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Rhodes to redemption: why Oxford needs a monument to Benjamin Jowett

17 July 2021

9:00 AM

17 July 2021

9:00 AM

Not since September 1642, when a mob of Parliamentary soldiers opened fire on the sculpture of the Virgin Mary carved into the side of the University Church, has Oxford been in such a fury over statues. The ‘Rhodes must fall’ campaign that started among radical students in 2016 has now spread to the senior common rooms, particularly the SCR of Worcester College which, astonishingly, has taken over from Balliol and Wadham as the headquarters of the workers’ revolution. More than 150 academics have signed a petition calling for their fellow dons to maintain a virtual picket line around Oriel College — that is, to refuse to teach its students or attend its seminars or help with its outreach programmes — as long as the statue of Rhodes remains in its imperial eyrie on the opposite side of the High Street from the sculpture of the Virgin Mary.

I’m not alone in feeling a certain unease about the neo-Puritan call for tearing down statues, let alone punishing Oriel students who have no say over whether the statue stays or goes. It’s not just that Rhodes is a complicated man whose name is plastered all over the university. Or that almost every-body from the dark ages before 1960 is implicated in attitudes that we now find repugnant. ‘Use every man after his desert,’ as Shakespeare put it in Hamlet, ‘and who should ’scape whipping?’ Certainly not Lord Clarendon, Lord Leverhulme or Augustus Pitt Rivers and endless other university benefactors. My basic objection is that it is surely better to erect new statues of our own to celebrate contemporary values rather than to tear down old statues and the memories that they entomb. Tearing down statues may produce a brief paroxysm of righteousness but then leaves nothing but emptiness in its wake. Erecting new statues can instil hope in the next generation.

London’s mayor, Sadiq Khan, has established a commission on diversity in the public realm to tackle this issue. Why don’t Oxford University’s magnificos do likewise? A good person to start with as a candidate for statuary would be Benjamin Jowett — the great 19th-century Master of Balliol and the subject of one of the most Oxonian of Oxonian bits of doggerel (‘Here come I, my name is Jowett / All there is to know I know it / I am the Master of this College / What I don’t know isn’t knowledge’). True, Balliol has a marble bust of the great man hidden away on its premises. But what is needed is an edgy new statue right in the heart of the public realm: ideally, on the pavement outside Balliol that he trod for so many decades.

Jowett has perfect establishment credentials for a public memorial. He transformed Balliol from one college among many into the university’s premier powerhouse of intellectual excellence and public service. He did this by using two revolutionary tools: open competition and high moral seriousness. College places were awarded on the basis of academic merit as revealed by open examinations rather than given away on the basis of family connections. Tutors were expected to devote themselves to their pupils rather than to the bottle. And Balliol men were expected to work hard for their privileges: Jowett’s pupils included a future prime minister, Herbert Asquith; a future archbishop of Canterbury, Cosmo Gordon Lang; and a future viceroy of India, Lord Curzon.


Nor was Jowett just a valet to the offspring of the elite: he was also keen on recruiting bright children from obscure backgrounds, even taking the 11-year-old Frank Fletcher under his wing, paying for his education and acting as his mentor at Balliol. Jowett’s principles eventually spread to the rest of the university, taking an institution that could easily have degenerated into a nest of sinecures and transforming it into a progenitor of Nobel prize winners and social reformers.

Yet there is also another side to Jowett that clinches his case for a new public statue: the preponderance of evidence suggesting that he was Oxford’s first (and at the moment probably only) intersex college head. I was first alerted to this possibility when I was a young Fellow of All Souls in the 1980s by an ancient college fixture called E.B. ‘Henry’ Ford, a distinguished geneticist who had an odd habit (among many odd habits) of talking about figures from the Victorian and Edwardian era as if they were contemporaries. Did I know that the Dean (Inge) had a tail (or coccygeal projection as it is more formally known)? Or that the warden of New College’s spoonerisms were genetically linked to the fact that he was an albino? His favourite subject was Benjamin Jowett on the grounds that ‘everybody knew’ that the celebrated Master of Balliol was a ‘hermaphrodite’, as he called it. He even claimed to know for a fact that Jowett’s relationship with Florence Nightingale had proceeded to a point where the Master of Balliol’s ‘anatomical configuration’ led them to call off plans for marriage.

I had always dismissed this as just another of Ford’s oddities: in an institution that had many eccentrics, Ford towered above them all. But in researching my latest book I repeatedly came across evidence that suggested that he was on to something. The United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights defines intersex people as individuals who ‘do not fit the typical definitions of male or female bodies’: that is, they are born with atypical variations in their chromosomes, sex hormones or genitals. Estimates of the number of births with ambiguous genitals ranges from just 0.018 per cent to 1.7 per cent, and ambiguity covers a wide range of possibilities. Intersex people have traditionally been hidden from history — classified as one gender or another at birth and expected to go through life as their assigned sex. But they are finally coming into the open, either shifting their gender identity as they grow older to one with which they feel more comfortable or else identifying themselves as ‘middlesex’.

Geoffrey Faber’s standard biography of Jowett is full of striking snippets. Jowett’s father’s family had a long history of high-pitched voices and involuntary celibacy. As a boy, Jowett looked so much like a girl— pretty, gentle and delicate — that his fellow pupils at St Paul’s nicknamed him ‘Miss Jowett’ and protected him from bullying in much the same way that they would protect a sister. His voice never broke and hairs refused to sprout on his chin. As an old man, he looked and spoke like a eunuch. His skin was unusually soft — like the skin of a baby rather than that of an aged scholar. At the height of the age of athleticism he never learned to handle a cricket bat, kick a football or man an oar.

Ford’s intersex hypothesis would help to explain Jowett’s attitudes to sex, which were prudish even by Victorian standards. He was notorious for silencing anybody who dared to mention the subject with a high-pitched admonition not to be so disgusting; he steered well clear of the flirtatious relations that then flourished not only between male undergraduates but also between tutors and their charges. It would also explain the mysterious silence about Florence Nightingale in the otherwise exhaustive Victorian The Life and Letters of Benjamin Jowett by Evelyn Abbott and Lewis Campbell. The two were close friends and enthusiastic correspondents for decades. Several sources suggest that they discussed marriage. Yet Abbott and Campbell don’t mention Miss Nightingale and reprint her letters without attribution, surely evidence that Ford might have been on to something with his hypothesis of a budding physical relationship which, when put to the test, went disastrously wrong.

It is impossible, of course, to produce definitive proof that Jowett was intersex. But at the very least we know that he was what would now be called ‘gender non–conforming’ in an age when gender conformity was imposed far more strictly than it is today: he struggled all his life with both his sexuality and with sex in general; he didn’t fit in with the Victorian ideal of manliness, with its emphasis on bushy beards and thick thighs; and yet he succeeded in bending all the manly types that surrounded him at Oxford to his will.

A statue would not only provide inspiration to Oxford students who are struggling with their own sexuality; it would also help to defuse the culture wars by proving that it’s possible to become a pillar of the establishment even if you belong to the tiniest and most discriminated-against of sexual minorities. Let’s replace the negative and divisive slogan ‘Rhodes must fall’ with a positive and uniting one: ‘Jowett must rise!’

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Adrian Wooldridge is political editor of the Economist and author of the Bagehot column. His book The Aristocracy of Talent: How Meritocracy Made the Modern World is published by Allen Lane.

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