LGBTQ+ History Month 2024 in the EFL

Three logos (LGBT+ History Month 2024, LGBTQ+ Oxford SU, and the Bodleian Libraries) on a pink background

This display was produced in collaboration between the Oxford SU LGBTQ+ Campaign and the English Faculty Library of the Bodleian Libraries

For LGBT+ History Month 2024, the English Faculty Library has collaborated with the Oxford SU LGBTQ+ Campaign to put together a book display! This display was created from suggestions made by Oxford’s very own LGBTQ+ community, and features descriptions written in their own words. You can come into the library to see the whole display laid out for February, or peruse the titles here are your leisure.

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Pride at the EFL

To celebrate Pride this year, we’ve put together a display in the library exploring the different ways LGBTQIA+ literature and themes are represented in the library’s collections. You may have seen the display in the library, but if you haven’t had a chance to see it yet – or if you’d like to find out more about some of the ideas in the display – this is the blog post for you!

There are two parts to the Pride display. The first is based on the LGBTQIA+ acronym, highlighting books from the EFL’s collections featuring characters, themes, or ideas which link to each identity. The second part of the display focuses on queer theory from its emergence in the late twentieth century to twenty-first century scholarship. At the end of this post, you can find a list of resources which were used to put this display together, and which you might like to use as a starting point to find out more about these topics.

A capital-letter 'L' in the colours of the Lesbian Pride flag. From top to bottom, those colours are: dark orange, orange, light orange, white, light pink, pink, dark pink.Audre Lorde, Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches (1984)

The revolutionary writings of Audre Lorde gave voice to those ‘outside the circle of this society’s definition of acceptable women’. Uncompromising, angry and yet full of hope, this collection of her essential prose – essays, speeches, letters, interviews – explores race, sexuality, poetry, friendship, the erotic and the need for female solidarity, and includes her landmark piece ‘The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House’.”

This summary is taken from the publisher’s website.  

Why is Lorde an interesting writer and thinker?

The term ‘intersectionality’ was coined by Kimberlé Crenshaw in 1989, and it’s often associated with Third Wave (late twentieth century) feminism. Lorde’s writing definitely fits the description of intersectional work: her thought encompasses race, sexuality and gender and explores how these combine to enact oppression, especially for non-heteronormative Black women.

A capital-letter 'G' in the colours of the MLM (men loving men) Pride flag. From top to bottom, the colours are: dark green, green, light green, white, light blue, blue, dark blue.Robert Jones Jr., The Prophets (2021)

Isaiah was Samuel’s and Samuel was Isaiah’s. That was the way it was since the beginning, and the way it was to be until the end. In the barn they tended to the animals, but also to each other, transforming the hollowed-out shed into a place of human refuge, a source of intimacy and hope in a world ruled by vicious masters. But when an older man—a fellow slave—seeks to gain favour by preaching the master’s gospel on the plantation, the enslaved begin to turn on their own. Isaiah and Samuel’s love, which was once so simple, is seen as sinful and a clear danger to the plantation’s harmony.”

This summary is taken from the publisher’s website.

What’s up with gay historical fiction?

Being gay is nothing new, yet it has often been hard to recognise and find out about people in the past who might today identify with the LGBTQ+ community. Into this gap steps historical fiction, offering an experimental space to explore both the past and the present constraints of academic queer literary studies. It’s important to remember that queer historical fiction – much like any other subgenre of historical fiction – often reveals the present as much as the past. We see this in The Prophets, which examines the damaging effects of the forced, violent imposition of a western Christian worldview on other practices, cultures and beliefs.

A capital-letter 'B' in the colours of the Bisexual Pride flag. From top to bottom, those colours are: dark pink, purple, dark blue.F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby (1991), originally published 1925

Nick Carraway is an aspiring writer; his cousin, Daisy, is married to the fabulously wealthy Tom Buchanan. Their neighbour, Jay Gatsby, throws extravagant and extraordinary parties in the exclusive and hallowed neighbourhood of West Egg. The entanglements between these four characters form the backbone of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s greatest work.”

This summary is taken from the publisher’s website.

