In a recent post, we considered a discussion of novelist William Boyd about “the Oxford novel” (as well as well as other novels associated with particular cities). More recently, a new literary periodical–the Oxford Review of Books–has taken up the subject. This is on the occasion of a new edition of one of the classic Oxford novels–Max Beerbohm’s Zuleika Dobson. The article by John Phipp also considers other works in this genre, starting with Thomas Hardy’s Jude the Obscure, deemed to be the quintessential story of the Oxford outsider.
There is also discussion of two novels about Oxford that appeared just after the war: Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited and Philip Larkin’s less read Jill. Larkin’s novel also describes the story of an outsider (or an “excluded insider” to be more precise) whereas that of Waugh views things from the other perspective. According to Phipp:
…Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited and Philip Larkin’s Jill, published in 1945 and 1946 respectively, give radically different perspectives on the University. Jill is a picture of an excluded insider: John Kemp, a fiercely intelligent boy from a poor northern town, wins a scholarship to Oxford. There he finds himself sharing a room with Christopher Warner, a bully from a minor boarding school, who is prone to florid, sporadic acts of violence. Kemp’s one desire is to be accepted by Warner’s privileged southern set, who spend freely, doss off their work and drink every night.[…]
Brideshead is more phenomenon than book, a novel that was consumed by its own reputation until the title became an epithet. I never read Brideshead Revisited as an undergraduate because I was petrified I might be caught reading Brideshead Revisited as an undergraduate.
In Jill, John Kemp attends something that is recognisable as a university. He takes an entrance exam, gets lost upon arrival, attends tutorials and writes essays. In Brideshead there’s no mention of the entrance process, the rituals of college life, the academic labour. For John Kemp, Oxford is an event. For Waugh’s protagonist, Charles Ryder, it is just what happens: school breaks up for summer holidays, and by mid-September there you are at Christ Church.
In Brideshead, the portal that opens into an exalted world of privilege is not the college door (as for Jude), or an invitation to tea (as for John Kemp), but the ground floor window of the narrator’s room, through which Flyte is one day violently sick. It is a startlingly similar entrance to one made by Charles Warner, the private-school mastiff in Jill, who stumbles into a bedroom and throws up in the bin. Both Warner and Flyte are drunk, privileged and utterly indifferent. They are the same thing viewed from different angles, their creators both subject to the parallax displacements of class. Larkin sees in Charles Warner that the privileged are careless, and that this unconcern permits their acts of violence. But Waugh was able to paint the allure of that same carelessness more vividly, so he got the TV show.
Before returning to the subject of Zuleika Dobson, the article considers the most recent entry to the genre, Alan Hollinghurst’s The Sparsholt Affair (2017). Not mentioned however are the novels of J I M Stewart in his Staircase in Surrey series or Colin Dexter’s Inspector Morse novels (although the latter were more town than gown). And even though women students were thinner on the ground in the pre 1960s, there were novels about the Oxford experience by writers such as Dorothy Sayers and Barbara Pym. The article is on the whole quite a good survey of the genre and bodes well for the success of this new publication.