Date of Publication: 06 April 2020
For centuries, Oxford has been a great source of inspiration for writers looking to flex their creativity.
Not only has its iconic university produced some of the world’s greatest writers, including C.S. Lewis, Oscar Wilde, and J.R.R. Tolkien, but its picturesque surrounds are also a popular setting for a whole range of different novels.
In fact, there are few cities in the UK which have appeared in novels with quite such regularity. Whether it be St Mary’s Passage with its lamppost which inspired The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, or the tranquil Iffley Lock which features in Three Men in a Boat, inspiration can be found on every street of the city.
The city of dreaming spires and its grand architecture makes for the perfect backdrop for historical fiction set in Oxford, particularly those looking for a quaint and cobblestone location to set their crime and mystery novels.
Meanwhile, the historic and renowned educational system has led to a variety of novels being set at Oxford University – all romanticising the experience of being a student at this celebrated institution.
To really capture the atmosphere of this city and revel in its artistic opportunities, enjoy a virtual trip with our top 11 must-read fiction books based in Oxford, UK.
1. His Dark Materials, by Philip Pullman
‘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.’
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 fantasy fiction based in Oxford, we follow Lyra, a girl who has been brought up in ‘Jordan College.’ Of course, anyone who knows Oxford University and its colleges understands that Jordan College is in fact made up. The college exists in a fantasy world, where a mystery group of individuals are kidnapping children, and a particle called Dust, is being heavily researched at the college.
Already feeling a little perplexed?
The plot continues to thicken further, and is peppered with lots of intricate details and concepts such as theology, physics and philosophy. Perfect for keeping readers absorbed.
Despite its bewildering plot, the novel is a must-read for fantasy readers. The details make it an enriching read, while the comparisons made to Oxford are uncanny. There’s even a companion book, Lyra’s Oxford which delves deeper into this fantastical world.
2. Brideshead Revisited, by Evelyn Waugh
‘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.’
Possibly one of the most famous novels set at Oxford university, Brideshead Revisited is both a delightfully satirical and nostalgic read.
Set in the 1920s, it captures the quintessential dream of an Oxford education – with Oxford having been, for many of the time, 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.
Over the course of the book, Oxford university’s historic stereotype of snobbery and social rules are portrayed, making the book a beacon as to how far we have come today, and the better access that students now have to exceptional education.
For fans of historical fiction and the British class system, then this novel set at Oxford University is a must-read. It beautifully captures the lavish lifestyle which many of the upper-class students enjoyed at the time, but it also captures the historic class system which ruled Great Britain for many years.
3. The Last Enchantments, by Charles Finch
‘Just as all traditions begin as accidents, how the borders of countries are formed, how we marry, how we make friends and children – so, until Oxford, had I lived, within a sequence of non decisions, and yet with the same misdirected conviction of intentionality with which humans infuse their errors and felicities alike.’
The newest title on this list, this 2014 novel by Charles Finch draws a rather vivid picture of the University of Oxford and the excitement of exploring the historic city.
The novel, which is predominantly set at Oxford University follows a dissatisfied American politics student, Will, who makes the decision to study abroad for a year in Oxford after graduating from Yale.
‘Living it up’ in true undergraduate style, 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 unsuspecting love when he embarks on an affair with a fellow student.
It certainly depicts the excitement of exploration and new encounters, however, it’s also overshadowed by feelings of guilt, loss and redefining personalities for those who study abroad in the twenty-first century.
In this respect, it’s possibly the most relatable for those looking to read a fiction novel based at Oxford University which depicts the experiences of those studying abroad for higher education.
4. Inspector Morse, by Colin Dexter
‘Dr. Millicent ‘Millie’ Van Buren:
The institute of criminology has some really great archives here.
Chief Inspector Morse:
That’s because Oxford has many scholars and not enough policemen.’
We couldn’t have created a list of fiction based in Oxford, UK without including the Inspector Morse series.
If you love Sherlock, then you’ll probably love Morse. And the series is a must-read for any crime and thriller fans.
With a love of classical music and crossword puzzles, Morse is quintessentially British, and a true gentleman detective. Working as a senior officer within the Criminal Investigation Department of the Oxford Police, the books follow Morse, who, along with his sidekick Lewis, navigate through complex crimes which take place all over the city of Oxford.
Very popular amongst crime readers, the books have been turned into many TV series – possibly one of the most famous was commissioned in the 1980s and stars John Thaw. As the plots are quite intricate, the TV series lightens the entertainment for viewers, who can also enjoy literal views of the picturesque city which plays backdrop to the show – Oxford.
5. To Say Nothing of the Dog, by Connie Willis
‘I sat there watching him examine the fish and marvelling at what we’d caught. A genuine eccentric Oxford don. They’re an extinct species, too.’
For those who love old 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.
This historical fiction set in Oxford 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, by Thomas Hardy
‘As the halo had been to his eyes when gazing at it a quarter of an hour earlier, so was the spot mentally to him as he pursued his dark way.
“It is a city of light,” he said to himself.
“The tree of knowledge grows there,” he added a few steps further on.
“It is a place that teachers of men spring from, and go to.”
“It is what you may call a castle, manned by scholarship and religion.”
