The Long Vacation
The time between the end of Trinity term in mid-June and the start of Michaelmas term in October is known as the Long Vacation. The Oxford students vacate their rooms and return home or travel, especially to Spain or the Greek Islands. The undergraduates are given lists of books to read, and I was instructed to carry on writing my dissertation. But the reality is that some students take summer jobs, and I would end up doing more copyediting than writing.
Oxford was an entirely different place in the summer. The city depopulates, so it feels drained of life. The Bodleian Library was nearly empty and the public lectures ceased. Keble no longer offered formal dinners and no chapel services were held. For church, I had to go to the university church of St. Mary the Virgin on the High Street. And the friends that remained in Oxford had also been displaced from their rooms in college and were not easy to locate in those phoneless, Internet-less days.
Cornmarket Street (pedestrian only) was taken over by tourists, local teenagers who were out of school, and a variety of street entertainers or just plain panhandlers. I retreated north to Little Clarendon Street, where George & Davis had an ice-cream parlor that sold blueberry ice cream called Oxford Blue. Little Clarendon Street was the route that I traveled from Keble to Oxford University Press, and it was also the street where Moses had a room. I think it was the most European street in Oxford. The narrow street felt friendly to oxcarts or milk floats. Café Rouge served French food and espresso, and there was a patisserie around the corner, where I could buy baguettes and pains au chocolat. Next to the bistro was a Spanish tapas bar and at one time an Italian restaurant. One of my most memorable experiences on Little Clarendon Street was suddenly being seized by nausea and throwing up in the drain on the street. I had never done that before and was terribly embarrassed; it turned out that I was pregnant.
Charles Lamb’s Essay “Oxford in the Vacation”
One of the tourists who came to Oxford during the Long Vacation was Charles Lamb (1775-1834). He went to school with the Romantic poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge. Because of his stutter, Lamb had not been deemed suitable to attend university, so he walked around Oxford fantasizing what it might be like to be a student there.
“I can here play the gentleman, enact the student. To such a one as myself, who has been defrauded in his young years of the sweet food of academic institution, nowhere is so pleasant, to while away a few idle weeks at, as one or other of the Universities. Their vacation, too, at this time of the year, falls in so pat with ours. Here I can take my walks unmolested, and fancy myself of what degree or standing I please. I seem admitted ad eundem.1 I fetch up past opportunities. I can rise at the chapel-bell, and dream that it rings for me. In moods of humility I can be a Sizar, or a Servitor. When the peacock vein rises, I strut a Gentleman Commoner. In graver moments, I proceed Master of Arts. Indeed I do not think I am much unlike that respectable character. I have seen your dim-eyed vergers, and bed-makers in spectacles, drop a bow or curtsy, as I pass, wisely mistaking me for something of the sort. I go about in black, which favours the notion. Only in Christ Church reverend quadrangle, I can be content to pass for nothing short of a Seraphic Doctor.
The walks at these times are so much one's own—the tall trees of Christ’s, the groves of Magdalen! The halls deserted, and with open doors, inviting one to slip in unperceived, and pay a devoir to some Founder, or noble or royal Benefactress (that should have been ours) whose portrait seems to smile upon their over-looked beadsman, and to adopt me for their own. Then, to take a peep in by the way at the butteries, and sculleries, redolent of antique hospitality: the immense caves of kitchens, kitchen fire-places, cordial recesses; ovens whose first pies were baked four centuries ago; and spits which have cooked for Chaucer! Not the meanest minister among the dishes but is hallowed to me through his imagination, and the Cook goes forth a Manciple. . . .
Above all thy rarities, old Oxenford, what do most arride and solace me, are thy repositories of mouldering learning, thy shelves—
What a place to be in is an old library! It seems as though all the souls of all the writers, that have bequeathed their labours to these Bodleians, were reposing here, as in some dormitory, or middle state. I do not want to handle, to profane the leaves, their winding-sheets. I could as soon dislodge a shade. I seem to inhale learning, walking amid their foliage; and the odour of their old moth-scented coverings is fragrant as the first bloom of those sciential apples which grew amid the happy orchard.”2
Lamb is referring to Duke Humfrey’s Library, the oldest reading room of the Bodleian Library at the University of Oxford. It was used as the Hogwarts Library in the Harry Potter films.
Lamb was the center of a literary group. He is remembered now for the letters and essays that he wrote under the pseudonym Elia. Think of his essays as the Romantic prose equivalent of Wordsworth and Coleridge. Lamb’s work was highly influential in the style of nineteenth-century essay writing. I recommend him to those of you who write Substack newsletters or long-form essays.
End of the Series
I hope that you have enjoyed your year at Oxford. I am going to take a Long Vacation now and I am not sure that I will be coming back. Until we meet again . . .
Per Merriam Webster: “to, in, or of the same rank—used especially of the honorary granting of academic standing or a degree by a university to one whose actual work was done elsewhere.
"Oxford in the Vacation" is taken from The Essays of Elia, first published as one volume in 1823.