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Classroom and Campus Classics: The Best School Stories and University Novels

Posted on 20th August 2019 by Mark Skinner

As pupils and students across the land start to hear the siren call of school and university drawing them back to academia, what better time to reflect upon some of the great school stories and campus novels?

Oftentimes in fiction the educational institution is a hermetically sealed environment, ripe for farce and satire or psychological drama and murder mystery. Students come of age, teachers and lecturers succumb to hubris and inertia, the institution itself threatens to crumble or combust. The class or seminar room is the perfect place to puncture pretension and pomposity, or delve into the darkest recesses of some uniquely gifted and intellectual psyches. In short, educational establishments can be turned to whatever purpose the author wants them to be, and the results are frequently stunning.

In this list we call the register of the finest authors on academic life and the masterpieces they crafted. From Victorian headmasters to twenty-first-century mean girls, from Brutalist red-brick monstrosities to the gilded splendour of Oxbridge; all the novels below sit at the top of the class.

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Dickens’ third novel finds the master broadening his literary palette and marshalling a huge cast of characters for a colourful, freewheeling coming of age epic. Nicholas’ passage through life is rendered in sparkling prose and, in its portrayal of the horrendous Dotheboys Hall and its grotesque headmaster Wackford Squeers, contains a vitriolic attack on the Victorian school system.
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Since its publication in 1961 The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie has become Muriel Spark’s signature novel. A devastating portrait of a narcissistic Edinburgh school mistress and the coterie of impressionable girls that she takes under her wing, it cloaks a deliciously scathing attack on the abuse of power in exquisitely crafted and economical prose.
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A hymn to academic duty and the merits of humility, Goodbye Mr Chips recounts the life and career of Mr Chipping, beloved classics teacher in a fictional pre-war boarding school. Sentimental it may be but Hilton’s gentle characterisation and wry humour invest the novella with immense charm and warm-hearted decency.
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A sly, ineffably disturbing psychological thriller rippling with malice and sexual jealousy, Zoe Heller’s Booker shortlisted Notes on a Scandal probes the darkest avenues of two schoolteachers’ desires and obsessions. Emotionally visceral and deliciously nasty, this is the school story as compelling psychodrama.
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This pioneering Victorian school novel is now best known as the inspiration for George MacDonald Fraser’s wickedly funny Flashman series, but Hughes’ tale of honour and spirit at the iconic Rugby School has left its mark on every fictional pupil from Billy Bunter to Harry Potter. An evocative period piece that is well worth rediscovering.
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The harsh world of the American prep school is put under the spotlight in Sittenfeld’s smart and penetrating novel. Peeling away the façade of beautiful people and civilised recreation to uncover an unrelenting parade of social rituals and a never ending popularity contest, Prep is a hip, vibrant account of fitting in and acting out.
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Waugh’s anarchic debut novel is a biting satire on 1920s society that places a disgraced Oxford student in an ill-advised teaching position at an obscure Welsh school. Decline and Fall’s cast of outlandish characters - from dissolute teachers to Machiavellian socialites - elevates a picaresque farce into a hilarious literary gem.
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The suburban high school as a microcosm of corrupt American society, Tom Perrotta’s savagely witty satire deftly demonstrates how the noblest of intentions can turn ugly very quickly. Fiercely intelligent and blistering funny, Election is a vote-winning classroom cracker.
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A winning union of vernacular text and expressive cartoon, the Molesworth tetralogy remains one of the most acutely observed parodies of school life. The self-proclaimed ‘curse of St. Custards,’ Nigel Molesworth is the perfect mentor to help any new bug navigate their way through the minefield of school life.
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A profound treatise on loneliness and isolation, Bronte’s last novel transplants her heroine Lucy Snowe to a provincial French boarding school and its attendant temptations and conflicts. Inspired by the author’s own unhappy experience as a governess in Belgium, Villette is an intensely moving conclusion to a singular literary career.
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Perhaps the quintessential British campus novel, Amis’ splenetic satire helped sound the death knell for the amateurish preciousness of the old university establishment. In chaotic, informal Jim Dixon, Amis created a figurehead for the ‘angry young men’ who demanded social and political change in staid 1950s England.
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An exuberant farce whose absurdity is only matched by its wince-inducing insight into academic narcissism and literary hubris, Wonder Boys is the novel that made Chabon’s reputation. A whacked out, woozy comedy involving dead dogs, Marilyn Monroe and a boa constrictor, this is one of the great triumphs of American humour writing.
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Wonderfully rueful and utterly hilarious, Tom Sharpe’s account of schemes and shenanigans in a venerable Cambridge college manages to skewer both reactionary traditionalists and self-righteous liberals. Awash with memorable set-pieces and pin-sharp dialogue, Porterhouse Blue is a wickedly enjoyable read.
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Former Waterstones Book of the Year and recently rediscovered classic, Williams’ cult novel is a minutely detailed examination of an ordinary life and the little victories and obstacles that pepper it. Skilfully weaving an enchanting story from the most mundane of narratives, Stoner is a unique achievement in American literature.
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The novel that created the cult of the sexually promiscuous university lecturer, The History Man is also a portrait of loveless marriage, a satire on the vacuity of the Swinging Sixties and a diatribe against the dangers of ‘right-on’ liberalism. Scabrously funny yet oddly affecting, Bradbury’s finest work is a multi-layered wonder.
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Tender-hearted and empathetic, Nabokov’s account of an émigré Russian professor struggling through a tenure at an American university wrings belly laughs from the wistful and melancholy. Through the comedy of the everyday, Pnin builds a bittersweet portrait of its resigned eponymous hero.
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The spry romantic comedy that catapulted David Nicholls to fame, Starter for Ten is a charming campus novel about coming of age at university. Through an irresistible plot that mixes first love, student politics and a thinly disguised version of University Challenge, Nicholls weaves a story that captured the hearts of millions.
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Turkey’s foremost female novelist tackles theology, feminism and race in this dazzlingly structured novel set over a thirty year time period. Against the background of Oxford University and coastal Istanbul, Shafak sketches a trio of women who represent three very different ideologies. Three Daughters of Eve is a scintillating, deeply intelligent read that entertains and informs on every level.
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The king of the British campus novel takes on US university life in this meticulously crafted culture clash comedy which details the consequences of an Anglo-American lecturer swap. High farce and whip-smart dialogue combine to giddy effect in this hugely entertaining work.
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An acknowledged modern classic, The Secret History endures as a cerebral yet addictive masterwork. Building an ever-darkening atmosphere of ominous tension, Donna Tartt’s ground breaking college-set thriller casts profound questions of morality and desire in a gripping reverse-murder mystery steeped in allusions to the ancient classics.
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Comments

Raf

You could add Zadie Smith's "On Beauty". View more

Raf
1st October 2019
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Simon Li

Nothing by C.P. Snow, e,g “The Masters” or James Hilton, “Goodbye, Mr. Chips”, or John Knowles, “A Separate Peace”?
.



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Simon Li
10th September 2019
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