Oxford revisited by Sabine Chaouche
George Chinnery's Correspondance
In 2008, a new film version of Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh was released and gave modern audiences a new “taste” of Oxford in the 1920s.
This version which was not as acclaimed as the famous TV series filmed in the 1980s emphasized the mythical but also controversial aspects of the students’ life at the University of Oxford. Students giving themselves over to partying, students devoting themselves to leisure activities and wallowing in luxury were part of the décorum and topoi which were made on Oxford (the film shows the University Students having a self-satisfied and complacent lifestyle, reminiscent of Georgian times: hence the richly and sumptuously decorated rooms; the servant waiting in the background; the finest goods and the most exquisite drinks served for breakfast, and the aristocratic nonchalance and laughter… Nothing here but an affected dilettantism which makes of study an irrelevance... Nothing here but futile and playful pastimes which push into the background the real purpose of being at Oxford…
The city of “Dreaming spires” (Matthew Arnold) combines ambiguities (for instance male identities and homosexuality) as much as a great dichotomy between the Oxford heritage concerning knowledge, excellence and truth (thus the motto Dominus Illuminatio mea), and the lack of engagement in intellectual activities by some students who lived during their studies under the aegis of sparkling and glittering illusions, being unruly and profligate. In some respect Oxford comes across as a place where studies were far less important than social habits, standard of living and lifestyles. It also projects a specific form of male Englishness where casual elegance in manners and clothing competed with a rather languid superiority and quietly ironic snobbery. At the same time College life was regarded by many former students as a symbol of eternal youth and joyful times (Oscar Wilde stated for instance that Oxford was “the most flower-like time of one’s life”). As for the City, it was reshaped through writing as a new Eden on earth, its beauty transcending the prosaic life of human beings. Hence Oxford was celebrated as a “sacred city” (William Hazlitt) in Romantic times, compared to “an Adorable dreamer… whispering the last enchantments of the Middles Ages” (Arnold in Essays of Criticism), and finally anamorphic in a space beyond reality through the oneiric Alice’s adventures. It also was recreated in works such as Max Beerbhom’s Zuleika Dobson (1911), Compton Mackenzie’s Sinister Street (1914) and Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead revisited (1945). The Oxford mythography (the term “mythocrathy” could now be used; the City became a “trade-mark” of its own, carefully preserved through films such as Inspector Morse), shows an unchanging stream of clichés on the University daily life over the years –mainly through works of Art, i.e. Literature. It should at some point be challenged by a more historical approach of students’ daily life realia in different times.
Correspondences and diaries offer a unique insight into students’ lives. Although any correspondence reflects a particular point of view through individual tastes or personalities, familial and social backgrounds which impact on students’ vision and way of dealing with life, they are fascinating because they are written from day to day and thus give experiences of Oxford not yet altered by the recollections of old memories or distorted through the writing of an imaginary narrative. Was Oxford regarded by new students as a vibrant and iconic city before its reforms in the 1860s and 1870s? How can correspondences shed a new light not only onto the “home of higher truths” but also onto the real Oxford?
In 1808, a 16 year-old boy called George Robert Chinnery was sent by his mother to Christ Church College to study classics and mathematics. As stated in the “archives guide to the Chinnery family” issued by Denise Yim in 2009 (1), “George Robert Chinnery (1791-1825) was born on 3 September and baptised on 15 December 1791. He was the son of William and Margaret Chinnery, twin brother of Caroline (2) and older brother of Walter (3) who sadly died in 1802 at the age of 9 from influenza. He was educated firstly at home by his mother and tutors. He graduated with first class honours in mathematics and third class honours in classics”. According to Judith Curthoys in her work entitled The Cardinal College, Christ Church, Chapter and Verse, Mathematics was particularly developed by Markham and Bagot at Christ Church in the late C18, “hand in hand with the expansion of Classical Studies (4) ”. Greek was thus introduced for the first time (5) . George was an accomplished linguist, he knew the usual Greek and Latin but also six modern languages. He took a lifelong interest in the arts and letters.”
