Image: W. H. Auden photographed at Christ Church
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Matthew G. Lewis (1775-1818) studied at Christ Church from 1790-1794. He subsequently completed a MA. His transgressive Gothic masterpiece The Monk (1795) is one of the great works in the queer literary canon.
Influential American writer Gertrude Stein (1874-1946) delivered a lecture entitled ‘Composition as Explanation’ at Christ Church on 7 June 1926. She had been invited to speak by Harold Acton (see below).
Poet W. H. Auden (1907-1973) is intimately associated with Christ Church.
Of all the Bright Young Things of British society during the 1920s, few shone quite as brightly as Harold Acton (1904-1994). Acton read Modern Greats at Christ Church. It was from the balcony of his rooms in Meadow Buildings that he declaimed passages from The Waste Land through a megaphone, an episode recalled in Waugh’s Brideshead. Whilst at Oxford Acton co-founded the avant garde magazine The Oxford Broom and published his first book of poems, Aquarium (1923).
Known for his flamboyant dandyism and his extraordinary demeanour, Acton was frequently the subject of society gossip columns. At various points in his life Acton was a poet, novelist, historian, university lecturer, Royal Air Force officer, and philanthropist. Acton’s true vocation, however, was that of an aesthete with a mission—in his own words, to ‘excite rage in the hearts of the Philistines’. In two autobiographical works, Memoirs of an Aesthete (1948) and More Memoirs of an Aesthete (1970) Acton wrote with uncommon openness about his erotic life. For the last 25 years of Acton’s life, his companion was German-born photographer and artist Alexander Zielcke.
Tom Driberg, Baron Bradwell (1905-1976) studied Classics at Christ Church although he never took a degree. Already mentioned for its refreshing honesty about homoeroticism in the Brideshead era, Driberg’s autobiography, Ruling Passions (1977), includes a delightful account of his time at Oxford including his friendship with W. H. Auden, catching ‘the flying fornicator’ (the train from London) back to Oxford after trips to the ballet, Gertrude Stein lecturing in Oxford, and writing for The Cherwell.
The legendary gentlemen’s toilet—now closed—in the basement of the Town Hall building on Blue Boar Street (opposite large gates belonging to Christ Church). Evelyn Waugh didn’t include these in Brideshead but Driberg was more forthcoming in his autobiography. He described how, as an undergraduate in the mid-1920s, he was picked up by a don in this ‘cottage’. He saw the don on several occasions afterwards, describing with characteristic candour a particularly successful exercise in soixante-neuf in the don’s rooms. The toilets were closed in 2001 because of vandalism and ‘misuse’. Photograph Ross Brooks, 2009.
Driberg subsequently became a journalist and politician who was an influential member on the left of the Labour Party from the 1940s to the 1970s. In 1957 he became Chairman of the Labour Party. Driberg was arrested for soliciting sex with men on several occasions and was once the target of a honey trap operation by the KGB in the late 1950s. Apparently, the KGB pursued the operation in the belief that he was in fact the leader of the Labour Party (as opposed to chairman) and could be blackmailed.
Winston Churchill said of him: ‘Tom Driberg is the sort of person who gives sodomy a bad name.’
The distinguished actor and director Peter Glenville (1913-1996) studied law at Christ Church. He was deeply involved with OUDS and became its President. His life partner was Hardy William Smith.
Author Richard Rumbold is an important figure in Oxford’s queer history. He studied at Christ Church between 1931 and 1934, precisely the time when debates about Oxford’s place in British national life, and the place of ‘homosexuals’ at the University, were raging intensely. In 1933, Rumbold, President of the Oxford University English Club, published a novel, Little Victims, which was by no means unusual for the period (the era of the student novel now long gone) but which ignited a national furore.
Whilst the work has little literary merit, Little Victims is nonetheless remarkable on several counts. It is an early gay-themed publication of the Fortune Press, the London-based publishing house of Reginald Ashley Caton, which was distinctive for publishing several novels with queer characters and tropes through the 1930s and beyond. Despite a disclaimer stating that all characters in the novel were entirely fictitious, Little Victims is largely autobiographical (evidenced by his later memoir and published diary), relating Rumbold’s unhappiness, loneliness, and deteriorating mental health as he passes through public school and then Oxford. As such, the book is a unique, subjective psychological study of the lived experiences of a young, queer male undergraduate (named ‘Christopher Harmsworth’ in the book) at Oxford during the early 1930s, its structural and literary flaws emblematic of Rumbold’s loneliness and anger.
Viewed in this light, Little Victims makes depressing reading, less a discourse on the nature of ‘homosexuality,’ as gay-themed novels (including Brideshead) tend to be viewed, and more a study of the crippling effects of homophobic abuses. Among these, ‘Christopher’ is deeply wounded by the sexualised culture of his school, ostracised for making queer friends at Oxford, lumbered with an overly-friendly tutor who keeps a row of sex books behind a row of academic books in his rooms, and has his own rooms ransacked by rugby-playing hearties who throw him in a pool of ice-cold water (assuredly a case of art reflecting life; Rumbold’s rooms at Christ Church were likewise ransacked and he was thrown into a fountain). Along the way ‘Christopher’ loses his catholic faith after a priest fobs him off with a meaningless absolution. He does have a bit of fun with his queer friends, a delightful account of a drunken late-night party being one of the highlights of the book. Still, Rumbold paints a bleak picture of queer student life. ‘Christopher’ is ever on the brink of leaving Oxford, he is painfully lonely and depressed, and deeply resentful towards his family, school, university, and church. Reflecting the eugenic ideology of the era, ‘Christopher’ laments that his parents had not used contraception and prevented his birth (in the book ‘Christopher’ commits suicide).
