Books to Read before Visiting Oxford

Books to read before visiting Oxford, offering a selection of fictional and non-fictional reads via @tbookjunkie

Oxford, home to one of England’s most prestigious universities, has long been a city that people visit, hoping to get a feel for what it would be like to study amongst some of the greatest minds of all time.  

Wandering the historic streets, taken in by the striking spires, it is difficult not to get jealous of those studying across the city. The collegiate buildings themselves, standing stoic, highlight the grandeur and status of the oldest university in the English-speaking world.

University life however, is just one part, albeit a big part, of this vibrant city.

It is a city that, for decades now, has appeared in many popular novels and is frequently highlighted in guidebooks as a must-visit place when travelling around Britain.  So, if you are looking for either an informative guide or a gripping thriller to read before visiting Oxford look no further.

Our suggestions include books of various genres, including non-fictional guides, but all are set within the well-known city.

19 Books set in Oxford

#1. Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh

Brideshead Revisited looks back to the golden age before the Second World War. It tells the story of two young men meet at Oxford. Charles Ryder, though of no family or money, becomes friends with Sebastian Flyte when Sebastian throws up in his college room through an open window.

Charles becomes involved with Sebastian’s family after he is invited to dinner, where he then becomes a frequent visitor and provides the reader with an insight into the rapidly disappearing world of privilege that certain families of this era were exposed to.

The story is told in flashback as Charles, now an officer in the British Army, is moved with his company to an English country house that he discovers to be Brideshead, Sebastian’s family home where Charles has a series of memories of his youth and young manhood, his loves, life, and a journey of faith and anguish.

For those wanting to step back in time you can also explore the grounds of Castle Howard, the house made famous by Evelyn Waugh’s iconic novel, other it is closer to York than Oxford unfortunately.

#2. The Moving Toyshop by Edmund Crispin

Richard Cadogan, poet and would-be bon vivant, arrives for what he thinks will be a relaxing holiday in the city of dreaming spires. Late one night, however, he discovers the dead body of an elderly woman lying in a toyshop and is coshed on the head. When he comes to, he finds that the toyshop has disappeared and been replaced with a grocery store. The police are understandably sceptical of this tale but Richard’s former schoolmate, Gervase Fen (Oxford professor and amateur detective), knows that truth is stranger than fiction (in fiction, at least). Soon the intrepid duo are careening around town in hot pursuit of clues but just when they think they understand what has happened, the disappearing-toyshop mystery takes a sharp turn.

#3. The Last Enchantments by Charles Finch

After graduating from Yale, William Baker, goes to work in presidential politics.  But when the campaign into which he’s poured his heart ends in disappointment, he decides to leave New York behind, along with the devoted, ambitious, and well-connected woman he’s been in love with for the last four years.

Will expects nothing more than a year off before resuming the comfortable life he’s always known, but he’s soon caught up in a whirlwind of unexpected friendships and romantic entanglements that threaten his safe plans.

As he explores the heady social world of Oxford,  he becomes fast friends with Tom, his snobbish but affable flat mate;  Anil, an Indian economist with a deep love for gangster rap; Anneliese, a German historian obsessed with photography; and Timmo, whose chief ambition is to become a reality television star. What he’s least prepared for is Sophie, a witty, beautiful and enigmatic woman who makes him question everything he knows about himself.

#4. Inspector Morse Series by Colin Dexter

Morse serves as a Senior CID Officer with the Thames Valley Police located in Oxford. Within the pages of Colin Dexter’s 14 novels about the policeman we learn more about the culture of the time as well as Oxford and the surrounding areas.

Inspector Morse is an embodiment of white male middle-class Englishness, with a set of assumptions and prejudices to match. He is also an intelligent gentleman, and a crossword addict, whose approach to solving crimes is through a deductive approach using of his fantastic memory and intuition into getting to the killer.

#5. Jill by Philip Larkin

Set in wartime Oxford, protagonist John Kemp is a young man from Lancashire, who goes up to Oxford. With great sympathy it analyses his emotions at this first experience of privileged southern life. Socially awkward and inexperienced, Kemp is attracted by the reckless and dissipated life of his roommate Christopher Warner, a well-off southerner.

The eponymous Jill is Kemp’s imaginary sister, whom he invents to confound Warner. Kemp then discovers a real-life Jill called Gillian, the 15-year-old cousin of Warner’s friend Elizabeth. Kemp becomes infatuated with Gillian, but his advances are thwarted by Elizabeth and rebuffed by Gillian.

#6. The Gaudy (Part of A Staircase in Surrey Series) by J.I.M. Stewart

‘The Gaudy’ opens in Oxford at the eponymous annual dinner laid on by the Fellows for past members. Distinguished guests, including the Chancellor, are present along with Duncan Pattullo, and get to meet up with both friends and enemies from their undergraduate days.

