Friday, 15 July 2016

Joint Lists: Books Set in Universities and Colleges

 
 
 
Academic list 4
We’re off to find the right books…
 


Writer Christine Poulson and I enjoy doing joint lists and joint reviews: when the idea came up of doing a list of books set in universities and colleges, we actually had to check that we hadn’t done it before – it is SO MUCH the kind of topic we both love, and love to compare notes on. But we haven’t till now – so here goes. 


As usual, Chrissie is posting her list at the same time, and here is the link to her post.
 
 

Eight Excellent Reads set in Higher Education

 

–  no particular order. Links to reviews  on this blog where available.
 
 

Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh

Contrary to what we all remember, quite a small proportion of Brideshead Revisited takes place at Oxford. Waugh creates the idyll and the relationship, and then the story moves on over many years and places. But still – that’s the picture we have of the book. My favourite part is the page or two on advice to the undergraduate - all of it is hilarious, but Cousin Jasper wins the prize:
'Don't treat dons like schoolmasters; treat them as you would the vicar at home... You'll find you spend half your second year shaking off the undesirable friends you made in your first...Beware of the Anglo-Catholics—they're all sodomites with unpleasant accents. In fact, steer clear of all the religious groups; they do nothing but harm...'
Finally, just as he was going, he said, 'One last point. Change your rooms … I've seen many a man ruined through having ground-floor rooms in the front quad,' said my cousin with deep gravity.


 
Academic list
Taking notes and paying attention
 
All Souls by Javier Marias

Marias is a great author: the pride of Spain, and not known nearly enough in the UK. I said about him before: It’s hard to know who the British equivalent of Javier Marias might be: he is a wonderful novelist, something of a superstar in his own country, and an academic, and he has also translated many classic English authors into Spanish. Perhaps it’s unfair to say that you can’t imagine Ian McEwan or Martin Amis doing a new version of Don Quixote.

My favourite of his books is A Heart So White, but I also love this one for its fabulous take on the foreigner-in-Oxford meme. It’s a charming book, and you never know where it is going next. The narrator is a visitor to the college of All Souls – and it seems not unreasonable to think that some of it might be semi-autobiographical…

 
The Gates of Bannerdale by Geoffrey Trease

Trease wrote marvellous YA books – historical fiction, and the modern series of which this was the final entry. He wrote from the 1930s through to the 1990s, but I think the 50s was his best era. In this book, old friends Penny and Bill go off to Oxford from their grammar schools in the Lake District – there’s the usual collection of stories of college days, and the way friendships change, and a historical mystery as a diversion. When I re-read these books recently, I was surprised and impressed by how feminist they were: Trease himself was always overtly political and leftwing, but that by no means always went along with an interest in women’s rights. But his female characters are ambitious and delightful. And Penny wears tangerine slacks


Academic list 2
The height of technology, and of fashion sense
 


King of the Badgers by Philip Hensher

A slice-of-life novel set in the West Country, but with a strong connection with a local university, a lot of academics around. I said in a review:

The book is reputed to have made Philip Hensher very unpopular in Exeter and at its university (to the point of his leaving?), where people saw it as an unflattering picture of them. But it is truly a picture of England today, and a majestic overview of the good and the bad.

My favourite plot strand was where the sharp Miranda was asked by one of her students for leeway, because ‘her parents are getting divorced and she is upset’. Miranda’s response to that is beyond perfect, even if it gets her into trouble – she writes to the parents…

Love in a Cold Climate by Nancy Mitford

Most of this book is not, admittedly, set in academia, but the glimpses of Oxford life via Fanny’s marriage to the academic Alfred are hilarious and convincing. The dinner parties on the Banbury Rd, the undergraduates, the don’s wives and lives…


Death of an Old Goat by Robert Barnard

Having recently done Tuesday Night Club on academic mysteries, I am tending to avoid murder stories in this list. But this one earns its place by means of its absolutely wonderful, and hysterically funny, picture of bitchy academic politics, hatreds and relationships.



 
Academic list 3
The joys of the common room
 


Angels and Men by Catherine Fox

I have a soft spot for this one, because it is set at Durham University, where I was a student many years ago. She writes wonderfully well about universities, about the Church of England, about religion in general. But most of all, she writes wonderfully well about people: I wish she was better known. Nowadays she writes about an imaginary diocese called Lindchester – two books so far, and a third one being written and sent out online every week. (Catch up and then sign up, and it will appear in your inbox every Sunday night.)

Lions and Shadows by Christopher Isherwood

An odd book, and theoretically a memoir, but he has plainly fictionalized it a lot. It’s a very patchy read, but the best bits are very good – membership of the film society, being an extra on a film, and his decision to write some of his Finals answers in rhyme:
The Papal sanction menaced the unwilling;
they too would have to lend a hand at killing.

-----------------------------


So there’s my eight: the only problem with Chrissie’s and my joint ventures is that we tend to agree on so many things, and choose the same books. Looking forward to heading over to her blog in the hopes that this time we might have a varied selection - and yes, it looks like we have.

