William Beveridge: A Biography

By Jose Harris | Go to book overview

3
BEVERIDGE AT OXFORD Arthur Collings Carré and Edward Caird

I

AFTER the narrow athleticism of Charterhouse and the protective atmosphere of Pitfold, Oxford in the late 1890s appeared to the young William Beveridge like the threshold of a new and rather shocking world. It was in many ways a reversal of all that he had previously known and believed. The average undergraduate seemed irreverent where Beveridge was earnest, idle where he was industrious, endlessly sociable where he was shy and withdrawn. Amongst intellectuals the tone was set by young sophisticates like Raymond Asquith -- son of the future Prime Minister -- to whom provincialism was the only crime and originality the only god.1 In Balliol, that celebrated forcing-ground for the nation's future leaders, the Master Edward Caird preached the philosophy of 'practical idealism' to those who cared to hear. But to Beveridge it seemed that the prevailing attitude was one of extreme philosophic dilettantism, peculiarly distasteful to his practical and rather literal mind; and he was disturbed by the fact that religion, ethics, and philosophy were seen, not as guides to moral action, but as subjects for endless metaphysical debate. 'The whole place abounds with cliques, scandal, envy,' he recorded, 'pervaded by a refining atmosphere of atheism, cynicism, militant agnosticism and affected indifference to all things in heaven and earth.'2

Beveridge entered Balliol as a mathematics exhibitioner in the autumn of 1897. His first year at Oxford, he later recalled, was 'the most miserable that I remember'.3 He was a shy, self-conscious, and sensitive youth, young for his age in knowledge of the world and almost morbidly anxious to avoid giving offence. He had still not finished growing and photographs of him with his Balliol counterparts show a slight, gangling figure with a solemn, rather foxy face -- a lone schoolboy in a group of young men. His letters to his family at this time were, as always, conscientiously cheerful, but they nevertheless suggest that he was going through a period of prolonged nervous agitation,

____________________
1
Ensor Papers, Raymond Asquith to R. C. K. Ensor, 10 June 1904; BP, IIa, WHB to ASB, 30 May 1898.
2
BP, IIa, WHB to ASB, 30 May 1898.
3
BP, IIb, WHB to A. C. Carré, 20 Feb. 1902.

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