Friday, May 6, 2022

"Go forth and see the sights": OONA H. BALL (as BARBARA BURKE), Barbara Goes to Oxford (1907)

A merry young woman sat on Mr. Bent's right hand. She owed her exalted position to the fact that she was 'a last Term's Bride.' I heard her tell Mr. Bent that she has chosen her maids for apparently irrelevant reasons—her cook for her sweet smile and her housemaid for her sense of humour.
'And has your plan answered?' he asked.
'Oh yes, excellently!' she answered. 'I have given cooking lessons to the cook, but I never could have taught her to be sweet-tempered; and I can instruct the housemaid in her duties, but to train her to see a joke would have been impossible.'

A wealthy young woman from Ireland determines that she will spend three weeks in Oxford with her friend (her father's former secretary, who has a break between jobs), but do so as the ordinary, less well-to-do folk would do ("We shall take very little money. Brownie because she has so little, I because I have so much."). She keeps a diary of her excursions for her Aunt Camilla, who is off on a Continental jaunt of her own. It's out of term time during their stay, so they are able to room in the lodgings of one Mr. Enderby, and feel that they can picture him quite well from his books and belongings. They meet the friendliest people imaginable, who are willing to show them all the special spots of their lovely city, and Barbara describes the events in some detail. They encounter a don, Mr. Bent, who had known Brownie in her childhood, and the mythical Mr. Enderby unexpectedly returns, requiring that they change to another student's lodgings instead (among other repercussions).

The novel (written by the wife of an Oxford don, no less) is about 70% travelogue and only 30% plot, but it's really quite extraordinarily addictive and enjoyable. Criminally, I have still never been to Oxford myself (it was a choice between Oxford and Cambridge when we were there last, and I'm afraid I'm beyond the pale for Oxfordians for having chosen the latter), but the sightseeing in the book was nevertheless very like having a holiday there myself. (It did make me wonder how things have changed in a bit more than a century, and I was genuinely worried whether there was still anything like a field and a dramatic view from Childsworth Farm, but I find from Google that in fact there is?)

One might well wish that the proportions were a bit more in favor of plot, or at least character and dialogue, because Ball is really quite good at these, and when she rises to the occasion, her sense of humor can very nearly rival E. M. Delafield's Provincial Lady:

Mr. Bent introduced me to an alarmingly grave and silent man. I attempted to open a conversation by saying that the day was exceedingly fine; he pondered for a long minute, and then said, 'That is a very just remark.' I was too chilled to venture on anything more likely to promote an interesting discussion, and, as he really seemed to think that being at a party was an excellent opportunity for a little quiet meditation, I deemed it better and kinder to let him meditate while I listened to those who talked.

That same difficult dinner companion, however, provides a memorable description of his efforts to entertain visitors to Oxford, and I have to say he's a man after my own heart in this (though I don't usually meditate at parties, not generally attending them at all):

We would go first to the top of the Sheldonian Theatre, whence we might look over Oxford and all the towers thereof.

My silent friend at the luncheon had told me that this was the way to begin to see Oxford.

He uttered so few words, and this made those that he did utter seem particularly worth remembering.

'When I have visitors,' he said, 'I take them up to the top of the theatre and I say, "There is Magdalen and there is Christ Church, there is New College and there the Bodleian Library. Here is half a crown. Go forth and see the sights and trouble me no more until evening." The man who can't amuse himself in Oxford must be a fool.'

When I do finally visit Oxford, I rather hope some of you might trouble yourselves a bit more than this on my behalf. On the other hand, I'm not completely certain how much a half crown would have appreciated in value during the past century, so perhaps the equivalent would be just as well...

Much of what plot there is is concerned with some very pleasant, slow-building romance, which isn't handled quite as obviously (or as sappily) as one might have expected from the time period. But as I said, even the more travel-focused sections seemed quite charming and entertaining to me.

Barbara Goes to Oxford was the first of three novels by Ball. The second, Their Oxford Year (1909), appears to be similar in structure, but from the point of view of a scholar's wife writing to her grandfather in Canada. And A Quiet Holiday (1912) appears perhaps to be more of a full-fledged novel, dealing with an orphan girl's stay on a remote Cotswolds farm and the people she meets there. The first two of these are available from Hathi Trust in the U.S. (and I would think in the U.K. as well, since Ball died in 1941 and is public domain under U.K. copyright law as well). I think Barbara, at least, would prove irresistible to anyone who either has experience of, or fantasizes about, living in Oxford.

Finally, for those of you who do currently work or have in the past worked in bookshops, a passage that will likely ring bells in your memory. I haven't worked in one since 1992, but I distinctly remember meeting this woman then:

We sympathised with a forlorn woman in a most strange quandary: she had come to buy a book, but as she seemed unable to remember either the title or the name of the author, hers was but a bootless errand. She appeared to be most pathetically surprised that the very intelligent shopman was powerless to help her.

'You really don't think that you know the book I mean?' she said.

'Indeed, madam,' said he, 'I'm afraid I do not.'

'My sister-in-law said that it was such an interesting book,' said she. 'I thought that you would have been sure to have known all about it.'

Disappointed and disconsolate she wandered off into the rain.



  1. I found it at the Internet Archive but not really in reable form. :-(

    I wanted to share this, in case you haven't seen it. It made me laugh:

    1. Love the link. I shared it on Twitter too. Thanks!

      If you can, would you send me an email (address at bottom of page)?


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