Another Oxfordian classic which deals with class from a completely different perspective to Hardy’s ‘Jude the Obscure’ is Evelyn Waugh’s ‘Brideshead Revisited,’ whose upper-class protagonist, unlike Jude, did indeed have the opportunity to study at Oxford. Again weaving issues of class, marriage and religion, ‘Brideshead Revisited’ shares a further similarity with ‘Jude’ in its somewhat unhappy ending and the fact it received mixed reviews. Throughout the years it has also provoked some controversy, for example when Oxbridge admission tutors claimed its portrayal in the 2008 £20m Hollywood blockbuster to be unfair and off-putting to potential applicants with its depiction of champagne-quaffing undergraduates waited on by their doting servants.
Nevertheless, famed crime author Val McDermid placed it number one on her top ten list of novels set in the city, claiming to be ‘instantly seduced by Waugh’s portrait of the collision between a decent middle-class chap and a dysfunctional bunch of Catholic toffs… the quintessential novel of Oxford gilded youth flying too close to the sun.’ For a more contemporary spin on ‘Brideshead’ she recommends Naomi Alderman’s ‘The Lessons’ at number nine.
Often cited as a classic, this is once again a novel that divides critics and public alike but whose Oxford setting undoubtedly played a massive role within both the setting and storyline: black-robed students striding through a network of bike-cluttered alleyways, honeyed buildings and sun-dappled riverbanks is indeed something that is unique to Oxford and it is this quintessential image of English academia that has cemented the city’s reputation as one of the world’s most prestigious centres for learning – as well, of course, as a tourist honeypot. What better place then to be World Book Capital, an iniative which celebrates both books and learning, two of Oxford’s greatest strengths? An extremely worthy contender in my opinion – and one which undoubtedly deserves to win!