Oxbridge Men, British Masculinity and the Undergraduate Experience (1850-1920)
Bloomington: Indiana U.P., 2005.
Reviewed by Alain Blayac
Paul Deslandes' book comprises six documented and enlightening chapters focusing on all the facets of the English identity during the period considered when all the elements of modernity aggregated: 1/ Constructing Superiority, 2/ The Transition from Boyhood to Manhood, 3/ Discipline and Authority, 4/ Examination, Competition and Masculine Struggle, 5/ Heterosexual Relationships and Masculinity, 6/ Girl Graduates and Colonial Students.
From 1850 to 1920 the two universities fostered an ethos of leadership propped on the notions of service to “God, country, and good.” They promoted the triumph of the competitive ideal in British education in this transformative period of England's ancient universities. The curriculum was expanded with the introduction of new academic disciplines like languages and modern history whereas the governing structures of the Raj were staffed with university educated Indians.
In the early 1860s, feminist activism and liberal reforms led to increased pressure for the higher education of women and the establishment of separate women's colleges. A striking evolution occurred from an evangelical Christian ethos that privileged earnestness, self-sacrifice, sensitivity to the less fortunate to a model that emphasized physical strength, the stiff upper lip, adventure, fortitude, and action. The period saw the rise of an exaggerated masculine culture in which militarism was valued, imperial adventures (mountain climbing, big game hunting) elevated to quasi-religious status, and the virtues of physical fitness extolled to the skies. But one should remember that after the death of Victoria in 1901, and obviously after the First World War, these values were forever altered.
In short, Deslandes explores the psychic, cultural and social formation of elite masculine identities within institutions often assumed in British historiography but seldom analysed or understood. He demonstrates that 1850-1920 was a period of coalescence of the modern England for Oxbridge culture.
This a lavishly designed book: it has a beautiful hard cover, is printed on choice paper, wittily and generously illustrated. It comprises a comprehensive bibliography including Oxford and Cambridge archival sources, but also the major reference studies on the subject, plus many distinguished theoretical works on masculinity (Showalter, Foucauld, Baudrillard etc.) and extensive notes. In short an essential instrument for all those interested in the development of England in this most crucial period of awakening to modernity.