6 Novels to Read to Understand Oxford
Oxford is a world of its own. Its ‘dreaming spires’ and unique charm have inspired the work of authors, poets and artists for centuries.
Oxford’s suburbs are much like any city in the south of England. But travel towards the city centre across Magdalen Bridge in one direction, or down St Giles’ in another, and you’ll soon come across some of the most beautiful architecture in the world, which commands an atmosphere to match.
But it goes beyond the city’s architecture. The University of Oxford has its own distinct culture (as an Oxford student outlines in this article) that can seem frankly bizarre if you’re not used to it. If you’d like to read some novels that made and reflect that unique culture, here’s our list.
1. Brideshead Revisited – Evelyn Waugh
Brideshead Revisited was written during the Second World War, at a time of rationing when good food and other luxuries were hard to come by. Waugh wrote that for this reason, the book “is infused with a kind of gluttony, for food and wine, for the splendours of the recent past, and for rhetorical and ornamental language”. This tendency is particularly evident in the first third or so of the novel, which is set in an Oxford with all the dials turned up: the architecture even more stunning, the dinners even more lavish and the undergraduates even more brilliant and beautiful.
It’s no surprise, then, that many of Oxford’s students try to make the Oxford they live in as much like Waugh’s Oxford as possible, and what they value about Oxford is what Waugh valued about the city. In Brideshead Revisited, he describes the city like this:
“Oxford, in those days, was still a city of aquatint. In her spacious and quiet streets men walked and spoke as they had done in Newman’s day; her autumnal mists, her grey springtime, and the rare glory of her summer days – such as that day – when the chestnut was in flower and the bells rang out high and clear over her gables and cupolas, exhaled the soft airs of centuries of youth. It was this cloistral hush which gave our laughter its resonance, and carried it still, joyously, over the intervening clamour.”
In Brideshead Revisited, life at Oxford represents youth at its most perfect, so it’s no surprise that modern-day students might wish to mimic the lifestyle of Charles Ryder and Sebastian Flyte, with their focus on a particular kind of lavish enjoyment of life. Even for those who don’t go ahead and live a lifestyle of champagne and strawberries in the dappled sunshine of a punt on the river, it’s hard to avoid identifying with the characters to some extent: their devotion, passion and their experience of going away to university and feeling like they’ve come alive for the first time.
2. Northern Lights – Philip Pullman
Like Brideshead Revisited, this only starts in Oxford, and also like Brideshead Revisited, it’s surprising on re-reading just how short the section set in Oxford actually is, when it seems to make up such a large and vivid part of the book. The Oxford of Northern Lights is in a parallel world to our own, where science is a little bit more like magic, airships are a key means of transportation and every human being is accompanied by a daemon – an animal creature that is something akin to a physical, external manifestation of their soul.
The book opens with Lord Asriel coming to give a lecture to the fellows of Jordan College, and narrowly avoiding being poisoned thanks to the intervention of Lyra, his ward. Lyra has grown up in Oxford, almost wild, and sneaks through the college effortlessly, going everywhere she’s barred from being. Here is the opening paragraph:
“Lyra and her daemon moved through the darkening Hall, taking care to keep to one side, out of sight of the kitchen. The three great tables that ran the length of the Hall were laid already, the silver and the glass catching what little light there was, and the long benches were pulled out ready for the guests. Portraits of former Masters hung high up in the gloom along the walls. Lyra reached the dais and looked back at the open kitchen door and, seeing no one, stepped up beside the high table. The places here were laid with gold, not silver, and the fourteen seats were not oak benches but mahogany chairs with velvet cushions.”
This is another version of Oxford described as Oxford students might wish it to be: sumptuous, grand and filled with arcane secrets. The cultural myth of Oxford is that this is on some level what the university is really like, a place for adventurers with brass instruments to show off science that is almost magic. And in common with Brideshead Revisited, this isn’t modern-day Oxford: it’s the Oxford of a fantastical past, which makes it all the more alluring.
3. Jeeves novels – PG Wodehouse
PG Wodehouse wrote a series of novels and short stories from 1915 to 1974, about a foppish and idiotic young man – Bertie Wooster – and his valet, Jeeves, who is a flawless gentleman’s gentleman and fixes all of Wooster’s idiocies, usually without Wooster noticing. There’s no connection between Wodehouse and Oxford: he was supposed to follow his brother and study there, but his family finances didn’t allow it. Bertie Wooster studied at Madgalen College, Oxford, but the stories don’t take place there.
Despite the lack of any true connection between Wodehouse and Oxford, ‘Wodehouseishness’ is still an entrenched part of Oxford culture; there seem to be a disproportionate number of Wodehouse fans in Oxford and Cambridge than anywhere else. Perhaps it’s the sense of cleverness and in-jokes that’s the source of Wodehouse’s particular appeal here. As AN Wilson notes in an excellent article on the character of Bertie Wooster, it’s scenes like this that are the best of the Jeeves novels:
“The stars, sir.”
“What about them?”
“I was merely directing your attention to them, sir. Look how the floor of heaven is thick inlaid with patines of bright gold.”
