Wednesday, January 9, 2008

Set on Magdalen College

I fell in love with Magdalen College as a teenager visiting England. It seemed a coded language that the pronunciation was Maud-lin. I loved animals, and here was “the college with the deer.” What a surprise to step off the bike-congested Oxford streets into rural countryside. Like a secret garden, thick walls keep the dull roar of traffic at bay. Deer graze in the meadow and quiet paths meander through the woods. Canals are ideal for romantic boating.

After watching Brideshead Revisted on PBS, I dreamed of going to Oxford University. Instead I did a junior semester abroad at King’s College, London. My lucky cousin, Peter Nohrnberg, did a Marshall Scholarship at Magdalen. He enjoyed reading poetry in such a bucolic setting. He told tales of towing a bottle of champagne by a string while punting to keep it cool.

I retuned to Magdalen for my friends’ wedding. Stewart Wood and my husband had bonded over being two Oxford Brits at Harvard and falling in love with women raised in Manhattan. Stewart took a position teaching politics at Magdalen so the lovely, candle-lit chapel was the obvious place for the small ceremony.

After the service, we walked enchanted through the quad of cloisters and dined in hall. The dark paneled, high-vaulted space felt from a different era and it was. The college was founded in 1458 by William of Waynflete, Bishop of Winchester.

Magdalen sees less of Stewart now as he is on leave advising the Prime Minister. Stewart is Gordan Brown's senior policy advisor on foreign policy, Northern Ireland, culture, media and sport. He's also my advisor on Magdalen.

Henry and I met Stewart for a pint at the 14th century Turf Tavern hidden behind The Bridge of Sighs. Check out the visual directions for a laugh or if you have any desire of ever finding it. Contrast that to neon-signed American bars. The Turf was mentioned in Thomas Hardy's Jude the Obscure. I feel part of a literary tradition, living in Oxford as a writer.

Stewart told us of a centuries old tradition of shooting a deer for a feast when a Magdalen fellow passed away. The custom has recently changed so that they now order venison from the butcher. People these days don't like to know their dinner. I'm looking forward to more tales and a dinner at high table.

My husband revealed yet another personal tie to Magdalen if a sad one. Two of his grandfather’s cousins had attended the college and died serving in WWI. The Cattley brothers’ names were engraved in stone with other young Magdalen men lost to The Great War. The plaque is near the entrance to the chapel. It was so moving to see Henry’s ancestors and to feel a personal part of history.

When Henry and I had walked around the gardens, blooming in early fall splendor, the leaves were just starting to turn. It had felt too early in my year at Oxford to have chosen a setting for NOT CRICKET (A MATCH FOR EVE), and I may still create a fictional hybrid college for my novel.

On the other hand, Oxford has so much beauty and history that I don’t think I could improve upon it. The deer park would appeal to my native Maine character. One Magdalen alum was King Edward VIII, who fell in love with the divorced American Wallis Simpson and abidacted the throne to marry her. How perfect a setting for another Anglo-American romance.

I peeked into the Old Kitchen Bar, and I could see my characters gathered round a table with pints of amber bitter or golden lager. I’m guessing back in the 1980’s the students would have been served more than hot drinks.

Henry has stories of dons pouring sherry for morning tutorial. He seemed to have spent a lot of time down the boozer with his mates playing darts. Oxford University Guidlines now state that undergraduates should not be served alcohol before lunch!

I long to see inside a tutorial room and student lodgings to gather more details. Like character acting, I’m character writing. I will especially enjoy trawling more old pubs! They have such funny names. Now that’s another blog....


Sally Moxley said...

Reading your blog entries creates a desire to read your novel. Thanks for taking the time to write. Your readers benefit. Sally

Charlotte Agell said...

The word venison is so poetic really. Here in Maine, the hunters I know seem to say,"I ate deer meat last night."
In Sweden, moose is (or at least was) on the school lunch menu.
The Magdalen sequence is really nice, but what I love love love is that recent fog picture.

Anonymous said...

I love how the word for the cute little animal (deer) is so different from the word for the tasty cooked meat (venison). Same for pigs, cows, sheep and chickens (i.e. ham, beef, mutton and poultry). Apparantly that's a hangover from the Norman conquest of 1066, when the Anglo-Saxons ended up as servants to the French knights. The words for the animals are English if you're talking about mucking around in the dirt herding/farming/killing them, and French (jambon, boeuf, mouton, poulet) if they are being served to you with a side of fries and a flagon of wine.
Oxford has a great Norman castle, built by my man Robert d'Oily, or rather, by a whole load of Anglo-Saxon peasants.

Sarah Laurence said...

Thanks, Sally! Now all I have to do is write the novel. I'll post on my blog and website when (if?) it's in a bookstore.

Charlotte, I'll have fun exploring more of these linguistic/cultural difference between Maine and England when writing NOT CRICKET. Port Meadow in fog is so beautiful - it would be hard not to take a good photo. Thanks, though.

Venison fan, how interesting! Thanks for sharing.

UPDATE: I'm not going to set NOT CRICKET at Magdalen College after all. I'm going to make up a fiction college although I may borrow some elements from the many beautiful colleges I visited.

Anonymous said...

Hello Sally,
You might remind your husband that his grandfather lost three cousins in WW1 not two. Cyril and Gerald were ex Magdalen as indicated but don't forget Hubert who had also been up at Oxford but at Merton.
Talking of Oxford, you might be interested to know that last May, there was a gathering of Catley/Cattleys from numerous trees at The Trout Inn, Wolvercote! who are all involved in researching their ancestry via Rootsweb.
I was there to represent our Cattley Tree to which Henry belongs.
I met his grandparents in 1993 at the memorial service for William Cattley of Barnet (the Orchid man)and I think that it was his mother that drove them up to Barnet from Plymouth to attend.


Tim Cattley

Sarah Laurence said...

Tim, I did show your comment to Henry. It is good to add Hubert to this virtual memorial to our extended family, thank you. I have a blog post about Merton College too that you can find via the search bar in the far left corner of the blog. I'm sorry to hear we missed the reunion. We are back in the USA now.

It's nice to connect with you. I'm Sarah, not Sally, the woman who commented above was called Sally, hence the confusion.