Insiderís view

Trinity: A Portrait. 
Eds. Edward Stourton and John Lonsdale.
Third Millennium Publishing, London. Pages 272. £45.

Reviewed by Rumina Sethi

Bertrand Russell, from the Trinity Review, 1970
Bertrand Russell, from the Trinity Review, 1970

WHEN still miles from Cambridge, one begins to breathe an air that seems different and one intuitively begins conjuring up images of Gothic cloisters, punting and May Balls, understanding the magic of the ancient town of learning and tradition, of history and culture, where great men like Milton, Newton, Wordsworth, Coleridge and Byron breathed the same air.

It was not until I opened Trinity: A Portrait that I figured out how many years had gone by since I had studied at Cambridge. The yellow-stoned colleges and spires, the meandering River Cam and the ambling green Backs linger on in my memory as much as they are distant, that academic ambience as much part of me as itís glory lies fading. Such are the joys of reminiscence as I turn the pages of this beautifully crafted work.

Trinity is a college I know well having been there for four years, an experience both dreamlike and inspirational. Though it is difficult to describe the magic of Trinity College, the book, through the images and beautiful photographs, captures moments in the momentous history of the college. I have no hesitation in saying that apart form the ancient buildings going back to Henry VIII, the Backs of Trinity College are among the most famous views in Europe. And not to forget the weekends of long sessions of punting down the river with a bottle of Pimmís to quench our thirst on a sunny afternoon.

The enchantment with Trinity College is of the intimate kind: the commanding fountain in the Great Court, the tall chapel windows and the play of light from the stained glass, the Masterís Lodge, the Wren Library and the Fellows Garden have a delightful place in my mind till today. But more than anything, what this book brings out is the portrait of a college with a vibrance and a soul, a place with an ability to inspire and move. It takes us into the collegeís historical past and its powerful intellectual traditions as well as celebrates the many transformations that have taken place over the last few decades without touching the age-old architecture.

Not only is the college the largest and the richest in Cambridge, Trinityís achievements in the humanities, science and mathematics are colossal. The eccentricities of Byron and his pet bear that he hid in his room or the contributions of Newton, Macaulay and Tennyson are all here. Others who passed out from here were Earl Grey who was responsible for the Reform Bill of 1832 and had an aromatic tea named after him and the Earl of Sandwich who left behind a culinary legacy. As is often said, "the genius loci of a university reflects and refracts the Geist of the Zeist". Frederic Maitland created the modern discipline of British legal history. What is interesting is the frequent meetings of a small group consisting of James Strachey, Maynard Keynes, E. M. Forster, Bertrand Russell and Virginia Woolf who met in rooms in Nevilleís Court with the conviction that they had found the answer to moral philosophy. They later became the famous Bloomsbury Group and began the avant-garde movement of modernism. G. E. Moore, the famous philosopher and the author of Principia Ethica and a Fellow of the college, was a dominant presence in the group. His ideas were a form of moral and aesthetic subjectivity almost amounting to a sort of hedonism that enabled the Bloomsbury Group to dethrone Victorian values. The anthropologist James Frazer who also studied at the college wrote his famed The Golden Bough here which had a profound impact on the symbolists as well as Jung and Freud in probing the unconscious individual mind. And who hasnít heard of Jawaharlal Nehru, Indiaís first Prime Minister, who also "went up" to Trinityóhis portrait hangs in the college library.

Apart from the chapters which are devoted to the sciences and mathematics and to the vital place of music and sports, the book takes up the role of the humanities and social sciences which is still another aspect of the academic excellence of the college. The college is as conscious of Newton as of its Master, Richard Bentley (1700-40), who still remains the greatest Classist the Western world has known. J. H. Monk, the Greek philosopher, was his contemporary. A. E. Housman came later but was equally significant in the field of classical studies. By the late 19th century, the college removed the obligation of celibacy from the Fellows, and humanities expanded beyond the study of Latin and Greek. Interestingly John McTaggart taught philosophy at Trinity and encouraged Bertrand Russell to take interest in it. Russellís main subjects had been mathematics and his dissertation had been on the philosophy of geometry. He refused conscription and was sacked in 1916 though he returned as a Senior Fellow in 1946 after his book The History of Western Philosophy swept the Western world off its feet.

The college as a place of education, religion, learning and research elects Fellows every year with no regard to teaching; only merit is the criterion. Ph.D. students are eligible and can be elected Fellows for four years with no obligation other than to pursue research. They are now allowed to walk on the grass, borrow rare books from the Wren Library and "drink port and eat walnuts in the Combination Room", whereas no other student is permitted to engage in this freedom. It was here at Trinity that ideas were generated that would help in transforming the world. And I, as a student, have always felt that I found great inspiration being there with the hope in the power of the human mind to make a difference.