And then later on, the same Shakespearean reference reappears: “In spite of the floor of heaven being thick inlaid with patines of bright gold, it was, as I have said, a darkish night.” Wodehouse rewards knowledge (if you know that this comes from the Merchant of Venice, you can feel particularly pleased with yourself) and makes you laugh at the same time. There’s a self-deprecating feel to the style that – if you can keep up with the references – lets you laugh at yourself a little too.
4. Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone – JK Rowling
Since the publication of the first Harry Potter book in 1997, how many students have been inspired to apply to Oxford because of it? When the stories were first turned into films, it was obvious where large chunks of Hogwarts ought to be filmed. Though Hogwarts is a school and Oxford a university, the experience of the Oxford student and the Hogwarts student can feel remarkably similar.
There’s the receipt of the acceptance letter (not like just having your UCAS application updated online) and the terrifying reading list that arrives not long afterwards. The travel to a place that looks in places as if it’s been lost in time. The division into colleges, with different scarves and different cultures and identities. The experience of roaming through ancient halls and getting lost in spiral staircases that don’t seem to come out where they ought to. The endless ranks of luminaries in whose footsteps you follow. And if all of that wasn’t enough, they even wear gowns.
So it’s not surprising that Oxford students have taken the Harry Potter phenomenon to heart and in turn, Harry Potter fans have been especially keen to apply to Oxford. Quidditch has been played in Oxford since 2011 and there’s even a university Harry Potter society that holds its own Sorting ceremony. But aside from these things for obsessive fans, Harry Potter has seeped into the casual lexicon of Oxford students. Whether you’re an ardent Potterhead or merely an indifferent reader, you’ll need to know who Snape is or understand jokes about Muggles if you want to communicate.
5. The Importance of Being Earnest – Oscar Wilde
A significant chunk of the people in Oxford who don’t want to be able to write like PG Wodehouse want to be able to write like Oscar Wilde. A graduate of Magdalen College, Wilde was famous before he really did anything to be famous for; he was a celebrity in the late 19th century initially because of his flamboyant personal style and impressive ability for self-publicising. Thankfully he also had the talent to back it up, and his plays, poems and novel are generally regarded as masterpieces.
Probably the best example is The Importance of Being Earnest. Oscar Wilde’s writing was often sombre or moralising (many fans of The Picture of Dorian Gray as a paean to a decadent lifestyle seem to forget how it ends) but The Importance of Being Earnest reflects what people think of when they think of Oscar Wilde: a wit that is both sharp and featherlight; hilarious, arch and almost impossible to pin down. The following quote is typical:
“I do not approve of anything that tampers with natural ignorance. Ignorance is like a delicate exotic fruit; touch it and the bloom is gone. The whole theory of modern education is radically unsound. Fortunately in England, at any rate, education produces no effect whatsoever.”
The University of Oxford is a place where – inevitably – everyone is intelligent, and anyone trying to show off on the basis of their intelligence is likely not to get on too well; there will always be someone brighter. Competing on the basis of quick-witted humour, on the other hand, seems more like fun and less like arrogance. It’s reported that when passed over for the Poet Laureateship, Lewis Morris said, “There’s a conspiracy against me, a conspiracy of silence; but what shall I do?” Wilde replied, “Join it.”
6. Gaudy Night – Dorothy Sayers
Written in 1925, Gaudy Night is the twelfth in the long series of detective novels Dorothy Sayers wrote starring the aristocratic sleuth, Lord Peter Wimsey. Only in Gaudy Night, Lord Peter doesn’t make much of an appearance. Instead, the focus is on the woman with whom he is in love: Harriet Vane, a writer of detective novels who Lord Peter rescued when she was accused of murder. Harriet is a graduate of the fictional Shrewsbury College, which quite closely resembles Somerville College, which is where Sayers studied. Harriet returns to the college for a ‘gaudy’ – a feast held in Oxford college, usually for alumni – and then stays to carry out some research. But then members of the college start receiving poison pen letters, threats and worse, and Harriet calls upon Lord Peter’s help to investigate.
Sayers was an Oxford graduate, and her love of Oxford pours out in this novel. Shrewsbury College is all-female and the book deals extensively with the controversies of women’s education, which no longer feels quite so relevant in the Oxford of the modern day. But otherwise the novel reflects very thoroughly the way Oxford students and graduates feel about their university. Shrewsbury College is clearly seen as something of a sanctuary; Harriet feels she can withdraw there, take to scholarship and leave the trials and tribulations of the real world a very long way distant from her ivory tower. The dons of Shrewsbury College are as fine a collection of eccentrics as anyone could envisage, and the depiction of student life – sneaking over the wall after the front gate is shut, and hot chocolate parties in students’ rooms – is vivid and doesn’t seem much different from today.
The story of Gaudy Night is effectively that of a closed-off community that thought it was beyond the troubles of the outside world suddenly finding the troubles of the outside world invading. It’s a perfect illustration of the idea that there is Oxford, and then there is the real world, and the world of Oxford is therefore not altogether real.
Which novels have you read that helped you understand Oxford?
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