Oxford Writers | 6 Literary Greats from Oxford
Since 1096, the University of Oxford has been offering some of the finest education around the world. It’s nurtured some of the greatest thinkers and helped shape them into the successful figures we remember them as today. And none more so than some of the world’s most established creative writers.
Spanning across a variety of genres, audiences, and types of writing, the University of Oxford has welcomed individuals of all talents and interests. From epic fantasy legends, to spine-chilling crime thrillers, and even whimsical comedies, the city is home to an incredibly talented collection of authors.
Below, we’ve collated our selection of some of the Oxford greats, spanning from the early 18th to modern day. Whether you’re a fan of light-hearted romance or intense ‘whodunnits’, there’s something for every bookworm to enjoy.
Samuel Johnson (1709 - 1784)
“What is written without effort is in general read without pleasure.” (quoted in William Seward, Biographia)
Samuel Johnson - often referred to as ‘Dr Johnson’ - was an 18th Century writer, who is still recognised as being one of the great critics of English literature.
Noted in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography as “arguably the most distinguished man of letters in English history,” Johnson has made long-lasting contributions in the fields of poetry, playwriting, essays, biographies, and lexicography.
Samuel Johnson in Oxford
On 31 October 1728, a little after his 19th birthday, Samuel Johnson began his studies at Pembroke College, Oxford. However, it must be mentioned that the lead up to his time at Oxford was a little uncertain because his father was deeply in debt during his teenage years.
In order to fund his time here, he relied on using inheritance funds from his mother’s late cousin. Sadly, the inheritance did not cover all of his expenses during his time at Pembroke, so his friend and fellow student, Andrew Corbet, offered to make up the deficit to help him get started.
But after thirteen months, the lack of funds forced Johnson to leave Pembroke College without a degree, and return to his family home in Lichfield. According to close allies, when he left the college, he was forced to leave many of his favourite books behind because he could not afford to transport them.
Eventually, Johnson did receive a degree from the University of Oxford, who awarded him the degree of Master of Arts just over twenty-five years later. This was awarded to him just before the publication of his Dictionary in 1755.
Samuel Johnson’s most famous works
- Dictionary of the English Language (1755) - One of the most famous dictionaries in history, the book took over eight years to compile, required six helpers, and listed over 40,000 words.
- London (1738) - A poem which was first published anonymously and remained so for 15 years. Based on Juvenal’s Satire III, it describes the character Thales leaving for Wales to escape the crime and poverty problems in London.
- The Plays of William Shakespeare (1765) - An annotated edition of William Shakespeare’s most famous plays. Selected by Johnson and other scholars as being culturally important, and for forming the knowledge base of civilisation as we know it today.
- Lives of the Most Eminent English Poets (1779 - 1781) - Comprising short biographies and critical appraisals of 52 poets, most of whom were famous during the 18th Century, including Robert Blake, Richard Savage, and John Philips.
Oscar Wilde (1854 - 1900)
“If one cannot enjoy reading a book over and over again, there is no use in reading it at all.”
Possibly one of the most revered and famous Oxford writers is Oscar Wilde - a 19th Century poet and playwright, who became one of the most popular artists in the UK during the early 1890s.
Most famous for his unique epigrams and plays, his novel The Picture of Dorian Gray and play The Importance of Being Earnest are possibly two of his most famous works and often recognised as two of the most prominent literary works of the late 19th Century.
Oscar Wilde in Oxford
Before studying in Oxford, Oscar Wilde read classics at Trinity College, Dublin, from 1871 to 1874, where he studied and shared accommodation with his older brother, Willie Wilde.
Whilst at Trinity, Wilde set the benchmark as an outstanding student: coming first in his class in his first year, winning a scholarship in his second and, in his finals, winning the Berkeley Gold Medal in Greek, which was the University’s highest academic award. As such, he was encouraged to compete for a demyship (a half-scholarship) to Magdalen College in Oxford, which he won with ease.
When he then studied at Magdalen College in Oxford, Wilde read Greats (Literae Humaniores - a course focused on classics) from 1874 to 1878. After graduating with a double first in his BA, he applied to join the Oxford Union, but failed to be elected.
While at Magdalen College, Wilde became recognised amongst his peers for his decadent style, more so than for his academia. Wearing his hair long and decorating his room with peacock feathers, lilies, blue china and other objects, he embraced his flamboyant aesthetic, even entertaining his friends by saying “I find it harder and harder every day to live up to my blue china.” (source)
By his third year, Wilde truly began to create a standout image for himself at university, and began to follow the idea that his learning at Magdalen had become more expansive than simply what was prescribed on the curriculum.
Oscar Wilde’s most famous works
- The Happy Prince and Other Tales (1888) - A collection of short stories for children, which includes: “The Happy Prince, “The Nightingale and the Rose,” “The Selfish Giant,” “The Devoted Friend” and “The Remarkable Rocket.”
- The Picture of Dorian Gray (1890) - A witty and yet philosophical novel which tells the story of a fashionable young man who sells his soul for eternal youth and beauty.
