The web page of the ABPress based in Oxford and Sibiu, soon open for business: muses and misspells on books: neo-bankrupt & analogue.
This is a non-alphabetical list of novels set in Oxford, not necessarily recommended as some are a little bit toffee-nosed and derelict, but all are well regarded and all are for sale here at the Beatnik. Also for sale are my mother (a few miles on the clock but knows how to cook kedgeree, I can only spell it), a budgerigar, and left behind umbrellas. I’ll sell most things, no standards.
Brideshead Revisited  by Evelyn Waugh (1903-1966)
Set in the ‘golden age’ before the Second World War, Waugh’s masterpiece tells of Charles Ryder’s time at Oxford University and his enchantment with the rich and privileged Lord Sebastian Flyte, and his dysfunctional family. They become close friends after spending the summer together, and in time Charles becomes infatuated with Julia, Sebastian’s sister. All is not well, and certainly does not end well, as Charles finally comes to terms with his social and spiritual distance from them. Waugh, whilst recognizing this to be his magnum opus (and it is widely considered to be one of the finest of twentieth-century novels written in the English language), became disparaging of the book in his later years; it was, he claimed, “infused with a kind of gluttony, for food and wine, for the splendours of the recent past, and for rhetorical and ornamental language which now, with a full stomach, I find distasteful.” (Maybe he’d have preferred the iconic early 1980s TV adaptation – his estate did.)
Gaudy Night  by Dorothy L. Sayers (1893-1957)
The dons of crime writer Harriet Vane’s alma mater, the all-female Shrewsbury College (a thinly veiled pastiche on Sayers’ own Somerville College), have invited her back to attend its annual Gaudy celebrations, a reunion meeting for former College members. The atmosphere darkens when a series of malicious pranks occur, including poison-pen messages, obscene graffiti, the destruction of a set of proofs and crafting vile effigies. Desperate to avoid a possible murder in college, Harriet asks her old friend Lord Peter Wimsey (a Balliol man through and through, so he’s heard of democracy, just) to investigate and unmask the criminal lunatic.
This is the tenth of Sayers’ Lord Wimsey novels, an aristocratic sleuth, and whilst no murder actually takes place, the taut psychological plot is thrilling with plenty of philosophical excursion, and a love story unfolds amidst the narrative. The novel has been described as the first feminist mystery novel, and the role of women in 1930s England is examined. Some find Sayers’ style too rich and flowery, and her elitist view of society rather spoils its social commentary; but she had the popular touch, and if her calling card is today only nostalgic, her books are still appealing.
An Instance Of The Fingerpost  by Iain Pears (1955-)
Set just after the Restoration when conspiracy and turmoil were rife, this epistolary novel (a novel written as a series of documents or letters) features a quartet of unreliable narrators giving their differing versions of the same series of events. Stitched together like a frayed jumper, the context is absorbing, it is loosely based on historical happenings and is crammed with fascinating period detail, although there is an impression that the author’s known facts were shoehorned in after the main text had been written. As much a novel of ideas as of character, it is none the less compelling and quite good.
Zuleika Dobson  by Max Beerbohm (1872-1956)
Zuleika Dobson, or, an Oxford Love Story is Beerbohm’s only novel, a satire of undergraduate life in Oxford. It includes the famous line “Death cancels all engagements,” and presents a corrosive view of Edwardian Oxford.
Zuleika Dobson is a femme fatale who gains entrance to the privileged, all-male domain of the University because her grandfather is the Warden of Judas College (based on Merton College, Beerbohm’s alma mater), where she falls in love with the Duke of Dorset, a snobbish, an emotionally detached student who decides that he will commit suicide to express his passion for Zuleika and to alert her of the terrible and crushing power her beauty holds upon men’s affections. Other undergradutes follow his lead, and the story continues with many further twists….
