The Unexpected Professor: An Oxford Life in Books by John Carey

9780571310920

Reviewed by Sue Bond

This book was hugely enjoyable for a book nut like myself. I do not expect everyone will relate to John Carey’s opinions or life history but if the life of the mind interests you and books and literature are an important part of your life, you too may find this worth reading. It is an evocation of life at Oxford University from the 1950s, and Carey provides a wonderfully idiosyncratic view of being both a student and a teacher at this centuries old place of learning.

John Carey is Emeritus Professor at Oxford University, where, as the title suggests, he studied and has worked all of his life. He has written some not uncontroversial books on literature, such as The Intellectuals and the Masses: Pride and Prejudice among the Literary Intelligentsia, 1880–1939 (1992) and What Good are the Arts? (2005), as well as biographies and literary criticisms of figures such as William Golding and John Donne. According to his website (http://www.johncarey.org) he is also a beekeeper and vegetable-grower, as well as printmaker.

It’s interesting that Carey selected lines from Robert Herrick about good luck for the epigraph, suggesting that he views his life as being one formed as much by luck as anything else. It becomes apparent that his hard work and enthusiasm and love for literature fuelled that good luck. He was initially asked to write a history of English Literature but he tweaked it to ‘a history of English literature and me, how we met, how we got on, what came of it’ (xi). They got on quite well and he has provoked and stimulated critical thinking about English and European literature ever since.

Carey gives us a picture of his family life from when he was born in 1934 in South West London, the effect of the war, of his older brother’s poor health, his father’s initial wealth then loss of that wealth, as well, of course, as the books that were in the house. He describes the beautiful Edmund Dulac’s Picture Book for the French Red Cross of his mother’s, which he still owns, along with the bound annual sets of Figaro illustré from 1890 to 1900 which he surreptitiously discovered and thought mysterious as he turned their pages when a boy exploring the house. Significantly, he recalls joining the church choir as a boy and hearing the King James version of the Bible out loud, so learning about the poetry of language.

There are enlightening points all through the book, such as when he describes reading Keats’ poem ‘The Eve of St Agnes’ and feeling that cold in the poem because everyone was cold in England, there being no central heating in his youth. He writes of reading books at school like George Eliot’s Silas Marner—‘They were the first grown-up books I had read, and they were intimidating because I could see they were the start of something huge—an unexplored continent of literature I was just nibbling at the edge of’ (50)—and the profound effect of George Bernard Shaw’s Saint Joan and the, to him, greatest scene when an English chaplain regrets, ‘howling and sobbing’, what he has done after she is burned at the stake. Strong and stirring stuff.

He takes the reader through his undergraduate years, then as a research student and teacher, his marriage to Gill and the birth of his two children, interleaving the personal aspects of his life with his reading and writing. The amount of reading he has done is awe-inspiring; indeed, the amount of reading he did as an undergraduate alone seems extraordinary. But as he says, ‘It was a luxury to get up each morning and know you could spend the whole day just reading. Alone with a book, I could stop pretending and just be myself’ (104). He makes the reader feel the opening up of his mind and feeling while reading works like Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde and poets such as Donne and Milton; he is blunt about his assessment of the literature of Elizabeth’s reign, finding much of it dull, including Spenser’s Fairie Queene. You may agree or disagree with his opinions, but he argues them out and gives his reasoning.

There is much more I have not touched upon here, but in his last chapter, ‘So, in the End, Why Read?’, he provides what I think is an appropriate ending to his book that is so full of the love of books and reading: ‘Reading is vast, like the sea, but you can dip into it anywhere and be refreshed. Reading takes you into other minds and makes them part of your own. Reading releases you from the limits of yourself. Reading is freedom. Now read on’ (351).

The Unexpected Professor: An Oxford Life in Books

(2014)
by John Carey
Faber & Faber, distributed by Allen & Unwin
ISBN: 9780571310920
361pp; $AU35

(also available in paperback)

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