Date of Publication: 06 April 2020
Wish you could travel to Oxford right now?
Take a virtual trip to the city of dreaming spires with 11 books that are set in this beautiful city.
1. Brideshead Revisited, by Evelyn Waugh
Possibly one of the most famous Oxford novels, Brideshead Revisited is a delightfully satirical and nostalgic novel. Set in the 1920s, it captures the quintessential dream of an Oxford education – with Oxford having been, by many, the ultimate dream and necessary ledge to jump up the social ladder.
The novel recounts the story of Charles Ryder – a history graduate at Hertford college – who meets the aristocratic Sebastian Flyte. Ryder becomes fascinated by Flyte and his family’s freedoms and privileges. The university’s background of ancient snobbery and rules are portrayed clearly, marking the book as a beacon to how far we have come today, and the better access that students now have to exceptional education institutes. A great depiction of different class systems in the early 20th century!
2. His Dark Materials, Philip Pullman
His Dark Materials is a best-selling trilogy of books written by the famous Philip Pullman. These fantasy novels take place in a variety of locations in parallel universes, but have earned the right to be classified as Oxford-based fiction because of the series’ first book, The Northern Lights – written in 1995. The book is based in an ‘alternate Oxford’ with lots of fantasy elements dotted throughout, including armoured polar bears and animal companions known as dæmons.
In this novel, we follow Lyra, a girl who has been brought up in fictional Jordan College, in a fantasy world where a mystery group are kidnapping children, and a particle called Dust, is being heavily researched at the college. Already slightly convoluted?
The plot grows much bigger, with lots of intricate details and concepts such as theology, physics and philosophy keeping readers absorbed. It’s a must-read for fantasy readers, and for those interested in alternate Oxford. There’s even a companion book, Lyra’s Oxford which delves deeper into this fantastical world.
3.The Last Enchantments, Charles Finch
The newest title on this list, The Last Enchantments by Charles Finch draws a rather vivid picture of the University of Oxford and the excitement of exploring the historic city.
The novel follows a dissatisfied American politics student, Will, who makes the decision to study abroad for a year in Oxford. ‘Living it up’ in true undergraduate life, it doesn’t take him long to discover the university’s impressive social scene, including bops (the university’s discos), cocktail nights, pub trips, croquet in the gardens and even young love with a fellow student. It certainly depicts the excitement of exploration and new encounters, however, this is overshadowed with a feeling of heartache and guilt as Will yearns for his girlfriend that he left back in the US.
4. Inspector Morse, Colin Dexter
We couldn’t have an Oxford-based literature list without including the Inspector Morse series.
If you love Sherlock, then you’ll most likely love Morse. With a love of classical music and crossword puzzles, Morse is quintessentially British, a true gentleman detective. Along with his sidekick Lewis, the books navigate through complex plots which take place all over the city. Very popular amongst crime readers, the books have been turned into many TV series, making Dexter’s complicated plots much easier to digest after a long day.
5. To Say Nothing of the Dog, Connie Willis
For those who love historical fiction and in particular, the Victorian era, then To Say Nothing of the Dog is a must-read.
The novel follows Ned, who is one of a team of time-travelling historians who are trying to find the famous object about which neither he nor the reader are aware of for much of the book – the Bishop’s Bird Stump. All he knows is that if they don’t find it, then the powerful Lady Schrapnell will keep sending them back in time, again and again and again (think Groundhog day).
In an effort to escape her, Ned is sent back to 19th-century Oxford, where he discovers that the only way that he will be able to end the curse of Lady Schrapnell for once and for all is when he has returned something to someone (he’s too exhausted to understand what or to whom) and is set free.
The book is filled with a number of cameos from famous literary characters, such as the real Three Men in a Boat, and is the perfect mystery novel to keep readers on their toes!
6. Jude the Obscure, Thomas Hardy
Don’t be fooled, Jude the Obscure may take place in the fictional city of Christminster, but anyone who is familiar with Oxford knows that it is clearly modelled on the city.
The novel tells the story of Jude Fawley, a mason who dreams of becoming a scholar and marrying his distant cousin, Sue, of whom he has fallen in love with.
Written in 1895, the novel falls into the Victorian realism category, and is famous for its extremely pessimistic outlook and harsh critique of 19th century social institutions, including attacks on the University of Oxford and Cambridge. In the book, Jude is trying to get into the University in Christminster but is refused as he cannot afford the fees. A deeply radical book for its time, today it encapsulates the ongoing debates over university tuition fees.
7. Zuleika Dobson or an Oxford Love Story, by Max Beerbohm
Written in 1911, this seemingly romantic story is not at all a love story, but in fact a dark satire examining life at the University of Oxford. The story follows femme fatale, Zuleika, the niece of the Warden at Judas College, who turns the male students’ world upside down as each of them fall in love with her as soon as she’s in their presence.
A rather strange yet certainly entertaining plot, chaos naturally unfolds as most of the undergraduate body swears to kill themselves for love of her. The story ends with Zuleika setting off for Cambridge – ready to cause more chaos.
8. The Bone Season, Samantha Shannon
For fans of dystopian novels, The Bone Season is a great choice. Set in a sinister alternative future, the story follows heroine Paige Mahoney – a young girl with dream-walking abilities, whose capabilities are sadly forbidden in the world that she lives in.
Inevitably, she is soon captured by authorities, where she is taken to Oxford, a city which has been forbidden and abandoned for 200 years. Bleak and miserable, Oxford’s distinct landmarks remain beautifully untouched and preserved.
The plot unravels and drama unfolds as we find out that Paige’s ‘keeper’ is the Warden – one of the ‘Rephaim’ who are secretly running the country.
9. Gaudy Night, Dorothy L. Sayers
If To Say Nothing of the Dog isn’t satisfying your mystery novel needs, then Dorothy L. Sayer’s 1935 novel sure will!
The book follows detective Lord Peter Wimsey and crime writer, Harriet Vane as they try to reach the bottom of a series of increasingly malicious pranks at the fictional Shrewsbury College – Harriet’s alma mater. Keeping you on the edge of your seat throughout, there are a series of twists and turns that make it hard to put this one down.
Aside from the intricate plot, Gaudy Night was also hailed at the time as being the first feminist mystery novel, touching on themes such as a woman’s right to education and the relationship between love and independence.
10. Towers in the Mist, Elizabeth Goudge
Set in the late 16th century, Towers in the Mist follows teenager Faithful, who sets off to the University of Oxford from London to study. He is met by Canon Leigh, who takes him into his house and family, and shows him the exciting world that education can open up.
The novel weaves together two narratives; one of Faithful and the Canon’s daughter Joyeuce, and is a great coming-of-age tale of young love and hope. Everything takes place during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I, with elements of pomp and sordidness dotted throughout.
11. The Moving Toyshop, Edmund Crispin
A classic and yet eccentric crime novel, Edmund Crispin’s novel surrounds a murder which has taken place in an Oxford toyshop.
A visiting poet finds an old woman’s strangled corpse in the middle of the night, but, when he returns the next morning, he discovers that the corpse has vanished and the shop has in fact turned into a grocers. As he embarks on dissecting the crime, he of course finds a helpful sidekick – the eccentric Gervase Fen who helps him solve the case.
A hilarious period piece, the two reference more literature throughout the novel than solving crimes. Still, it works perfectly in quintessential Oxford and is terrifically fun!
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