I fell in love with it more than a decade ago, when I stepped off the bus (after an overnight flight) as a wide-eyed college sophomore, who couldn’t believe her luck at getting to spend an entire semester in an ancient, lovely university town.
The ensuing four months, and the year I later spent there earning my master’s degree, only made me love it more.
I’ve been back to visit a few times, most recently a year and a half ago, but I’m always itching to go back. Until the next time, though, I always love (re)visiting it on the page. So here are my favorite Oxford books:
Gaudy Night by Dorothy Sayers is the first Oxford novel I ever read, and still the best. It’s a mystery, a love story, a feminist novel and a brilliantly rendered evocation of Oxford in the 1930s. Many of the streets and buildings have not changed, so the descriptions still feel utterly fresh. So do the insights on work and love, intellectual and emotional freedom, and whether it is possible for women to remain true to themselves and also be married.
Oxford Revisited is a slim, lyrical memoir by novelist and Oxford alumnus Justin Cartwright, whose love for the university matches my own. He writes about his time as an undergraduate and about Oxford itself: its ancient traditions, complicated architecture and captivating beauty. I got to meet him and hear him speak at the Oxford Literary Festival. He was kind and erudite, which made me love the book even more.
These Ruins are Inhabited was a serendipitous find: a memoir mistakenly shelved in the fiction stacks at the Montague Bookmill. Muriel Beadle was an American journalist whose husband was a visiting professor at Oxford in the late 1950s, and she describes their family’s time there with wit and spirit. Keenly observed and so much fun.
Isolarion by James Attlee charts “a different Oxford journey,” as the subtitle says: the relatively new, wildly multicultural East Oxford neighborhood of Cowley. I lived in Cowley during my second stay in Oxford and found it messy, confusing, sometimes frustrating and often delightful. Attlee brings it vividly to life.
These are my faves, but I’ve read and loved a handful of other Oxford-centric books. So here are a few honorable mentions:
The Late Scholar takes Harriet Vane and Lord Peter Wimsey (of Gaudy Night fame) back to Oxford, to solve another mystery. I usually don’t like fan fiction, but Jill Paton Walsh’s continuation of Sayers’ series is so well done.
The Inklings by Humphrey Carpenter is a meticulously researched, detailed account of the famous literary group that included (among others) C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien. You can hardly walk in Oxford without tripping over a reference to those two, and this is an excellent look at their work and influence.
My History by Antonia Fraser is a coming-of-age story, a Downton Abbey-esque peek into the early 20th century, and a love letter to Oxford, where she grew up.
Most links (not affiliate links) are to my favorite local bookstore, Brookline Booksmith.
Any favorite books set in Oxford that you’d recommend?