Cambridge Writers: 23 People Everyone Should be Reading

Famous Cambridge writers that you will all want to read. From Poets and playwrights to novelists and historians, these authors cover a diverse list of genres and span across several 100 years. Via @tbookjunkie

Everyone has heard of Cambridge University, it is one of those universities that the most studious amongst us dream of being accepted into. People yearn to be able to wander the historic corridors, arms piled high with books on the way to a lecture by one of the greatest minds currently willing to share their knowledge. However, with close to 20,000 applications a year and an acceptance rate of just 23% for their undergraduate courses, these coveted positions are few are far between.

It should, however, be of no surprise that among those that are accepted, many go on to have amazing careers in their chosen field, including those that have mastered the art of writing.

Looking at the list of most remarkable literary alumni that have graduated from one of the 31 colleges of Cambridge you will find names associated with poetry, classical literature, award-winning novels and literary criticism.

Famous Writers who graduated from Cambridge

Poet and Playwright, Thomas Shadwell, famous writer who attended Cambridge

Thomas Shadwell

#1 Thomas Shadwell

While he didn’t actually graduate from Cambridge, he did attend the university during the 1650s. This writer and playwright is one of those honoured at Poet’s Corner, Westminster Abbey in London.

He wrote 18 plays in total and was named Poet Laureate during the reign of William III whilst also working as a historiographer for the King. He, unfortunately, died of an opium overdose; a drug once used to relieve gout.

Best known works:

The Sullen Lovers, The Royal Shepherdess and The Enchanted Island.

#2 Lord Bryon

He was one of the leading poets during the Romantic movement of the late 1800s and is still, today, classed as one of Britain’s greatest poets. He was known for his frequent travelling, opting to spend a great deal of his time in Italy as well as holidaying with friends including Percy Shelley in locations like Lausanne in Switzerland.

Best known works:

Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage, Don Juan and The Prisoner of Chillon

Lord Tennyson portrait

Lord Tennyson (Image provided by JamesGardinerCollection)

#3 Lord Tennyson

As Poet Laureate during Queen Victoria’s reign, the name of Tennyson is at least recognised by most people even if they are unaware of what he wrote. Tennyson was the first-ever writer to be awarded a peerage title by the British Crown, and while he was never comfortable with the title, he finally accepted it in order to help secure a future for his son.

Best known works:

Timbuktu, The Charge of the Light Brigade and In Memoriam A.H.H.

Portrait of William Wordsworth

William Wordsworth (Image provided by Benjamin Haydon)

#4 William Wordsworth

Born in the Lake District, Wordsworth became Poet Laureate in 1843 and retained the title until his death even though he received no end of criticism at the time about his work. It is general accepted that his work did deteriorate over time and that he went from being a young Romantic revolutionary to an egotistical, ageing humanist.

Best known works:

Daffodils, Ode to Duty and The Prelude.

Samuel Taylor Coleridge protrait

Samuel Taylor Coleridge (Image provided by Books18)

#5 Samuel Taylor Coleridge

One of the founders of the Romantic movement, Coleridge was a poet,  literary critic, philosopher and a theologian and never shied away from discussing political turmoil or the nature of society with others.

His writing changed with his moods and could often turn quite dark when he was going through periods of personal turbulence. It is said that his work as a literary artist was more varied than most although people say he never really realised his full potential.

Best known works:

The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, Kubla Khan and Biographia Literaria.

Sylvia Plath and her husband Ted Hughes, famous writers of Cambridge University

Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes (Image provided by summonedbyfells)

#6 Sylvia Plath

This American novelist and poet wrote several well-known works that lead to her receiving a Pulitzer Prize for Poetry albeit posthumously. Suffering for much of her adult life, she was diagnosed as clinically depressed and treated many times with electroconvulsive therapy but nothing worked and unfortunately, the tortured writer committed suicide at the young age of 30.

Best known works:

The Colossus, The Bell Jar and Ariel.

#7 Ted Hughes

Husband of Sylvia Plath, Ted Hughes was an English poet, translator and Children’s writer whose passion for folklore and anthropology was often reflected in his work. For the first three years after Plath’s death, Hughes struggled to write but thereafter he became a prolific writer and was frequently published.

There has been a question about the part that Hughes played in the mental deterioration and the detrimental impact he had on his wife and it has been suggested that he censored a lot of her unpublished works by burning them after her death, which makes people question what part he played in her demise.

