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Posts Tagged ‘Oriel College’

(image from surprisedbyoxford.com)

I’m a voracious reader of travel memoir, but I’ve come across very few memoirs set in Oxford, where I once lived and which still has my heart. (Which makes it an even better idea for me to write an Oxford travel memoir one day.) So, when I read about Surprised by Oxford on Sarah’s blog, I wasted not a moment in ordering it.

The cover – a view of the front quad of Oriel College, where author Carolyn Weber studied – made me catch my breath. I know those spires, rising so elegant and clean against that blue sky. I’ve got a photo, somewhere, of that same quad (though I’ve never actually made it inside Oriel yet). Even the title evokes the life of another Oxford friend: C.S. Lewis, who called his memoir Surprised by Joy – which I think Caro was, too.

Caro’s story differs from mine in several important ways: she is Canadian, I am American; she studied at Oriel while I earned my master’s from Oxford Brookes; she parted ways with the fiance she’d left behind at Christmastime, whereas I did marry the man who’d waited so patiently for me back in Texas. Most importantly, Caro came to Oxford as an agnostic, and I was already a Christian when I came.

But the places she lived and studied and ate – Blackwells Bookshop, the Bodleian Library, Jamal’s Indian restaurant in Jericho), even the streets – were all intimately familiar to me. I couldn’t turn a page without feeling a ping of recognition – high tea at the Randolph! May Morning at Magdalen Tower! Turn Again Lane down by St Ebbe’s Street! If there had been a map included with the book, it would have closely resembled my own internal one of Oxford. And although my faith story looks quite different than hers in some respects, the ping of recognition also extended to her journey toward God.

Caro is a scholar, a lover of literature and poetry – and she quotes liberally from the greats, including Donne, Wordsworth and so many others, as she struggles to make sense of this new faith which calls to her. She’s also, like me, a woman and a feminist struggling with what has long been a male-dominated institution (at least in the Protestant West), and a curious mind with a lot of questions. Most importantly, she is utterly, disarmingly honest about her questions and doubts and fears. (She also has a wonderful sense of humor, even slipping in the occasional pun for some comic relief.)

I read her story over several days, sinking deeply into it the way you sink into a long talk with a good friend. (The way, indeed, I used to sink into talks with Jacque or Lizzie or Nicky or Jo, when I lived in Oxford.) I pondered Caro’s questions along with her, rooted for her budding love story, and delighted in every single allusion to a familiar street or shop or building in this city I love. Short of hopping a plane back to Oxford, it was the best (beautifully written) way to assuage the longing for the place I still call home.

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