Oxford in literature
August 2, 2009 11:52 PM   Subscribe

Do you have any recommendations for interesting fiction about/taking place in/somehow related to Oxford?

I'll be starting a Master's at Oxford in a few months without ever having been there. I'm looking for good novels or short stories, etc. that have to do with Oxford, as a different sort of way of learning about the place and maybe snippets of its history or experiences of living there. I'm currently reading Brideshead Revisited, part of which takes place at Oxford, which I suppose is what put the bee in my bonnet. I like all sorts of fiction, not just things like Waugh, though I do love him and that era (let's say first half of the 20th century) in general. Any ideas?
posted by Ginkgo to Education (30 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
It's not all dreaming spires, but how about Morse?
posted by Bodd at 12:00 AM on August 3, 2009

Pretty much every novel Iris Murdoch wrote was about a bunch of Oxford types sitting around chatting. And then sleeping with one another.
posted by BitterOldPunk at 12:01 AM on August 3, 2009

Yup, second Inspector Morse. Not a novel but a big chunk of the Howard Marks autobiography Mr Nice takes place in Oxford. As does the His Dark Materials trilogy, some in modern Oxford, some in an imaginary Oxford.
posted by jontyjago at 12:08 AM on August 3, 2009

The Staircase in Surrey series by J I M Stewart (aka Michael Innes) is worth reading. Though out of print, you should easily find second hand copies. As always Wikipedia is your friend and here is another guide.
posted by TheRaven at 12:14 AM on August 3, 2009

The Oxford Book of Oxford is a collection of short anecdotes and musings taken from the memoirs of former students spanning some 700 years of Oxford history.
posted by fatllama at 12:54 AM on August 3, 2009

When I studied at Oxford, I really enjoyed reading Jill by Philip Larkin. It describes undergraduate life in Oxford from the perspective of a working class boy who comes there during wartime: "Socially awkward and inexperienced, Kemp is attracted by the reckless and dissipated life of his roommate Christopher Warner, a well-off southerner who has attended a minor public school, tellingly called "Lamprey College"." (Wikipedia, contains mild spoilers)
Which college are you going to stay at? Larkin was at St.Johns. If you're going to Christchurch, you should definitely (re)read Lewis Carroll's Alice's Adventures in Wonderland:
"Most of the book's adventures were based on and influenced by people, situations and buildings in Oxford, England and at Christ Church, e.g., the "Rabbit Hole" which symbolized the actual stairs in the back of the main hall in Christ Church." (Wikipedia)
posted by The Toad at 12:55 AM on August 3, 2009

How about Philip Pullman's "Northern Lights" (or "The Golden Compass", as I think it was retitled internationally)? It takes place in a parallel-universe version of Oxford. Certainly the first chapter, which describes a dinner party/symposium between college Fellows complete with donnish titles and academic/political maneuverings, is quite atmospheric.

(I guess this suggestion would fall into your "somehow related to Oxford" category...)
posted by laumry at 1:20 AM on August 3, 2009 [2 favorites]

"The Song Before it is Sung" by Justin Cartwright Based on the lives of Adam von Trott and Isaiah Berlin, Cartwright's unsttling 12th novel follows Axel von Gottberg, a German, and his friend Elya Mendel, a British Jew, both Rhodes scholars at idyllic 1930s Oxford. Riveting..
posted by lois1950 at 2:17 AM on August 3, 2009

The Moving Toyshop
posted by vacapinta at 2:29 AM on August 3, 2009

I just read To say nothing of the dog today. Time travel in Oxford, lots of literary allusions and a very enjoyable read.
posted by saucysault at 3:03 AM on August 3, 2009

Maybe it's worth adding: I've heard, but still view with some skepticism, that the wardrobe in Brasenose college chapel inspired C.S. Lewis' The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. It does feature a strange little door at the back that served as another entrance to the chapel. Find an excuse to visit during your stay and check it out. Also: you'll find some Tolkein manuscripts in the Eagle and Child pub, and his tombstone just north of the city center.
posted by fatllama at 3:03 AM on August 3, 2009

Well before your preferred time period, but An Instance of the Fingerpost is quite fun: set during post-Restoration Oxford with its incredible concentration of scientific minds. It's that bit of history, populated by "natural philosophers" and their experimental clubs, that I always associate with the streets behind the High between Christ Church and Univ.

Gaudy Night by Dorothy L. Sayers is more in your Brideshead-y period.
posted by holgate at 3:29 AM on August 3, 2009 [2 favorites]

Not only His Dark Materials as mentioned above, but also there's a companion book called Lyra's Oxford.
posted by The Michael The at 4:00 AM on August 3, 2009

Start with Valentine Cunningham's essay on Literary Culture, in The History of the University of Oxford, vol. 8, The Twentieth Century (available for free on Google Books, with a few missing pages), which gives a very good overview of writers in Oxford and writings about Oxford.

