Dead Dames at Oxford

One of the best things about reading is when one book or one writer leads to another and before you know it you’ve read a whole lot of things you might never have  touched in the ordinary run of things.

Retrieving Dorothy L. Sayers’ novel Gaudy night from Store last year set me off on something of a jag (if three books so far can be called a jag) of books by women who attended Somerville College, Oxford, in the years immediately before and after the First World War.

Somerville and Lady Margaret Hall were the first women’s colleges at Oxford and International Women’s Day is a good time to remember they existed for a mere 41 years before the University granted degrees to women.

Sayers was a Somervillian and Gaudy night is set in a thinly disguised Somerville. Harriet Vane, detective novelist and Oxford M.A., spends the novel angsting about marrying Lord Peter Wimsey while solving some very nasty doings in the library and the Senior Common Room. 

I’m a sucker for all that folderol about cocoa parties, climbing Magdalen Tower on May Day and punting on the Isis and there’s a satisfying amount of it in Gaudy night.

Vera Brittain, best known as a memoirist although she wrote five novels, was up at Oxford three years after Sayers and she too used a thinly disguised  Somerville as the background for The dark tide, her first novel and a satisfying melodrama. In her case the disguise wasn’t quite thin enough and it caused a minor sensation when it was published.

Somerville hated its depiction as ‘Drayton College’ , banning circulation of the book within the college. Brittain also offended that ‘noble newpaper’ the  Manchester Guardian when a character in the novel bribes “an accommodating reporter with champagne”.

It’s hard now to see what the fuss was about, the one person who could have felt libelled was Brittain’s friend Winifred Holtby, who managed to stay good-humoured despite being portrayed as a clumsy, ill-dressed, perenially late loser in love; in fact the book is dedicated to her.

Holtby and Brittain met at Oxford and after inital hostility the two were  friends until Holtby’s tragically early death.  Holtby’s masterpiece South Riding is set in a thinly disguised East Riding, Yorkshire, rather than Somerville, but I’m also a sucker for a regional realist novel so that’s fine. South Riding bears comparison to George Eliot’s Middlemarch; there can be no higher praise.

There are other novelists who were contemporaries of Brittain, Holtby and Sayers at Somerville but sadly most of them are out of print.

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