But Fitzgerald never says Nick is bisexual …

In 1979, Keath Fraser became the first scholar to suggest Nick Carraway was in love with Gatsby; many others have followed Fraser in arguing that Nick is either gay or bisexual (he mentions affairs and relationships with women in the novel). It’s significant that Nick’s sexuality is not explicit, but rather suggested through misdirection and elision. Considering that almost every social issue, from race to class and gender, overtly features in the narrative, the topic of sexuality is notable by its absence; indeed, ‘sexual transgression [is] the open secret of the novel’ (Froehlich, 2010).

A capital-letter 'T' in the colours of the Trans Pride flag. From top to bottom, those colours are: blue, pink, white, pink, blue.Travis Alabanza, Overflow (2020)

Cornered into a flooding toilet cubicle and determined not to be rescued again, Rosie distracts herself with memories of bathroom encounters. Drunken heart-to-hearts by dirty sinks, friendships forged in front of crowded mirrors, and hiding together from trouble. But with her panic rising and no help on its way, can she keep her head above water?”

This summary is taken from the publisher’s website.

What’s the link between Overflow and current debates?

Public toilets, and especially women’s toilets, have become a controversial focal point in debates around trans rights. Concerns about cis women’s safety in public toilets are frequently expressed, but what Alabanza shows in Overflow is that safety is just as much an issue for Trans women. The play centres around Rosie, who is hiding from would-be attackers in a public toilet, as she reflects on topics including the camaraderie that is often experienced in women’s toilets, whether cis women can extend that camaraderie to be allies of Trans women, and ultimately whether that’s something Trans women even want.

A capital-letter 'Q' in the colours of the Genderqueer Pride flag. From top to bottom, those colours are: purple, white, green.(Gender) Queer: Ursula K. Le Guin, The Left Hand of Darkness (2017), originally published in 1969

“A lone human ambassador is sent to the icebound planet of Winter, a world without sexual prejudice, where the inhabitants’ gender is fluid. His goal is to facilitate Winter’s inclusion in a growing intergalactic civilization. But to do so he must bridge the gulf between his own views and those of the strange, intriguing culture he encounters.”

This summary is taken from the author’s website.

A capital-letter 'Q' in the colours of the Genderqueer Pride flag. From top to bottom, those colours are: purple, white, green.(Gender) Queer: Andrea Lawlor, Paul takes the form of a mortal girl (2019), originally published 2017

It’s 1993 and Paul Polydoris tends bar at the only gay club in a university town thrumming with politics and partying. He studies queer theory, has a dyke best friend, makes zines, and is a flaneur with a rich dating life. But Paul’s also got a secret: he’s a shapeshifter. Oscillating wildly from Riot Grrrl to leather cub, Paul transforms his body and his gender at will as he crossed the country––a journey and adventure through the deep queer archives of struggle and pleasure.”

This summary is taken from the publisher’s website.

Are Le Guin and Lawlor talking about the same thing?

Both these novels reject gender norms, but Le Guin and Lawlor portray this rejection and its effects differently. In The Left Hand of Darkness, the inhabitants of Winter wholly reject binary gender systems rendering them wholly incomprehensible to Genly Ai, the human ambassador, who is equally alien to them. On Winter, gender is almost entirely unimportant and unremarkable. But for Paul in Lawlor’s novel, exploring all gender experiences is the whole point. These two novels may share a radical rejection of gender norms, but they do so in very different ways, showing the breadth and diversity that can be found in queer literature.

A capital-letter 'I' in the colours of the Intersex Pride flag. Those colours are a yellow background with a purple circle in the middleJeffrey Eugenides, Middlesex (2013), originally published 2002

“I was born twice: first, as a baby girl, on a remarkably smogless Detroit day of January 1960; and then again, as a teenage boy, in an emergency room near Petoskey, Michigan, in August of 1974.”

“So begins the breathtaking story of Calliope Stephanides and her truly unique family secret, born on the slopes of Mount Olympus and passed on through three generations. Growing up in 70s Michigan, Calliope’s special inheritance will turn her into Cal, the narrator of this intersex, inter-generational epic of immigrant life in 20th century America.”

This summary is taken from the publisher’s website.

What does it mean to write an ‘intersex’ or a ‘queer’ novel?

