The Last Tresilians by J.I.M. Stewart

published 1963  chapter 38

Luke got out of bed and wandered about the room. Inattention to things in general still seemed to be his line. He opened the wardrobe. There was nothing in it but his dark suit, and he looked at this without interest. He pulled out some drawers, and came on vests, pants, shirts and socks. He might as well, he supposed, get into some of these things. He pulled out another drawer which proved to hold handkerchiefs and ties. There was a white dress tie. This improbable possession surprised him. Then he remembered that at Oxford, for some reason, people wore dark suits and white dress ties to take examinations. He remembered that he himself was supposed to be taking an examination in just over five minutes’ time…

He shaved and dressed, quickly rather than slowly, but not all that quickly either… He scrambled into his absurd commoner’s gown, stuck his absurd square on his head, and ran downstairs

observations: The weird thing is that in 2013 Oxford students STILL have to wear formal academic dress and gowns and mortarboards to take their exams in, as well as to matriculate and graduate. The rules are very strict, including colour of socks and tights (black), and only recently has it been agreed that the dress code could be cross-gender.

If you’ve read any Michael Innes, and his classic Don’s Delight Golden Age detective stories, this book might come as a surprise - its the same author under his real name. There is a mysterious element in it, but that’s not really the point. There are long discussions of art, the meaning of art and its importance in life. There is also a very detailed description of a young man indulging in some light bondage, masochism and auto-eroticism.

The book reads as though Iris Murdoch had decided to rewrite CP Snow – there is plenty of campus politics, including a very funny description of a governing body meeting at an Oxford college. There are plenty of people pondering on sex and sexual matters, and a lot about art. You feel Stewart was squaring his shoulders in his attempts to face describing various sexual aspects of the story: he’s a better writer than Snow, but he hasn’t got Murdoch’s insouciance with the subject matter – she pretended to think that the readers shared her daringly non-judgmental approach to weird sexual matters, and readers took it as a compliment. Stewart doesn’t quite make that work.

It is a very odd and unusual novel: I didn’t in the end care for it all that much, though will be visiting again. I was very pleased to find that the A Penguin a Week blog has reviewed it too – Karyn over there liked it more than I did, and I would encourage anyone interested to go and read her balancing and more enthusiastic opinion.

Links on the blog: Oxford has featured quite a lot on the blog – from the 1930s through to the 1980s, from Christchurch College to All Souls.

The top picture is of 2013 students, the lower one was taken in New College Lane in 2006,  by James, and can be found on Wikimedia Commons.


  1. Unusual or not, Moira, it still seems like an interesting look at the culture of Oxford. I have to confess *embarrassed* that I haven't read Innes under his real name, so this is one I ought to look for and try even if it is a little self-conscious.

    1. It's certainly a book that got me thinking, even if I had reservations about it. He's a very interesting writer. Karyn, whose Penguin a Week blog I link to in the entry, says it's one of her favourite books of all time, which is quite a recommendation.

  2. I have five books by J.I.M. Stewart, which I now realize are called the Staircase in Surrey quintet. I must have known that at one time, since a co-worker from many (at least 20) years ago bought them for me on a trip to the UK. At my request. Probably more than 20 because I could not get them any other way. Anyway, I have not read them, but this encourages me to uncover them and see what I think.

    It is amazing and interesting that Oxford students still have to wear those clothes for exams, etc.

  3. Did I ever tell you about my time spent in Oxford? It was a day trip for a football match!
    I've heard of Innes but haven't crossed paths with him....maybe not noir'ish enough for me.

    1. No, couldn't in all honesty say Innes was very noir. I liked reading him years ago, but not sure he's survived as well as some of his contemporaries. Anyway, there's no doubt who Oxford's favourite detective these days is: we overheard a tour guide talking in Japanese to her travellers, and the only words you could make out were 'Inspector Morse'. (we were on our way to have a drink in the Morse Bar at the time)


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