George came from a wealthy family. His father, William Chinnery (6) , was born in London. He was the son of a family of writing masters (7). According to Denise Yim, “Margaret Chinnery (1766?-1840, née Tresilian) was born on 16 October 1766 and baptised at All Saints, Fulham on 13 November 1766 (8). Six years after her marriage she moved her family out of London to Gillwell (9) . Margaret was a highly accomplished musician, fluent in French and Italian, who educated her children at Gillwell using the rigorous method of the French educationist Mme de Genlis. She entertained lavishly at Gillwell, receiving mostly musicians and poets at weekend music parties. Among her closest friends were the Duke of Cambridge (George III’s youngest son), and William Robert Spencer, as well as other prominent members of society. She had several famous friends, too, among whom Mme de Genlis, Mme Vigée-Lebrun, Mme de Boigne and the composer Luigi Cherubini and his wife (10) .” The Family archive papers show that she wrote poems and verses between 1789 and 1830 [94/143/1-1], an Education journal lessons table in 1801 and 1808 (i.e. before her son left Gillwell) [94/143/1-3].
George Robert Chinnery left his Gillwell home in Essex, his beloved parents and sister in January 1808. During his undergraduate time at Oxford, he meticulously and conscientiously wrote to his mother − a most influential figure in his life. She played an important role with regard to his education, his conception of life, his knowledge (e.g. French authors) and turned him into an accomplished polyglot. George sent daily letters to his mother summarising his new activities or encounters, or… misadventures and disappointments. I would like to examine more particularly his arrival and his first weeks in Oxford since they represent a period of transition and are closely related to a form of “discovery”.
I will consider how his new environment and lifestyle changed significantly as well as challenged him, examining how he adapted and reacted to Oxford’s realia.
It will be “a long time before I shall be able to feel any enjoyment in your absence” was the cri du coeur conveyed in the letter sent to her son on 14th January by distraught Margaret Chinnery, a mother tormented by sorrow and anxiety. Another letter was sent the same day including her very last recommendations. She offered to become “his best friend” and begged him to take care of his health (a nagging fear which would constantly punctuate her letters). George first answered her on 15th January from n°3 and 4 Peck-Water, Christ Church, where he had just settled in his new rooms, “sitting at his table” with “his black gown on”. It was the starting point of a long correspondence interspersed with racy, cutting and biting details. George Chinnery proved to have a strong sense of humour associated to an ability to write spicy narratives and to spot theatrical attitudes. The letters which relate to his settling in his rooms to his move to the City Centre (letter n°22) articulate three main themes: his social life, his studies and some aspects of his daily life in Oxford which are all connected to the first impression he had of Oxford. He found that the students’ city was a dreadful place to live in. His first letters fluctuated between puzzlement, amazement, shock and sometimes ironic smile.
George’s letters suggest he came across difficulties concerning his first weeks at Christ Church. First of all, his books were lost which disturbed him very much: “I enquired at two or three wagon officers for my cases of books but have not been able to find them out: I am quite vexed at it.” He had to wait a long time before being able to study and was thus very frustrated (I have not yet been able to study; my books are not come, and they made me run about all day long” letter n°4). Ten days later he unpacked his books with great pleasure only to be told a few minutes later that he had to pack them again since he was required to move from his rooms.
This led him to explain how problematic accommodation was during the period. Although his rooms were excellent, he was soon advised that he would have to move quickly, for older students had the right to choose theirs (“There is one serious inconvenience at Oxford it is the changing of room so suddenly. If a senior happens to like your rooms you must be gone”, letter n°4). The annoyance due to the loss of his books and the inconveniences he went through let us understand that accommodation was pretty badly organised within the college and that existing rules relating to “unprivileged” fresher students could significantly complicate their settling in (very short notice was given to students), leading them to a feeling of distress and great anxiety. His new life in Oxford disappointed him terribly, bringing him back to his past at Gillwell and thus leading quickly to a feeling of nostalgia. He wondered: “when shall I be settled? I know not. When shall I be comfortable here? Never” (letter 5). This feeling became stronger in the next letters: “Oh when shall I see you, dear Mama, when shall I again embrace you? How I thirst after Gillwell, that dear spot, the only one where regularity exists and therefore the only one where real comfort exists!” (Letter 7). Oxford was far from the ideal place it was supposed to be! (11)
The list of grievances extended significantly when it came to behaviour and social habits. Food was very good (12) but he particularly hated the Hall for the atmosphere was horrible: “The hall itself is magnificent, but the dinner is the most unsociable thing you can conceive. The commoners dine at one table, the gentlemen commoners at another, the students at another, the Bachelors at another, the masters of art at another: these tables have not the least communication with the other: […], but there was no conversation; not a word was said to anybody, except to the waiters. Oh! How I then thought with regret of our comfortable, friendly and social dinners at Gillwell!!” Later on the same day he added: “I have been to the Hall, to that unsociable place! It was pretty full. I had some boiled veal and potatoes” (letter n°4). George seems to have found repellent the idea of “segregation” of students within the Hall and the division of students according to their status. He was educated, as we said, by a mother who believed in a liberal education where socializing was very important. The Hall gave him a feeling of loneliness and sadness he may not have experienced before. The place was disturbing because it was challenging his habits and environment. George had been cosseted in the warm atmosphere of Gillwell and by a mother who had devoted her life to her two children and raised them with tenderness.
