An American in Victorian Cambridge

A Yank's college confessional about Cambridge in the 1840s is just capital, finds Peter Mandler

February 26, 2009

American universities are poorer than British ones, their students younger, more innocent and more pious, but also more enamoured of empty sloganeering and speechifying. British students, in contrast, work harder and pass exams incomparably more testing. In consequence, their intellectual attainments are generally much greater, their judgment keener and all the qualities for which one looks to a liberal education more fully developed. Sad to say, therefore, that the British undergraduate is also more clearly depraved, addicted to intoxicating liquors and prostitution.

Or so it seemed to Charles Astor Bristed in the 1840s. Bristed, a Yale graduate and grandson of the American plutocrat John Jacob Astor, came to the University of Cambridge for a year of intellectual uplift (and a few glasses of wine) and spent five. Some years after his return, he wrote a long, involved account of his time in Cambridge, equal parts social history, self-advertisement and manifesto for university reform in his home country. Out of print since Bristed oversaw a third revised edition in the 1870s, his book has long been a cherished secret of historians of education and a certain kind of Classics nerd.

A number of factors have conspired to keep it out of the public eye. It had offended the amour propre of both American and British readers. The cracks at the loose morals of the supposedly high-minded "Cantabs" seemed simply salacious to many. Above all, the book was weighed down by Bristed's own undergraduate enthusiasms - in particular, endless tracts of prose dissecting the fine gradations between different categories of examination success in maths and Classics, and gossip about long-forgotten minor figures of the Trinity College scene of the 1840s made even more obscure by being veiled in pseudonyms and misdirections.

Christopher Stray has done a brilliant job of unburdening and illuminating Bristed's text. Some of the more pointless lists of titles and regulations he has excised altogether. Drawing copiously on his own expert knowledge both of Classics and of Cambridge, his introduction and notes give ample context for most of Bristed's introverted obsessions and turn them into useful evidence for a better understanding of elite education in Victorian Britain.

Most enjoyably, he has recruited the annotations left by Bristed's contemporaries and near-contemporaries in surviving copies of the book from several libraries to form a ghostly Greek chorus that chats waspishly about Bristed's judgments and offers competing verdicts on them. Of one nobleman, famous for his attainments both on the river and in the examinations but also, in Bristed's account, among the prostitutes of nearby Barnwell, one annotator giggles, "Capital!", while another huffs, "Untrue. A lie Charles Bristed."

What remains in this abbreviated but unexpurgated edition is an opportunity to eavesdrop on the daily life and thoughts of the intellectual elite-in-training on both sides of the Atlantic at a time when they were still much more closely in correspondence than we may now appreciate. The outrage the mild criticisms of the American universities elicited at the time from wounded Yankees should be seen as reflecting what Freud called the "narcissism of minor differences", the frictions that arise when close-to-identical siblings stand side by side.

Readers with the objectivity that the passing of time endows will find the comparisons both entertaining and instructive, from whichever side of the Atlantic they may hail. Kudos - a word that came into general circulation from the undergraduate Greek of that day - to Stray, who has however handed us all a tiny reproach (which Bristed would approve) in resolutely leaving the Latin epigrams untranslated.

An American in Victorian Cambridge: Charles Astor Bristed's "Five Years in an English University"

Edited by Christopher Stray

University of Exeter Press 448pp, £45.00 and £16.99

ISBN 9780859898249 and 8256

Published 21 November 2008

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