The gate swung open for me in Oxford, its shadow like a lady’s fan widening its welcome in the bright morning sun, the ivory towers of the fabled Bodleian Library reaching skyward in the distance.
“Beautiful city! . . . whispering from her towers the last enchantments of the Middle Age …” The poet rhapsodizes, the philosopher contemplates and the sojourner falls under the spell of this ancient university city, a mythic touchstone in Western culture, rich with literary tradition and romance. “That sweet city with her dreaming spires …” beckoned me from across the great pond and I flew, eager to be in the magical place of learning.
It was midsummer when the invitation came. Now at the fall equinox, we spill over into the darkening half of the year, and my mind wants to find meaning in the footloose days of my summer travels, distill them into a jewel I can turn over in my hands and store away for the shortening days. I find clarity in the words of others who have been here before me, who have seen “…spire and tower and quadrangle, all Oxford springing underfoot in living leaf and enduring stone, ringed far off by her bulwark of blue hills.”
I traveled alone, but I was never alone. The writers joined me too. “I wonder anybody does anything at Oxford but dream and remember, the place is so beautiful.” Memory ran along beside me like a river, occasionally overflowing its banks and flooding me with recognition.
The First Writing is the book that opened the door for me. A small book, ten pages, the first artist book I ever made, twenty years ago. I took a risk, made it in an edition of fifty with a controversial theme once shunned by academia. Now here it was in the esteemed Bodleian Library at Oxford University, the archetypal institution of higher learning.
I came every day to see my work amid the amazing books in the Alphabets Alive! exhibition in the Weston Library (built as The New Bodleian in the 1930s). My lodging was a five-minute walk from the library, so Oxford’s academic quarter became my neighborhood. I lingered in the dim gallery to pay my respects to my little book and my younger self.
When I wasn’t studying the wealth of treasures within the walls of museums and libraries, I walked the streets and byways of Oxford. I was enthralled with its architectural wonders, an opulence of ancient ivory towers and hushed interior spaces. When I was a child, after our family’s Sunday church worship, we often drove through neighborhoods to study houses while my father commented on gables and mezzanines, cupolas and cantilevers, terms he was learning in his belated college career for a degree in architecture. Decades later, I would use my father’s heavy textbooks as weights while pressing paper and board for my artist books.
Across Broad Street from the Weston Library was the Old Bodleian Library in its Schools Quadrangle. Seeing pictures of this building did not prepare me for beholding it with my own eyes. It was the ultimate ivory tower, the stuff of literary legend for its staggering archive, repository of every book printed in England since 1610, so the story goes, and home to many of the illuminated pages I pored over while learning my medieval calligraphy skills. “The Bodleian above anything else made Oxford what it was . . . There was something incommunicably grand about it, something difficult to understand … noticing its overwhelming beauty when you came out of a tiny alley and it caught you unexpectedly. … It was … the greatest library in the world.”
Next to the old library was University Church, still called by its older name, St. Mary the Virgin. The first books and manuscripts of the nascent university were housed here until, in the 1300s or thereabouts, plans were begun for a proper library next door. Here too I came every day to marvel, to sing, to pray in my own way, to sup at the Vaults and Gardens cafe. The famous spire of the Great Mother church became my compass as I navigated the inner precincts of old Oxford.
This fierce queen on the High Street facade of University College stopped me in my tracks with her combative posture. Who was this? Queen Anne, sovereign from 1702–1714 in the contentious Restoration years after the English Civil War, the push-pull of the Roman and Anglican churches, and the establishment of a parliamentary monarchy. Only later did I discover she was originally holding a scepter in that upraised arm.
Once I wandered far enough down the High Street, I arrived at the exquisite tower of Magdalen College, first glimpsed from the riverside on my way to the Botanic Garden. I was smitten with her, “yellow and slender, the tall lily of towers …” Many medieval churches bring the Lady and the Land forward in the names of Mary the Virgin and Mary the Magdalene. In the movie Shadowlands about the life and love of the author C. S. Lewis, this tower figured wonderfully in the story with its May Day morning revels.