Invariably, the publication of Little Victims was resented by the authorities and caused what Montague Summers (resident in Oxford during the early 1930s and who knew Rumbold) called ‘the silliest storm in a teacup.’ The work fell into the hands of the Bishop of Birmingham (Thomas Leighton Williams) who objected to Rumbold’s ‘foul and offensive’ book, communicating his displeasure to Oxford’s Roman Catholic Chaplain (Ronald Knox) who subsequently refused Rumbold the sacrament at Christ Church without warning. The affair hit the headlines and was a national cause célèbre for a short time during June 1933. The book was duly banned. Soon after, Rumbold was diagnosed with tuberculosis and he left Oxford in 1934 without taking his degree.
Several sources suggest that Little Victims and the sensation surrounding it caused no small amount of amusement amongst Oxford’s undergraduates. The Cherwell, in particular, was pitiless in its ridicule of Rumbold and his novel. Nobody protested against the banning of the book. Still, Little Victims, and the story of its author, provide rare glimpses of changing sexual mores at Oxford as the relative tolerance of the ‘Brideshead’ era gave way to the more censorious attitudes of the 1930s. Such a valuable document of the nosedive in attitudes towards queer students and homoeroticism shifts attention away from the flamboyant antics of the ‘Brideshead’ generation and focuses attention on the production of modernist effeminophobia, homophobia, and their internalised counterparts, which continued to be a characteristic feature of the homoerotics at Oxford through the 1930s and beyond.
Lieutenant-Colonel Ian Harvey RA (1914-1987) studied at Christ Church. He was President of the Oxford University Conservative Association in 1935 and the Oxford Carlton Club and the Oxford Union in 1936. After a distinguished wartime military career Harvey married and had two daughters. He won the seat for Harrow East in 1950 eventually becoming Parliamentary Under-Secretary at the Foreign Office in 1958. In Nov that year, Harvey was discovered with a Guardsman from the Coldstream Guards in the bushes in St James’s Park in London. Both were arrested and fined £5 each (Harvey paid both fines). Harvey subsequently resigned his ministerial post and his Parliamentary seat. He wrote of the experience in To Fall Like Lucifer (1971). From 1972 he served as Vice-President of the Campaign for Homosexual Equality and from 1980 as Chairman of Conservative Group for Homosexual Equality.
His campaigning on equality issues brought him back to Oxford on a number of occasions, notably for a debate at the Oxford Union on 12 October 1973 (‘That sexual morality is solely the concern of the individual’) and to address the Oxford University Conservative Association at Exeter College on 30 November the same year.
Mike Soper (1914-2008) lectured in agriculture at Christ Church and directed his university farm for thirty years. He played a leading role in the development of part-time agricultural education. In his private life, he enjoyed a long and happy partnership with another man for more than forty years, albeit without anyone—even his close family—knowing. He kept his sexuality secret for decades in fear of reprisals from an intolerant academic community. This changed in 2007 when Soper, at the age of 93, became one of the country’s oldest authors by penning a gay romance (The Heart Entrapped, published by Athena Press). Soper had come out of the closet (to the residents of his nursing home in Moulsford) just two years earlier. His story was told by The Oxford Mail.
Celebrated barrister, dramatist, and author John Mortimer QC (1923-2009) actually went up to Brasenose to study Law in 1940 but as Brasenose buildings had been requisitioned for the war effort, he took residence on the second floor of staircase five in Meadow Building at Christ Church. He attired himself as an aesthete, spoke at the Union, joined the Pater society, had poetry published in The Cherwell, and entertained several young women in his rooms (his scout remarking that Mr Mortimer was a man with ‘a troublesome organ’). The would-be aesthete also conceived a romantic friendship with a beautiful seventeen-year-old schoolboy, Quentin Edwards. Their unrequited romance was recounted in Valerie Grove’s authorised biography A Voyage Round John Mortimer (2007). The affair, however, did not end happily. Mortimer wrote Edwards some love letters addressed in Wildean style to ‘My Dear Boy’. In spring 1942 the letters were discovered by Edwards’ schoolmasters who assumed the worst. Edwards abruptly finished his school (later he too would become a QC) and Mortimer was sent down. In his prolific writing career, Mortimer occasionally returned to the theme of a man’s passion for a youth; for example, in the play Bermondsey (1969) from the quartet Come As You Are, in the play Naked Justice (2001), and in a radio play about Byron, The Last Adventure (2005). In 2006 Mortimer was conferred an Honorary Fellowship by Brasenose College.
Jan Morris CBE (b.1926) is a British historian, author, and travel writer. She was educated at Christ Church. She is known particularly for the Pax Britannica trilogy, a history of the British Empire, and for portraits of cities, notably Venice, Trieste, Hong Kong, New York City, and The Oxford Guide to Oxford (1965), a work which remains the best history of Oxford yet written.
Morris was assigned male at birth, and before the 1960s went by the name James Humphrey Morris. In 1949, she married Elizabeth Tuckniss. Morris and Tuckniss had five children together. As Morris documents in her memoir Conundrum, she began transitioning from male to female in the early 1960s, when she started on hormone replacement therapy. In 1972, she had sex reassignment surgery in Morocco since doctors in Britain refused to allow the procedure unless Morris and Tuckniss divorced, something Morris was not prepared to do at the time. They divorced later but remained together and have now had a civil union.
Morris is now an honorary fellow of Christ Church. She has received honorary doctorates from the University of Wales and the University of Glamorgan, and is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature. She received the Glyndŵr Award in 1996. She accepted her CBE in the 1999 Queen’s Birthday Honours out of polite respect but is a Welsh nationalist republican at heart. In Jan 2008 The Times named her the 15th greatest British writer since the War.
© Ross Brooks, 2020