There are a lot of Oxford novels, many of them not very good. (You should hear my wife -- an Oxford graduate -- on the subject of people who think their lives are more important just because they happen to live in old grey stone buildings.) Even the Oxford scenes in Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials, which I like, have an element of self-satisfaction which you wouldn't find in a novel set in, say, Durham or York. However, here are a few Oxford books you might enjoy:

Dorothy L. Sayers, Gaudy Night (in many ways the classic Oxford novel)
Michael Innes, Operation Pax (another classic Oxford crime novel, which ends with a chase through the Bodleian Library's underground bookstacks)
Robert Liddell, The Last Enchantments (prewar Oxford comedy of manners, out of print but available secondhand via Amazon)
Penelope Lively, The House in Norham Gardens (written for children but suitable for adults as well, atmospheric descriptions of Oxford including the Pitt Rivers Museum)

Stepping outside fiction for a moment, there is also a rich body of Oxford memoirs, biographies, autobiographies, etc, which can tell you a lot about the place. Try Mark Pattison's Memoirs (classic autobiography of a nineteenth-century Oxford don; again, out of print but available secondhand), Barbara Pym's A Very Private Eye (letters and diaries of a young woman in search of romance in prewar Oxford; also available secondhand), or the first volume of Isaiah Berlin's letters.
posted by verstegan at 4:48 AM on August 3, 2009

The best book I have read about Oxford is All Souls by Javier MarĂ­as.
posted by Kattullus at 5:48 AM on August 3, 2009

Oh, it takes place in the 80s, not the first half of the 20th Century. Sorry, I didn't read the question properly.
posted by Kattullus at 5:49 AM on August 3, 2009

Thomas Hardy's Jude the Obscure is about a man's lifelong passion for Oxford, tragically unrequited. (It's online at Google Books or Project Gutenberg.) One of the most amazing books I've ever read, but shockingly sad.
posted by lysimache at 5:52 AM on August 3, 2009

I haven't read the book but the new Alex de la Iglesia film was superb. The book is well rated and is on my list and is called The Oxford Murders by Guillermo Martinez.
posted by JJ86 at 5:54 AM on August 3, 2009

Another vote for Gaudy Night - although quite a lot of things have changed since Sayers' Oxford, an awful lot of that novel still rings pretty true to me.

Also, Laurie King writes novels involving Sherlock Holmes, and the first one (I think it was called Beekeeper's Apprentice?) is partly set in Oxford during WW1. However, I didn't think it was a very accurate portrayal of the university (I mean, King doesn't know what university life is like in the same way Sayers did), nor a particularly good book.
posted by iona at 6:23 AM on August 3, 2009

To follow up on Kattullus's recommendation, Dark Back of Time is Marias's follow up to All Souls, and it is also extraordinary. Though they don't fit in the time period you specify, I urge you to read both of them, because they are just astonishing books.
posted by dizziest at 9:55 AM on August 3, 2009

Seconding The House in Norham Gardens and Gaudy Night. Michael Innes - Operation Pax (link has the first chapter online) has a great scene set in the bowels of the Bodleian. Gillian Avery's The Warden's Niece (children's book).
posted by paduasoy at 11:22 AM on August 3, 2009

Betjeman's Summoned by Bells.
posted by paduasoy at 11:24 AM on August 3, 2009

If you're interested in the countryside outside Oxford as well as the city and university, Otmoor for Ever! by Hester Burton is a children's book about the fight against the enclosure of common land on Otmoor.
posted by paduasoy at 11:29 AM on August 3, 2009

Up at Oxford is a memoir written by a blind Indian student (Ved Mehta, who often appears in the New Yorker) which combines his own experiences of enjoyment and class adjustment ("class" in both senses of the word) with anecdotes about Oxford's history. I found it quite enjoyable.

The Oxford Murders could, I suppose, have been set anywhere, but it does name and describe specific locations and it's a really well-written mystery that is, dare I see, meta, in the sense that it is both a murder mystery and at the same time about murder mysteries. If you like math and patterns or mysteries in general (or even if you don't, as I've not read many myself) I highly recommend this for a fun but idea-filled read.
posted by roombythelake at 11:30 AM on August 3, 2009

Leslie Mitchell's recently published biography of Maurice Bowra has been very well reviewed, though I confess I haven't read it yet - looking forward to it. You won't get more Oxford than Bowra.
posted by genesta at 1:00 PM on August 3, 2009 [1 favorite]

Gah - just noticed you were after fiction recommendations - sorry. (Though a life of Bowra probably combines fact and fiction in equal measure.)
posted by genesta at 1:04 PM on August 3, 2009

Response by poster: this is looking like a great list, thanks everyone for your thoughtful suggestions.
posted by Ginkgo at 3:37 PM on August 3, 2009

Zuleika Dobson by Max Beerbohm (link to full text on Project Gutenberg) is the quintessential Oxford comedy, written 1911.

If you like that, then try Three Men In A Boat by Jerome K. Jerome, written 1889 (which, along with Gaudy Night, inspired Connie Willis's excellent To Say Nothing of The Dog, recommended above.)
posted by Pallas Athena at 7:07 PM on August 3, 2009

Just wanted to reiterate holgate's recommendation for An Instance Of The Fingerpost. The story is told in a Rashomon style with the same event being told from four different view points. It's very evocative of the period and it gains an extra depth when you're reading it whilst sat in Christ Church Park.
posted by garrett at 1:38 PM on August 6, 2009

Sinister Street by Compton MacKenzie. The man wrote a thousand-and-one other novels, so it's quite possible more are set in Oxford.
posted by spamguy at 6:34 AM on August 10, 2009

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