University of Cambridge in popular culture

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The Great Gate of Trinity College.

Throughout its history, the University of Cambridge has featured heavily in cultural works. Here below are some notable examples.

Literature[edit]

  • In The Reeve's Tale from The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer, the two main characters are students at Soler Halle. It is believed that this refers to King's Hall, which is now part of Trinity College.
  • In Portraits of Places (1883 travel book), Henry James describes the college backs as "the loveliest confusion of gothic windows and ancient trees, of grassy banks and mossy balustrades, of sun‐chequered avenues and groves, of lawns and gardens and terraces, of single arched bridges spanning the little stream, which ... looks as if it had been 'turned on' for ornamental purposes."
  • In Lions and Shadows (1938 autobiography), Christopher Isherwood writes extensively about his time at the university.
  • In The Facts of Life (1939 short story) by W. Somerset Maugham, the main character Nicky attends Peterhouse due to its reputation in Lawn Tennis.
  • Jill Paton Walsh is the author of four detective stories featuring Imogen Quy, the nurse at St. Agatha's, a fictional Cambridge college: The Wyndham Case (1993), A Piece of Justice (1995), Debts of Dishonour (2006) and The Bad Quarto (2007).

Novels[edit]

Before 1900[edit]

1900–1950[edit]

  • In the Psmith series (1908–1923 collection of novels) by P. G. Wodehouse, both the title character and Mike, his closest friend, study at Cambridge University.
  • In Women in Love (1920 novel) by D. H. Lawrence, the character Joshua is introduced at the dinner table as a Cambridge don. Over the course of the meal he explains, in accordance with the idiosyncratic stereotype, how "education is like gymnastics".
  • In Jacob's Room (1922 novel) by Virginia Woolf, the protagonist Jacob Flanders attends Cambridge.
  • In A Passage to India (1924 novel) by E. M. Forster, the Indian Hamidullah refers to his time at Cambridge to support his argument that it is easier to befriend Englishmen in England than in India.
  • In The Case of the Missing Will (1924 short story) by Agatha Christie, the detective Hercule Poirot receives an unusual request for help from a Miss Violet Marsh, a graduate of Girton College.
  • In The Good Companions (1929 novel) by J. B. Priestley, the character Inigo Jollifant is introduced as a Cambridge graduate.
  • In The Waves (1931 novel) by Virginia Woolf, the characters Bernard and Neville are both graduates of Cambridge University.
  • Darkness at Pemberley (1932 novel) by T. H. White features St Bernard's College, a fictionalised version of Queens' College.
  • Glory (1932 novel) by Vladimir Nabokov is the story of an émigré student who escapes from Russia and is educated at Cambridge before returning to his native country.
  • In The Citadel (1937 novel) by A. J. Cronin, the protagonist's initial rival and close friend, Philip Denny, is a Cambridge graduate. Dr Hope, another of the protagonist's main associates, spends much of his time at Cambridge where he is completing a medical degree.
  • Out of the Silent Planet (1938 novel) by C. S. Lewis begins at Cambridge University, where Elwin Ransom, the protagonist of The Space Trilogy, is Professor of Philology. The trilogy also features the University of Edgestow, a fictional institution which is essentially a third Oxbridge.
  • The Hills of Varna (1948 novel) by Geoffrey Trease begins with main character Alan Drayton being sent down from his Cambridge college after it emerges that he was involved in a tavern brawl. His Cambridge tutor, Erasmus, sends him to the continent to try to retrieve a manuscript of The Gadfly, a lost play by the ancient Greek writer Alexis from the time of Socrates.

