Surprised by Oxford by Carolyn Weber
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
I added this memoir to my TBR list several years ago, writing in my diary that I had come across a book with such promise that I was afraid to read it. The epigraph to chapter one is from John Donne's "Satire III", with the injunction to "doubt wisely". The chapter continues to brilliantly incorporate Donne, as Carolyn tells of her experience as an unbelieving Canadian undergraduate, asking an evangelical professor for his opinion on her paper on Holy Sonnet XIV. With salty language, he challenges her to truly understand the "subtle knot... [of] Donne's spiritual pilgrimage". "The truth is in the paradox," he tells the young agnostic. (Read the first chapter here: http://www.pressingsave.com/surprised... )
It's no secret that I love John Donne almost unreasonably. Add to this the "dreaming spires of Oxford" for setting, and the promise of romance, and this memoir seemed crafted perfectly to inspire and delight me.
And it did. Caro, as she is called by her friends, overcomes a broken home and poverty to earn a full scholarship to Oxford. Her poetic memoir is a treasure-trove of literary allusions, quotations, and insights, many of them from my own most beloved writers, such as T.S. Eliot and Gerard Manley Hopkins. Caro tells her experience of coming to Christian faith with honesty, vulnerability, and joy. (One expects the latter, of course, because of the title's allusion to C.S. Lewis' memoir, "Surprised by Joy".)
However, something was missing for me. Perhaps it was simply because I read the memoir in a time of spiritual darkness and uncertainty that made Weber's experience seem a little too easy, a little too connected to the suave and sophisticated Christianity of her group of friends. Perhaps I needed a less impressionistic approach to struggling with questions of feminism and a God portrayed as male. Perhaps I needed to own the book rather than borrow it from the library, so I could read more slowly, marking each epiphany and question. In short, I think it's a book I'll return to someday, perhaps before or after visiting Oxford myself.
Maybe Karen Armstrong's memoir, which apparently uses T.S. Eliot's "Ash Wednesday" as a "spine", is the book I'm really looking for. For that I'm going to rest in hope. (Yes, the irony of the word "hope" in relation to that poem is intended.)
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