When Dr. Stefano Evangelista, esteemed Professor of English at Oxford University suggests I add some guy called George Eliot to my syllabus— my Victorian Women Writers syllabus— I begin to have my doubts about the world’s most prestigious university.
“Eliot will provide a fine contrast to the Sisters Bronte,” Dr. Evangelista informs me.
A fine contrast because Eliot is a man, I resist the urge to say. And what’s with this “Sisters Bronte” business? Can’t Dr. Evangelista just say the “Bronte Sisters” like the rest of the world?
But this isn’t the rest of the world; this is Oxford. And if the Professor of English at Merton College tells me I’m going to read Eliot and the Sisters Bronte, I’m going to read Eliot and the Sisters Bronte because it’s a miracle I’ve even made it this far.
It all began with a thin envelope and in the world of college applications a thin envelope is never a good sign. As such, when I trudged across campus during my sophomore year at Goucher College, fit the key into my mailbox and pulled out a single, sad envelope of anorexic proportions I knew that the Scholarship Committee had made their decision. And by the looks of it, they were not impressed by my laryngitic interview.
Without bothering to open the envelope, I had simply stumbled downstairs to the student café; there I tried to forget all about the City of Dreaming Spires. The only problem with travelling, aside from the accumulation of laundry and souvenirs, is that there is no known cure for wanderlust. It’s an addiction, and like any addiction, it must be fed. I pushed the thought of Oxford’s world-renown libraries— and the young English gentlemen I would never get to meet— to the back of my mind. But it was the week before finals. Caffeine was in high demand and the line for ice cream was longer than usual. To pass the time, I decided I ought to at least open the envelope. And there is was:
On behalf of the Goucher College Scholarship Selection Committee—
“Cookie dough ice cream?” a voice interrupted. “That’ll be $2.50.” But I wasn’t listening, because there upon the page were fifteen beautiful letters. C-o-n-g-r-a-t-u-l-a-t-i-o-n-s!
My theory on thin envelopes had been wrong but in my excitement, I didn’t care. As far as I was concerned, the entire point of going abroad was to have your theories on envelopes, literature and life in general turned upside down. And what better way to achieve intellectual enlightenment and cosmopolitan sophistication (with a side helping of true love) than an entire year of boys, books and Britain?
Dr. Evangelista hands me a sheet of paper. “You’ll find most of the titles I’ve recommended at the English Faculty Library,” he explains. I skim was appears to be my course syllabus— my Victorian Women Writers course syllabus. “We’ll move onto Villette next week,” Dr. Evangelista continues, “then onto Eliot after that. The Mill on the Floss, I think, and Daniel Deronda.”
Something tells me not to interrupt him, not right then and there. There’s a reason that Dr. Evangelista is a fellow at Merton College and I’m a just visiting student; that he has his PhD and I’m a lowly, twenty year old from New Jersey. Mygrandmother didn’t even graduate high school. My mom, the original “wise Latina” as far as I’m concerned, made it to the State University of New York but only for an Associates Degree in horticulture and even this was unprecedented in the Echevarria household. There were a few college graduates on my dad’s side— even a lawyer and a pharmacist— but no one, neither Richter nor Echevarria, had ever received a scholarship to Oxford University.
And yet I’d managed to land the one professor in the entire city who thinks George is a girl’s name.
In keeping with my humble proletariat upbringing (which is really just another way of saying I couldn’t make heads or tails of the bus system), I had decided to walk all the way to my new flat when I first arrived in Oxford a few days prior. But first I had to collect my keys from Hertford College, one of the thirty eight colleges that comprise Oxford University. I was determined to blend in and was very successfully not drooling over the medieval entranceway when a short, uniformed man addressed me. “Can I help you Miss?” There, standing before me, was a real, live Oxford porter.
“Oh yes,” I replied, “I’m looking for the Porter’s Lounge.”
“The Porter’s Lounge? Well that would be lovely but I’m afraid we don’t have a lounge.”
“Oh, I’m sorry. The paperwork said all students should report to the Porter’s Lounge.”
“Are you sure you’re not looking for the Porter’s Lodge?”
“No I don’t think so. This is Hertford College, right?”
“Yes. Are you with OPUS?”
“OPUS? Yes.” The Oxford Programme for Undergraduate Study— finally something was making sense.
He smiled. “Well then you have come to the right place, m’love, the Porter’s Lodge. We haven’t got a Porter’s Lounge but we have got your keys.”
After that stunning display of intelligence, I shouldered my bag, slipped the keys into my pocket and set off for 224 Abingdon Rd.
Someone once told me Oxford was like Disneyland for academics; they were right. Between all the libraries, theatres and bookshops, I felt as though I had died and gone to heaven. Not that I was such a fan of bookshops, nor a real academic—at least not yet, not with Dr. Evangelista making me read George Eliot—but the entire city felt like my architectural history books come to life.
After some deliberation, I decide I’ll go back to my flat and Google this George character. Next week, during my fist official tutorial, I’ll find a polite and discreet way to tell Dr. Evangelista what’s what. Maybe he’ll even let me study Jane Austen instead of the imposter, Mr. Eliot, once he knows the truth.
My flat, which I’m sharing with seven other international students, is quite the adventure. When I first arrived, an English accent had greeted me—or rather, reluctantly acknowledged my presence— from down the hall.
“Hi,” I stammered, completely out of breath but determined to make a good first impression. “I’m Kat.”
“Oh yes. I’ve forgotten my manners completely,” answered the rather well-endowed blonde. “I’m Charlotte and I’m off to town.” She lowered her voice and looked around, as though she was about to divulge some great secret. “One of the British students told me where I might find a beauty parlor.”
“Oh,” I mumbled, surprised to hear the term “beauty parlor” used by anyone under the age of seventy. “I thought you were one of the British students.”