- Lady Windermere’s Fan (1892) - A four-act comedy play, which follows the adventures of a young woman, Lady Windermere, who suspects her husband of having an affair.
- The Importance of Being Earnest (1895) - A farcical comedy play based in London, in which the protagonist’s maintain fictitious personas to escape burdensome social obligations.
- De Profundis (1905) - A long letter written by Wilde during his imprisonment in Reading Gaol to “Bosie,” his romantic partner, Lord Alfred Douglas. In it, he recounts the couples’ lifestyle which lead to his imprisonment for ‘gross indecency.’
J.R.R. Tolkien (1892 -1973)
“A pen is to me as a beak is to a hen.”
Another of the most famous Oxford writers was John Ronald Reuel (J.R.R.) Tolkien - a major scholar of the English Language, with a specialty in Old and Middle English.
Earning himself the role as Professor of Anglo-Saxon (Old English) at the University of Oxford twice, he is famed for his writing, most notably for creating The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, both of which are set in a pre-historic era in an invented version of our world, which are peopled by Elves, Dwarves, Trolls, Orcs, and of course - Hobbits.
J.R.R. Tolkien in Oxford
In October 1911, Tolkien began studying Classics at Exeter College in Oxford. He studied this for 2 years, before changing his course to English Language and Literature, which he graduated in 1915 with a first-class honours degree.
After completing his finals at university, Tolkien was commissioned into the First World War, where he served as lieutenant until 3 November 1920. His first job post-war was at the Oxford English Dictionary, where he worked on the history and etymology of words of Germanic origin.
On the side, he began to privately tutor undergraduate students, mainly those who were studying at Lady Margaret Hall and St Hugh’s College, where female colleges were lacking good tutors in their early years.
In 1925, he officially returned to his beloved student city of Oxford, where took up the role as Rawlinson and Bosworth Professor of Anglo-Saxon, with a fellowship at Pembroke College. During his time here, he wrote The Hobbit and the first two volumes of The Lord of the Rings. His role at the university was later terminated in 1939 when he was earmarked as a codebreaker and asked to train in cryptography in the event of a possible national emergency.
Later on in his career, Tolkien returned as a tutor to the University of Oxford again in 1945, where he became the Merton Professor of English Language and Literature at Merton College. Here, he completed two important milestones: the completion of The Lord of the Rings trilogy (1948), as well as the end of his career when he left the post in 1959 to retire.
J.R.R. Tolkien’s most famous works
- The Hobbit (1937) - A children’s fantasy novel set within Tolkien’s fictional universe. It follows the quest of Bilbo Baggins, the titular hobbit, who wants to win a share of treasure which is guarded by Smaug the fearsome dragon.
- The Lord of the Rings (1937-1949) - Beginning as a sequel to The Hobbit, Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings was later developed into a much larger collection of works. Written in stages between the years of 1937-1949, the book remains one of the best-selling of all time, with over 150-million copies sold.
- The Silmarillion (1977) - A collection of poetic stories on mythology, which were edited and published by Tolkien’s son, Christopher, in 1977. The stories tell of Eä, a fictional universe set within the Middle earth world which features in both The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. Despite being pitched as a sequel to The Hobbit, Tolkien’s publisher rejected the pitch for The Silmarillion, calling the draft ‘obscure’ - hence why it was only published after his passing.
Agatha Christie (1890 - 1976)
“I learned in the end never to say anything about a book before it was written. Criticism after you have written it is helpful. You can argue the point, or you can give in, but at least you know how it has struck one reader.”
Leading the way as one of the most famous female writers from Oxford, Dame Agatha Christie is a best-selling novelist, having sold over 2 billion copies of her books around the world.
Having produced 66 detective novels and 14 short story collections throughout her lifetime, two of her central protagonists, Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple, have gone on to live eternally and represent her work through countless TV, film, and theatrical adaptations.
Agatha Christie in Oxford
In 1934, Agatha Christie and her husband purchased Winterbrook House in Winterbrook, a hamlet near Wallingford in Oxfordshire. This home was their main residence during their lives and the place where Christie did much of her writing.
Spending over 40 years in Wallingford, Christie believed Oxfordshire really was where she belonged and felt her most creative. During her time in the community, she even served as president of the local amateur dramatic society where she could test out snippets of conversation.
Today, Winterbrook House bears a blue plaque and can be visited by public tourists. Her gravestone is located a short distance away, in the nearby churchyard of St Mary’s, Cholsey, in a plot she and her husband chose 10 years before passing away.
Agatha Christie’s most famous works
- Murder on the Orient Express (1934) - Set in the elegance of the 1930s on the Orient Express train on a winter’s night. When heavy snowfall stops the train, a murder is discovered, and Christie’s fictional detective Poirot is called in to solve the case.
- Death on the Nile (1937) - Another of Poirot’s mystery murders takes him to Egypt in this 1937 novel. While enjoying a luxurious cruise down the River Nile, a newlywed heiress is found murdered onboard. It’s down to Poirot to identify the killer before the ship reaches the end of its journey.
