8 Famous Literary Characters Associated with Oxford
What do a rabbit who’s always late, an aristocratic detective, and the love interest in the first Jane Austen novel have in common?
They’re all literary characters who are in some way associated with Oxford, whether that’s because they’re Oxford graduates, or the books in which they feature were written in Oxford. We’ve written before about Oxford’s impressive literary heritage, but in this article, we’re going to take a look at the characters in these works. There are a surprising number of talking animals and an even greater number of indolent noblemen, and between them, they’ve delighted millions of readers across the globe. So who are they all, and what do they say about the city that produced them?
1. Inspector Morse
It’s worth making clear that Oxford is a very safe city. The murder rate across the county of Oxfordshire is about 10 murders per million inhabitants, leaving Oxford with about one and a half murders per year. Why is this worth mentioning now? Because this list of characters has no fewer than three detectives on it, and the best-known of those is Inspector Morse. Inspector Morse appears in 13 novels and a handful of short stories by Colin Dexter, and even at a very conservative estimate of murders-per-novel, it’s likely that over the 24 years the novels were being published, there were more fictional Oxford murders in Dexter’s novels alone that there were real ones.
Inspector Morse is a classic Oxford archetype. He’s well educated, having won a scholarship to study at St John’s College, Oxford; he drives a vintage Jaguar; he enjoys cryptic crosswords, poetry and Wagner. His upper-middle-class background and education provides a point of contrast in the novels with his working-class sidekick, Lewis. The novels, and the TV series that was based on them, play delightedly with Oxford stereotypes. Clues to the murders frequently involve knowledge of the classics (which Morse, of course, has), and murder weapons are usually esoteric, such as halberds and crossbows (which apparently most Oxford professors keep in their offices as a harmless eccentricity). Few characters have contributed to the myth of Oxford quite as much as Inspector Morse.
2. Lord Peter Wimsey and Harriet Vane
But a few decades before Inspector Morse appeared, there was Lord Peter Wimsey and his sidekick, Harriet Vane. Wimsey is the detective in a series of novels by Dorothy L. Sayers; he’s an aristocratic who solves crime as a hobby, when he’s not busy collecting art or antique books. He’s debonair, charming, talented at just about everything (he’s shown at various times to be outstanding academically, at cricket, at advertising and at horse-riding), but also inclined to be foolish and not take things seriously.
Wimsey is a typical example of the British gentleman detective, a staple figure in British detective fiction; a character who is independently wealthy, well-educated, upper-class and solves crimes for the love of it as much as for the money. Sherlock Holmes falls into the same category, and arguably Inspector Morse is heir to it (his lifestyle suggests he probably has some income beyond a detective’s salary). And of course, he’s a graduate of Balliol College, Oxford.
Harriet Vane, his sidekick and love interest, is also an Oxford graduate, of the fictional Shrewsbury College (located where Jowett Walk is in real life). She’s less brilliant at everything than Peter Wimsey, and is a more believable character as a result. Sayers was herself a graduate of Somerville College, Oxford, and Harriet Vane is a writer of detective fiction, so it probably isn’t wildly off the mark to think that Sayers might have based the character of Vane on herself. In Gaudy Night, the only Peter Wimsey novel set in Oxford itself, Sayers’ love for the university shines through above all else, and there were probably quite a few readers motivated to apply to study there as a result.
3. The White Rabbit
The White Rabbit is (probably) not an Oxford graduate, nor is the book in which he features, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, set in the city. But it was written by Lewis Carroll, real name Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, who was a lecturer in Mathematics at Christ Church, Oxford, at the time he wrote the novel. He was close friends with the family of the Dean of Christ Church, Henry Liddell, and took Liddell’s daughter Alice out on a boating trip in July 1862. On that trip, he told her a story that would eventually evolve into Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.
That novel, of course, opens with the White Rabbit running past Alice as she lazes on the riverbank, berating himself about being late and checking the time on a pocket watch – which alerts Alice to the fact that something unusual is going on. Carroll later wrote an article saying of the White Rabbit, “I think the White Rabbit should wear spectacles. I’m sure his voice should quaver, and his knees quiver, and his whole air suggest a total inability to say ‘Boo’ to a goose!” Carroll himself was shy and self-conscious as the result of a stammer; it isn’t too much of a leap of the imagination to insert “harried Oxford professor” in the place of “White Rabbit”.
4. Sebastian Flyte
In reality, Oxford is full of a whole variety of different types of people. In fiction, though, it’s disproportionately attractive but somewhat dissolute noblemen. The archetype of these is Sebastian Flyte, one of the main characters in Evelyn Waugh’s famous eulogy to interwar Britain, Brideshead Revisited. He’s intelligent, charming and initially exciting for the book’s narrator, Charles Ryder, to be around; Sebastian introduces Charles to a world and social scene that Charles finds glamorous and intoxicating. At the same time, Sebastian is often childish – he’s deeply attached to his teddy bear, Aloysius – and is clearly unhappy.
