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Oxford and Cambridge - Livres du Mois

The theme for May's Livres du Mois is the university cities of Oxford and Cambridge, classic novels set amongst the spires, history books, real life stories and guides. We begin with a book written by John Betjeman, who was also one of the first people I wrote about here on the Compendium.


John Betjeman’s Oxford


An Oxford University Chest

First published in 1938, John Betjeman's tribute to Oxford and its university life has been reissued as an entertaining and nostalgic period piece. Over a third of the book is devoted to an architectural tour of the town and university buildings, in which factual information is enlivened by anecdotes and accounts of relevant historical events. The text is complemented by a large number of photographs from the period and etchings of town architecture.


David of Kings


E. F. Benson

"Originally published in 1924, E F Benson's David of King's, the sequel to the classic David Blaize, is set during the six foot and blond David's three years at Cambridge University. Here the enchanting hero, a seductive combination of aesthete and athlete, continues his intense and clearly homoerotic relationship with the three year older Frank Maddox. Here, too, David mixes with the sporting, artistic and academic fraternities - loved and admired by all. Like David Blaize, David of King's is strongly autobiographical and includes sharp portraits from life of such notorious characters as Oscar Browning (disguised as 'Alfred Gepp') - an Eton schoolmaster, dismissed because of a scandal, who found a safe haven at King's College, Cambridge, and Mr. Crowfoot--based on Mr. J.E. Nixon."

"David of King's is, above all, a "jolly enjoyable" read. Benson tells an absorbing story and he draws the reader into the cultural and social world of Blaize at King's College and more generally of Cambridge University. His stories of Blaize's encounters with colourful and eccentric dons are absolute gems of affectionate humour and should not be missed."


Gaudy Night


Dorothy L. Sayers

The twelfth book in Dorothy L Sayers' classic Lord Peter Wimsey series, introduced by actress Dame Harriet Mary Walter, DBE - a must-read for fans of Agatha Christie's Poirot and Margery Allingham's Campion Mysteries.

"Harriet Vane has never dared to return to her old Oxford college. Now, despite her scandalous life, she has been summoned back . . . At first she thinks her worst fears have been fulfilled, as she encounters obscene graffiti, poison pen letters and a disgusting effigy when she arrives at sedate Shrewsbury College for the 'Gaudy' celebrations. But soon, Harriet realises that she is not the only target of this murderous malice - and asks Lord Peter Wimsey to help.




E. M. Forster

Maurice is a novel by E. M. Forster. A tale of homosexual love in early 20th-century England, it follows Maurice Hall from his schooldays through university and beyond. It was written in 1913–1914 but was not published until 1971. “A happy ending was imperative. I shouldn't have bothered to write otherwise. I was determined that in fiction anyway two men should fall in love and remain in it for the ever and ever that fiction allows, and in this sense, Maurice and Alec still roam the greenwood.”


The Sparsholt Affair


Allan Hollinghurst

"In October 1940, the handsome young David Sparsholt arrives in Oxford. A keen athlete and oarsman, he at first seems unaware of the effect he has on others – particularly on the lonely and romantic Evert Dax, son of a celebrated novelist and destined to become a writer himself. While the Blitz rages in London, Oxford exists at a strange remove: an ephemeral, uncertain place, in which nightly blackouts conceal secret liaisons. Over the course of one momentous term, David and Evert forge an unlikely friendship that will colour their lives for decades to come . . .

Alan Hollinghurst’s masterly new novel evokes the intimate relationships of a group of friends bound together by art, literature and love across three generations. It explores the social and sexual revolutions of the most pivotal years of the past century, whose life-changing consequences are still being played out to this day. Richly observed, disarmingly witty and emotionally charged, The Sparsholt Affair is an unmissable achievement from one of our finest writers."


Brideshead Revisited


Evelyn Waugh

"Brideshead Revisited is Evelyn Waugh's stunning novel of duty and desire set amongst the decadent, faded glory of the English aristocracy in the run-up to the Second World War.

The most nostalgic and reflective of Evelyn Waugh's novels, Brideshead Revisited tells the story of Charles Ryder's infatuation with the Marchmains and the rapidly disappearing world of privilege they inhabit." Enchanted first by Sebastian Flyte at Oxford, the moments that Charles and Sebastian spent during that time together has captured many imaginations since its first publication in 1945, "provoking an intense and pleasurable nostalgia for that none of its audiences has had."


The Night Climbers

of Cambridge

"They broke the law. They defied the authorities. They made the midnight skyline their playground. And they recorded it. A secret group, led by the mysterious ‘Butterfly Catcher’, scale the university buildings of this sleepy academic town in the darkest hours.

Risking their lives, their freedom and their degrees, they evade police to climb the highest, most dangerous historic buildings, often without rope.