Down many storybook lanes I roamed, greeted by echoes of Lewis Carroll, J. R. R. Tolkien, and C. S. Lewis, all authors who gave us beloved wonderlands. In St. Mary’s Passage I felt the glimmering spell of the Narnia stories at this ornate door, thought to have inspired the creation of Aslan the lion and Tumnus the faun. One of my favorite childhood books was The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, about a magical world revealed by a girl opening a closet of old clothes.
Universities are all about admittance and my visit was no exception, though I was not applying to matriculate. On the day of my arrival, after I learned the trick of getting through the massive unmarked wooden doors to check in to my lodging, I looked down to see this message inscribed in the venerable stone floor of Jesus College.
THE FIRST WOMEN TO
STUDY AT JESUS COLLEGE
CROSSED THIS THRESHOLD
Its gold letters gently reminded me that the whole of Oxford was a male enclave of learning for many centuries before I placed my dainty foot across its threshold. And 1974 was the same year I began my studies at the University of California, three years after my life-changing decision to not become an unmarried mother when I was still a child myself. Instead I was offered a chance at a different future, one that included both a college education and a family.
I thought of this the next day, when I flowed with a crowd of families carrying flowers and watching the graduation ceremony through the wrought-iron fence surrounding Exeter College. There were all kinds of people, many more with dark skin than there used to be I am sure, and I was struck by the sight of a young woman with magenta hair wearing the black gown of an Oxford graduate striding across the quad in combat boots. She had, it was clear, her choice of destinations for her life.
The day before I left Oxford I was finally able to secure a ticket to enter the Bodleian Old Library, fantasy of every reader and book lover who yearns “to stay permanently at Oxford in meditation, and to read all the books in the Bodleian.” For a few hundred years, the library was prey to tides of religious zeal and its contents burned as “superstitious books and images.” During Elizabeth Tudor’s reign, her diplomat Sir Thomas Bodley rescued the library from ruin and neglect, and with decades of refurbishment and additions the library took the form we see today. No books were ever to be lent, even to King Charles in 1645, in a famous story of denial to the king.
Looking out the windows of the Old Bodleian I could see Oxford’s ivory towers, massed together. I watched the readers flash their cards to go into the oldest reading room of the library and wished I could be among them. I would’ve loved to see some of the illuminated manuscripts stored here, but as I didn’t arrange it ahead of time I made do with the garden-variety tour. I was just happy to be within the walls of this illustrious library.
It was clear that Duke Humfrey’s library was as much “a refuge of the elect” as it ever was, not to be pillaged or overly photographed by pesky American tourists, from the legendary chained books to the security guard at the reading room entrance, who made sure no one went rogue from a tour and tried to see more of the old books than was allowed in the ten-minute time slot.
Below Duke Humfrey’s Library was the Divinity School, sumptuous indeed. Surely there could be no other space so beautifully designed, meant for the finest minds of the past to learn the intricate ins and outs of Christianity. The high medieval architecture dating from the 1400s was breathtaking in every way.
There was a time when I would have been forbidden from setting foot in this room, where clerical students argued their merits before a stern examiner. An exhibition panel included a painting of the room being used in this way in 1813, also noting that “No women were allowed to study at Oxford at this time.”
If I thought I was going to keep my personal story to myself after my visit to Oxford, that ended when I arrived in London at my second university lodging, Goodenough College in Bloomsbury, built on the site of the house where Virginia Woolf lived during the last years of her life. Evidence of her work and books was everywhere I went in those few days, so I picked up her 1929 book A Room of One’s Own, a classic text for women who want to write and one which she published herself on the Hogarth Press she ran with her husband Leonard. I had not read it in full since the struggling semesters of my college years; now it was even more interesting to me.
I had not remembered that she begins the essay at “Oxbridge,” a word meant to conflate Oxford and Cambridge, the two oldest and wealthiest universities in the UK and, not coincidentally, the most elite. The writer, already chased off the grass for not being a “fellow,” has forgotten the warning and decided to search for a certain literary treasure, and:
… here I was actually at the door which leads into the library itself. I must have opened it, for instantly there issued, like a guardian angel barring the way with a flutter of black gown instead of white wings, a deprecating, silvery, kindly gentleman, who regretted in a low voice as he waved me back that ladies are only admitted to the library if accompanied by a Fellow of the College or furnished with a letter of introduction.
