Update: Happy Saint Patrick's Day to my Irish, Canadian, American, Anzac, Glaswegian and crypto-Irish British readership. Special greetings to all German priests and Scots cabdrivers who have remarked, "Oh, I thought you were Irish."
Yes, I am wearing green. I am wearing my super-special rhinestone-covered Hibernians T-shirt. I would like to stress, however, that Hibernians really is my neighbourhood team.
Last night I realized that one drawback of writing fictional stories about undergraduates is that various undergraduates I have met, however fleetingly, will read the stories, feel their blood freeze and shriek, "Who told?"
But the astonishing fact, the Ripley's Believe it or Not cartoon, is that the same problems, questions and conversations have been cropping up amongst Catholic undergraduates for at least the past twenty years. And I know this because twenty years ago I was an undergraduate, and my First and Second Year boyfriend toddled off one Christmas vacation to try his vocation with the Somethingians. In retaliation, I wrote a love letter to the Daughters of Saint Paul, as they were then known, and no doubt wasted an hour or so of their vocation director's life.
Sound familiar? It's not just your set in 2011. It's my set in 1992. And probably your daughter's set in 2033.
I could tell many other stories about my undergraduate days, and probably will, and have had two decades to think about them and see things I couldn't see then. Evelyn Waugh, looking nostalgically back upon his undergraduate days, which he mostly spent drunk, wrote Brideshead Revisited. I spend my undergraduate days bewailing that they weren't anything like Brideshead Revisited. But now I realize that the last ones kind of were, insofar that the life of a middle-class Catholic girl in Toronto could at all resemble that of Charles Ryder. Amusingly, though, my grades vastly improved once I ran away from my sedate, pro-life set and began to hang out with the bad, aesthete, Bridesheadish set. Et cum Sebastiano ego.
But enough about me. The major difference between Evelyn Waugh's college days and yours and mine is that men and women did not study together. The life of scholarship and the life of marriage were strictly apart. Celibacy (if not necessarily chastity) was the rule rather than the exception at Oxford and Cambridge, and Oxbridge wives could lead a very drab existence, mending late into the night as their husbands spent evenings in the pub reading their manuscripts to each other.
Running around with girls was what undergraduates did on vacation and on special Varsity weekends. Those few women who went to college generally went to women's colleges. Even in my father's day the University of Notre Dame was only for men; women went to St. Mary's.
And this, I suspect, rather protected the business of study from the business of marriage. Men were free to study hard and join the clubs and be elected to the offices and make the friends who would be helpful in their later careers. The women those men would marry were groomed for marriage, sometimes given a taste for culture, sometimes encouraged to learn a trade "in case," and then shot into society at the age of 18 or so.
In short and in general, in the 1920s men did not let romance (with women) interfere with their studies and projected careers, and women did not let studies and projected careers interfere with their romances. I am not at all suggesting that this was a superior way of life. It may have been fine for men, but I can see how boring and stressful it must have been for those girls without religious vocations. And they too had to pretend they weren't worried they'd never get married.
Personally, I deeply regret how much time I wasted in my undergraduate days on dating and romance. My grades were appalling until, in desperation, I dropped out of Classics and went straight into English Literature. The work was easier, my grades sky-rocketed and my professors delighted in my sentence structure. It wasn't enough to save my GPA, however. It's a miracle I got into an M.A. program.
Years later, when I was divorced and depressed and between office jobs, I asked myself what I wanted more than anything on earth. What I wanted was to relive my undergrad days, only to work my brains harder than I ever had before, and to graduate with sparking honours. In a sense, this is what I did, putting three years of extremely hard work into an MDiv. I am the Queen of Second Chances. Possibly--perhaps when the Restoration comes--I'll even get another crack at the Ph.D. one day.
However, since hindsight is 20:20, I would like to encourage my readers not to let the hurly-burly of collegiate social life, the gossip, the flirtations, the dating, the kind-of dating, the romances, the sexual dynamics of mixed retreats, the rivalries, the broken hearts--in short, the whole side of life that points to eventual marriage--interfere with your grades.
It is a shame--a terrible, inescapable, historical shame--that the traditional age for advanced study and career preparation overlaps exactly with the traditional age for marriage. But that is the way it is, and how annoying is that? It is not surprising, therefore, that the average age for first marriages has shot up, and most of you are unlikely to marry a man in his early twenties.
The University of St. Andrews brags on its website that 10% of its graduates marry other graduates of St Andrews. What blows my mind is not that the percentage is so big, but that the percentage is so small. Ninety percent of those who go to St. Andrews, therefore, do not find their spouse amongst their schoolmates. I hope that they are concentrating on their grades and rolodexes. It's one thing for the Scots to let things slide, but those foreign fees are killers.