Oxford Blood by Antonia Fraser

published 1985     chapter 8 

‘Dress: Gilded rubbish’ was printed at the bottom of the Chimneysweepers’ ornate invitation…

Fanny was after all a young girl living in Oxford, and a not unattractive one, even if she was not quite in the same class as two ravishing girls introduced to Jemima merely as Tessa and Nessa. In the old days such girls would have been marked down as arriving from London; nowadays all the prettiest were probably at the University…

It had to be said that the style of ‘Gilded Rubbish’ did not suit Fanny’s looks and perhaps it was for that reason, or perhaps she was generally discomforted by the company, but in any case Jemima found Fanny much less ebullient… Tiggie Jones was exactly the sort of girl who shone at a party like this, and there was Tiggie – shining. Shining also was Poppy Delaware, a girl so like Tiggie (except for the colour of her hair, which was partially blue and partially orange) that Jemima wondered if they might not be sisters until she realized that the effect of the glittering tattiness of the costumes as well as the short-cropped haircuts of both sexes was to make everyone young look rather alike.

observations: The Jemima Shore detective novels were great fun, and one can only hope that Antonia Fraser may revive her wish-fulfillment heroine one day. Jemima was a TV journalist who solved crimes in her spare time, but she wasn’t nearly as annoying as that makes her sound. She had great clothes and she light-heartedly slept with a lot of men and she took her career seriously – a combo that was more unusual than you might think in 1980s books.

The crime plot is not the main attraction here: there’s a lot of clonkingly obvious stuff about bloodgroups and paternity, everyone takes forever to get there, and if you don’t see one twist coming you should give up. It would all be swept away by DNA testing now anyway. But the atmosphere of the 1980s is superb: from the Cortina car to the girls in long Laura Ashley dresses to the reverent respect for Princess Diana (not, it would seem, shared by Fraser or Jemima). Jemima’s assistant, Cherry, wears for work 
a pink cotton boiler-suit, many top buttons left untouched and a tight belt to clinch [should this be cinch?] her figure at the waist.
 Nothing can be proved about how I know that this is not as unlikely as it sounds in a sensible, career-minded and professional person working in the media at that time. 

At Oxford University, the doors had finally opened to women in fair numbers. There had always been a handful of women’s colleges, but the intake was wildly unbalanced (in favour, of course, of men) till just before this book was written: hence the remark about the pretty girls coming down from London. Apparently Fraser, who has written very entertainingly about her own time at Oxford, was intrigued by the changes she saw when her daughter arrived there in the 80s.

Links on the blog: Dorothy L Sayers is another famous alumna of Oxford, and wrote about it in Gaudy Night. Why Princess Diana resembles the Duchess of Windsor, here.

Both pictures are from a fashion magazine of 1985.


  1. Moira - That's the thing about some novels - they're absolutely delightful for atmosphere, so even if the mystery isn't - er - exactly intriguing, they're still a lot of fun. And '80's fashions and glam? Too fun!

  2. I did like these books Moira - as you say Jemima was a 'new' kind of woman that differed both from the offerings of previous decades but also from the more hard-boiled American wave of female protagonists of mystery novels and I liked her for both of those reasons. One of the series is a good addition to the country house sub-sub genre - set in a brooding Scottish castle if I remember correctly (which I may not given the decades that have passed since I read it).

    Given the hints above I shall have to imagine there is a pink boiler suit lurking in your own past?? thankfully we wore our sillier outfits in the days before everyone carried a camera everywhere they go and thus there is no evidence of these more outlandish memories :)

  3. Margot and Bernadette: Yes, I have a soft spot for those foolish 80s outfits. And,of course I didn't have a pink boilersuit. Mine was jade green, with zips all over it. (worn attractively with one of those curly 80s perms) And Bernadette you are so right - no photos, no evidence! We were lucky in that respect.

    I enjoyed this series very much - I liked Jemima, she had a sense of humour as well as being stylish and intriguing, and, as you say Bernadette, Fraser used all those classic mystery story settings that we enjoy so much. A convent as well...

  4. I liked this series very much too. I was a teenager in the 1980s and I have a great feeling of nostalgia for the period. I particularly remember a neon look I was very fond of....


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