Wanting to preserve their story and inspire others, they photographed everything – all the routes, the close shaves, the lucky escapes. In 1937, this was difficult, dangerous and foolhardy – but we now have a record of these feats. And a photographic guide to virtually all the climbs Cambridge can offer. To this day, the club still exists. The pinnacles above may be silent, but they’re not sleeping. If you like history, extreme sports – or both, you’ll soon understand why this has become such a cult classic around the world. Civil disobedience at its finest."


Not far from Brideshead


Daisy Dunn

"After the horrors of the First World War, Oxford looked like an Arcadia - a dreamworld - from which pain could be shut out. Soldiers arrived with pictures of the university fully formed in their heads, and women finally won the right to earn degrees. Freedom meant reading beneath the spires and punting down the river with champagne picnics. But all was not quite as it seemed.

Boys fresh from school settled into lecture rooms alongside men who had returned from the trenches with the beginnings of shellshock. It was displacing to be surrounded by aristocrats who liked nothing better than to burn furniture from each other's rooms on the college quads for kicks. The women of Oxford still faced a battle to emerge from their shadows. And among the dons a major conflict was beginning to brew.

Set in the world that Evelyn Waugh immortalised in Brideshead Revisited, this is a true and often funny story of the thriving of knowledge and spirit of fun and foreboding that characterised Oxford between the two world wars. One of the protagonists, in fact, was a friend of Waugh and inspired a character in his novel. Another married into the family who inhabited Castle Howard and befriended everyone from George Bernard Shaw to Virginia Woolf. The third was an Irish occultist and correspondent with the poets W. H. Auden, Louis MacNeice and W. B. Yeats.

This singular tale of Oxford colleagues and rivals encapsulates the false sense of security that developed across the country in the interwar years. With the rise of Hitler and the Third Reich came the subversion of history for propaganda. In academic Oxford, the fight was on not only to preserve the past from the hands of the Nazis, but also to triumph, one don over another, as they became embroiled in a war of their own."


The Great Lover


Jill Dawson

"In the summer of 1909, seventeen-year-old Nell Golightly is the new maid at the Orchard Tea Gardens in Cambridgeshire when Rupert Brooke moves in as a lodger. Famed for his looks and flouting of convention, the young poet captures the hearts of men and women alike, yet his own seems to stay intact. Even Nell, despite her good sense, begins to fall for him. What is his secret?

This captivating novel gives voice to Rupert Brooke himself in a tale of mutual fascination and inner turmoil, set at a time of great social unrest. Revealing a man far more complex and radical than legend suggests, it powerfully conveys the allure - and curse - of charisma."


Victorian and Edwardian Oxford

by John Betjeman & David Vaisey

An historical account of Oxford in the Victorian and Edwardian era, explored in time through one hundred and fifty six old photographs in monochrome, with each picture accompanied by a description.


The Babe B.A.


E. F. Benson

The Babe B. A. Being the Uneventful History of A Young Gentleman at Cambridge University is a very misleading title as many things happen to the Babe throughout his time at Cambridge. "The Babe was a cynical old gentleman of twenty years of age, who played the banjo charmingly…".

From mishaps with his pet bulldog, Mr. Sykes to the Babe acting the role of Clytemnestra in the Agamemnon, where a visiting German student falls in love with him, the Babe goes from one antic to another and all in an Inverness cloak "so loud," he said, "that you could scarcely hear yourself speak."


Evelyn Waugh’s Oxford


Barbara Cooke

"Oxford held a special place in Evelyn Waugh’s imagination. So formative were his Oxford years that the city never left him, appearing again and again in his novels in various forms. This book explores in rich visual detail the abiding importance of Oxford as both location and experience in his literary and visual works. Drawing on specially commissioned illustrations and previously unpublished photographic material, it provides a critically robust assessment of Waugh’s engagement with Oxford over the course of his literary career.

Following a brief overview of Waugh’s life and work, subsequent chapters look at the prose and graphic art Waugh produced as an undergraduate together with Oxford’s portrayal in Brideshead Revisited and A Little Learning as well as broader conceptual concerns of religion, sexuality and idealised time. A specially commissioned, hand-drawn trail around Evelyn Waugh’s Oxford guides the reader around the city Waugh knew and loved through locations such as the Botanic Garden, the Oxford Union and The Chequers. A unique literary biography, this book brings to life Waugh’s Oxford, exploring the lasting impression it made on one of the most accomplished literary craftsmen of the twentieth century."


Rupert Brooke's


"Two long-standing residents of Grantchester have produced a lovely book in anticipation of the centenary, in 2012, of Rupert Brooke's famous poem The Old Vicarage, Grantchester.

The book celebrates the poem and the village that was its inspiration. It will be a delight to those who know the poem already, and a good introduction to those who do not, in particular the younger generation. It contains the full text of the poem, a short biography of Rupert Brooke and history of Grantchester, and an explanatory commentary on each section of the poem. It is illustrated on each page by beautiful and evocative photographs of the village and its surroundings."


I hope you have found something of interest amongst this collection of books, but if not, there may be something more to your tastes in the Compendium's Library.


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