And of course should say that Chrissie wrote a marvellous series of academic mysteries featuring her sleuth Cassandra James – they are highly recommended, and you can find out more on her blog.

All the pictures are from the LSE Library collection – as I’ve said before this is a marvellous resource for anyone looking for pictures of studious persons of the past…


24 comments:

  1. Not a single overlap! Wow! But I guess there would have been if you'd included crime novels. I haven't even heard of some of these, but some of them will have to go on the tottering TBR pile.

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    1. Yes, I thought for once in a way I had to lay off those ones, especially having done the Tuesday Night Club - but that means that between us we have covered a lovely wide spread, and I've been making notes from your list too...

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  2. Oh, these are great selections, Moira!! I love 'em! Some nice variety, too, although they're all set at universities. And how great that you and Christine put these lists together. Something just up my street, as you know.

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    1. Thanks Margot - fun to read and fun to make the list. And very much one I know will appeal to you...

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  3. I would also have liked to have included Leonard Trilling's brilliant short story 'Of That Time, Of That Place' set in a New England College. I've re-read it many time.

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    1. Completely new to me, going to have to get hold of it.

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    2. I would even go so far as to say that it has influenced me as a writer. It is so beautifully written and constructed.

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    3. Even more intriguing. Have ordered it - quite hard to get hold of, but found a cheap copy in US but will take a while to arrive...

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    4. Hope it won't disappoint after the build-up. But I think you'll like and I remember some clothes . . .

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  4. To which you could add a stack of novels by Tom Sharpe, such as Porterhouse Blue, plus loads of detective novels by the likes of Michael Innes and Edmund Crispin.

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    1. Indeed you could. I think of Innes and Crispin on a regular basis, but haven't thought about Tom Sharpe in years...

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    2. Edmund Crispin was the first name that occurred to me.

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    3. Indeed - he did academics very well, although he didn't particularly live the life, did he?

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  5. Love in a Cold Climate - wearing a Paris dress (black jersey top, wide skirt) instead of her wedding dress, while the ladies wear backless, sleeveless coffee lace in a room heated only by a tiny coal fire. English impracticality at its worst.

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    1. Oh yes, all too dreadfully imaginable. And the business of the wedding dress, which I never quite understood, did people really do that?

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  6. I nearly put Love in a Cold Climate on my classics list, and I may read it sometime. I have read Death of an Old Goat in the last 15 years, but long enough ago I don't remember a thing, and I could reread it. But I do have a good number of books by Barnard that I haven't read yet.

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    1. I read a couple of less good Barnards, and stopped looking for more. But have had some great recos in the last year or so, including your making me read The Skeleton in the Grass, which was terrific.

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  7. There's some fascinating stuff there. I'm definitely going to try the Robert Barnard at some point. I read the Mitford and Waugh a while back, and might read the others at some point in the future when I somehow manage to catch up with everything that I still have to read!!!! (I wonder if there is something like a 'readers retreat', some distant place with only an armchair and a supply of tea and biscuits for company where you can spend all day catching up with your reading..?)

    The funniest thing that I ever read about University life was a piece by the great Alan Coren in a book called MY OXFORD. It was one of those tomes where they have different contributors talking about their time at that particular university. Coren produced a fairly lenthy piece which had me laughing out loud at times. I still remember him talking about how, as a grammar school boy, he had prepared for his time at Wadham by obsessively re-reading BRIDESHEAD REVISITED, reclining in a silk dressing-gown, and learning how to speak properly by listening to Joyce Grenfell on the gramaphone. By the time that he got there the social revolution of the '50s had happened, and he had to try and remember how he used to talk, sprinkle lots of 'yeah' and 'innits?' in his speech, swap the dressing gown for a donkey jacket, and crack his knuckles a lot!

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    1. Oh, I know exactly the book you mean, my own favourite in that is Antonia Fraser. Before reading her entry I had vaguely dismissed her as posh woman getting on in life via contacts (which I think is roughly true) but HER version of Oxford - right at the other end of the social scale from Coren's - is hilarious and self-deprecating and charming, and I've had a soft spot for her ever since. She's very upset not to have been invited to a very important ball, and prays to God to help her. The next line is words to the effect of: 'God responded by recklessly killing George VI, so the ball was cancelled.'
      I think I remember the Coren - working-class boys getting off with girls like Antonia and shouting 'this one's for Jarrow'?

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    2. I remember that one, too. She did come across as very likeable, and she didn't try to pretend that the whole experience of University was awful (unlike some of the contributors...). It was a very good book, but I never had my own copy, and it must have been out of print for years. Perhaps it's time to hunt down a copy, as I remember that there were some very good pieces.

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    3. Yes I got my copy second-hand, after remembering the bits I liked for a long time. I heard that when it was published they deliberately didn't put an index in it, as they thought everyone who had been at uni with the contributers would have to actually buy it to see if they were mentioned.

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  8. Nothing in common, I've not read any on your list, nor am I likely to. I do think I have something else by Hensher in the tubs though. I think my reading concentrates more on the university of life.

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