Oxford is known for many things; the near-thousand-year-old university, the May morning celebrations, the house with a shark through the roof...and its long-running connection with books and stories. The city has a rich literary tradition, with Oxford being the subject of and the incubator for more stories than anyone could read in a lifetime, as well as the birthplace of the famous Blackwell's bookshop. Today, Oxford reportedly has more published writers per square mile than anywhere else in the world, along with a plethora of literary events and bookish locations that have something for every reader.
Famous writers have made their homes in Oxford for centuries. Charles Dodgson, aka Lewis Carroll, famously lectured at Christ Church, in between taking the Liddell sisters on picnics and boat rides. Thomas De Quincey and Oscar Wilde studied at Oxford University in their youth, as did 20th and 21st-century writers such as Dorothy L Sayers, Iris Murdoch and Monica Ali. Vera Brittain shook up Oxford's attitude to History after the First World War, while a few decades later, CS Lewis and JRR Tolkien met at local pubs to talk about their ongoing magical sagas. This fantasy connection has continued to the present day, with award-winning Oxford-based authors such as Philip Pullman (His Dark Materials series, which won the Carnegie Medal, the Guardian Children's Book Award, and the Whitbread Book of the Year Award) and Kiran Millwood-Hargrave (The Girl of Ink and Stars, winner of the Waterstone's Children's Book Prize).
Bookworms visiting Oxford are bound to find something to whet their reading appetites. Keen wanderers can try our own Daily Info walking tour, or any of the other excellent literary tours available. People who want to brush up on their background knowledge can learn about Oxford's literary scene, past and present. And if you're looking for books with an Oxford connection to add to your to-be-read pile, have a browse through our list of recommendations.
The InklingsOne of the most famous literary groups of the 20th century, the Inklings met at The Eagle and Child (and, occasionally, in other Oxford pubs) to discuss their writing and share ideas and criticism. The best-known members were CS Lewis (The Chronicles of Narnia) and JRR Tolkien (The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings), but the group also included members such as as theologian Charles Williams, children's writer and biographer Roger Lancelyn Green, and lecturer Hugo Dyson, who reportedly greeted one of Tolkien's readings with a shout of "Oh God, not more elves!"
The Inklings were an informal literary group, who met every week for nearly twenty years (early 1930s to late 1949) to read and discuss each others' unfinished work. Less frequently, meetings were used to hold light-hearted contests to see who could read aloud from the purple prose of infamously bad writer Amanda McKittrick Ros without breaking down laughing.
You can soak up the Inklings atmosphere in The Eagle and Child, which has a great collection of photos and information on their famous former patrons, or try one of their other favourite haunts, The Lamb and Flag.
The Film of the BookOxford's world-famous buildings and literary connections make it the perfect backdrop, and the city has been used for 'on-location' filming by films and TV shows alike. The famous TV adaptation of Inspector Morse used so many locations all over the city that there are Morse-themed walking tours available for visitors, many of which have also incorporated the spin-offs Lewis and Endeavour. Popular places to visit include the Sheldonian, where a sniper took a shot at one of Morse's favourite opera singers; The Randolph, where Morse had to investigate a theft that had apparently turned to murder; and Exeter College, the location of our favourite detective's fatal heart attack.
The Oxford portions of the Brideshead Revisited miniseries were filmed on location, using Christ Church and Hertford College as sumptuous backdrops to Charles and Sebastian's student days. The Sheldonian has been used in a film about another famous fictional Charles - X-Men: First Class has Charles Xavier, also known as Professor X, receiving his title there, and celebrating in one of Oxford's many pubs.
Famously, the dining hall at Christ Church was the inspiration for Hogwarts' hall in the Harry Potter film franchise. However, Christ Church isn't the only Oxford location that has strayed into the wizarding world. Several scenes from Harry Potter were filmed in the Bodleian Library, and New College's grounds are the setting for a showdown between Harry and Draco in Goblet of Fire.
Going beyond the printed page, Oxford's authors and their lives have also been featured on film. Shadowlands, which tells the story of CS Lewis' relationship with Joy Davidman, is largely filmed at Lewis' own Magdalen College. Other scenes take place in The Randolph, the Sheldonian, and Duke Humphrey's Library. Iris, the 2001 film about the life of Iris Murdoch, used Magpie Lane and Merton Street for its Oxford portions.
The Oxford Literary FestivalRunning every year for over two decades, the Oxford Literary Festival is the highlight of Oxford's bookish year. For a week in spring, marquees pop up all over the city, housing book signings, literary activities, a cafe, a Blackwell's stall, and, occasionally, a gin stand. The central focus of the Literary Festival, however, are the talks by a whole host of famous authors, including such notable figures as Philip Pullman, Joanne Harris, Anthony Horowitz, Ben Okri, Lauren Child, Penelope Lively, SF Said and Ruby Wax.
