On the road

City of Dreaming Spires

Sandra Mayer exploring Oxford Source: Mayer

In the morning, when I navigate the medieval streets of Oxford on my way to the Bodleian Library, or sometimes when I end my working day at choral evensong, I am reminded of what Oscar Wilde said in De Profundis: “The two great turning points in my life were when my father sent me to Oxford, and when society sent me to prison.” Not that the latter would be something to strive for, but it is certainly true that if you are an anglophile and a lover of literature you cannot but succumb to the mythical charm of Oxford. Focusing on the ‘celebrity’ phenomenon in literature and politics from the perspective of literary and cultural history using the example of Benjamin Disraeli, supreme English novelist and statesman from the Victorian era, currently enables me to get a first-hand impression of this myth-laden “city with her dreaming spires”, as it is described in a poem by Matthew Arnold.

Formerly the home of Lewis Carroll, Oscar Wilde, J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis, the genius loci alone of this town makes it a veritable research paradise for an English literary historian. What is more, every single day one is offered a gruelling choice between three outstanding events, often held at the same time. Admittedly, this is a genuine luxury problem, for where else could you spend your lunch break at a reading by J.M. Coetzee, a master class with guest professor Ian Bostridge or a workshop on how to publish with Oxford University Press?

Initiative and networks

Despite all the fascination of Oxford, one must admit that particularly guest researchers who are confronted with the highly ritualised college system for the first time require a hefty portion of go-getting initiative and a comprehensive support network in order to make best use of the enormous range of things on offer. When answering for the tenth time in a week the ubiquitous question of “What’s your college?” you start to realise that – at least in the humanities – faculties and academic departments play a subordinate role, and that the intellectual exchanges take place mainly within the colleges and the innumerable research seminars.

Meanwhile I have made my collegiate home at Wolfson College, a modern graduate college presided over by the renowned literary scholar and biographer Hermione Lee. In addition, I was lucky enough to be integrated from the start into the Celebrity Research Network at the Oxford Research Centre in the Humanities (TORCH), which is an important intellectual and social point of reference for me. It provided me, for instance, with the opportunity to present my research at a Knowledge Exchange Meeting with the National-Trust curators of Hughenden Manor, the former country house of Disraeli. TORCH colleagues from a wide variety of specialties have by now become friends to spend an evening with at the pub or go for weekend excursions to the picturesque Cotswolds or London.

The microcosm of Oxford is subject to rules of its own that may often seem archaic, not only for central Europeans. On the other hand, its enormous diversity offers countless opportunities to make the most of one’s potential and realise one’s ideas. In my own case this means I will organise a Disraeli Symposium with the support of TORCH and the Oxford Life-Writing Centre and thus be able to position my work in an international context.

My time at the “city of dreaming spires” has made my own dream come true – a turning point, not only in the life of Oscar Wilde, but also in mine.«

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