Best known works:

 The Hawk in the Rain, Crow and the children’s book The Iron Man.

portrait of Vladimir Nabokov, a famous writer who once attended Cambridge University

Vladimir Nabokov (Image provided by 九间)

#8 Vladimir Nabokov

Born in Russia, he wrote his first novels in his native language, but it wasn’t until he started writing in English that he found true success. He also wrote articles on criminal law and politics, one in particular, ‘The Provisional Government (1922)’, which was a primary source on the downfall of the socialist revolutionary, Aleksandr Kerensky.

He started at Cambridge on a full scholarship which was awarded to prominent Russians in exile and decided to study Zoology although he soon switched from that, deciding instead to read French and Russian Literature.

Best known works:

Lolita, Speak, Memory and Pale Fire.

E.M. Forster photo, famous writer from Cambridge University

E.M. Forster (Image provided by Humanist Life)

#9 E.M. Forster

After an unhappy childhood, Forster seemed to flourish during his time at King’s College and became part of a discussion society known as the Apostles. This secret group used to meet to discuss philosophical and moral questions with many of the group going on to form the well-known Bloomsbury Group.

The acclaimed author had five novels published during his lifetime and was for the Nobel Prize for Literature no less than 16 times.

Best known works:

A Room with a View, Howard’s End and A Passage to India

Portrait of A.A. Milne, author of Winnie the Pooh, ones of the famous writers of Cambridge University

A.A. Milne (Image provided by Jeremy Lee-Jenkins)

#10 A.A. Milne

After graduated from Cambridge with a degree in Mathematics, Milne went on to serve in both the First and Second World Wars. Throughout his life though, he continued to write books about a now very famous bear as well as contributing humorous verse and whimsical essays to the Punch, a weekly British magazine covering politics and culture.

Best known works:

Winnie-the-Pooh, The House at Pooh Corner and The Red House Mystery

#11 Dame Iris Murdoch

This intelligent lady is one of the few that has studied at both Oxford and Cambridge. Not only a novelist but also a philosopher Murdoch’s work is known for containing themes of good versus evil, morality and the power of the unconscious which has caused mixed reviews among literary critics.

She was awarded the Booker Prize in 1978 while in 1987 she was made Dame by Queen Elizabeth II for her contributions to literature.

Best known works:

The Sea, The Sea, Under the Net and The Sovereignty of Good.

Portrait of Zadie Smith author and famous writer of Cambridge University

Zadie Smith (Image provided by David Shankbone)

#12 Zadie Smith

Zadie Smith started to publish short stories while at Cambridge and by the time she had completed her final year at the University she has finished her debut novel. Since then she has gone on to write several emotive novels reflecting modern life.

Over the years she has been nominated for several awards including the Women’s Prize for Fiction and the Man Booker Prize. She has won the Orange Prize for Fiction and has been elected as a fellow into the Royal Society of Literature.

Best known works:

White Teeth, The Autograph Man, On Beauty, and Swing Time.

Portrait of Sebastian Faulks author

Sebastian Faulks (Image provided by Elena Torre)

#13 Sebastian Faulks

Faulks left Cambridge and started to work as a journalist for the Daily and Sunday Telegraph before going on to become the first literary editor of The Independent. It was during this time that his first novel was published.

Since then he has written several historical novels many of which are set in France as well as some contemporary fiction, a James Bond novel and a continuation to PG. Wodehouse’s Jeeves and Wooster series.

Best known works:

The French Charles Hartmann Trilogy which includes The Girl at the Lion d’Or, Birdsong and Charlotte Gray, and A Week in December.

Stephen Fry, author actor and comedian

Stephen Fry (Image provided by Dunk)

#14 Stephen Fry

As an actor, comedian and writer, Stephen Fry is perhaps one of Britain’s most loved academics. Probably best known for his roles in Jeeves and Wooster and Blackadder, alongside his long-time friend, fellow actor and comedian Hugh Laurie, Fry is now a well-known name in many British households.

Not only is he an accomplished actor and presenter, but he has also gone on to record several audiobooks and has had written success with both fictional and non-fictional books.

Best known works:

The Liar, The Hippopotamus and, the Greek trilogy of Mythos, Heroes and Troy.

Salman Rushdie, author of the Satanic Verses

Salman Rushdie (Image provided by David Shankbone)

#15 Salman Rushdie

One of the most controversial writers to ever study at Cambridge, Rushdie is best known for combining magical realism with historical fiction. One work, in particular, has caused so much uproar in the Islamic world that death threats were made, protests took place and bookshops around the world stocking his work were firebombed.

Best known works:

Midnight Children and The Satanic Verses.