- Curtain: Poirot’s Last Case (1975) - At the end of his career, Poirot calls on his old friend Captain Hastings to join him and his sidekick Styles to solve the case of serial killer X. Despite not being published until 1975, the novel was actually written during the midst of the Second World War.
Dorothy L. Sayers (1893 - 1957)
“…After all, it isn't really difficult to write books. Especially if you either write a rotten story in good English or a good story in rotten English, which is as far as most people seem to get nowadays.”
After being born and later returning to the city of Oxford, Dorothy Leigh Sayers is another of the famous Oxford writers of the late 19th and early-to-mid 20th Century - and again, one of the leading female writers of her time.
Sayers was best known for her mystery novels and short stories that feature British aristocrat and amateur detective, Lord Peter Wimsey. Upon her death in 1957, The New York Times even wrote in her obituary that The Nine Tailors - one of her crime novels - was her finest literary achievement.
However, beyond her crime writing, Sayers is also recognised for her writing of various plays, literary criticism and essays.
Dorothy L. Sayers in Oxford
Born on 13 June 1893 at the Headmaster’s House on Brewer Street in Oxford, Dorothy L. Sayers was daughter to Helen Mary Leigh and Rev. Henry Sayers, who was a chaplain of Christ Church Cathedral, Oxford, and headmaster of the Cathedral Choir School.
After moving to Cambridgeshire and for much of her childhood, in 1912, Sayers received the Gilchrist Scholarship for Modern Languages to study at Somerville College, Oxford. Here, she was taught by Mildred Pope - the very first woman to hold a readership at the University of Oxford - where she studied modern languages and medieval literature.
Sayers graduated in 1915 with a first-class honours degree. At this time, degrees were not awarded in Oxford but when the position changed a few years later, she graduated as a Master’s student in 1920.
Much of Sayer’s academic life in Oxford eventually inspired her penultimate Peter Wimsey novel, Gaudy Night.
Dorothy L. Sayers’ most famous works
- Strong Poison (1930) - The first novel featuring both Lord Peter Wimsey and Harriet Vane, where he is called in to investigate her after being accused of poisoning her former lover.
- The Nine Tailor (1934) - Described as her finest literary achievement, The Nine Tailors is set in the Fens, where Lord Peter Wimsey is stranded in a New Year’s Eve snowstorm. Here, he becomes the guest of a local clergyman, who later summons him back to investigate a mysterious body in the local churchyard.
- Gaudy Night (1935)- Featuring on our list of must-read books set in Oxford, Gaudy Night is a 1935 mystery novel, with which Lord Peter Wimsey makes his tenth appearance. Set in the fictional all-female Shrewsbury College (based on Sayers’ own experience at Somerville College), Wimsey is called to work after some sinister and mysterious acts begin to take place.
Seamus Heaney (1939 - 2013)
“I can't think of a case where poems changed the world, but what they do is they change people's understanding of what's going on in the world.”
Having been awarded a Nobel Prize in Literature, as well as holding positions as a Professor of Poetry at both Harvard and Oxford, it’s hardly surprising that Seamus Heaney is featuring on our list as one of the great Oxford writers.
An Irish poet, playwright and translator, he’s been described as “the most important Irish poet since Yeats,” after using his platform to unearth and comment on the prominent tensions of the Troubles in Ireland.
Seamus Heaney in Oxford
It wasn’t until much later in his career that Seamus Heaney spent time in Oxford. Before working here, he spent much of his career at Harvard, where he held a tenure position. Even during his time in Oxford, he continued to spend a lot of personal time here in his later years.
So, it was in the year of 1989, Heaney was elected Professor of Poetry at the University of Oxford, which he held for a five-year term until 1994.
As he held a chair position at the university, Heaney was not required to hold official residency in Oxford. Instead, throughout his time in this role, Heaney split much of his time between Ireland and the United States where he continued to give public readings of his work.
Seamus Heaney’s most famous works
- Death of a Naturalist (1966) - Possibly recognised as his most famous work, Death of a Naturalist is a blank verse poem that focuses on the loss of childhood. Looking back to his time living in rural Ireland, Heaney draws parallels between the innocence of a child and the threat of a ‘frog,’ which signifies the rising tension of the Irish Troubles at the time.
- North (1975) - North is a collection of symbolic poems written by Heaney that directly tackle the Troubles in Northern Ireland.
- Field Work (1979) - Heaney’s fifth poetry collection, which reflects Heaney’s four years which were spent living in rural County Wicklow after leaving behind the violence of The Troubles.
- Beowulf: A New Verse Translation (1999) - Also known as ‘Heaneywulf,’ Heaney’s work is a verse translation of the Old English epic poem Beowulf into modern English.
Oxford has been nurturing some of the world’s most creative thinkers for over 8 centuries. And none more so than these Oxford greats. From innovative fantasy legends, to world-famous crime writers, the city has produced an incredibly talented pool of writers.
For prospective Literature or Creative Writing students, or even those who just want to dabble in some of the world’s greatest writing, our selection of some of the greatest Oxford writers is sure to satisfy your literary needs. Get them added to your collection of classic books to read!
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