Detective fiction, blurbs trumpeted, were the favorite reading of university professors. Oxford dons may have delighted in the intricate problems of Agatha Christie and Dorothy L. Sayers, but they were less keen on letting women into the university’s hallowed precincts – as retired UNE academic Alison Hoddinott writes in her new book, Women, Oxford & Novels of Crime.
The book will be launched at Readers’ Companion at 12pm on Saturday. In it, Hoddinott surveys crime novels from the 1930s to the present day, to show how women dealt with both the mystery and its solution, and with the situation of women within the university and in the wider community.
“The novels constituted a history of the development of the role of women in Oxford University,” Ms Hoddinott explained.
Mid-century novels are concerned with women’s right to academic study at Oxford, and their place in society.
Foremost among them is Dorothy L. Sayers’ 1935 classic Gaudy Night, which argues for “intellectual integrity as the one great permanent value in an emotionally unstable world”, and examines the choice between the celibate intellect and marriage, principle versus loyalty, the competing needs of duty to the truth and duty to other people, and the importance of balance.
“Reading these crime novels,” Ms Hoddinott said, “has taught me a great deal about Oxford and the extent to which it has traditionally been a man's world and has remained resistant to the acceptance of women long after 1920, when the first women were allowed to graduate.”
Ms Hoddinott experienced that resistance first-hand, as a student in the 1950s.
”I was surprised when I went there at how much women were excluded,” she said.
Inspired by the poets Matthew Arnold and Gerard Manley Hopkins, and, above all, by Gaudy Night, which introduced her to the idea of university life, Ms Hoddinott had her heart set on Oxford.
She was surprised to find the dreaming spires did not live up to her dreams; Oxford was a bastion of misogyny, and hardly welcoming to an Australian woman.
Although Ms Hoddinott had a scholarship and a Master’s degree from the University of Tasmania under her belt, she struggled to find a supervisor. One pointblank refused to accept women students; another thought a doctorate would be useless, as she was bound to marry; while J.R.R. Tolkien, then-Merton Professor of English, thought she should leave there and go back again.
This was in 1954, five years before women’s colleges were accepted as full members of the university.
By contrast, her great-aunt had graduated from the University of Tasmania half a century before.
In the end, Ms Hoddinott married, and left Oxford without completing her doctorate. She returned to Australia with her Welsh husband. Both taught English at UNE for many years, Hoddinott specialising in Victorian literature.
"I said to my publishers, the book was my revenge on Oxford, and they laughed - but in a way, it was, because I went there expecting it to be welcoming to women, and in fact it was very much a masculine society."
Matters changed with the introduction of the Pill in the 1960s, which gave women control over their bodies, and greater personal and professional freedom, and the move in the 1980s to make all colleges co-educational.
“The Oxford crime novel is still concerned with the feminist theme,” Ms Hoddinott said, “but it now places a coeducational university in the context of worldwide philosophical and political problems.”
One recent novel, for instance, contrasts the philosophical views of three Muslim women from different backgrounds.
Ms Hoddinott is always happy to return to Oxford – but, like many women, she finds that while she admires the buildings, the historical underlying misogyny is a darker element.
“There is a contrast,” she said, “between the ordered beauty of the colleges and the disorder of underlying human emotions.”
Women, Oxford & Novels of Crime is published by Brandl & Schlesinger. More information is available on their website.