home - colophon - about ngn -

Three years' studying and socialising in Oxford, and what do I have to show for it? Neither degree nor influential friends. And when I visited recently, I realised that most of my memories and associations are not actually mine ...

From this, prompted by a casual question from Alec, I concluded that I had never really felt part of things during my time there. Intelligent, yes, but not prepared for the discipline and hard work that academic success depends on. Sociable, hardly, and not so much ill at ease as out of step anywhere except at concerts. So I stomped on, incuriously, to the beat of my own drum and never really got anywhere. But now I can at least appreciate and savour the way other people perceive and describe this city, their imagination more persuasive and more memorable than reality …

Not an exhaustive list, and adding to it will probably be a pleasure for years to come, but here are just some fictional Oxfords. Colleges, of course. Oxford would not be Oxford without them.

From Michael Innes' Operation Pax, where it is the home of Mark Bultitude and of the somewhat less plausibly-named Dr. Ourglass.
Directly in front … the Ionic pillars on the Ashmolean Museum supported a pediment above which Phoebus Apollo continued to elevate the dubious symbolism of a vestigial and extinguished torch. On his right, the martyrs Cranmer, Latimer and Ridley, perched on their Gothic memorial, presided over a confused area of cab ranks, bicycls parks and subterraneous public lavatories. To the left, and closing the vista of Beaumont Street, Worcester College with its staring clock kept a sort of Cyclopean guard upon the learned of the University, as if set there to prevent their escaping to the railway station.
Christ Church
No, not out of place in this list of unreal Oxfords: you'll find it in Elizabeth Goudge's Towers in the mist, a story where she shows her usual entrancing blend of imagination and common sense and decribes what might have happened to people who might have existed.
The north side of the quadrangle had not yet been built and Joyeuce looked from her window across the grass to a thicket of hawthorn trees that were a froth of silvery blossom. Beside them, to the right, were Peckwater Inn and Canterbury College, and beyond them were the roofs of the city and towers and spires rising out of the morning mist in marvellous beauty.
St. Christopher's
From Edmund Crispin's The Moving Toyshop, the college where Cadogan the poet had been an undergraduate and where Gervase Fen (Professor of English Language and Literature) is a Fellow.
Fen proceeded into an open passage-way, stone paved, which led from the gardens into the south quadrangle of the college, turned into a doorway on the right, passed the organ scholar's room, ran up a flight of carpeted stairs to the first floor and entered his study. It was a long, light room which looked out on the Inigo Jones quadrangle on one side and the gardens on the other.
Neighbour to Jordan
St Gregory
From Michael Innes' Operation Pax, the college where the elderly theologian (or possibly church historian) Dr Undertone has his entirely plausible rooms.
The room was large and lofty, and completely surrounded with books. The only light was from a single candle, set in a candle-stick with a reflector to it … It played upon the surface of a large, shabby desk, piled with disordered books and papers. Everywhere the books overflowed from the walls into the room; they were piled on chairs, on occasional tables, on decaying horse-hair sofas, on the threadbare and ragged Turkey carpet.
Doubly fictional, since the Oxford it belongs to is in the parallel world where Philip Pullman's Dark Materials trilogy starts.
Jordan College was the grandest and richest of all the colleges in Oxford. It was probably the largest, too, though no one knew for certain. The buildings, which were grouped around three irregular quadrangles, dated from every period from the Middle Ages to the mid-eighteenth century. It had never been planned; it had grown piecemeal, with past and present overlapping at every spot …
Jordan includes the Library Garden, Palmer's Tower, Pilgrim's Tower; Yaxley Quad, the Retiring Room, the Buttery: and it is described with the sort of casual reference that betrays deep familiarity. This Oxford also includes that rare thing, a fictional college for females. It doesn't rate a name of its own, however, and is only referred to by the name of its Head.
"Are you a female Scholar?" said Lyra. She regarded female Scholars with a proper Jordan disdain: there were such people but, poor things, they could never be taken more seriously than animals dressed up and acting a play.
"Not really," Mrs Coulter said. "I'm a member of Dame Hannah's college, but most of my work takes place outside Oxford."
From Max Beerbohm's immortal Zuleika Dobson, which for all that it is set firmly in the nineteenth century conveys the authentic and enduring flavour of an impenetrably closed society.
From Angela Thirkell's Barsetshire novels, inherited from Barchester Towers. Most of the references are to do with the Master, an indifferent scholar, and his wife; the architecture is mentioned sometimes, and a future version of this page should have more to say about it.
St. Michael's
Neighbour to Jordan