Women, Oxford & Novels of Crime by Alison Hoddinott
Sometimes it's good to step outside the fictional world and see where the form has come from, and the impacts had as a result. Alison Hoddinott's analysis of crime novels set within or written by, Oxford University connected women is an eye opener in terms of the range of writers it covers, and the history of women's position within wider society and the halls of Oxford in particular.
A very pointed, short work of 140 something pages, WOMEN, OXFORD & NOVELS OF CRIME nonetheless covers a lot of ground. An academic analysis of writing, place and women's position, it's very readable and a timely and pointed reminder of the distance travelled, and the length of the road in front.
It is sometimes supposed that Dorothy Sayers' Gaudy Night, published in 1935, which combined the traditional detective story with the serious theme of the uncomfortable choices facing university-educated women, was the novel that established Oxford as a setting for crime fiction.
In fact, three novels, published in the immediately preceding years - two by Oxford-educated men and one by an Ameridan woman - used Oxford streets, colleges and academic customs to demonstrate the contrast between the calm appearance of beauty and intellectual detachment and the darker undercurrents associated with human emotions.
Here Hoddinott is referring to The Oxford Murders (1929) by Adam Broome (pseudonym of Godfrey Warden James, Oxford-educated barrister), An Oxford Tragedy (1933) by J.C. Masterman and The Body in the Turl (1934) by David Frome (pseudonym of Mrs Zenith Brown, American wife of a former Rhodes Scholar, then Professor of English at St John's College). Hoddinott comments that "It is remarkable how many women writers of Oxford crime fiction have fathers, uncles, husbands, brothers or sons who are academics", although to be honest, after having now read this excellent analysis a number of times, this reader is leaning towards the view that those male figures in and around Oxford's various colleges should think themselves lucky that the murders plotted were, it seems, mostly fictional...
The Oxford crime novel is still concerned with the feminist theme, but it now places a coeducational university in the context of worldwide philisophical and political problems.
In a time of great political disappointments, of #metoo and the ongoing fight for recognition of diversity, equality and fairness, it seems that the writers of Oxford Crime, past, present and future, have a lot of material to work with.
Alison Hoddinott writes about the history of crime fiction set in Oxford, from the early decades of the 20th century to the present. Her emphasis is on novels written by women and the ways in which their fiction deals with both the mystery and its solution and with the situation of women within the university and in the wider community.