In Middlesex, Eugenides enacts a complete rejection of the body as a fixed measure of identity. This is manifest in Calliope/Cal changing from female to male, bringing into question the importance of gender as a marker of identity. But as well as this literal rejection of the body, Eugenides does the same in the novel’s narrative structure. Cal routinely inhabits the heads, thoughts and actions of other characters – even experiencing events which took place long before Cal was born. Consequently, what we see in Middlesex is queer themes alongside queer structures, amounting to a ‘queering’ of the novelistic form.

A capital-letter 'A' in the colours of the Aromantic Pride flag. From top to bottom, those colours are: dark green, light green, white, grey, black.Jane Austen, Emma (1971), originally published 1815

“Oft-copied but never bettered, Jane Austen’s Emma is a remarkable comedy of manners. Austen follows the charming but insensitive Emma Woodhouse as she sets out on an ill-fated career of match-making in the little town of Highbury. Taking the pretty but dreary Harriet Smith as her subject, Emma creates misunderstandings and chaos as she tries to find Harriet a suitor, until she begins to realize it isn’t the lives of others she must try to transform.”

This summary is taken from the publisher’s website. 

Can you really say Emma is aromantic if Jane Austen wouldn’t know what that meant?

Austen’s novels are saturated with romantic love – but Emma Woodhouse seems to be the exception. She declares her disinclination for marriage, saying she has never been in love; she takes an exclusively rational approach to matchmaking; and she talks herself into feeling love, though she reasons herself out of love just as easily!

There are challenges when trying to apply modern terms and identities onto people (or in this case, characters) who wouldn’t recognise those terms. But aromantic readers still recognise their own experiences in the character of Emma. It’s interesting to note that these readings are generally coming from readers themselves, not from academia. There’s nothing necessarily wrong with that – after all, recognising our own experiences in fiction is a huge part of what reading is about! 

A 'plus' shape in the colours of the LGBTQ+ Progress flag. From top to bottom, the colours are: red, orange, yellow, green, blue, purple. The colours of the triangles coming from the left hand side, pointing to the right: yellow background with purple circle, white, pink, blue, brown, black.Books with LGBTQIA+ characters and themes are just one of the ways in which LGBTQIA+ literatures are represented at the EFL. We also have a number of works of queer theory, a field which emerged in the 1970s and 80s and which continues to grow and develop. You can find a few examples below – all but one of them are available as e-books too!

Late Twentieth-Century Queer Studies

Cover images, from left to right: Between Men: English Literature and Male Homosocial Desire, by Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick; The Apparitional Lesbian, by Terry Castle.In the late twentieth century, works of both historical and literary scholarship emerged which looked to a queer history, a lineage of queer lives, experiences and literary artefacts. The two examples here are Between Men: English Literature and Male Homosocial Desire by Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick (1985), and The Apparitional Lesbian by Terry Castle (1995). 

The context of the late twentieth century and developments within the LGBTQIA+ community is an important facet of these studies. ‘We’re here, We’re queer, Get used to it was the famous chant of gay activists in New York in the 1990s, a powerful assertion of queer presence. What scholars like Castle and Sedgwick were doing was asserting the long history of that presence. 

Twenty-First Century Queer Studies

Cover images, from left to right: After Queer Studies, edited by Tyler Bradway and E. L. McCallum; Queer Disappearance in Modern and Contemporary Fiction, by Benjamin Bateman. Compared to the environment in which Castle and Sedgwick were writing, twenty-first century queer studies is more secure as a field. That security is apparent studies like Benjamin Bateman’s work, Queer Disappearance in Modern & Contemporary Fiction (2023). Whereas earlier scholarship focused on queer presence – a political as much as a scholarly aim – Bateman turns to other ways of existing (or disappearing) ‘queerly’, as do others who, for example, consider queer experiences of time and rejections of ‘chrono-normativity’. Overviews such as After Queer Studies (2019) can similarly be read as testaments to the security of the field, as they reflect on the emergence of queer studies and, crucially, look to the future. 

Want to find out more?

If you’d like to find out more about queer studies, theory and literature, the Cambridge Companions and Cambridge Histories can be a great place to start. Each volume contains essays exploring different aspects of and debates within a given field and provide starting points for further research. What’s more, they’re available online with your Oxford SSO!

