Virginia Woolf’s Oxford

May 25

Woolf’s Oxford was a game of Dungeons and Dragons where, if you played as a woman, sneering Beadles chased you off the turf and the portcullis of the Bodleian, that bibliofortress, was bolted against you. There was mutton for lunch, a Manx cat, and a boy boating on the Isis. You played to find a room of your own. It was rigged so you couldn’t win.

New players have signed up since Virginia last tossed dice. A woman with a halo of tousled red hair punts down the Isis past Christ Church field. A co-ed gang of graduates romps past the Radcliffe Camera, their formalwear accessorized with carnations, confetti, party hats, spray paint, shaving cream, and drunken grins. These players might have a spitting chance.

I play Woolf’s Oxford as Girl in the Green Dress. Her map was mottled with blank expanses labeled “Here Be Monsters;” these were forbidden kingdoms, enemy territory. But today, you can bribe the Dungeon Master and spend the day filling in the blank tracts of Virginia’s map. At the fortress-doors of the Bodleian, I feed a gargoyle six quid and she lets me in.

On the first floor of the library lies the Divinity School, glazed in green light from the gardens beyond. The School is a poem in bone, a skeleton in the grass. Narrow ribs canopy the hall and from the shaft of each column, skeletal hands fan their fingers across the ceiling. The bony knuckles are embossed with monograms that look as if they were engraved in the alphabets of elves and dwarves. Willow-light wells up along the latticed windows, as if a second Eden has grown up around the library’s skeleton.

Just two floors above, the architecture evolves from metatarsal to medieval. Duke Humphry’s library is a fortified Heorot. Its heavy ceiling is braced with dark beams. Like a needlepoint tapestry, the Duke’s crest is repeated across the ceiling all the way to the dark corners where Grendel hunches over poetry. Low and close, the bookcases enclose in him a cabinet of leather-jacketed tomes he is forbidden to read. Some books are chained to the shelves, like prisoners manacled to their hard wooden beds. Another gargoyle slouches at the front desk, playing prison guard.

Virginia laughs. I may have breached the fortress, but I’m no closer than she was to getting my hands on the treasure. Are the wardens worried that I will corrupt the prisoners or that the prisoners will corrupt me? What is the use of a room of one’s own if one can’t touch the dangerous books?

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