Guest Post by Teresa Franco (Sommerville College and Faculty of Medieval and Modern Languages).
Can we conceive anything more distant in its intents from war than academic life? As Vera Brittain magnificently wrote in her unforgettable recollection of the wartime, Testament of Youth, Oxford symbolises all that is quintessentially against war: knowledge, study, serenity of mind, devotion. Nonetheless, as Brittain’s experience shows, college life and intellectual withdrawal were not to be spared.
Made possible by the kind permission of Somerville College and the Taylorian Library, the exhibition, The War at Oxford, displayed war’s disruptive impact on academia, but also the efforts towards reconstruction and the preservation of humanistic values. Originally conceived to serve as an additional insight to a conference on the Great War in Italy (The Great War in Italy. Representation and Interpretation), it offered the opportunity of enlarging the critical framework, linking the two allied nations’ war experience together, and comparing some outputs of the most representative pro-war Italian cultural movement – the Futurism avant-garde – with the Oxford own response to war, and some significant testimonies.
Famous as Vera Brittain’s college and directly affected by war, the Somerville archive provided most of the materials, making it possible to trace back the exceptional story of its conversion into a military hospital from 1915 to the end of the war. Over all, more than 70 items were displayed, accounting for three main sections. The first one included pictures of the college occupied by the convalescing soldiers, original documents about its handover to the war office as well as other private records, donated to the college long afterwards; the second section was devoted entirely to Vera Brittain’s life, starting from her courageous decision to become a nurse, through to her pacifist commitment as a writer. Some of her major works on war were, consequently, put on show; including some originals of her famous Letters to the Peace-Lovers and her war poems as they first appeared on the current war and post-war issues of the university Oxford Poetry magazine, together with those of other famous contributors (e. g. Robert Graves, Winifred Holtby). Finally, the last section, with its rare and precious books on Futurism owned by the Taylorian library, moved as far as to Italy, allowing the visitor not only to get a sense of the strength of Italian propaganda for interventionism – and the direct influence literature was able to shed on the life of thousands of soldiers – but also to appreciate the novelty and the artistic conception laying behind the realization of each of them.