However, though George was open-minded and aimed to socialize as much as possible (he met 11 people in four days: Mr Leg, Mr Stuart, M. Hare, Mr East, Mr Douglas, Mr Saumerie, Mr Ramsden, Mr Mackie, Mr Weekham, Mr Dawson and D Plymouth), things worsened. He was outraged, he shuddered even when he found that they all liked to swear and preferred entertainment to study (“I heard a young man today speaking of another, who said “he is a d[amne]d fool; believe he reads two hours a day; this he said with the utmost gravity”, letter n°7). He realised that for many students, peer pressure was so important that it impacted on their lifestyle. Behaviour was ruled by bad habits. This is how he describes for instance a student’s typical day: “What a place of idleness and dissipation it is : It is become a rule that no young man […] should refuse any invitation: he is asked to breakfast where he remains till half past 10 or 11; he scarcely even allows himself less than two hours walking, […]; this taken him till 1 o’clock and at 3 he dines; after dinner he dresses, and is asked to 5 or 6 wine parties; supposing therefore what he should return in time at night to study the wine and dissipation in which he had indulged would have rendered his head totally unfit for it” (letter n°7). Wine parties were described by him, especially the way in which he was involved in them. Guided by his mother he tried to avoid them but he experienced also the same pressures he had noticed earlier on. One day later he was scared by a “drunkard”, an episode which resembles quite closely the encounter between Sebastian and Charles: “I had such an unpleasant event last night, dear Mama, that I must relate it to you. I gave my letter to my scout last night a little after 9. He had left my outer door open, and presently a gentleman (if he deserved the name) as drunk as possible came in, unable to stand on his legs and reeling in the most frightful manner: he threw himself down a chair and said: Sawyer how do you do? (Sawyer was the man to whom these rooms formerly belonged). Another man came in, and told him; these are not Sawyer’s rooms, still he persisted in saying there were, until the other gentleman forced him out of my rooms; this gentleman afterwards came to me, and apologised for the behaviour of the drunkard; he appeared a very nice man, he says he is a friend of Mr Flint’s and has asked me to breakfast tomorrow morning; this friend of Mr Flint’s then wished me good night and went away. But 10 minutes afterwards, the drunkard, who lives in apartments above me came downstairs again, reeled about in my room for two or three minutes, endeavoured to catch hold of a chair but fell down flat on his back, where he lay as if he were dead; he then got up, and though he could not speak, he contrived to mutter out these words: do you know Mr Wyat; I answered No Sir, upon which he stuck his nasty abominable face close to mine, and repeated the question; I again said no and in the meantime ran into the attics leaving the door wide open; the drunkard, as I imagine, went downstairs; I then came down, reentered my room and bolted my door. Half an hour afterwards this fellow came up a third time, made a great noise at the door, and endeavoured to force it open, till at length finding his attempt fruitless, he went away. I never was so annoyed my dear Mama; if I had been at Gillwell at my beloved Gillwell nothing of that sort would have happened” (Letter 8, 18th January 1808). Obviously this bad news worried Margaret Chinnery who admittedly regretted her choice; i.e. to send her son to Christ Church, such a “horrid place”!