As the evening wears on, Duncan finds himself embroiled in many of the difficulties and problems faced by some of them, including Lord Marchpayne, now a Cabinet Minister; another Don, Ranald McKenechnie; and Gavin Mogridge who is famous for an account he wrote of his adventures in a South American jungle. But it doesn’t stop there. As Pattullo acquires a few problems of his own various odd developments just add to his difficulties, leading him to take stock of both his past and future.

#7. Oxford: The Last Hurrah by Dafydd Jones

Oxford University at the start of the eighties is rife with black ties and ball gowns. At this time, Oxford was synonymous with the wealthy, the powerful and the privileged. Many of the young people in these pictures moved on to have careers in the establishment including Boris Johnson and David Cameron. In these photographs, however, their youth is undeniable: teenagers in full suits celebrate the rise of Thatcher in England and Reagan in America, in between punting on the river, chasing romance and partying through the night.

#8. Eccentric Oxford by Benedict le Vay

This guidebook goes in search of the quirkier gems among its medieval back alleys. Find out the secrets the colleges don’t want you to know, the inside track on the best pubs and eating places and the gossip about nutty professors and disgraceful students both past and present.

#9. This Secret Garden: Oxford Revisited by Justin Cartwright 

Oxford is many things but it has a symbolic meaning well beyond its buildings, gardens, rituals and teaching.

 It stands for something deep in the Anglo-Saxon mind – excellence, a kind of privilege, a charmed life, deep-veined liberalism, a respect for tradition. Cartwright has spoken to many leading figures, looked at favourite places in Oxford, subjected himself to an English tutorial – he performed very poorly – attended the Fresher’s dinner in his old college, studied various works of art and museums, investigated the claim that dons like detective novels, and reread many Oxford classics.

At the same time, he has looked at some of the great debates which made Oxford what it is, as well as the most recent debate about funding, which ended in a resounding defeat for the reformers.

He depicts the beauty of this historic city, the landscape of enclosed quads and gardens, and the astonishing collection of buildings. Cartwright concludes that the Oxford myth, while outstripping the reality, is as powerful as ever. This is an enchanting and highly original look at Oxford, indispensable reading for anyone interested in the myth and reality of Oxford.

#10. Oxford by Jan Morris

Written by one of the biggest names in travel writing, this is an account of the character, history, buildings, climate, and people of one of Britain’s most fascinating cities.

This book is intended for all those interested in the local history, culture, and architecture of Oxford, especially visitors to Oxford.

#11. Oxford, a Very Peculiar History by David Arscott

David Arscott explores the quirky past of one the UK’s most important cities. From the Morris Minor to spoonerisms, the boat race to the Oxford bag, this title takes a fascinating tour through the streets of Oxford.

Featuring black and white illustrations, witty anecdotes and incredible trivia, readers will be entertained and educated, discovering everything from Oxford’s first origins to its presence in popular culture.

#12. Silent Traveller in Oxford by Chiang Yee

Yee paints a revealing picture of Oxford’s particular atmosphere, its rituals and traditions. He mixes with undergraduates and dons, visits pubs and restaurants, observes Union debates and punting on the river, all with a gentle astonishment and perceptive eye for detail.

First published in 1944, this book evokes a wartime city of shortages and blackouts. It also captures an earlier age of university life, when students drank sherry and scaled college walls to escape prowling Bulldogs.

Illustrated with the author’s own sketches, engravings, and calligraphy, this book is both an atmospheric account of 1940s Oxford and a fascinating “Oriental” view of one of Britain’s best-loved cities.

#13.  An Instance of the Fingerpost by Iain Pears

Set in England in the 1660s, Charles II has been restored to the throne following years of civil war and Cromwell’s short-lived republic.

Oxford is the intellectual seat of the country, a place of great scientific, religious, and political ferment. A fellow of New College is found dead in suspicious circumstances. A young woman is accused of his murder. We hear the story of the death from four witnesses: an Italian physician intent on claiming credit for the invention of blood transfusion; the son of an alleged Royalist traitor; a master cryptographer who has worked for both Cromwell and the king; and a renowned Oxford antiquarian.

Each tells his own version of what happened. Only one reveals the extraordinary truth.

#14. Keep Her Close by M.J. Ford

It is six months since DS Josie Masters saved her nephew from the clutches of the killer clown, but she’s still haunted by that terrible night. The Thames Valley police force, however, regard Jo as a hero – much to the jealousy of some of her colleagues.

When a young girl goes missing from Jesus College, Jo is assigned to the case, along with new recruit, the handsome DS Pryce.

The city of Oxford goes into turmoil when two more girls disappear from Oriel and Somerville, and Josie soon realises that the killer is spelling out her own initials in a deadly game of cat and mouse. This time, the case is personal – but who is the perpetrator?

