in Greek ethics. But these efforts—although they did not extinguish impossible desires—took him deep into scholarship: in the British Museum; as the first foreigner granted access to the Buonarroti archives in Florence; writing to friends around Europe from his Swiss “exile” with plaintive requests for references and books. Isolated in Switzerland—and feeling himself, psychologically, even a world apart from the wife, daughters, and other English expats who populated the health resort of Davos—Symonds helped to shape the anglophone thread of modern cultural history.
One hundred and fifty years later, give or take a few, we come full circle: for here I sit in a dorm room at the University of Bristol, about a mile from the house where Symonds was born, and ready to walk down the road to the university library tomorrow morning and present myself on the strength of my Princeton ID as a visiting scholar. Here I sit, a professional historian on a grant-funded research trip, where the calming intonations of Radio 4 combined with the prospect of what I will find in 70 boxes of Symondsiana help to forestall the pressing sense of loneliness that must accompany this life. When I scramble, before I have so much as an undergraduate degree to my name, for a professional identity, it explains why I have consigned myself, alone, to a strange city for three weeks. I am a visiting scholar, a historian, on a research trip. What is there then so odd, so deviant, in living a monastic life in a beautiful English city where the sounds of seagulls and church bells mingle? After all—as I learned in the British Library last week—in eccentric academism, talking to yourself is the name of the game.
I don’t mean to sound bleak, here—because I certainly don’t feel it. I wish, instead, to carve out alternative avenues of fulfillment, of personally-validating it-gets-bettering—to celebrate how, whether we are Victorian gentlemen or modern young women, we can find in books or in Bristol Cathedral unorthodox and unpredictable ways of giving our lives purpose and meaning and of making the impossible possible. I wish to smile with satisfaction to think how adulthood brings with it the freedom to realize the lives we seek to have, in which we propose “to live in steady purpose with the Whole, the Good, and the Beautiful.”
Here’s the thing: kids, when you’re a grown-up, you don’t get everything you want. It doesn’t get perfect: sometimes you grow tired of Radio 4 or conversations with Symonds, and wish you had an interlocutor who could answer back. But it gets better. It always gets better—as you realize what you need to make you happy, to help you muddle through, to feel as if you’re doing some good in the world. And it gets better as you find that there are people in your life who believe in you, and who will give you their time and their money to help you do the things you know that you need to do. “I’m doing research at the University”: I have a vocation. And with that sense of purpose comes—well, not so much the faith, but at least the hope—that other things will follow too.