Varsity Visits and Textual Tourism: Questions of Access, Belonging, and Nostalgic Longing

by Rachelle Stinson

Left: The Adventures of Mr. Verdant Green: An Oxford Freshman (James Blackwood, 1857). Image courtesy of Internet Archive.
Right: Alden’s Sixpenny Guide to Oxford (2nd edition, 1875). Image courtesy of Hathitrust Digital Library.

Having analyzed numerous nostalgically-charged accounts of newcomers and visitors to Oxford throughout my doctoral studies, I have often inadvertently recalled my own visit to the university town seventeen years ago as a tourist and newly-minted BA. My Oxford visit was motivated, to a large extent, by nostalgia: I wanted to touch the medieval stones of the ancient college walls and gaze at the “dreaming spires” above me, I wanted to envision medieval monks meandering beneath the cloistral arches and sixteenth-century philosophers rambling the garden paths, I wanted to disturb the centuries-settled dust of a Bodleian tome and awaken some ghost in a forgotten college corner. Like so many Oxford tourists, I arrived wanting to be transported to an illusive/elusive university of the past. But present reality is ever the disruptor of illusion. I tried to imagine myself a student of some bygone era, gliding silently, pensively along the stone-lined walks, academic robes flowing behind me, but my power wheelchair was a rather annoying anachronism against this ancient academic backdrop, clunking noisily along Merton’s cobbled thoroughfare. And robes never display as well on the seated, unfortunately.

Then, of course, my touristic identity, disrupting the illusion that I might blend in to the university of the present. The tourist guidebooks and pamphlets I had purchased for my trip, which had been immensely helpful in my historical envisioning, were also a dead giveaway of nonbelonging. I remember carrying them covertly, holding them close to my chest and under my arm, indulging in the thought that passers-by might take me for an Oxford student with books of a more studious nature. Does Oxford urge impostor syndrome it its students in the same way it triggers a feeling of trespass in its visitors I wonder? I think it must, because it is so impervious and unmoving, so revered and so old. Does anyone ever truly feel like they belong there?

The question of access is central to my current studies of Oxford, and especially of Victorian Oxford, where so many (women, the working class, certain religious groups, tourists) were gaining access for the first time. More precisely, it is the relationship among access, belonging, and nostalgia that interests me, and how it manifests in and through mass-market Oxford literatures like tourist guidebooks and Victorian varsity novels. This is the focus of my article. Situating Cuthbert Bede’s comedic Verdant Green varsity series (1853, 1854, 1857) alongside Oxford tourist guidebooks, as another kind of touristic text, widens the textual landscape for considering the intricacy of the relationship mentioned above.

Tourists, varsity newcomers, and varsity readers are welcomed but with reserve, are given access to the ancient university but only provisionally, and are often, through guidebooks and other popular literature, touring only through a fictive or carefully constructed idea of a university. And what is the role of nostalgia in texts that cater to these particular Oxford enthusiasts, to these reading tourists and touring readers? Is it simply the intoxicating sentiment the tourist carries with her to Oxford? Or might it serve some commercial purpose? Most importantly, might it work to Oxford’s advantage, and at the tourist’s expense (in both meanings of the term)?

For more, see Rachelle Stinson, “Mass-Market Spires: Varsity Paperbacks, Guidebooks, and Commodified Nostalgia.” Victorian Review, vol. 48, no. 2, 2023.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *