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15 Famous and Notable Oxford Writers|
Alongside world leaders, the University of Oxford is particularly famous for its writers.
Spanning multiple different eras, genres, audiences and types of writing, some have been inspired by the city of Oxford itself; others, by the various experiences of their fascinating and sometimes colourful lives. In this article, we take a look at 15 of Oxford’s many remarkable literary alumni.
Husband of Mary Shelley, Percy Shelley was a Romantic poet and a controversial figure during his time studying at University College, Oxford. His vocal atheism ultimately led to his expulsion from Oxford before he could take a degree; though given the chance to return, this would have been on the condition of denying his views, which he was not willing to do.
After a failed first marriage at the age of just 19, Shelley then met Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin and ran away with her to Switzerland when she was 16 and he was 22. By this point Percy Shelley was beginning to write notable works of Romantic poetry. He married Mary in 1816, and the couple travelled around Europe, writing as they went. But their time together didn’t last long – Percy Shelley drowned in 1822 when his sailing boat was caught in a sudden storm.
Lewis Carroll was the pen name of Oxford mathematician, Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, who taught at Christ Church for most of his life. He’s best known as a writer of children’s fiction, most famously Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass, its sequel. The character of Alice is generally thought to have been based on Alice Liddell, the daughter of the Dean of Christ Church, to whom he told the first version of the story.
Despite finding considerable commercial success with the Alice books, Carroll spent the rest of his life teaching in Oxford, teaching in Christ Church until the age of 49, and living there until his death.
Poet, playwright, novelist and wit Oscar Wilde studied first at Trinity College, Dublin, then at Magdalen College, Oxford, which was also later the college of his beloved Lord Alfred Douglas. Wilde enjoyed a glittering career where he initially became famous for being famous before he demonstrated his literary genius in plays such as The Importance of Being Earnest and the novel The Picture of Dorian Gray.
But Wilde’s celebrity didn’t last. An ill-advised libel suit against Lord Alfred Douglas’s father led to Wilde’s own trial and imprisonment for gross indecency – what was effectively the crime of being gay. He died not long after being released from prison, and was pardoned alongside thousands of other gay men by the British government in 2017.
Author of The Hobbit and the epic trilogy The Lord of the Rings, JRR Tolkien had connections with several Oxford colleges. His undergraduate degree was taken at Exeter College, and he was a Fellow first at Pembroke, then at Merton. He also gave private tuition to students at the women’s colleges of Lady Margaret Hall and St Hugh’s College. Teaching gave Tolkien the income and independence to pursue his creative interests.
Tolkien’s subject was Anglo-Saxon, though he taught a variety of medieval languages and also English literature more generally. These scholarly interests are integral to the fantasy universe he created for The Lord of the Rings, which in turn has influenced all fantasy literature written since.
A female student at Oxford at a time when women scholars were still very much in the minority, Vera Brittain began her studies in English literature at Somerville College just as the First World War was breaking out. She left her degree in 1915 to work as a nurse, but her experience of war proved desperately tragic, as she lost her fiancé, brother and two closest friends. She returned to Oxford after the war, switching subject to English, but found the transition to postwar life difficult.
In 1933, she wrote a memoir of her war experience, Testament of Youth, which was followed in 1940 by Testament of Friendship and in 1957 by Testament of Experience. The three books together form a moving account of the horrors she experienced, her grief, and the slow process of her recovery.
A contemporary of Brittain’s at Somerville, Dorothy Sayers was a writer of the Golden Age of Detective Fiction, best known for her fictional detective Lord Peter Wimsey (himself a graduate of Balliol College). She was one of the first women to get a degree from Oxford when they were first awarded in 1920; until then, women had been allowed to study, but not take degrees.
When Sayers introduced a female lead to the Lord Peter Wimsey series, that character, Harriet Vane, was introduced as a graduate of a fictional Oxford women’s college, Shrewsbury College. One of Sayers’ most celebrated novels, Gaudy Night, is set in Oxford at Shrewsbury College, and also explores the discrimination faced by women studying in Oxford at the time.
Another writer whose life was indelibly touched by war, Robert Graves is best known as the author of Good-Bye to All That, his memoir of the First World War. Before the war broke out, he had gained a place at St John’s College, Oxford, but didn’t go until the war was over. He was a close friend of the poet Siegfried Sassoon (who had studied at Clare College, Cambridge) and managed to keep Sassoon from being court-martialed after Sassoon publicly protested the war.
Alongside Good-Bye to All That, Graves wrote prolifically in fiction and non-fiction – perhaps most famous is his historical novel I, Claudius, a gripping and lively telling of the life of the Roman emperor.
Alongside Tolkien, CS Lewis is perhaps Oxford’s most famous author of fantasy novels, and they are particularly known for having both been part of the Oxford writers’ group the Inklings, who met at the Eagle and Child pub on St Giles. He taught first at University College, Oxford, then at Magdalen College – the latter for nearly 30 years.
It was during his time at Magdalen that he began the works for which he is now best known: The Chronicles of Narnia. These stories of children who find a gateway into a fantastical land involve traditional fantasy tropes but are also infused with Lewis’s Christian faith. This was the foundation of much of his non-fiction writing, which included several highly popular works of Christian apologetics.
Dr Seuss – or Theodor Seuss Geisel, to give him his little-used real name – was an American who came to Oxford as a graduate student. He studied at Lincoln College, aiming to complete a DPhil in English Literature, but ultimately left without taking a degree to pursue a career as an illustrator. He made a successful career as a cartoonist and illustrator long before he took to writing children’s books; his first children’s book, And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street, was rejected by over 20 publishers before it was finally accepted.
Through the Second World War, Dr Seuss went back to cartoons and the production of propaganda in support of the US war effort. Only after the war did he return to children’s books, producing internationally famous classics such as The Cat in the Hat and Horton Hears a Who!
Poet Laureate John Betjeman had a complicated relationship with the University of Oxford. A poor student, he was accepted only with difficulty to Magdalen College, where he was taught by CS Lewis. The two disliked each other, and Betjeman ultimately left Oxford without a degree, which was a bitter disappointment to him given his love of the city and university. This was somewhat remedied in 1974, when he was given an honorary doctorate of letters in recognition of his work as a poet.
Betjeman was a rarity in that he was a poet whose work was not only critically recognised, but commercially popular, selling hundreds of thousands of copies internationally. He was also popular as a television performer, and campaigned for the preservation of Victorian architecture.
American novelist Harper Lee had a brief but fruitful engagement with the University of Oxford, as a participant on the Department for Continuing Education’s summer school in 1948, studying European Civilisation in the Twentieth Century. It was an initiative of her father’s to persuade her to take more interest in her study of law, but it failed entirely in that respect; she dropped out of her law degree as soon as she returned to the USA.
Instead, she worked office jobs, writing in her spare time and then taking a year’s sabbatical, supported by friends. The end result was the manuscript for To Kill a Mockingbird, published in 1960. It became one of the best-selling books of all time.
Another celebrated crime novelist, Jill Paton Walsh studied at St Anne’s College, Oxford, where she read English Literature. Moving to Cambridge, she drew on her experiences in both cities in writing the Imogen Quy mysteries, about a college nurse who solves crimes.
Alongside other standalone novels and a prolific output of children’s books, Paton Walsh also picked up Dorothy Sayers’ Lord Peter Wimsey series and completed Sayers’ unfinished novel Thrones, Dominations. She has since written three more novels in the Lord Peter Wimsey series, continuing the events in the lives of Wimsey and Harriet Vane. She has been awarded a CBE for services to Literature, and one of her standalone novels, The Knowledge of Angels, was shortlisted for the Booker Prize.
Poet Wendy Cope is a graduate of St Hilda’s College, Oxford, where she studied History. She worked as a primary school teacher for fifteen years, struggling with depression, before turning to writing full-time. Her poetry – which is often light-hearted and comedic even as it deals with serious subjects – has caught the popular imagination.
She has frequently been suggested as a future Poet Laureate, though she has said that she wouldn’t accept the post if offered. Indeed, despite being one of the best-known living poets in the country, she has avoided the limelight, consistently turning down media invitations since her first collection brought her to the public attention. She has written five collections of poetry, and was awarded an OBE in 2010.
Another Oxford fantasy author, Philip Pullman studied English at Exeter College, Oxford, a degree that he struggled with and scraped a pass. Despite that experience, he stayed in Oxford, and his subsequent writing is filled with his love for the city.
He’s best known for the trilogy His Dark Materials, which begins in a fantasy version of Oxford at the fictional Jordan College. The first book in the trilogy, Northern Lights was adapted into the film The Golden Compass, but he sequels haven’t yet been adapted; the whole trilogy is in the process of being adapted for TV in a collaboration between the BBC and HBO. Pullman was awarded a CBE in 2004, and knighted in 2019.
It isn’t just in print that Oxford has produced noteworthy writers; it’s also on the screen. Russell T Davies is one of the UK’s best-known TV writers. A graduate of Worcester College, Oxford, where he studied English literature, Davies wrote for children’s TV shows until moving to more adult TV shows in the 1990s, most notably Queer as Folk.
But his real fame came when in 2003, he was placed in charge of bringing back the famously discontinued BBC series Doctor Who. The shows returned, triumphantly, in 2005 – despite some initial doubts, it once again became one of the most popular shows in the BBC’s line-up. He was at the helm of the show until 2010, and has more recently garnered praise for his adaptation of A Very English Scandal, telling the true story of the rise and fall of Liberal leader Jeremy Thorpe. In 2008, he was awarded an OBE.
Image credits: Alice in Wonderland; Percy Shelley; Lewis Carroll; Oscar Wilde; JRR Tolkien; Vera Brittain; Dorothy Sayers; Robert Graves; CS Lewis; Dr Seuss; John Betjeman; Harper Lee; St Anne’s College; Flowers; raven; Russell T Davies.
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