When you study at Oxford, it’s impossible not to think of the generations of Oxonians who trod the cobbled streets and beheld the dreaming spires before you. But what of our fictional friends? Let’s take a look at the well-known literary characters who had their own Oxford experiences.
Charles Ryder and Sebastian Flyte in Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh
Seemingly the only chapter for which this (actually rather long) novel is remembered, Et in Arcadio Ego narrates Charles and Sebastian’s carefree days at Hertford and Christ Church. Bullingdon Club escapades, a daily glass of champagne and very little essay writing characterise these two dandies’ Oxford experience…until real life kicks in.
John Kemp in Jill by Philip Larkin
Less of a rose-tinted idyll than the Oxford of Brideshead, the university town of this novel is a battlefield, metaphorically and literally (it’s set during WWII). Kemp, from a deprived background in Lancashire is thrown into a world of privilege, social awkwardness and thwarted love. Larkin himself wrote the novel during his time at Oxford so his own university experience informed that of his literary counterpart. Layered.
Jude Fawley in Jude the Obscure by Thomas Hardy
We have all been through the trials of trying to secure that coveted place at Oxford. But chances are none of us had it as bad as the protagonist of Hardy’s tragic novel. The attempts of Jude, a working-class stonemason, to become a scholar at Christminster, an alias for Oxford, are perpetually unfulfilled. They are also the mere backdrop to his other woes, including incest, religious guilt, infanticide and suicide.
Zuleika Dobson in Zuleika Dobson by Max Beerbohm
Beerbohm’s Edwardian satire may share suicide with Jude the Obscure, but that’s where their similarities end. The ravishing good looks of its eponymous heroine win her a place at the all-male Oxford. All the undergraduates become completely besotted with the femme fatale, even though some of them haven’t actually met her, and decide to throw themselves into the River Isis to prove their love. The Oxford dons fail to notice the mass apocalypse of their students, but Zuleika is off…to Cambridge.
Harriet Vane in Gaudy Night by Dorothy L. Sayers
The politics of academic life come to play in Dorothy L. Sayers’ murder-mystery-without-a-murder. Harriet Vane comes back to her alma mater of Shrewsbury College (a fictionalized version of Somerville) to discover a budding College scandal, replete with poison pen letters, death threats and vandalism and does everything she can to stop it erupting, with the help of Lord Peter Wimsey himself. Not only this it tense psychological thriller and touching love story, but a proto-feminist philosophical novel. Nevertheless, the over-arching moral of the novel seems to be: don’t trust the college staff.
Hilton Soames in Sherlock Holmes: The Adventure of Three Students by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
Lord Peter Wimsey isn’t the only detective to uncover the filthy undercurrents of Oxford academic life. Everyone’s favourite sleuth, Sherlock, is summoned by an Oxford tutor/lecturer to investigate which of his three students has gained access to his study in order to get a sneaky peak at the exam paper they are all due to sit the following day: the hard-working athlete, the reticent hermit or the talented waster. It may not be the most riveting and action-packed of Sherlock Holmes’ cases, but it’s an interesting character study of Oxford undergrads.
The nameless narrator in The Oxford Murders by Guillermo Martínez
As you may be able to guess, this novel involves murders in Oxford. The only way that the narrator, an Oxford grad student, can solve the mysterious series of murders is through mathematics. He, and professor of logic, Arthur Seldom, use their knowledge of Wittgenstein’s Finite Rule Paradox to crack the murderer’ cryptic symbols and clues. It’s also pretty meta, not only being a murder mystery but also discussing murder mysteries as a genre – that, in itself, is pretty Oxford.