Maggie O'Farrell, author and Cambridge University graduate

Maggie O’Farrell (Image provided by Roberto Ricciuti)

#16 Maggie O’Farrell

As well as being an author, Maggie O’Farrell has worked as a journalist in Hong Kong, been the deputy literary editor of The Independent on Sunday and has taught at both The University of Warwick and Goldsmith’s College in London.

During her writing career, she has won many awards including The Costa Book Awards and The Women’s Prize for Fiction.

Best known works:

I am, I am, I am, After You’d Gone and Hamnet.

William Dalrymple, author, writer and historian

William Dalrymple (Image provided by Premmath Kudva)

#17 William Dalrymple 

Dalrymple has had an amazing career as a historian, art historian, curator, writer, broadcaster and critic. He is also the cousin of Virginia Woolf.

His interest lies in the history of India, Pakistan, Afghanistan, and the Middle East, as well as the religions of those countries, and he has written several books on his own experiences of travelling this area.

Best known works:

In Xanadu, City of Djinns: A Year in Delhi and From the Holy Mountain: A Journey in the Shadow of Byzantium.

Margaret Drabble, literary critic and author

Margaret Drabble (Image provided by losarciniegas)

#18 Margaret Drabble

Perhaps best known for her work editing The Oxford Companion to English Literature, Margaret Drabble is a notable name for many English Literature students.

After graduating from Cambridge, she joined the Royal Shakespeare Company in Stratford-Upon-Avon, where she was once an understudy for Vanessa Redgrave before she left to pursue a career in literary studies and writing.

Best known works:

The Millstone, Jerusalem the Golden and The Needle’s Eye.

Christopher Isherwood Author

Christopher Isherwood (Image provided by Allan Warren)

#19 Christopher Isherwood

While Isherwood did attend Cambridge, he never graduated. During his second year, he decided to write jokes and limericks instead of real answers across one of his undergraduate exam papers which resulted in him being asked to leave.

After leaving Cambridge he worked as a private tutor while also supposedly joining the Auden Literary Group, which was essentially a journalistic myth.

He later moved to Germany, before finally settling in America where he befriended Truman Capote.

Best known works:

The Memorial, Mr Norris Changes Trains and Goodbye to Berlin.

Christopher Marlowe, Poet and contemporary of William Shakespeare.

Christopher Marlowe (Image provided by Ann Longmore-Etheridge)

#20 Christopher Marlowe

One of the most famous Elizabethan playwrights, Christopher Marlowe was also a poet and a translator. Not everything was straightforward for the writer as there were some who said that Marlowe had discussed going to France to be ordained as a Roman Catholic Priest which was a direct violation of the royal edict of the time.

Best known works:

Tamburlaine, Dido, Queen of Carthage and The Jew of Malta.

Peter Ackroyd writer and Cambridge graduate

Peter Ackroyd (Image provided by Antony Medley)

#21 Peter Ackroyd

As a biographer, novelist and critic with an interest in history he has written many biographies about some of the world’s most notable writers and artists. He has worked at The Spectator as literary editor, The Times as their chief book reviewer and has been a frequent broadcaster across many radio stations.

Best known works:

The Canterbury Tales – A Retelling, A Brief Guide to William Shakespeare and Hawksmoor.

Joanne Harris writer

Joanne Harris (Image provided by InfoGibraltar

#22 Joanne Harris

After graduating, Joanne Harris went on to teach for fifteen years at both Grammar Schools and Sheffield University.  It was while working at a University Lecturer that she started to work on a number of different book ideas, one of which once published did so well it was turned into an Oscar-nominated film.

Best known works:

Chocolat, The Lollipop Shoes and Peaches for Monsieur le Cure.

#23 Nick Hornby

After working as an English Teacher, Nick Hornby then became a journalist for various publications before turning full-time to writing as a novelist, essayist and screenwriter.

In 2010, he co-founded the Ministry of Stories, a writing charity aimed at young people giving them the opportunity to develop their writing and literary skills in the hope that they will develop a passion for it.

Best known works:

High Fidelity, About A Boy, How To Be Good, A Long Way Down and Juliet, Naked.

There are, of course, many more Cantabrigians that, after graduating, have gone on to have successful careers as writers, with several still writing exceptional works today.

Have you read anything by any of the Cambridge Writers mentioned above? Do you have a favourite author that graduated from Cambridge that I haven’t mentioned?

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23 Cambridge writers that everyone should be reading. From Poets and Playwrights to modern day novelists and Historians, these writers are all well-known names that you will recognise. Check out who features on the list via @tbookjunkie

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