1950–1999[edit]

  • The Masters (1951 novel), The Affair (1960 Novel) and The Light and the Dark (1947 novel) by C. P. Snow, both feature an unnamed fictional college, partly based on the author's own, Christ's.
  • Facial Justice by L. P. Hartley (1960 novel) is set in a dystopian Cambridge sometime after the Third World War: "Cambridge - for so the settlement was named - was built on the supposed site of the famous University town, not a vestige of which remained."
  • At the start of Trouble with Lichen (1960 novel) by John Wyndham, the heroine, Diana Brackley, studies Biochemistry at Cambridge.
  • The Millstone (1965 novel) by Margaret Drabble is the story of a young female Cambridge academic who becomes pregnant and is forced into a completely alien life style.
  • The House on the Strand (1969 novel) by Daphne du Maurier is the story of two Cambridge graduates who have created a drug that enables time travel. They frequently refer to their college days.
  • Maurice (1971 novel) by E. M. Forster is about the homosexual relationship of two Cambridge undergraduates.
  • Porterhouse Blue (1974 novel) and its sequel Grantchester Grind (1995 Novel) by Tom Sharpe both feature Porterhouse, a fictional Cambridge college.
  • In Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (1974 novel) by John le Carré, two recurring characters in the Smiley series, Percy Alleline and Control, the anonymous head of The Circus, are described as having begun their rivalry at Cambridge.
  • Timescape (1980 novel) by Gregory Benford is the story of a group of scientists at the University of Cambridge and their attempts to warn the past about a series of global disasters that have left the world in a state of disarray. Benford's short story, Anomalies, is also set at Cambridge, where the main character, an amateur astronomer from Ely, meets the Master of Jesus College.
  • Floating Down to Camelot (1985 novel) by David Benedictus is set entirely at Cambridge University and was inspired by the author's time at Churchill College.
  • Still Life (1985 novel) by A. S. Byatt features Cambridge University.
  • In Redback (1986 novel), Howard Jacobson creates the fictional Malapert College, drawing on his experiences at Downing College and Selwyn College.
  • Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency (1987 Novel) by Douglas Adams contains considerable material recycled from the aborted Shada, therefore much of the action likewise takes place at St. Cedd's College, Cambridge.
  • The Matthew Bartholomew Chronicles (1990s novels) by Susanna Gregory, is a series of murder mysteries set in and around the university in medieval Cambridge.
  • The Gate of Angels (1990 novel) by Penelope Fitzgerald is about a young Cambridge University physicist who falls in love with a nurse after a bicycle accident. The novel is set in 1912, at a time when Cambridge was at the heart of a revolution in Physics.
  • Avenging Angel (1990 novel) by Kwame Anthony Appiah is largely set at the University.
  • Air and Angels (1991 novel) by Susan Hill is largely set at Cambridge, where the Revd Thomas Cavendish, a university don, falls in love with Kitty, a young Indian girl.
  • For the Sake of Elena (1992 novel) by Elizabeth George features a fictional Cambridge college called St Stephen's.
  • In A Philosophical Investigation (1992 novel) by Philip Kerr, the government call on Cambridge's Professor of Philosophy to talk 'Wittgenstein', a murderous virtual being, into committing suicide.
  • In Stephen Fry's novels The Liar (1993) and Making History (1997), the main characters attend Cambridge University.
  • In A Suitable Boy (1993 novel) by Vikram Seth, one of Lata's would-be suitors, a fellow college student, dreams of attending Cambridge University.

Since 2000[edit]

  • In When We Were Orphans (2000 novel) by Kazuo Ishiguro, the protagonist, Detective Christopher Banks, begins his narrative immediately after graduating from Cambridge.
  • In Atonement (2001 novel) by Ian McEwan, the characters Cecilia and Robbie arrive home from Cambridge at the start of the novel.
  • Wittgenstein's Poker (2001 novel) by David Edmonds recounts the celebrated confrontation between Sir Karl Popper and Ludwig Wittgenstein at Cambridge University's Moral Sciences Club.
  • In Elizabeth Costello (2003 novel) by J. M. Coetzee, the title character is a former Cambridge student.
  • In the Maisie Dobbs mystery series (2003–2010 collection of novels) by Jacqueline Winspear the heroine is a former student of Girton College, having attended before and after World War I.
  • In Cloud Atlas (2004 novel) by David Mitchell, two of the main characters, Robert Frobisher and Timothy Cavendish, meet while studying at Gonville and Caius College.
  • The Indian Clerk (2007 novel) by David Leavitt is an account of the career of the self-taught mathematical genius Srinivasa Ramanujan, as seen mainly through the eyes of his mentor and collaborator G. H. Hardy, a British mathematics professor at Cambridge University.
  • Engleby (2007 novel) by Sebastian Faulks is largely set at a fictionalised version of Cambridge University.
  • In The Sense of an Ending (2011 novel) by Julian Barnes, Adrian Finn, one of the central characters, studies Moral Sciences at Cambridge. The minor character Brother Jack is also a Cambridge student and the young English teacher Phil Dixon is a recent graduate.

