Top Five Campus Novels Written by Women

5th Jul 2013

Across the world, students have packed up their possessions, vacated dormitories, halls and student housing and headed home to await their exam results. But although another academic year is over, there are a few campus novels who graduate the genre with first class honours.

So here are a few of our favourite campus novels for your summer reading list. If these don’t make you pine for term-time, come and see us after class. But we can’t guarantee it won’t mean detention.

gaudy night

Gaudy Night by Dorothy L. Sayers (1935)

The campus: Shrewbury College, an all-women institution at Oxford, based on Somerville College, where Sayers was a scholarship student from 1912-15. At the time, women couldn’t be awarded degrees but in 1920 Sayers was among the first to get her MA there when the position changed.

But in Gaudy Night, the prestigious and supposedly picture-perfect Shrewsbury is being subject to a campaign of mischief and malice, including pranks, sinister poison-pen letters, vandalism, graffiti and the occasional threatening effigy, creating an atmosphere of suspicion and fear.

The characters: Jonathan Creek crime-fighting predecessors Harriet Vane (a notorious crime writer who Sayer admit was based on herself) and Lord Peter Wimsey (an aristocratic gentleman detective who Vane originally meets while on trial for poisoning her lover).

Initially returning to Oxford for an alumni dinner at Shrewsbury, Vane is soon talked into staying, and hopefully preventing the threats and violence from escalating into murder by deducing who’s responsible.

Read it because: Dubbed “the first feminist mystery novel,” it’s a fun, easy-to-read romp with suspense, thrills and romance, but it also explores important issues, like class, the tension between love and independence and women’s access to academic education.

The perpetrator of the increasingly extreme ‘pranks’ seems to be trying to discredit and damage Shrewsbury, and by extension the wider women’s education movement. A fascinating fictional insight into a turbulent and tense but ultimately game-changing time.

Memorable quote: “Do you find it easy to get drunk on words?” “So easy that, to tell you the truth, I am seldom perfectly sober.”


On Beauty by Zadie Smith (2005)

The campus: Wellington College in a fictional Massachusetts town, written in part during Smith’s fellowship at Harvard’s Radcliffe Institute.

Smith admit that her own experiences as a student were woven into the book, explaining that “a university is one of the most precious of human institutions; that’s why when they fall short of their own ideals, you feel so cheated.”

The characters: The middle-class Belsey family (English husband Howard, African American Kiki and their three children), seemingly living the dream but inwardly alienated, confused and insecure, and their new-in-town counterparts, the Kippses.

Although initially rivals, when mothers Carlene and Kiki become friends, the families are forced to face their distrust of each other, along their their assorted other issues.

Read it because: A tribute to and modern update of Howard’s End by E. M. Forster, On Beauty takes on grand themes such as identity, love, loss, class and culture, while retaining Smith’s spellbinding blend of humour, originality and observation.

It was shortlisted for the Man Booker and won the Orange Prize (now the Women’s Prize for Fiction) in 2006, further cementing Smith’s reputation as an accomplished and engaging contemporary storyteller.

Memorable quote: “The greatest lie ever told about love is that it sets you free.”

(But honourable mentions for: “A carefully preserved English accent also upped the fear factor,” “each couple is its own vaudeville act” and “Any woman who counts on her face is a fool.”)


Beasts by Joyce Carol Oates (2002)

The campus: Catamount College, 1975; a women’s college in a seemingly idyllic snowy township in the Berkshire Mountains, southwestern Massachusetts.

Except that the twelve students in Heath Cottage keep being woken by alarms and commotion on campus; there’s an arsonist at large starting mysterious fires, and the women believe it could be one of their classmates.

The characters: Unreliable narrator Gillian Brauer, an anxious and sensitive Bright Young Thing taking the poetry workshop taught by creepy, charismatic Andre Harrow, an anti-establishment lecturer obsessed with D.H. Lawrence, dubious seductions, psycho-sexual manipulation and power-play.

With his wife Dorcas, a passionate French sculptor who courts art-world controversy with her taboo totem poles, the bohemian pair weave a weird, hynoptic web in which Gillian finds herself entangled.

Read it because: In true Oates tradition, it’s a sinister and unsettling blend of genres and tropes, combining gothic obsession and decadence with romance, psychological horror and suspense to explore desire, innocence, collusion and control.

Memorable quote: “I love insult, it’s always honest.”


The Professor’s House by Willa Cather (1925)

The campus: Hamilton University, a fictional college north of Chicago, near Lake Michigan, with red-brick buildings and groves of pine trees, overlooked by the house of the book’s title.

The characters: Professor Godfrey St. Peter, a handsome 51-year-old history lecturer with hawk-eyes, wicked eyebrows and the beginnings of a mid-life crisis; his wife, Lilian, his polar opposite who is obsessed with status and “occupied with the future,”plus their two daughters and sons-in-law. A motley cast of contrasting characters from who Godfrey is growing ever more distant and disenchanted.

Read it because: With its tone of quiet melancholy and nostlagia for times gone by, The Professor’s House was nevertheless ahead of its time with is fragmented, experimental structure, but to this day remains almost obscure in comparison to Cather’s better known books like O Pioneers! and One of Ours.

Exploring issues including greed and materialism, moral decline in money-driven societies, modern technology vs nature, it remains a compelling picture of post-war 1920s America.

Memorable quote: “The heart of another is a dark forest, always, no matter how close it has been to one’s own.”


No other campus novel can ever come close to being as perfect as this.The Secret History by Donna Tartt (1992)

The campus: Hampden College in Vermont, surrounded by meadows, maple trees and mountain streams, where the “trees are schizophrenic and beginning to lose control, enraged with the shock of their fiery new colours.”

Based on Bennington, where Tartt was a student, to Californian narrator Richard it is dizzyingly wonderful, and he spends the first days before classes start “roaming like a sleepwalker, stunned and drunk with beauty.”

The characters: Julian Morrow, the mysterious, clever and charismatic professor about whom many contradictory rumours abound, and whose sunlit classroom features artistic masterpieces, hothouse flowers and Oriental rugs.

Richard’s fellow students, a precocious group of misfits who look, dress and act a world apart from their peers,”like figures from an allegory, or long-dead celebrants from some forgotten garden party.” And a supporting cast just as flawed, fascinating and finely-drawn.

Read it because: No other campus novel can ever come close to being as perfect as this. In twenty years, Donna Tartt’s debut has become a modern classic, telling the story of a circle of six eccentric classics students and Richard’s ‘morbid longing for the picturesque at all costs.’

Vivid, powerful and beloved by everyone from Ruth Rendell to Bret Easton Ellis, it’s gripping and gorgeously-crafted, so read or re-read it as soon as you can. We know you won’t be disappointed.

Memorable quote: “Anything is grand if it’s done on a large enough scale.”

Which other campus novels will be making you miss term-time this summer? Are there any others we should scour the library for when school’s back in session in September?

Jane Bradley

(Top image via quinn.anya)


  • Kristina Wilde says:

    Beasts sounds PHENOMENAL and I kind of can’t believe I’ve never read Joyce Carol Oates before (oops). I love school/education-related-settings, there’s something naive but cultish about them, in a strange way.