Events at the Literary Festival include talks, interviews, workshops and walking tours. There's something to appeal to people of all ages and interests, including a strong children's line-up - and you might spot your favourite author browsing the book stands or having a slice of cake in the pop-up cafe!
Comics in OxfordIn recent years, Oxford has been cultivating its comics scene. The Phoenix, a weekly comic with long-running serial stories suitable for kids (and adults!) of all ages, was founded in Oxford in 2012 by renowned children's publisher David Fickling. Now running to over 300 issues, The Phoenix takes the stories off the page with regular comic-focused events, often based at The Story Museum. Many of the artists and writers who contribute to The Phoenix are Oxford residents, and have examples of their work all around the city - you can even see local cartoonists' drawings on The Story Museum's toilet doors!
Comics, and every other facet of geek culture, are celebrated at Oxford's own comic convention, OxCon, now in its third year. In the past, the convention has featured guests such as Sixth Doctor Colin Baker, Night King actor Richard Brake, and one half of Darth Vader, David Prowse. While OxCon is smaller than the longer-established comic cons in places like London, Manchester and Glasgow, it makes up for its size in content and setting. The convention is held in the Examination Schools, where old portraits stare down with slightly bemused expressions at the cosplayers and fans below. As well as having plenty of stalls and celebrities, con-goers can attend panels on nerdy subjects with an Oxfordy twist, such as discussions of quantum physics in relation to favourite sci-fi shows.
Oxford even has its own comic shop - Inky Fingers, located on Cowley Road, which feels like a cross between a hipster coffee bar and a well-stocked comics section in a library. Unlike your stereotypical, Simpsons-esque comic book shops (which, sadly, do still sometimes pop up in real life), this is a place where everyone can happily shop for comics, regardless of gender or perceived "real fan" status.
Spoken WordNot all stories are meant to be read, and Oxford plays host to a huge range of spoken-word performances. There are regular storytelling events at The Story Museum - while these are generally aimed at children, they're adult-friendly, and the museum regularly runs shows for a more grown-up audience. Past highlights include a readathon of The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe, where volunteers read CS Lewis' most famous book to a rapt audience throughout an entire day, and performances by National Storytelling Laureate Katrice Horsley.
More spoken word acts can be found at the city's many open mic nights. The Catweazle Club, which has been running for over twenty years at the East Oxford Community Centre, features poetry and storytelling, as well as live music, stand-up, and other performances. Storytelling purists might prefer Short Stories Aloud, held monthly, where guest authors read and discuss their stories over cake and wine - like an Inklings for the modern era.
A selection of novels set in Oxford
- The Waste Land, Simon Acland. Most of the action takes place before Oxford University was founded, following Hugh de Verdon's adventures in the First Crusade. But his tale is told by some Oxford Professors, whose commentary casts a different light on Hugh's adventures. The sequel, The Flowers of Evil, was published in 2011.
- The Game, A S Byatt. Cassandra is an Oxford Don; Julia, her sister, is a bestselling novelist. They share a set of disturbing memories of a strange childhood game and of Simon, the handsome young neighbour who loved them both.
- The Dead of Jericho, Colin Dexter. Morse turned the corner of Canal Street, Jericho. He hadn't planned on a second visit, but he was back as the officer in charge of a suicide investigation... Another compelling Morse mystery.
- Dirty Tricks, Michael Dibdin. This gripping thriller is set in contemporary Oxford. Dennis and Karen live a life of cosy respectability until a dinner guest seduces Karen, setting in motion a chain of events which leads to ruthless murder.
- The Reluctant Cannibals, Ian Flitcroft. Set in 1969, when a small group of dons founded a dining society to explore exotic areas of gastronomy with surprising and indeed fatal consequences.
- Jude the Obscure, Thomas Hardy. Hardy's last and most controversial novel is set for a large part in Christminster (Oxford). The parallel stories of working class Jude, rejected by the University of Christminster, and Sue Brideshead, outcast by society for her social and sexual rebellion, focus on preoccupations of the time.
- Another Kind of Cinderella, Angela Huth. 'Laughter in the willows', one of eleven short stories in this impressive collection, is the tale of an Oxford undergraduate's idyllic summer affair that is haunted by the ghost of a doomed romance.
- The Oxford Chronicles, Melanie Jeschke. Inspirational historical/romances set around The Inklings, the famous group of Oxford writers that included C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien. Book I in the series is called Inklings (2004) and Book II is Expectations (2005). Book III, Evasions, a "prequel" set in WWII Oxford will be released in July 2006.
- Jill, Philip Larkin. Jill, Larkin's first novel, is set in the Michaelmas Term at Oxford in 1940. A literary classic which provides a precise evocation of the place and astute insight into character, emotions and social nuance.