After this figure he was silent for a long while, till he added,
“It would just suit me.”’
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 this novel is set at Oxford University.
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
‘It, one suspects, must have had much to do with the evocation of what is called the Oxford spirit—that gentlest spirit, so lingering and searching, so dear to them who as youths were brought into ken of it, so exasperating to them who were not. Yes, certainly, it is this mild, miasmal air, not less than the grey beauty and gravity of the buildings, that has helped Oxford to produce, and foster eternally, her peculiar race of artist-scholars, scholar-artists.’
Written in 1911, this seemingly romantic story is not at all a love story, but in fact a dark satire examining Edwardian 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 when she arrives in the city.
A rather strange yet certainly entertaining plot, chaos naturally unfolds as most of the undergraduate body fall for this extraordinary femme fatale, swearing to kill themselves as a devotion of their love for her. The irony being that what made the city so iconic (the all-male academic society) immediately becomes its own nemesis.
What makes this novel so famous is its spooky and dark undertones. Many critics have called the slaughter of the body of male students the ‘prefigured carnage’ that was to break out on the fields of France during WWI. It’s satire is dark, and the novel is used as a diversion to the predicted horrors of the future.
Despite this, it’s still a hugely famous and entertaining novel based at Oxford University. It has been acquired by many of Beerbohm’s peers, including Virgina Woolf who wrote; ‘Mr Beerbohm in his way is perfect…he is without doubt the prince of his profession.’
8. The Bone Season, by Samantha Shannon
‘You may not believe it, but it is what I desire the most in the world. This place has afflicted me with a terrible wanderlust. I long for the fire, for the sights you have seen. Yet here I am, two hundred years after I arrived. Still a prisoner, though I masquerade as a king.’
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. Despite being a rather bleak and miserable place to be, Oxford’s distinct landmarks have remained beautifully preserved and untouched, much like the city of dreaming spires as we know it today.
The plot unravels and drama soon unfolds as we find out that Paige’s ‘keeper’ is the Warden – one of the ‘Rephaim’ who are secretly running the country. In order to survive, she must allow herself to be nurtured in the prison where she is supposed to die.
It’s not everyday that you would expect to discover dystopian fiction based in Oxford, UK but it certainly works. The grand architecture which stands amongst quiet streets and cobblestone alleys makes for a haunting atmosphere, perfect for Samantha Shannon’s debut novel.
9. Gaudy Night, by Dorothy L. Sayers
‘Great golden phrases, rising from nothing and leading to nothing, swam up out of her dreaming mind like the huge, sluggish carp in the cool waters of Mercury [a college pond]. One day she climbed up Shotover and sat looking over the spires of the city, deep-down, fathom-drowned, striking from the round bowl of the river-basin, improbably remote and lovely as the towers of Tir-nan-Og beneath the green sea-rollers.’
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. Like many of the other names on this list, Gaudy Night is another example of a novel about Oxford University, using its iconicism as inspiration for their fantasy worlds.
Sayers was in fact a graduate of Oxford herself, and you can really get a sense of her love for the city throughout the novel. Continually referring to the way students and graduates feel about the university experience, the image of ‘Shrewsbury College’ which is painted is one of a sanctuary, one where students can escape the trivialities of the real world and submerge themselves into their education.
Gaudy Night has been celebrated as the first feminist mystery novel, touching on themes such as a woman’s right to education and the relationship between love and independence. Something which would have been deeply unrooting at the time of writing about the University of Oxford.
10. Towers in the Mist, by Elizabeth Goudge
‘The heaven had cried out for joy, and the earth had answered, and between the two the smell of the gorse rose up like ascending prayer and linked them together. Music and scent were alive once more in the world; only color tarried, waiting upon the sun.’
Set in the late 16th century, Towers in the Mist is another example of famous novels about Oxford University. However, unlike the other books in this list, Elizabeth Goudge’s writing actually uses the real university as its central setting – Christ Church College to be precise.
This historical fiction 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.
In her notes about the origin of the book, Goudge writes: ‘It is impossible to live in an old city and not ask oneself continually, what was it like in ages gone by? Who were the men, women and children who lived in my home centuries ago, and what were their thoughts and actions as they lived out their lives day by day in the place where I now live mine?’
For fans of Elizabethan fiction, it’s certainly a great read, with Goudge’s experience of having studied at the University of Oxford shining through with accuracies and details which only students can convey with authenticity to the reader.
11. The Moving Toyshop, Edmund Crispin
‘None but the most blindly credulous will imaging the characters and events in this story to be anything but fictitious. It is true that the ancient and noble city of Oxford is, of all the towns of England, the likeliest progenitor of unlikely events and persons. But there are limits.’
A classic and yet eccentric crime novel, Edmund Crispin’s novel surrounds a murder which has taken place in a toyshop in Oxford.
In the novel, a visiting poet discovers an old woman’s strangled corpse in the middle of the night, But, when he returns the next morning to investigate further, 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 as a quintessential novel set Oxford and is terrifically fun!
Feeling inspired to publish your very own novel based in Oxford or at its university? Why not take a look at our Creative Writing summer courses.
The perfect way to kick-start your writing career, you will have the opportunity to live, study, explore the city of dreaming spires which has influenced so many of the great works on this list of fiction.