These misadventures raise the issue of social habits, lifestyles within the Colleges and standards of living (how much students would spend on wine parties?) as well as the power of acquaintances or rather “societies”. Did students gang up against those who preferred not to join in? Drinking seems to have been a way of being included and introduced to other students, and was, in a sense, inevitable. It would be interesting to investigate whether or not a culture of drinking took root among the elites at an early age through Colleges and whether it was part or not of a process of socializing and meeting people (which still seems to be the case nowadays with binge drinking). Margaret reckoned that freshmen should not refuse invitations but she begged her son to remain cautious. She even advised him on how to be even more integrated in a world of “fools and blackheads”, i.e. by “anticipating jokes that boys would make and reacting by other jokes, to ridicule himself and thus make students laugh at him”. She also advised him to be “gay” at all times, to be surprised by nothing, and to keep his door shut all morning to be able to study (indeed parties could start in the morning!).
The issues relating to the rooms, the unfriendly Hall and the parties organised in the rooms, question the way in which fresher students were living within the College and to which extent rooms were an essential place for students both to socialize and to study. Were they meeting points or private spaces?
The 16 year-old boy quickly found it was pretty hard to manage his time effectively at Christ Church, what with breakfast, packing and unpacking over again, walks, dinners, Homer’s readings, dressing up for dinner, “repassing” Euclid (Gallicism), wine parties, “construing” lines, and “surplus prayers” (Letter 18). Finding the right balance between studies and pastimes was tough especially when the workload imposed by the tutors seemed unrealistic. Margaret Chinnery wondered in her letter sent on 19th January 1808 whether her son’s tutor may have been wrong in thinking that George would be examined on the Iliad and Odyssey since he had to work on about 26,000 verses which would mean learning 7,000 verses a day. She clearly stated that this high number of verses would lead to mental fatigue which she considered was as damageable for his health as bad company. How would he deal with so many verses since he had also to study Mathematics? She asked him to have a conversation with Mr Corne to see whether he had made a mistake (George did not let her know what the answer was). Actually Dean Cyril Jackson “whose views were to cultivate bright young men”, as Judith Curthoys stated, pushed students to overwork (he put in place Honours degrees in the early C19 after Robert Peel’s first double first). As argued by Judith Curthoys, “Outside the curriculum, pupils and tutors alike were reading widely ” (13). It seems that wine parties culture may not have affected Oxford students’ results too badly after all.
And finally what does George tell us of the world of academics? The third letter described his first meeting with Dean Cyril Jackson. George went to his rooms “punctually at nine” but had to wait in “an awful silence” until he was introduced to the Dean. George recounted this first stressing encounter by recreating dialogs and staging Dean Jackson’s manners as well as nonchalant and inquisitorial attitude. He asked many questions about his past studies and then suddenly interrupted his interrogation to “take a pinch of snuff”, stand up and grab a book (letter n°4). He depicted him as an affected man, very proud of himself: “He is a fine, stout old man: his look though stern, is now and then lightened up by a pleasant smile: his deportment is very majestic and at every step he takes, I am sure he thinks himself the first man in Oxford” (letter n°5). This portrait seems to be inspired by readings, representing the figure of the noble king in theatre, symbolised by a large and circular waist and walking loudly and heavily, as if the body had to incarnate the supreme level of gravitas required by the social rank of the person.
Writing and describing his life in Oxford in a lively manner seems to have freed George from boredom and fear. Writing was a kind of catharsis of its own, entertaining members of the audience who were his mother and sister. George found a way to turn his stories and anecdotes into comic scenes and using derision as a way out or outlet, perhaps having in mind his mother’s anxiety ― or simply because he found great relief in recounting his daily life at Christ Church, turning it into a succession of news items and unusual encounters or situations. Despite his aversion for vices, a taste for entertaining people appears beneath the surface. The narrative of his second meeting with Dean Jackson who informed him he had to leave his rooms, is in the same vein as the first one. A theatrical character is created. George wrote: “It was necessary to enquire what garret the supreme Potentate of Ch. Ch. intended I should have. I therefore went to the Dean, who made me sit down and said: “Sir, this is one of the calamities of human life, you are going to be turned out of your rooms” – Yes, Sir, (I answered) and I am come to know which rooms you wish me to take possession of”. – That I cannot decide yet but first I want to have a little more conversation with you, than I had last time.” Suspense was maintained until George was told to find lodgings out of College – which turned out to be very comfortable. It was an unprecedented decision made by the Dean (14). It was indeed the first example of an undergraduate being sent to live out of the College. Comments from his friends were roguish and rather saucy: “Well, Chinnery (they all said) the Dean depends a great deal upon your character and honour – […]”; since “young men have an opportunity of raking, going out for the whole night, and doing nearly what they please.” Some added to George’s great displeasure. “Ha, ha: you may there lead as loose and jolly a life as you please.” – No, Sir, (I answered) I hope on the contrary it will excite me to be still more regular than before.” Thus a new life began for George.
