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

Posted on 26th July 2021 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.

SCHOOL FICTION

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Rendered in sparkling prose and rich in exqusite metaphor, Dickens’ colourful, freewheeling coming of age epic contains a vitriolic attack on the Victorian school system in its portrayal of the horrendous Dotheboys Hall and its grotesque headmaster Wackford Squeers.
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A devastating portrait of a narcissistic Edinburgh school mistress and the coterie of impressionable girls that she takes under her wing, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie 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.
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A sly, ineffably disturbing psychological thriller rippling with malice and sexual jealousy, Zoe Heller’s Booker shortlisted psychodrama probes the darkest avenues of two schoolteachers’ desires and obsessions.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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 vibrant account of fitting in and acting out in the harsh world of the American prep school.
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The suburban high school as a microcosm of corrupt American society, Tom Perrotta’s fiercely intelligent and savagely witty satire deftly demonstrates how the noblest of intentions can turn ugly very quickly.

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Elevating a picaresque farce into a hilarious literary gem, 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.
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UNIVERSITY FICTION 

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A campus novel told from the perspective of a Black student, Taylor’s powerful tale embraces themes of grief, desire and alienation in rich, eloquent prose.
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Through its wonderfully chaotic and informal protagonist Jim Dixon, Amis’ splenetic satire calls out the amateurish preciousness of the old university establishment in this quintessential British campus novel.
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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 one of the great triumphs of American humour writing, involving dead dogs, Marilyn Monroe and a boa constrictor.
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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.
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Skilfully weaving an enchanting story from the most mundane of narratives, Williams’ cult novel is a minutely detailed examination of an ordinary life and the little victories and obstacles that pepper it.
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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.
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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.
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Through an irresistible plot that mixes first love, student politics and a thinly disguised version of University Challenge, Nicholls weaves a spryly romantic and humorous novel that catapulted him to fame.
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Against the background of Oxford University and coastal Istanbul, Shafak sketches a trio of women who represent three very different ideologies in this 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, brimming with high farce and whip-smart dialogue.
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A compelling, character driven thriller set on a breezeblock university campus, The Truants is a very modern coming-of-age tale incorporating issues of belonging and toxic friendships within a fast-moving, wire-taut narrative.
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From the bestselling author of The Silent Patient comes another sophisticated and hugely original literary thriller revolving around Cambridge classicists and secret sororities.

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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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