Jill  by Philip Larkin (1922-1985)
The novel is set in the wartime Oxford. Protagonist John Kemp is a young man from “Huddlesford” in Lancashire, who goes up to Oxford. With great sympathy it analyses his emotions at this first experience of privileged southern life. Socially awkward and inexperienced, Kemp is attracted by the reckless and dissipated life of his roommate Christopher Warner, a well-off southerner who has attended a minor public school, tellingly called “Lamprey College”. The eponymous Jill is Kemp’s imaginary sister, whom he invents to confound Warner.
Larkin wrote of his own experiences of Oxford during the war: “Life in college was austere. Its pre-war pattern had been dispersed, in some instances permanently… This was not the Oxford of Michael Fane and his fine bindings, or Charles Ryder and his plovers’ eggs. Nevertheless, it had a distinctive quality.”
Daughters Of Jerusalem  by Charlotte Mendelson (1972-)
Set in North Oxford, trouble stirs in the Lux family. Eve, the elder daughter, is seething with loathing for her charismatic sister Phoebe; meanwhile, their mother’s best friend, Helena, is about to make a startling confession. This is Oxford, where cleverness is all, and secret love and secret hatred must be repressed. One reviewer described this is “Miss Marple meets Rosamond Lehmann.” Don’t forget that North Oxford has pretensions, but at its heart is Clinton Card philosophy and garden gnome territory, where everybody imagines a garden designed by Inigo Jones and Corinthian pillars either side of the front door. And the book doesn’t quite catch this. It’s healthy book group fodder.
The Moving Toyshop  by Edmund Crispin (1921-1978)
Edmund Crispin was a pseudonym of Robert Bruce Montgomery, who first became established under his own name as a composer of vocal and choral music, including An Oxford Requiem (1951), but later turned to film work, writing the scores for many British comedies of the 1950s, including the first Carry On films. He wrote short stories and nine detective novels which feature Gervase Fen (the detective hero of The Moving Toyshop), who is a Professor of English at the university and a fellow of St Christopher’s College, a fictional institution that Crispin locates next to St John’s College, his own college. Fen is an eccentric, sometimes absent-minded character, and the whodunit novels have complex plots and fantastic or unbelievable solutions, including examples of the locked room mystery; they are written in a humorous, literary and sometimes farcical style and contain frequent references to English literature, poetry, and music.
P.D. James included this book in her list of five most riveting crime novels; it is not a top rate read, but a period piece and redolent of the era of the large Oxford donnish personality, the Spooners and Bowras (aka “Buggery was invented to fill that awkward hour between evensong and cocktails.”) and others that strode each as a bloated mini-Colossus in the early and mid-twentieth century. It is dedicated to Philip Larkin, Crispin’s contemporary at St. John’s College. I have to say, any book sporting any of the early Penguin liveries has to be cherished.
The Dead Of Jericho  by Colin Dexter (1930-)
Dexter actually went to Cambridge, so there is no hint of student nostalgia with Morse, whose TV exploits have added significantly to the city’s tourist magnetism (this book was the first to be screened). Dexter did work for the Oxford University Examination Board however, so he’s done his time as one of the Sheldonian herms.
Detective Chief Inspector E. Morse meets Anne Scott at a party hosted by Mrs Murdoch in North Oxford. Six months later Anne Scott is found hanging in her kitchen at 9 Canal Reach, Jericho, Oxford, and Morse is to lead the investigation…
I’ve attached the cover for the large print edition because, well, you’re probably quite old if you want to read this book.
Jude The Obscure  by Thomas Hardy (1840-1928)
Of course this book is a cut above the rest listed above, and that should be said straight off. Begun as a magazine serial, the book achieved notoriety by being burnt publicly by the Bishop of Wakefield upon publication. Jude Fawley is a working class man who dreams of becoming a scholar, to study at Christminster, a town thinly-disguised as Oxford. In fact Hardy wrote the novel in the Lamb & Flag pub in St Giles’, and the bar staff there contend that the pub featured in the novel is based on it. (Of course they don’t: nobody reads Hardy these days, and dunno why as he’s the tops, innit.)