#15. Girl in Red Velvet by Margaret James

Will loving two men tear your heart apart?

It’s the 1960s and Lily Denham is about to begin her studies at Oxford University.

On her first day she meets Harry Gale and Max Farley, two fellow undergraduates who are both full of mischievous charm. The three of them become firm great friends and enjoy exploring everything Oxford has to offer, from riotous parties to punting up the river on sunny afternoons.

However, something threatens to disrupt the fun, because Lily soon realises she’s falling for both of her new-found friends, men who might offer her two very different futures – but who will she pick? Harry is generous and kind, reliable and trustworthy. Max embodies the spirit of the sixties; adventurous and rebellious, but possibly a little bit dangerous as well.

As university ends and Lily struggles to make her mark on the vibrant fashion scene, she must make a decision. But she soon becomes aware that the wrong decision could have devastating consequences for her own future as well as Max’s and Harry’s.

#16.  Heresy by S.J. Parris

Masterfully blending true events with fiction, this blockbuster historical thriller delivers a page-turning murder mystery set on the sixteenth-century Oxford University campus.

Giordano Bruno was a monk, poet, scientist, and magician on the run from the Roman Inquisition on charges of heresy for his belief that the Earth orbits the sun and that the universe is infinite. This alone could have got him burned at the stake, but he was also a student of occult philosophies and magic.

Bruno’s pursuit of this rare knowledge brings him to London, where he is unexpectedly recruited by Queen Elizabeth I and is sent undercover to Oxford University on the pretext of a royal visitation. Officially Bruno is to take part in a debate on the Copernican theory of the universe; unofficially, he is to find out whatever he can about a Catholic plot to overthrow the queen.

His mission is dramatically thrown off course by a series of grisly murders and a spirited and beautiful young woman. As Bruno begins to discover a pattern in these killings, he realizes that no one at Oxford is who he seems to be. Bruno must attempt to outwit a killer who appears obsessed with the boundary between truth and heresy.

#17. Looking for Eliza by Leaf Arbuthnot

A widow puts up adverts to ‘Rent a Granny’ in an attempt to reconnect with people but it’s not until she finds Eliza, a student recently free of an abusive relationship, that she truly starts to feel less alone.

Ada is a widowed writer, navigating loneliness in Oxford after the death of her husband. She has no children. No grandchildren. She fears she is becoming peripheral, another invisible woman.

Eliza is a student at the university. She finds it difficult to form meaningful relationships after the estrangement of her mother and breakup with her girlfriend.

Can they find what they are looking for in each other, and cast off their isolation for good?

#18.  Magpie Lane by Lucy Atkins

When the eight-year-old daughter of an Oxford College Master vanishes in the middle of the night, police turn to the Scottish nanny, Dee, for answers. As Dee looks back over her time in the Master’s Lodging – an eerie and ancient house – a picture of a high achieving but dysfunctional family emerges: Nick, the fiercely intelligent and powerful father; his beautiful Danish wife Mariah, pregnant with their child; and the lost little girl, Felicity, almost mute, seeing ghosts, grieving her dead mother.

But is Dee telling the whole story? Is her growing friendship with the eccentric house historian, Linklater, any cause for concern? And most of all, why was Felicity silent?

#19. The Reading Party by Fenella Gentleman

It is the 1970s and Oxford’s male institutions are finally opening their doors to women.

Sarah Addleshaw – young, spirited and keen to prove her worth – begins term as the first female academic at her college. She is, in fact, its only female ‘Fellow’.

Impulsive love affairs – with people, places and the ideas in her head – beset Sarah throughout her first exhilarating year as a don, but it is the Reading Party that has the most dramatic impact.

Asked to accompany the first mixed group of students on the annual college trip to Cornwall, Sarah finds herself illicitly drawn to the suave American Tyler. Torn between professional integrity and personal feelings, she faces her biggest challenge yet.

Whether you prefer to read historical fiction, hard-hitting thrillers or true-to-life descriptive prose, the writers of Oxford have not disappointed in their eclectic mix on offer. Regardless of whether you are looking to visit for just a weekend or study at the distinguished university, the hope is that these books will prove somewhat of an insight into this well-established British city.

If you are looking to visit Oxford in the near-future you may also be interested in our Literary City Guide as well as our guide to famous authors that graduated from the prestigious university

Have you read any of the books above, or perhaps a different title that features Oxford?

Disclaimer: Some links in this article are affiliate links, which means that if you purchase through them, we receive a small commission. 

If you are based within the UK or the US and prefer to support independent bookshops, then you can find a full list of all the books and authors mentioned in this article on our bookshop page.  

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Books to read before visiting Oxford. A selection of recommended reads both fictional and non-fictional via @tbookjunkie

 

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