Waugh wrote Brideshead Revisited during the privations of the Second World War, and the book is infused with nostalgia for pre-war food, society and behaviour, which Sebastian Flyte, with his aristocratic background, wealth and taste for sensuality, embodies perfectly. Brideshead Revisited has come to inform many people’s beliefs about what Oxford is really like; if they don’t believe in the petty grudges solved by crossbow in the Inspector Morse novels, then they might well believe in the endless summer of champagne and strawberries that undergraduate life is made out to be in Brideshead Revisited.
5. Lyra Belacqua
Back to the talking animals theme with Lyra Belacqua, the main character in Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials series. Lyra is a twelve-year-old girl who was brought up in the fictional Jordan College, Oxford (located where Exeter College is in the real world), and allowed to run wild; at the start of the novel, she spends her time rambling over college roofs and going anywhere she’s not supposed to. In the world she inhabits, everyone has a dæmon, a kind of external expression of the person’s consciousness in the form of an animal. Children’s dæmons can change form, but a dæmon gains a fixed form when the person reaches puberty, and the form an adult’s dæmon takes can be an insight into their personality.
Lyra’s viewpoint on Oxford is unusual; while most characters behave according to a set role (for Sebastian Flyte, for instance, that might be “dissolute student”), Lyra exists outside of the usual boundaries of the city. She’s not a scholar, nor a child of the townspeople, and so she sees Oxford partly from the perspective of an outsider – while also having access to more of the city with more freedom than just about any other character on this list.
6. Henry Tilney
Many of the male characters in Northanger Abbey are either Oxford graduates, or are still studying there. One graduate is Henry Tilney, a clergyman and the younger son of General Tilney, who eventually ends up marrying the heroine, Catherine Morland. He’s quick-witted, teasing, flirtatious but ultimately kind-hearted. A typical exchange is when Catherine asks him, “do you not think Udolpho the nicest book in the world?” and he replies, “The nicest—by which I suppose you mean the neatest. That must depend upon the binding,” and proceeds to make jokes at everyone else’s expense about their overuse of the word ‘nice’.
He stands in contrast to another of Catherine’s prospective suitors, John Thorpe, a current Oxford student who is arrogant and boorish. When Catherine asks if a lot of wine is drunk at Oxford, he says, “Oxford! There is no drinking at Oxford now, I assure you. Nobody drinks there. You would hardly meet with a man who goes beyond his four pints at the utmost. Now, for instance, it was reckoned a remarkable thing, at the last party in my rooms, that upon an average we cleared about five pints a head. It was looked upon as something out of the common way. Mine is famous good stuff, to be sure. You would not often meet with anything like it in Oxford—and that may account for it.” Henry Tilney is an ideal Oxford graduate; well-read and intelligent, but wearing his knowledge lightly and with a touch of irony, while John Thorpe thinks a great deal of himself but is clearly much less intelligent.
7. Chaucer’s Clerk of Oxford
The Canterbury Tales is a collection of stories written by Geoffrey Chaucer, structured within the story of pilgrims making their way from London to Canterbury. The pilgrims come from all walks of medieval life: there are people of every class, from the Knight to the Miller, from the nobility, the clergy and the common people, and among them is a ‘Clerk of Oxenford’ or an Oxford student. Chaucer’s descriptions of each pilgrim are usually mocking – for instance, the Prioress, who ought to be humble and respect her vows of poverty, is luxuriously dressed – and the Clerk is treated in much the same way.
At first the description seems flattering: the Clerk is very thin, as is his horse, because he prioritises buying books and learning over any other worldly goods, and is deeply dedicated to his studies. But then Chaucer notes that the Clerk had little money, “But al that he myghte of his freendes hente/ On bookes and on lernynge he it spente” – or ‘but all that he could borrow from his friends, he spent on books and learning’. In other words, the Clerk is known for begging money from his friends. He also busies himself with praying for people’s souls – but only those who will fund his studies. So, while being a laudable scholar, the Clerk is also cynically using his privileged position to pay for his university fees. As a caricature of a student, it could almost have been written today.
8. DCI Nightingale
Hogwarts is clearly a chunk of Oxford that has been transported to Scotland. But in Ben Aaronovitch’s Rivers of London series of fantasy novels, he decided to put his school of magic in Oxford, right where it belongs. Ambrose House, former school of magic, is located near Oxford. In the Rivers of London books, the Bodleian also gains a secret extra section, accessible only to practitioners of magic, which contains the secret writings of Isaac Newton on the subject – among other things. The series of books deals with a London police unit dedicated to solving crimes that involve magic.
In the midst of all of this is another great detective, DCI Nightingale. He’s a magician who has mysterious begun ageing backwards, and he’s clearly inspired by Inspector Morse, right down to the Jaguar he drives. He’s dapper, knowledgeable and traditional to the point of being old-fashioned (all the better to provide a contrast with the series’ protagonist, Peter Grant, who is none of those things). He’s another example of a gentleman detective, though Aaronovitch uses the tropes very knowingly, and with obvious fondness for his genre. The Oxford (or less often, Cambridge) detective is now so much a staple of British fiction that little introduction is needed. From the moment that the reader encounters Nightingale, we know exactly what sort of person he’s supposed to be.
Who is your favourite Oxford literary character? Let us know in the comments!
Image credits: dreaming spires; white rabbit; crosswords; dressage; pocket watch; aloysius; will and lyra’s bench; illustration from northanger abbey; ellesmere manuscript detail;