A review of Oscar Browning. A Biography by Ian Anstruther (London, 1983)
Tricycling a fine line ****
Oscar Browning (1837-1923), Eton schoolmaster and Cambridge don, widely known as O.B., was an unusually colourful character even by the high standards of eccentricity often found in these ancient institutions. His favoured means of transport was a comfortably-adapted tricycle. Not only did he use this to get around Cambridge, but he took it on his foreign travels, most notably to puff along the dusty road taken in flight by the doomed French royal family so that he could bring to life his book about this, The Flight to Varennes. From middle age, his “extraordinary shape – his short legs, balloon-like stomach, and round head, completely bald except for a fringe of curls at the back” made him a gift to caricaturists. So famously kind and friendly to male youths that they wrote to him for help out of the blue, his snobbery and vanity, illustrated by his remark after meeting the Austrian emperor that he was “the nicest emperor I ever met”, and his ecstasy discovering he was listed in Pear’s Encyclopaedia’s “Prominent People” were so legendary they were celebrated openly, rather affectionately and even, it seems, with his tacit approval.
His achievements were not inconsiderable. His boys’ house at Eton was widely considered the best and he was the admired leader there of resistance to the vulgar brutalisation public school life was then undergoing. At Cambridge, he did much to transform undergraduate life with the societies he founded and was the greatest pioneer of teacher training. At both King’s, his college there, and Eton, he was responsible for elevating history from obscurity to a well-taught and popular subject. Nevertheless, Anstruther is adamant that he fell far short of his potential, which he blames on his egotistic insensitivity and inability to see another’s point of view. The authorities tended to dislike and mistrust him as much as his pupils revered him.
The course of his life was clearly determined by passion for boys and its real fascination is in how he negotiated this. He came unstuck only once, but then badly so. His comfortable and promising career at Eton was terminated through dismissal by the headmaster, officially over a trivial transgression, but really because of the suspicions aroused by his chaste but overt love for his pupil G.N. Curzon, who always revered him and much later, as Viceroy of India, honoured him as his guest there..
One of the many enigmas about him is whether or not he remained chaste in his pursuit of boys, as apparently at Eton, and continued to follow on the safe side the fine line between fulsome physical affection and the sexual. Anstruther is with good reason convinced not, though he is slightly contradictory about this, considering it also just possible that O.B. was impotent. An indication he changed according to circumstance is his comment looking back on the aesthetic movement’s belief in the superiority of Greek Love that “as I was a schoolmaster, it was absolutely impossible that I should take their view of things.”
Whether he did everything or nothing sexual with them, and Curzon aside, O.B. was stunningly successful in getting away with openly expressing his love for countless boys. Anstruther identifies him as the anonymous pamphleteer who passionately upheld the nobility of boy-love while indignantly refuting the charges made on “us boy-lovers” that there was anything remotely “sensual” about “that long embrace in which the souls of two lovers meet and unite on their lips, and seal the faith which those lips have vowed.” No one in our more intrusive and suspicious age could get away with living publicly as if this were true, but O.B. not only did so, but expressed outrage and incredulity when he was doubted.
Thus, on the one hand, O.B. enjoyed giving his Eton boys, especially the good-looking ones, memorable private talks on “the sacred beauty of male virginity” and he “led his own crusade against the prevailing homosexuality.” He even tried unsuccessfully to turn the tables on the cult of athleticism, of which he was much the leading opponent and which was favoured by the authorities precisely as a counter to sexual vice, by claiming it led to admiration of the body. Like most of his circle, he expressed horror when his intimate friend the painter Simeon Solomon was caught in a public lavatory in 1873, and later at the downfall of Oscar Wilde.
On the other hand, he certainly courted danger, quite undeterred by the calamities of others. Many of his letters to boys were fodder enough for blackmail: as his attentions were by no means confined to upper-class boys, a recipient of humbler means might easily have turned nasty when dropped (the manner in which he did sometimes drop boys when he tired of them being perhaps his most unattractive characteristic). His colleague A.C. Benson, more repressed in his attraction to boys, was shocked and disgusted when O.B. cried out one day “Look, look, how Coan that is!” on seeing a boy in revealing attire (the boys of ancient Cos were renowned for this). He knew Robbie Ross was not chaste in his love of boys and can hardly have failed to imagine the seduction that ensued when he introduced him as his close and trusted friend into the home of his thirteen and fourteen-year-old nephews.
Yet apart from sailing too close to the wind with Curzon, he got away with it all. Acting as a double agent in the crisis that followed his brother-in-law’s discovery of Ross’s antics and discovering the former was keen above all to avoid public scandal, he successfully defused it. Parents (including Curzon’s) swallowed his innocence and generally appreciated his warm attention to their sons as much as the boys themselves. Fifteen-year-old Willie Barrable’s father was typical in reporting to O.B. that his son had been reiterating to his mother that O.B. “is my best and dearest friend I do love Mr. Browning. And really one cannot be surprised after such kindness. … Thank you most sincerely.”
The Browning archive on which this biography is based contains about 50,000 letters involving about 10,000 correspondents, so it was no mean feat to peruse it adequately for the well-balanced narrative Anstruther has produced. It is much enlivened throughout with lively anecdotes. Amongst minor faults, it is not thoroughly indexed, not entirely reliable in detail (calling the Duke of Edinburgh the Queen’s fourth, rather than second, son, for example) and occasionally given to confusing fact with pure speculation (as in claiming that “in the secret depths of his mind when, because of his chronic insomnia, he lay awake in the middle of the night and saw his life as it really was, a life of promise frittered away.”).
Anstruther’s conclusion is that “O.B. failed to be the man he ought to have been, the successful author, scholar and academic. He had succeeded in being what many others would have liked to have been, the acknowledged friend of youth and learning everywhere, a man whose kindness and eccentricity had become a legend in his own lifetime. The only trouble was that a man has to eat, and a legend does not necessarily provide enough to live on.” This is overly judgmental and the last remark nonsense: O.B. always ate very well.
Reviewed by Edmund Marlowe on Goodreads.com, 31 Jan. 2016.