Surprised by Oxford
by Elisabeth Allen
Carolyn Weber reminds me of the woman who was, when I was growing up, like a second mother and an extra aunt and a personal teacher of English Literature rolled into one elegant lady. She is my mother’s friend and my friend’s mother. My parents taught me how to read widely and think deeply. She took me a step further and taught me how to engage with texts that I didn’t like or disagreed with for some reason. She was, like Carolyn Weber, trained in English Literature. She still loves all things Austen and Bronte and Gaskell! I thought of her as I read Surprised By Oxford with breathless haste over the weekend.
It was in 1994, when Oriel College had been accepting women students for less than ten years, that Carolyn Weber (then Carolyn Drake) arrived at Oxford University to study for her Master’s Degree in Philosophy. She was studying English Literature. Especially the Romantics like Coleridge and Shelley and Keats. What she found in Oxford was more than a postgraduate degree. It was a surprise. She found faith.
Surprised By Oxford is the beautiful and provocative story of one academic woman’s voyage of discovery into faith. The book is physically beautiful! Look at it …
Many of the words in the book are beautiful too. Carolyn Weber’s thoughts about faith and women and university – they are inspiring and almost poetic in places. I wanted to underline so many of these passages! I didn’t because I only underline textbooks for study. Maybe I should have made an exception for a book about studying. Hmm …
Anyway … as the child of believing parents, as a believer who can’t remember a time when she wasn’t a believer, I found the insights into the author’s curiosity and doubt and questions, back and forth and forth and back, en route to faith fascinating. I think I appreciate the legacy of faith in my family more now.
I visited Oxford for the first time last year and fell in love with the age and architecture of the city. The vivid descriptions of the city and the university, especially Oriel College where Carolyn Weber studied, leapt off the page. I only wish there was more description! I want to visit Oxford again more than ever now – and maybe for longer than just one day.
I’ve spent a lot of time with students and none of the stories of the Oxford students of 1994 really shocked me – I thought, in fact, that either Carolyn Weber has softened some of the attitudes and language or students were nicer eighteen years ago! Most of you lovely people who read my blog will probably want to be aware that some of the encounters and conversations are rather gritty and raw. Through all of them, however, Carolyn Weber looks for God.
I decided to request Surprised By Oxford because I enjoy biographies. I loved how the book was divided into sections according to the academic and religious year. I’ve thought of doing that for some of my books, but never seen it in a published book before. It is a lovely touch! I closed the book feeling that I’d gained a new appreciation of my faith after seeing it through the eyes of another. The story that is told is biographical – or, rather, autobiographical. It’s a story, however, that’s still being told … and I find that rather exciting.
DISCLAIMER: I received Surprised By Oxford from Booksneeze in return for an honest review. Booksneeze warned me, after I’d requested the book and it was being processed, that there was bad language on Page 17. By that time it was a bit late to change my mind. And, having lived in America, I was aware that English English and American English categorise different words as “bad”. That makes transatlantic conversation interesting! Actually there’s no bad language on Page 17. Pages 3 and 4 and Page 433 are the pages to skip. Except that the (good) words on these pages are the bookends of the story. Beginning and end. Just be warned, if you read Surprised By Oxford, that the (bad) words are VERY bad in English English.