Past Masters

October 27, 1994

I was the only child of working-class parents in the small moorland town of Leek, Staffs. Not surprisingly, I found Oxford in the late 1950s an alarming prospect. Everyone else seemed not only far cleverer but also infinitely superior socially -- only later did I realise that much of this was due to their overwhelmingly southern accents. We all looked much older than we actually were: the men went in for silk cravats and hairy sportscoats, the (few) girls wore demure suits or, a little later, bouffant skirts and pageboy hairdos. My idea of sophistication was to be taken out by someone called Rodney in an open-top sports car.

My college was Somerville, where Isobel Henderson was the ancient history tutor. Widowed and (to us) mysterious, she was undeniably stylish. It was rumoured among her pupils that she had had her pick of all the young men in Oxford, and that the one she chose had died on their honeymoon. When I got engaged (as most of us did if we could) she gave a dinner party at her house in Park town, at which I remember her plunging the carving knife into the chicken en croute (unheard-of in Leek) while dressed in a long evening dress, fur stole and elbow-length white gloves with diamond bracelets worn over them. She had her favourites, and she could certainly be acerbic. At another dinner party my ignorance of what to do with lobster claws was humiliatingly exposed.

Isobel was an expert on ancient Greek music, a side her pupils did not generally see. She died tragically young, having been vice-principal of the college. I learned from her that peculiarly Oxford virtue of extreme scepticism, based on minute scrutiny of the ancient sources and total distrust of any fudging. Mildred Hartley (later Taylor), who taught Mods (Greek and Latin), also believed in direct exposure to the texts themselves, and kept her pupils away from all secondary literature. Yet she would be visibly moved as we stumbled over Virgil's Eclogues (in Latin, naturally) at her evening reading parties.

Elizabeth Anscombe's philosophy tutorials were more austere still. At the end of the first, in her memorable house in St John Street, my partner and I were sent off to write an essay on justice; she gave us no reading list, and told us not to write more than half a page. At this period there was much speculation as to whether she was or was not pregnant, since her dress and general appearance were not such as to make the answer entirely apparent. The guess of one of the more sophisticated of my friends was proved right when she arrived for a tutorial one day to find a one-day-old baby in the house.

These women were in no way feminists. What they had was tremendous individuality. In my case, such was the weight of the Oxford experience that for quite a time it left me feeling very ambivalent. After Greats in 1962, I was eager to marry and leave Oxford, while my historical interests started to move beyond the narrow compass of the Oxford Greats syllabus. But it was Isobel who encouraged me, and sent me to London to talk to Robert Browning about the possibilities. Arnaldo Momigliano, a great friend of hers, took me on when I eventually arrived in London from Scotland with a half-finished PhD -- his influence on my life is another story. Similarly it was Mildred Hartley who sent me to the famous Oxford Latin seminars given by Eduard Fraenkel. Returning to Oxford this year after more than 30 years away gives rise to all kinds of thoughts on my part. Not least, it reminds me how much I did and still do owe to those three single-minded and uncompromising women.

Averil Cameron, formerly professor of late antique and Byzantine studies at King's College London, took up the position of warden of Keble College, Oxford, this month.

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