Successful Failures at Oxford

An Oxford student blog has compiled a list of students who were academic failures at Oxford but went on to become successful writers. At the top of the list is Evelyn Waugh. His entry begins with a quote:

“You spend the first term at Oxford meeting interesting and exciting people and the rest of your time there avoiding them”…So intently did Waugh try to avoid his contemporaries that he actually dropped out – but mostly because his scholarship was revoked when he got a third. Just proves no good can come from writing for Cherwell. In a letter to a school friend he confessed, “I do no work here and never go to Chapel,” which cements our belief that he was just like us but probably more of a bastard. As well as penning Brideshead Revisited, he spent a lot of time offending people, being described by James Lees-Milne as “the nastiest-tempered man in Britain.” Insufferable, yes – but sounds like a hoot.

The opening quote seems to be a variation of the advice given Charles Ryder by his cousin Jasper on Charles’ arrival in Oxford: “You’ll find you spend half your second year shaking off the undesirable friends you made in your first” (Brideshead Revisited, London, 1960, p. 55). The letter quoted was to his friend from Lancing, Tom Driberg (Letters, p. 7).

Other failures include Philip Pullman who also got a third but says he would have bagged a fourth if they were still given; John Betjeman who was bullied by his tutor C.S. Lewis and left without a degree; W.H. Auden who got a third in English; Percy Shelley who was sent down after one year in which he attended only a single lecture; and A.E. Housman who left without a degree after scoring a first in his classics exam and ended his life at Cambridge.

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