“Me? Oh goodness no, I’m from Texas.” She tossed her hair and laughed as if there was nothing the least bit odd about a southerner who happened to speak the Queen’s English. If she hadn’t been off to the “beauty parlor,” I would have been thoroughly confused but that confirmed it: less than 24 hours in the United Kingdom and already in need of a beauty treatment? She was Texan alright.
I had dropped my things into a bedroom on the second floor. After considering whether the fireplace-cum-shelf would be best suited for storing books or shoes, I returned downstairs to await the arrival of the remaining flat mates. I had been sorely disappointed to learn that I would be living with other Americans—what’s the point of leaving the country for a year unless you’re going to meet exotic people?— but then I received the OPUS housing list and discovered, to my great delight, that I was to have five male roommates.
Dropping Dr. Evangelista’s reading list on my desk, I switch on my laptop. Without bothering to check my email, I head straight for Google.
I type G-e-o-r-g-e-E-l-i-o-t, wondering how I’m going to break the news to Dr. Evangelista.
The only news, however, is news to me. George Eliot is a woman. Her real name, as it turns out, is Mary Ann Evans.
To compensate for my intellectual ineptitude, I arrive early for my next tutorial meeting because you don’t go to class in Oxford. You go to tutorials.
As explained on the OPUS website,
The tutorial system entails 20-25 hours of extensive, highly critical reading and research towards the submission of a paper for analysis and discussion each week. This intensive, one-on-one, Socratic approach is both challenging and highly profitable and permits a level of depth and insight incapable of being achieved by other methods of teaching.
When our program director informed us that we would be graded on the content, and not the language of our weekly essays, I began to panic; critical thinking has never been my strongest suit. I decide that I had better do my best to look intelligent for my meeting with Dr. Wrighston so I am wearing my gray tweed skirt and clutching a large notebook (librarian-style glasses would have been a good addition but, alas, I was cursed with perfect vision).
“You must be Katrina,” a young man suddenly announces, bending his blonde head to avoid crashing it into the low ceiling of the Porter’s Lodge. As I shake his hand, it occurs to me that Dr. Wrightson is the very definition of a pale and pasty Englishman; he is also a good twenty years younger than I had expected.
“Please, right this way,” he instructs. I follow him through a maze of quads and courtyards, expecting him to inquire as to my arrival in London, or offer some mundane remarks on the weather at the very least, but he launches straight into the academics before we even reach his office.
“I’d like your essays every week by 6:00pm the night before your tutorial. Understood?”
“Yes,” I reply, trying to ignore the way his blue eyes glisten in the afternoon sun, “that’s fine.”
Much to my disappointment, his office has not the slightest hint of gothic tracery or renaissance paneling; in fact, it struggles to contain the two modern chairs and faux wood table crammed inside.
Dr. Wrightson hands me a sheet of paper. “Is this the course syllabus?” I ask, surprised to find its only one page in length. True, the type face is small and the lists of books and journal articles cover both sides of the crisp A4 paper but I have two months, I remind myself. Our program leader must have been exaggerating. I could handle this.
“The syllabus?” Dr. Wrightson replies, raising his eyebrows. “No, that’s your reading for the week.”
The week? As I calculate just how many hours in the library such a list will require, I realize he is still speaking.
“…And as you prepare your essay, make sure you answer the question but keep an eye out for the contrehvessie.”
Contrehvessie? What is he talking about?
Before I can ask, Dr. Wrightson launches into a litany on the differences between primary and secondary sources. “In your country, most historians emphasize primary sources, but here we place a much greater value on their analysis.” He pauses dramatically, presumably to impress upon me the shortcomings of my education. But then he smiles, magnanimously, and announces, “I have given you both.”
I nod, slowly at first and then enthusiastically, lest he discover my complete ignorance to the meaning of the word “contrehvessie.” As he drones on, I bob my head up and down as intelligently as possibly, locate a pen and discreetly scribble a little note to self: Look up the meaning of contrehvessie.
“How and to what extent was London the heart of the trans-Atlantic eighteenth-century world?” he reads.
I breathe a sigh of relief. That is not too bad—easy even. I am already outlining what I assume will be a simple response when he says it again. “Above all, be sure to find the contrehvessie.” Or is it contravasy? I can’t even spell it, and apparently this is going to be an integral part of my reading assignment!
Fearing for my very career, I finally interrupt. “I’m sorry, but could you please explain what you mean by contrehvessie?”
He pauses and raises his eyebrows in disbelief. “You know, a contrehvessie, something that’s controversial?”
Controversy! “Oh, yes, of course. Controversy,” I repeat, replacing the “r” which he seems to think unnecessary. Had I known my translation skills would be in such high demand during my year abroad, I would have just gone to Spain.
Dr. Wrightson, for his part, seems even more incredulous than before. “I am always amazed that your country doesn’t send more of its children here to be educated. Don’t your parents want you to learn to speak English properly?”
Here at last is the Oxford I had been expecting, and despite having been suddenly cast in the role of the colonial subject two hundred and fifty years after such subjects ceased to exist, I find myself smiling. “Well, actually my parents—and most American parents—don’t think there’s anything wrong with the way their children talk.”
He shakes his head and holds up his hand. “Never mind. I will see you on Wednesday, and don’t forget: your essay in my pidge by 6:00pm on Tuesday.”
I simply nod, lest I condemn myself to another foreign language crisis in the presence of Dr. Wrightson. Eventually, I would come to learn that “pidge” refers to “pigeon hole” known to the rest of the world as a mail box, but then, as I emerge from the Porter’s Lodge and step into the thin stream of sunlight that’s survived the winnowing of Ship Street’s towers, I know only that I am besotted with my history tutor. And that George Eliot is a woman.