Persuasions #5, 1983 Pages 8-9
JANE AUSTEN, OXFORD AND CAMBRIDGE: PRIDE AND PREJUDICE
Near Eastern Studies Department, Jones Hall, Princeton University, NJ 08544
Jane Austen had strong family ties to Oxford. Her father went to St. John’s as did her brother James, both becoming Fellows of the College, and her favourite brother Henry also was at St. John’s.1 Her maternal grandfather, Thomas Leigh, was a Fellow of All Souls and his brother, Theophilus, was President of Trinity for many years. Jane and her sister Cassandra spent some time as boarders at Oxford, where they were taught by Mrs. Cawley, widow of a Principal of Brasenose. Moreover, Jane received most of her education, and much other knowledge and appreciation of literature, from her father and brothers, in family gatherings, readings and performances; more particularly, her reading of prose seems to have been guided by her father and of poetry by her brother James. In other words, Jane was as closely connected with Oxford University as it was possible to be before the admission of women as students.
It is perhaps significant that, in July 1816, she wrote to her nephew, Edward Austen-Leigh, for whom she had a particular affection and who later wrote a memoir of her: “You must go to Oxford”2 – which he did.
As against that, the only Cambridge man in her life was Samuel Blackall, a young Fellow of Emmanuel College who, in 1798, “was sufficiently attracted to consider coming back at Christmas-time, in order to get to know her better, with a view to possible matrimony. Jane returned his feelings even less than she had returned those of Tom Lefroy. She had nothing to say against his moral character, but she found him all too fond of instructing young women at great length and in a loud voice.”3
In these circumstances, a certain pride in Oxford and prejudice against Cambridge is to be expected. A classification of those of Jane Austen’s characters whose university affiliation is given tends to confirm this suspicion. The two Cambridge men are cads who, in addition to other misdeeds, committed the ultimate villany of eloping: George Wickham (PP) with a girl of sixteen and Henry Crawford (MP) with a married woman. In shining contrast stand the four Oxford men, Edmund Bertram (MP), Henry Tilney (NA), James Morland (NA) and Edward Ferrars (SS), all clergymen, an occupation Jane Austen profoundly respected. Edmund Bertram is perhaps Jane Austen’s most moral character and, according to Austen-Leigh’s Memoir, her favourite together with George Knightley (E). His worth is recognized by Fanny Price. Moreover, Oxford obviously meant something to Fanny. On her journey to Portsmouth “They entered Oxford, but she could take only a hasty glimpse of Edmund’s college as they passed along” (MP 38). Henry Tilney is shrewd, urbane, well-read, witty and strictly honourable. James Morland is less firmly drawn, but also clearly an upright man. Edward Ferrars was “entered at Oxford and ha[s] been properly idle ever since” (SS 19) but he did get a living, was faithful to the vulgar Lucy Steele and, against his mother’s wishes, married Elinor Dashwood rather than the wealthy Miss Morton, daughter of Lord Morton – altogether admirable behaviour. William Collins (PP) is described as having been to “one of the universities” – perhaps because he was too much of a bore to have been at Oxford yet, at the same time, it would have been in bad taste to attribute more than one unattractive character in the same novel to Cambridge. John Thorpe, who was at Oxford (NA) is a bit of a fool and has more than his share of Oxford undergraduate breeziness, but nothing worse.
Although, as a social scientist, I am aware that eight is a small sample, the distribution is such as strongly to indicate Jane Austen’s preferences. As an Oxford man, I heartily concur.
1 When at Oxford, James and Henry edited a weekly periodical, The Loiterer, which ran for sixty numbers between 31 January 1789 and 20 March 1790. The affinity of its style and spirit with those of Jane Austen and its possible influence on her early development are discussed in Walton Litz, “The Loiterer: a Reflection of Jane Austen’s Early Environment,” The Review of English Studies (New Series, XII, 47, August 1961).
2 David Cecil, A Portrait of Jane Austen (New York, 1980) p. 186.
3 Ibid., p. 83