“After nourishment, shelter and companionship, stories are the thing we need most in the world.” Philip Pullman
Oxford has a natural ability to create writers from its students, whether they are studying literature or creative writing or not. I can name sixty authors, poets and playwrights who have become renowned for their writing and their association with Oxford. So what is it about Oxford that entices the imagination of scholars? Is it the fact that our brains are so overflowing with factual knowledge, and critical approaches that it needs a little escapism?
Oscar Wilde once said, “In spite of the roaring of the young lions at the Union, and the screaming of the rabbits in the home of the vivisect, in spite of Keble College, and the tramways, and the sporting prints, Oxford still remains the most beautiful thing in England, and nowhere else are life and art so exquisitely blended, so perfectly made one.” Some would argue that it is not Oxford at all that brings writers to their words but, just the writers themselves finally expressing what was hidden such as what Leo Rosten says a “writer writes not because he is educated but because he is driven by the need to communicate. Behind the need to communicate is the need to share. Behind the need to share is the need to be understood.” Which is all very well but, there has to be something more to it when you see so many writers emerging from the Oxford University traditions: –
J.R.R. Tolkien, Exeter – Lord of the Rings
Rose Macaulay, Somerville – Towns of Trebizond
Graham Greene, Balliol – The Quiet American
Dorothy Sayers, Somerville – Gaudy Night
Matthew Arnold, Balliol – Scholar Gipsy
A.E. Housman, St John’s – A Shropshire Lad
Philip Larkin, St John’s – Hight Windows
Robert Lovelace, Worcester – Lucasta
De Quincey, Worcester – Confessions of an Opium Eater
T.E. Lawrence, Jesus – Seven Pillars of Wisdom
Evelyn Waugh, Hertford – Brideshead Revisited
John Galsworthy, New – Forsyte Saga
C.S. Lewis, Magdalen – The Chronicles of Narnia
Charles Dodgson, Christchurch – Alice in Wonderland
T.S. Eliot, Merton – The Wastelands
That is to name just a few! Then there are the novels that have been inspired by Oxford: The Waste Land by Simon Achland is narrated entirely by Oxford Professors, A.S Byatt’s novel The Game heroine Cassandra is an Oxford Don. Colin Dexter brought Oxford Detectives Morse and Lewis to life. Michael Dibdin’s Dirty Tricks is set in a contemporary Oxford and Oxford Exit by Veronica Stallwood’s evolves entirely round The Bodleian Library… and again I am only naming a few! Whether the tradition of writing in Oxford is coincidental or not there is one thing for certain and that is Oxford wets the imaginative appetite.
Why not look at it in regards to our most famous rivalry… Cambridge. During my many google searches it became quite clear which university city out of the two has spawned the most literary inspirations. For starters Cambridge has no resident televised Detective series (let alone 2 coming up 3)! However, moving away from Morse and Lewis! Cambridge has inspired a few novels Douglas Adams’ Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency, E.M. Forster’s Maurice, and Robert Harris’ Enigma to name a couple. There are also a couple of significant alumni writers (besides Cambridge’s website incorrectly claiming C.S Lewis, A.S. Byatt and Iris Murdoch who were all Oxford Students) there are a few notable alumni including John Milton, Thomas Gray, Douglas Adams, Nick Harris and Alan Bennett. Though Oxford goes beyond Cambridge in its inspiration. Hardy who was educated in London, and grew up in Dorchester takes a lot of inspiration from Oxford, especially in Jude the Obscure. Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited revolves entirely around the traditions and bonding found within the Oxford University ground. Despite both Universities churning out writers (Oxford more than Cambridge) and both stamping a place in literary history there is only one place that is quite clearly a fount of inspiration; for those who come here, came here or simply became infatuated by here – Oxford is a spring of creative inspiration. So whilst you’re here- whether you are studying bio-chemistry, statistical economics or US history why not pick up a pen and give a poem a try. Who knows you could be picking up where John Donne left off!