Oxford: In search of my literary heroes

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They say you should never meet your heroes… which is unlikely to happen if your heroes are mostly dead, as mine are. It hasn’t stopped me trying, though. By sheer coincidence, I pass each day on my way to work a run-down house adorned with a blue plaque signifying that Mary Wollstonecraft – probably the hero I admire most of all my dead heroes — once lived there. Obviously Southwark today is far different to Wollstonecraft’s Southwark, but it feels special to me that this woman’s history is entwined with my life, even if it’s in a small, insignificant kind of way.

Inspired by my daily brushes with Wollstonecraft, I found a willing partner in crime and set off on a pilgrimage of sorts to look for evidence of my other (mostly) dead heroes. We took the early train from Paddington and headed to Oxford, a city with links to many of the writers I’ve long admired. I’d like to credit this brilliant Lonely Planet article for helping me research many of the spots we visited, although of course this particular expedition and all photos are totally my own.

Christ Church – Lewis Carroll and Evelyn Waugh

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Grand, sprawling Christ Church is usually considered the most aristocratic of Oxford’s colleges, so no surprise then that Evelyn Waugh chose it as the alma mater of perhaps his most blue-blooded, most compelling, most complex character, Lord Sebastian Flyte. Brideshead Revisited was the first thing I read after finishing my English degree. I had hoped it would provide me with some relief from Foucault and Beowulf and Faulkner’s dense stream-of-consciousness narratives – and it did. It represents for me both the end of reading for academia’s sake, and the blissful rediscovery of devouring books purely for pleasure.

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Christ Church was also home to Charles Dodgson, more commonly known as Lewis Carroll. Dodgson studied and taught there, but more importantly the college was where he met Alice Liddell — the little girl who would serve as inspiration for one of the most famous and iconic characters in all of children’s literature.

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I wrote not one, but two fairly lengthy essays on Alice in Wonderland at university. I’ve read almost all the essays and criticism and books there are to read about Dodgson, including the rumours as to whether Wonderland was the result of some hallucinogenic trip (no) and the grossly oversimplified accusations of paedophilia. The general conclusion reached about Dodgson is that he was a genius – a man who could hold theories of impeccable logic and creative, chaotic absurdities in his mind at the same time. He gave us fantastical poetry; he gave us Alice and the Jabberwocky; he gave us the finest examples of literary nonsense English literature has ever seen.

The Eagle and Child – Tolkien and C.S Lewis

I’ve been searching for a doorway to Narnia pretty much my whole life. I suspected for a long while that the giant, ever-closed wooden door attached to my local stately home might be one. Later it was the huge green gates in my school grounds, which seemed rather mysteriously to lead nowhere. Sadly, I had no luck — but it turns out I would have if I’d come to Oxford as a child. Opposite the University Church of St Mary the Virgin is an ornately carved door bearing a lion’s face, which is said to have inspired the wardrobe door through which the Pevensie children first discover Narnia.

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More traces of C.S Lewis can be found in the Eagle and Child pub, where the Inklings literary club used to meet. Tolkien was also part of the club and evidence of its activities can be seen in a handwritten note to the landlord, which is pinned above the mantelpiece.

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The School of Divinity – J.K Rowling

It seems almost sacriligeous that the ornate hall in the School of Divinity should be cast merely as the Hogwarts infirmary in Harry Potter, but that’s what it was. Rowling didn’t study at Oxford, but many locations around the university were used in the filming of the books, including the Bodleian Library, Christ Church and this ancient, caramel-hued room. I’ve already crawled all over the purpose-built Potter sets, so it was an absolute joy to discover some of the ‘on-location’ locations too.

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The Botanic Garden – Philip Pullman

In His Dark Materials, Pullman writes of two Oxfords: the one familiar to us, and Lyra’s Oxford – a version of the city we know, but situated in a parallel universe.

Of all the fantasies written by former Oxford scholars, Pullman’s is my favourite (not a conclusion I’ve come to easily and without serious consideration), so saving the best till last, we waited until late afternoon to head to go in search of Lyra’s Oxford. Jordan College, the college Lyra grows up in, is loosely based on Exeter College, but there’s no tangible evidence of it in the city, so instead we headed to the city’s Botanic Garden, which does feature. There was the vaguest hint of a chill lingering in the air, but otherwise it was a beautiful spring day and we pretty much had the place to ourselves. We explored the steamy greenhouses and wandered through the walled garden, until we stumbled upon the very thing we’d come to find in the first place.

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It’s impossible to explain the significance of this spot without completely spoiling the end of the trilogy (so look away now — you have been warned). When Lyra and Will, in the first throes of love, realise they must part ways and spend the rest of their lives living in their own universes, they agree that every year, on a certain time of a certain day, they will come and sit on the bench in the botanic garden so as to be close to each other. For the benefit of those that didn’t read this in full as a teenager with all of the feelings, I can assure you that this is pretty much the most tragic, most romantic thing that has ever happened, in any realm – fictional or real.

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Of course Lyra and Will didn’t specify to reader which bench, but some soft-hearted genius with a penknife has taken it upon themselves to etch their names into one, so the hopeless romantics among us can at least pretend. Cheesy? Yes, obviously. Did I care, sitting there in the sunshine, eating cake and laughing with a boy who loves Northern Lights as much as me? Of course not.

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