- All Souls, Javier Marias. A visiting Spanish lecturer finds that Oxford "is a city in syrup, where simply being is far more important than doing, or even acting". With its sparkling observations and amusing set pieces, 'All Souls' perfectly captures the drifting rhythms of academic life.
- Bleak Midwinter, Peter Millar. Two weeks before Christmas, a trainee doctor at Oxford's John Radcliffe Hospital encounters a patient with rare symptoms which may be those of the bubonic plague. Could the bacteria have been wakened from a state of dormancy?
- An Instance of the Fingerpost, Iain Pears. Set in Oxford in the 1660s this remarkable novel centres around a young woman, Sarah Blundy, who stands accused of a murder. Four witnesses tell their version of events but only one reveals the extraordinary truth.
- His Dark Materials, Philip Pullman. Fantasy trilogy set partly in an alternative Oxford. Young Lyra Belacqua journeys to the far North to save her best friend and other kidnapped children from terrible experiments by evil scientists. 12 year-olds and up.
- The Poison Tree, Tony Strong. In the wake of a failed marriage, feisty academic Terry Williams moves to Oxford to resume her doctorate in detective fiction. But her new home was previously the scene of a savage sexual murder and the past returns to invade the present with horrific consequences.
- Oxford Exit, Veronica Stallwood. The fifth year in the series of Kate Ivory mysteries, all set in Oxford. The Bodleian Libary has a serious problem; valuable books have been disappearing from its closely guarded collections. The challenge for Kate is to find out how.
- Adrian Mole: The Wilderness Years, Sue Townsend. Adrian is now twenty three, going on fifty, and working for the Department of the Environment in Oxford monitoring newts. His hopelessly flawed life remains relentlessly amusing.
- The Travelling Horn-Player, Barbara Trapido. Twenty years on, Katherine and Jonathan (Brother of the More Famous Jack) have a daughter: "mad, bad, crazy Stella". Four narrators deal with an assortment of entangled plot-lines, a running theme of Múller's poetry and a lovely collection of cruelly perfect characterisations of various subspecies of Homo Oxfordensis.
- The Men and the Girls, Joanna Trollope. Jude and Kate have apparently found true happiness with men old enough to be their fathers. When one of their partners knocks an elderly spinster off her bicycle in the centre of Oxford a chain of events is triggered in which many suppressed discontents and fustration emerge.
- Brideshead Revisited, Evelyn Waugh. Charles Ryder is infatuated with the Marchmains and the privileged world they inhabit. Enchanted first by Sebastian at Oxford and then by his remote sister Julia, Charles finally comes to recognise his spiritual and social distance from them.
Some Oxford writers and their books
|J.R.R. Tolkien||Exeter||The Hobbit, Lord of the Rings|
|Rose Macaulay||Somerville||Towns of Trebizond|
|Dorothy Sayers||Somerville||Lord Peter Wimsey - e.g.Gaudy Night|
|Graham Greene||Balliol||The Quiet American|
|Matthew Arnold||Balliol||Scholar Gipsy|
|A.E. Housman||St John's||A Shropshire Lad|
|Philip Larkin||St John's||High Windows|
|Robert Graves||St John's||Goodbye to All That|
|De Quincey||Worcester||Confessions of an Opium Eater|
|Barbara Pym||St Hilda's||An Academic Question|
|Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch||Trinity||The White Wolf|
|Algernon Swinburne||Balliol||Ballad of Bulgarie|
|T.E Lawrence||Jesus||Seven Pillars of Wisdom|
|Samuel Johnson||Pembroke||English Dictionary|
|Thomas Lovell Beddoes||Pembroke||Death's Jest-Book|
|John Donne||Hertford||The Flea|
|Evelyn Waugh||Hertford||A Handful of Dust|
|John Galsworthy||New||Forsyte Saga|
|C. S. Lewis||Magdalen||The Chronicles of Narnia|
|Oscar Wilde||Magdalen||De Profundis|
|Walter Pater||Brasenose||Marius The Epicurean|
|Thomas Hughes||Oriel||Tom Brown|
|Thomas More||St Mary Hall||Utopia|
|Max Beerbohm||Merton||Zuleika Dobson|
|T.S. Eliot||Merton||The Waste Land|
|Charles Dodgson||Christ Church||Alice in Wonderland|
|John Masterman||Worcester||An Oxford Tragedy|
|Brandon Thomas||Worcester||Charly's Aunt|
|Compton Mackenzie||Magdalen||Sinister Street|
|Edmund Crispin||St John's||The Moving Toyshop|
|Richard Mason||New||The Drowning People, Us|
|Adam Thirlwell||New & All Souls||Politics aka Strategy; The Escape|
|James Gordon Farrell||Brasenose||Troubles, The Siege of Krishanpur|
|Michael Innes||Christ Church||Operation Pax|
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