Recently, my wife and I have been watching the Inspector Lewis TV series again. These stories take place in the English city of Oxford, where Lewis and his partner Hathaway solve all the most mysterious murders. Watching them reminds us of our own visit to Oxford, back in 2011. It was a day trip, and thus only allowed a brief tour of the streets and two museums. So we'd love to go back there and see this great university city again. One thing I wasn't expecting was to meet a new friend, who would take me back to Oxford, during this year's day-trip to Lyme Regis.
Picking up The Adventures of Mr. Verdant Green in the Lyme Regis Museum, I wasn't certain what to expect. But it was filled with so many illustrations, apparently drawn by the author, Cuthbert Bede, that I ultimately decided to pick it up and give it a read. I'm certainly glad I did. For this historical novel transports me to 1840s Oxford, and according to the introduction by Anthony Powell, is one of the first great Oxford novels that inspired later authors to write about this famous town. This long list would no doubt include Colin Dexter, whose Inspector Morse books inspired the Inspector Lewis TV series.
Mr. Verdant Green is a bright, scholarly chap, a man with impeccable manners, and beloved by his family. Yet he lacks practical knowledge of the outside world. The local priest has failed to make the argument with his parents that he should attend public school, but when Verdant reaches university age, he makes a concerted attempt to win over Mr. Green, and send his son away to enhance his education.
His family adore him, and hate the idea of sending him away, but the vicar insists that this is necessary for his maturation. So eventually they send him off, and Mr. Green accompanies his son Verdant to Oxford, where the priest's son is also studying. There, in addition to furthering his knowledge of Latin, classic literature, and a whole host of other subjects, Verdant will befriend the vicar's son and others who teach him the true necessities of a gentleman, such as drinking, smoking, and competitive sports.
I gather that Edward Bradley, a 19th century priest who wrote under the pseudonym of Cuthbert Bede, had difficulty initially placing this novel. So it was originally published in three parts, before it was later combined into one volume. That makes sense given the structure of the book. The first part forms a series of misadventures, in which Verdant rides down in a horse-drawn carriage with his father, along with his other future friends, who are smoking like chimneys, wildly blowing trumpets, taking turns with the reins as they indulge in their youthful need for speed, and ignoring their dogs that bark, howl, and chew holes in Mr. Green's pants. Once Verdant matriculates, and starts attending classes, the chapters form a series of misadventures, in which his friends play jokes on him, which he, innocent and good-natured soul that he is, takes with a smile. In addition to meeting many colorful characters, we learn some of the traditions that were practiced in Oxford at the time, and watch as Verdant repeatedly tries, and fails, to acquire skills in horsemanship, boat rowing, or even dog ownership.
In the second portion of the book, Verdant's indefatigable nature wins him status and respect. He doggedly persists in trying to ride the wild, irascible horses available to students for hire, and even competes in a boating race. He also stands up for his college in a general all-city brawl, called the Town Versus Gown, in which the townspeople, who are forced to daily cowtow to these students, are allowed to work off their frustrations one night each year. (See the illustration on the cover). Although Verdant lacks fighting skills, he nonetheless stands with his friends (who have surreptitiously hired a professional boxer to accompany them) for this annual event. And we see how some of Verdant's friends reform their ways, and manage to graduate, while others are "plucked" or fail at their exams.
The third section of the novel forms more of a traditional love story, the bulk of it taking place during a holiday, when Verdant and his friends are staying with another wealthy family. He falls in love with one of the daughters, and accompanies her each time she walks out to sketch or paint. He even protects her from a bull that has slipped out of its pen, proving that he has matured greatly from the young boy who dwelt within the protective embrace of his family. We pull for Verdant, and urge him on, as he attempts to woo the beautiful girl. But can he compete with a more handsome and accomplished young man, who she has known and loved since childhood? And then, in the last few chapters, we travel back to Oxford, all too briefly, as Cuthbert Bede speeds us through the last two years of Verdant's time there.
Will Verdant graduate? Will he marry? I'll let you discover the answer to those questions, as well as all the interesting (or bewildering?) traditions practiced in Oxford during the 1840s, if you choose to read The Adventures of Mr. Verdant Green. Now, the only question is, where will you get your copy? I've already snagged the one in the Lyme Regis Museum. So you'll have to march down to your local bookstore, and demand a fresh new copy of this classic Oxford University novel. Or you could order one online. Whatever you do, make sure you get a copy that contains all of Cuthbert Bede's illustrations, because they can only enhance the pleasure you derive from this charming, humorous, and insightful book.