Finally, George’s Correspondence highlights various facets of life at the University. It combined sobriety and excess, knowledge and dissipation, joyful teen spirit and solitary working hours. Gradually, the feeling of “strangeness” and “weirdness” – even otherness – which overwhelmed him concerning his peers gives way to a more indulgent and tolerant attitude. George gradually came to appreciate his student’s life and peers: “It is true that those wine parties annoyed me excessively, because I was with men so much older than myself, and that I saw them indulge in vicious habits; it was never true mirth that existed among them, and never was any sensible subject discussed; the conversation turned upon the merest sense you can conceive. Now however that I am more intimately acquainted with those young men whose society appeared to me most worthy of being cultivated, it is much less unpleasant.” George claimed that his peers did not question at all his abstemiousness which he kept to in all circumstances. Or so he said anyway. However the dilemma between socializing and studies could not vanish into thin air as his mother kept reminding him. Anyway, by the end of January, the first rays of light were coming through George’s winter sky: he ended a letter on a more French cheerful note: « Tout a changé de face ! Ce monsieur Douglas est un homme très sensé, et ne s’adonne point au vin. J’ai fait connaissance avec les plus savans du College. Il est vrai que je ne me sentois pas heureux, mais depuis hier il me paraît que tout va mieux ; si je n’ai pas de véritables amis j’ai du moins des personnes très aimables. » (15)
acknowledgements: many thanks to Monique Moreton for her help and suggestions.
George Robert Chinnery Portrait:
1. The Powerhouse Museum Archives keeps the family papers.
2. “Caroline Chinnery (1791-1812) Born on 3 September and baptised on 15 December 1791, Caroline Chinnery was the daughter of William and Margaret Chinnery, twin sister of George Robert and older sister of Walter. Taught by her mother and by G.B. Viotti, she was an accomplished pianist, harpist and singer, often performing in private society concerts, sometimes for royalty. Viotti was like a father to her. She also had a very close relationship with William Robert Spencer, who referred to her as his niece, and who exchanged verses with her. She died on 3 April 1812 at the age of 20, after a long struggle with whooping cough, although her death was from miliary tuberculosis. It was probably hastened by a series of late nights at the Prince Regent’s Pavilion at Brighton at the end of 1811. Caroline was buried in a vault in Waltham Abbey Church, where her younger brother Walter had been laid to rest ten years earlier. A memorial monument to both children still stands in the north aisle.”
3. “Walter Grenfell Chinnery (1793-1802): Born on 23 April and baptised on 19 June 1793, Walter Chinnery was the youngest child of William and Margaret Chinnery. He was educated at Gillwell with his siblings, and is mentioned in Margaret Chinnery's Journal. He died at the age of nine on 19 November 1802, shortly after returning from a visit to Paris with his family. There was a virulent epidemic of influenza in Paris that winter, and it was the probable cause of his death. He was buried in Waltham Abbey Church in the same vault as his sister Caroline. A memorial monument to him stands in the north aisle.”
4. Judith Curthoys, The Cardinal College, Christ Church, Chapter and Verse, London: Profile Book, 2012, p. 181.
5. In 1810 George Chinnery won the Newdigate Prize for Poetry, and read his poem and his encænia verses in the Sheldonian Theatre at the Installation of the new University Chancellor the same year.
6. “William Bassett Chinnery (1766-1827). On 21 October 1790 he married Margaret Tresilian at St Luke’s Chelsea, and they had three children. After his marriage he indulged his passion for collecting antiquities. In 1812 he was found guilty of defrauding the Government of over £80,000 and dismissed from his post. The sale of his collection attracted some of the most prominent connoisseurs in the kingdom. He fled to Sweden and later to France where he remained for the rest of his life. In France he eventually settled in Le Havre where he went into a wine, coffee and tea business (Cary & Co.) which ultimately failed in 1823. He owned various properties, including Gillwell Park in Essex, which had been settled on his wife Margaret by her father at the time of their marriage. Gillwell Park was sold in 1813 to help repay his debt to the Government. William Chinnery died in Paris on 3 March 1827 and was buried by his wife in a vault in the Père Lachaise.”