Poems[edit]

  • In The Prelude (1805 poem) by William Wordsworth, the entire third chapter is based on the poet's time at Cambridge.
  • In Memoriam A.H.H. (1849 poem) by Alfred, Lord Tennyson is a requiem written in memory of the poet's Cambridge friend Arthur Henry Hallam. The poem features numerous references to their time together at Trinity College, "the reverend walls in which of old I wore the gown".
  • The Caterpillar and the Men from Cambridge (1943 poem) by Weldon Kees is a satirical response to the teachings of Cambridge literary critics I. A. Richards and C. K. Ogden.
  • On the Beach at Cambridge (1984 poem) by Adrian Mitchell is written from the point of view of someone sitting on a beach and looking out to sea, where the remnants of Cambridge University, as represented by the trademark spires and towers of the colleges, may just about be seen above the water. The poem was written to draw attention to the dangers of climate change and rising sea levels.

Stage[edit]

  • In Utopia, Limited (1892 opera) by Gilbert and Sullivan, the entrance of the character Princess Zara, who is returning from her studies at Girton College, is heralded by a song called "Oh, maiden rich in Girton lore". In the earlier Gilbert and Sullivan opera Princess Ida (1884), the princess founds a women's university and the subject of women's education in the Victorian era is broadly explored and parodied.
  • Mrs. Warren's Profession (1894 play) by George Bernard Shaw focuses on the relationship between Mrs Warren, described by the author as "on the whole, a genial and fairly presentable old blackguard of a woman" and her Cambridge-educated daughter, Vivie, who is horrified to discover that her mother's fortune was made managing high-class brothels.
  • In many novels and plays by Thomas Bernhard (written between 1970 and 2006), Cambridge (Geistesnest) is the refuge of a Geistesmensch escaping from Austria.
  • In Professional Foul (1977 play) by Tom Stoppard, the main character, Anderson, is Professor of Philosophy at Cambridge University.
  • In Rock 'n Roll (2006 play) by Tom Stoppard, Cambridge University is a key setting.
  • A Disappearing Number (2007 play) by Simon McBurney is about a famous collaboration between two very different Cambridge scholars: Srinivasa Ramanujan, a poor, self-taught Brahmin from southern India, and G. H. Hardy, an upper-class Englishman and world-renowned Professor of Mathematics.

Film[edit]

Television[edit]

Radio[edit]

Audio book[edit]

  • The Dongle of Donald Trefusis (2009 audiobook) by Stephen Fry is a 12-part series in which Fry, as himself, receives an inheritance from his (fictional) former Cambridge tutor, Donald Trefusis, who has recently died. The inheritance includes a USB drive (or "dongle") which contains messages from Trefusis to Fry from beyond the grave.

Computer game[edit]

  • Civilization (1991 video game) by Sid Meier features 'Isaac Newton's College' as a Wonder of the World. This could be a reference to Cambridge University as a whole or to Trinity College specifically. However, the video accompanying the wonder in Civilization II (1996) erroneously shows the University of Oxford.

References[edit]

  1. ^ Dorothy L. Sayers, "Holmes' College Career", for the Baker Street Studies, edited by H.W. Bell, 1934. Sayers's analysis was somewhat tongue-in-cheek. In the foreword to Unpopular Opinions, in which her essay appeared, Sayers says that the "game of applying the methods of the Higher Criticism to the Sherlock Holmes canon ... has become a hobby among a select set of jesters here and in America."