That a famous library has been cursed by a woman is a matter of complete indifference to a famous library. Venerable and calm, with all its treasures safe locked within its breast, it sleeps complacently and will, so far as I am concerned, so sleep for ever. Never will I wake those echoes, never will I ask for that hospitality again, I vowed as I descended the steps in anger.
Virginia soon recovers her equanimity and her humor, soothed by the sheer beauty and serenity of these places:
The spirit of peace descended like a cloud from heaven, for if the spirit of peace dwells anywhere, it is in the courts and quadrangles of Oxbridge on a fine October morning. Strolling through those colleges past those ancient halls the roughness of the present seemed smoothed away; the body seemed contained in a miraculous glass cabinet through which no sound could penetrate …
I thought of the “miraculous glass cabinet” I had found in Oxford, and inside of it the book I made after I had finally secured “a room of my own.” My creative output took a leap in the years after I had a proper art studio, and I produced many more artist books after this one.
Clearly the Bodleian is meant to look like a fortress, and it is one. It has kept many precious illuminated manuscripts and books safe through the ages, barring not only women but many others who were not quite the right color or nationality or economic class, though only women are explicitly mentioned in the informative labels as being prohibited from the sanctified halls.
One morning over breakfast at the college dining hall, I fell into conversation with a gentleman of about my age who was teaching a summer class in comparative religion. And why was I here? he asked. I gave the short answer, and then the longer one, and pretty soon I was telling him more about the book I had made and the ideas behind it. He listened politely, and I could feel his skepticism growing behind his silence. Finally he asked me, What university are you affiliated with? No formal affiliation, I answered. I am a scholar who reads widely and goes my own way. I paused. An outlier, I said.
The week after I was in Oxford I visited the standing stones and holy wells in England’s countryside, sacred spaces that have been the refuge of ordinary folk for time out of mind. Long before the dizzying spires of Oxford found their way into the heavens, our longest-ago ancestors were enacting even greater feats of magic to set massive stones in great circles, placed in accordance with the seasons and the stars. It was here I learned there is often a lone menhir at some distance outside the circle. This is called the outlier, which I confirmed was a legitimate archeological term by consulting (of course) The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Archaeology. It is thought in metaphysical quarters that the outlier’s purpose was to to aid the circle’s alignment of heaven with earth, to catch and direct energies as yet unknown to the ring of stones.
Sometimes only a selfie will do, here at the entrance to the Old Bodleian Library. I’m well-aware of the appearance of this statue’s head emerging from mine. This old-time chancellor of the university and its library appears in his armor to be guarding the door, but in my picture he looks like a lamp finial, so perhaps he approves my entrance to the sacred archive and any attendant wisdom I might be emitting from my snowy crown, one of Oxford’s “peculiar race of artist-scholars, scholar-artists.”
No matter how far women have come to breach the cloisters of academia or other male bastions of the world, we are often still outliers, bringing fresh energy and perspectives to stale stories and threadbare paradigms. I will never be “affiliated,” in the commonly held modern sense of the word, with any university, but in another of its definitions a little piece of me will forever belong to the Bodleian Library and Oxford University.
I look back on my week in Oxford in wonderment that I was even there. The gate swung open for me, and it was fitting that it was in essence a side gate. I gained entry, not through a prestigious press or publishing house, but under the name of my own humble Prose and Letters Press and the work of my own hands to publish my artist book. And I never forget that my creative and scholarly pursuits are the gifts of having the freedom, granted all those years ago, to direct my life, honor my body, and bring my emotional intelligence to a life of the mind.
I have herein quoted:
Matthew Arnold: “… beautiful city …” and “…dreaming spires …”
Dorothy Sayers: “… living leaf and enduring stone …” and “… yellow and slender, the tall lily of towers”
William Butler Yeats: “… dream and remember …”
Charles Finch: “…the greatest library in the world …”
Hillaire Belloc: “… read all the books in the Bodleian …”
C. S. Lewis: “… a refuge for the elect …”
Max Beerbohm: “… artist-scholars, scholar-artists …””
And always and forever, Virginia Woolf
If you enjoyed this post I’d love to hear from you. What journeys have you taken that were as much inward as outward? What invitations have surprised you?