7. cemetery. When the vault was threatened with destruction in 2000 his remains, along with those of his wife and a grand-niece, were repatriated to England and the ashes scattered at Gilwell Park in August 2002. (Today Gilwell is owned by the Scout Association and is spelt with three ‘l’s.)
8. He was the eldest surviving son of William Chinnery Jnr, writing master, of St Bride’s parish and Elizabeth his wife (née Stacy). His youngest brother was George Chinnery, the nineteenth-century portrait and landscape artist. Thanks to influential patronage William became a chief clerk (1799) in the British Treasury and also agent for the Bahamas, for New South Wales and other colonies.
9. “She was the eldest of the three daughters of Leonard Tresilian, mercer, of Covent Garden and Margaret his wife (née Holland). Her grandfather had also been a mercer in the same parish, and her uncle was the famous architect Henry Holland.”
10. “After William's disgrace and her daughter’s death in 1812 she withdrew from society for a short while, then resumed entertaining in her London home for the sake of her son George’s connections. Viotti resided with her. From 1814 she and Viotti paid summer visits to her husband in France, and in 1819 she purchased a property at Châtillon in the countryside near Paris. She managed the Chinnery family affairs from the time of William's departure from England, and those of Viotti after his death. She died in Paris on 5 November 1840, and was buried with her husband in the Père Lachaise cemetery. In 2002 her remains were repatriated to England with William’s and with those of young grand-niece Hodgson (1824-1834), whom Margaret was educating in France when the child died.”
11. According to Judith Curthoys, ‘Siga chambers in Peckwater –in which George had his first rooms − had been refurbished in the 1770s, which suggests how they were dilapidated in the early 1800s. Judith Curthoys gives examples of the state of the rooms in the College, referring for instance to Colman’s experience: “he came up in 1780”, she writes, “described being put into the rooms of another tutor’s pupils until that pupil returned to college but, he said, ‘this precarious tenure was envied by several of my contemporaries; for the college was so completely cramm’d, that shelving garrets, and even unwholesome cellars, were inhabited by young gentlemen.” […] Things were not better in the opening years of the next century when Frederick Oakeley was, throughout his whole first term, ‘bandied about from one set to another’ and was eventually sent home when the college authorities could find no place for him.”, Christ Church, op. cit., 199-200.
12. “There was a leg of mutton roasted, a neck of veal with an onion sauce, and beef-stakes with a brown sauce, potatoes, cabbage and turnips; every person helps himself, so that the dishes walk up and down the table in the most ridiculous manner possible. There were pies also and cheese; I eat of nothing but mutton and vegetables ; the dishes themselves were as you may see very good” (letter n°4)
13. Christ Church, op. cit., p. 183.
14. “They are very comfortable; there is a nice little bedroom and sitting room perfectly well furnished? Everything I want is found for me, cups, kettles, brooms, plates, glasses, candlesticks and I have my breakfast from the College as before, and I buy my coals and candles as I did in College. The bed is very good and had been kept in every night; notwithstanding this I had everything put before the fire, and the bed made up with the leather and “as usual”. There is a nice little book-case in the sitting room! I have also a little closet to keep my things in – I went to my College rooms and had everything I wanted bought here; a great many were locked up, because I find them here, and I shall not make use of them till I return to rooms in the College.” (Letter 21).
15. George Robert Chinnery was particularly bright. The Gentleman’s Magazine 80, published in 1810, mentions page 71: “English verse « The Statue of the Dying Gladiator » by Mr George Robert Chinnery, Student of Christ Church. As we have enriched our poetical department with this production, we shall only observe that it exhibits much youthful poetical genius and fire, and was also most deservedly commended.”
“George “held a post in the British Treasury from 1812 to 1823. In 1814 he became the protégé of ex-Foreign Secretary George Canning, whom he joined in Portugal in 1815, and accompanied on tours of the Continent in 1819 and 1820. In 1824, when Canning was again Foreign Secretary, George was sent to Spain as Resident Commissioner in Madrid for the Liquidation of British Claims on the Spanish Government. He died in Madrid in October 1825.”