Thursday, January 5, 2012

A Freshman at Oxford Discovers Smoking, c. 1850

Thursday, January 5, 2012
Susan reporting:

Leaving home for college or university has always represented a big step towards independence and adulthood. But it's not only Knowledge that draws youthful students. Temptation, in every form, has also proved most attractive to young scholars freed for the first time from the guidance of home and parents.  While Animal House would have us think otherwise, this is nothing new. As long as there have been universities, there have been tales of misbehaving students.

Recently Loretta introduced us to an Oxford freshman of 1825. Published a generation later in the 1850s was Mr. Verdant Green: Adventures of an Oxford Freshman. Written by Cuthbert M. Bede (a pseudonym - what a surprise! - of  Edward Bradley, an English clergyman and novelist), young Verdant experiences all the highs and lows of every first-year student. One of Verdant's greatest revelations is smoking, which he encounters to prodigious excess. In fact, nearly every illustration of student life like the ones shown here includes at least one young gentleman puffing up a storm.

But then, let's read Verdant's introduction in a classmate's rooms:

"A great consumption of tobacco was going on, not only through the medium of cigars, but also of meerschaums, short dhudheens of envied colour, and the genuine yard of clay; and Verdant, while he was scarcely aware of what he was doing, found himself, to his great amazement, with a real cigar in his mouth, which he was industriously sucking, and with great difficulty keeping alight. Our hero felt that the unexpected exigencies of the case demanded from him some sacrifice; while he consoled himself by the reflection, that, on the homoeopathic principle of "likes cure likes," a cigar was the best preventive against any ill effects arising from the combination of the thirty gentleman who were generating smoke with all the ardour of lime-kilns or young volcanoes, and filling Mr. Smalls' small room with an atmosphere that was of the smoke, smokey. Smoke produces thirst; and the cup, punch, egg-flip, sherry-cobblers, and other liquids, which had been so liberally provided, were being consumed by the members of the party as though it had been their drink from childhood; while the conversation was of a kind very different to what our hero had anticipated, being for the most part vapid and unmeaning, and (must it be confessed?) occasionally too highly flavoured with improprieties for it to be faithfully recorded in these pages of most perfect propriety."

If you'd like to follow more of young Verdant's adventures, the book is available here through Google. I found it particularly amusing that the copy scanned came from the Harvard University library, where no doubt many of the same shenanigans took place.

Many thanks to our friend Patrick Baty for reminding us of Mr. Green's colorful exploits.


Anonymous said...

La plus ca change~! I recall when I was in college (not quite 1850) the dormitory smoking lounge was the place to be. Now I'm sure the whole school is non-smoking. More healthy, yes, but the end of undergraduate tobacco decadence and believing one was so wicked and adult because one smoked!

Keri said...

Very interesting! I found myself wondering if the name Verdant Green was used in the sense of green=young/immature, or if it influenced that meaning. Looks like it predates the story: says "Sense of "of tender age, youthful" is from early 15c.; hence "gullible" (c.1600)."

Peaches Ledwidge said...

I love history. Keep up the good work.

nightsmusic said...

My dad was a prodigious cigar smoker. Even in the dead of winter with a foot of snow on the ground, my dates would come to the door and could smell the cigar smoke through the locked up house. People who didn't know me asked me if I smoked cigars.

No, never did. ;o)

Susan Holloway Scott said...

America is such a non-smoking country now (and a good thing, too, health-wise) that's it's hard for us to think of smoking as worldly and glamorous, the way it was not too long ago.

Keri, I'm pretty sure that that "Verdant Green" was chosen as a name for exactly that reason. Even "serious" authors in the 18th-19th c. gave characters names that had obvious double meanings. Think of the good country gentleman in Fielding's "Tom Jones" named Squire Allworthy, and the richest, most powerful duke in Trollope's Palliser novels is called the Duke of Omnium. As a writer, I kinda wish editors would let us still do this now...:)

Theo, glad you didn't smoke those cigars!

Sarah Ficke said...

I didn't realize there was a whole genre of 19th c. college tell-all narratives! The same shenanigans were found at American universities of the period too. Back when I was working in digital publishing at the University of North Carolina, we published a student journal from 1842 that describes drinking, smoking, card playing, pranking professors, and visiting Houses of Ill Repute as parts of the ordinary college experience ( I remain thankful that so far, none of my students have considered playing a prank on me involving gunpowder.

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