The books which feature in the display are The Cambridge Companion to Queer Studies (2020) and The Cambridge History of Gay and Lesbian Literature (2014), but these aren’t the only ones relevant to queer studies and theory. Visit the Cambridge Core website to search across all the Cambridge Collections and see what’s available.

The 'Collections & Series' landing page of the website.

Search the Cambridge Collections & Series on their website. Copyright Cambridge University Press 2023.

And that’s it for this brief overview of some of the LGBTQIA+ literature and resources you can find at the EFL. As promised, you can find a list of sources and resources below!

Sources and Resources

Books used in this display (in the order they appear):

Lorde, Audre, Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches (1984). Also available as an e-book (2019 edition).

Jones, Robert, Jr., The Prophets (2021).

Fitzgerald, F. Scott, The Great Gatsby (1991).

Alabanza, Travis, Overflow (2020). Also available as an e-book.

Le Guin, Ursula K., ‘The Left Hand of Darkness’, in Hainish Novels & Stories (2017).

Lawlor, Andrea, Paul takes the form of a mortal girl (2019).

Eugenides, Jeffrey, Middlesex (2013).

Austen, Jane, Emma (1971).

Sedgwick, Eve Kosofsky, Between Men: English Literature and Male Homosocial Desire (1985). Also available as an e-book (2015 edition).

Castle, Terry, The Apparitional Lesbian: Female Homosexuality and Modern Culture (1993).

Bateman, Benjamin, Queer Disappearance in Modern & Contemporary Fiction (2023). Also available as an e-book.

Bradway, Tyler, and E. L. McCallum (eds.), After Queer Studies: Literature, Theory and Sexuality in 21st Century (2019). Also available as an e-book.

Somerville, Siobhan B. (ed.), The Cambridge Companion to Queer Studies (2020). Also available as an e-book.

McCallum, E. L., and Mikko Tuhkanen (eds.), The Cambridge History of Gay and Lesbian Literature (2014). Also available as an e-book.


Other sources and resources

This list includes resources used in putting the display together. It’s not a definitive list of resources relating to the texts or themes in the display, but you could use it as a starting point to find out more.

Bradley, Cerys, Transphobic Hate Crime Report 2020 (10 June 2020).

Freccero, Carla, ‘The Queer Time of Lesbian Literature: History and Temporality’, in Jodie Medd (ed.), The Cambridge Companion to Lesbian Literature (2015), 19-31.

Froehlich, Maggie Gordon, ‘Jordan Baker, Gender Dissent, and Homosexual Passing in The Great Gatsby’, in The Space Between, 6:1 (2010), 81.

Herman, Daniel, ‘The Great Gatsby’s Nick Carraway: His Narration and His Sexuality’, ANQ, 30:4 (2017), 247-50.

Jackaman, Erick, ‘Overflow Review’, (16 December 2020). Accessed 31 May 2023.

Jaffe, Sara, ‘Queer Time: The Alternative to “Adulting”’, JSTOR Daily (10 January 2018). Accessed 31 May 2023.

Khong, Caitlin, ‘There’s A Place For Us: Aromanticism and Amatonormativity in Jane Austen’s Emma’, ArtsONE, 11 (2022). Accessed 31 May 2023.

Mullan, John, ‘Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides’, The Guardian (11 November 2011). Accessed 1 June 2023.

Murphy, Naoise, ‘Queering history with Sarah Waters: Tipping the Velvet, lesbian erotic reading and the queer historical novel’, Journal of International Women’s Studies, 22:2 (2021), 7-18.

Parsons, Vic, ‘Travis Alabanza’s gripping new play teaches a powerful lesson about bathrooms, transphobia and female friendship’, PinkNews (16 December 2020). Accessed 31 May 2023.

Pearson, Wendy Gay, Veronica Hollinger, and Joan Gordon (eds.), Queer Universes: Sexualities in Science Fiction (2008) [e-book].

Russo, Stephanie, ‘“You are, like, so woke”: Dickinson and the anachronistic turn in historical drama’, Rethinking History, 25:4 (2021), 534-554.

Santovec, Mary Lou, ‘The Necessity of Intersectionality: A Profile of Dr. Kimberlé Crenshaw’, Women in Higher Education, 26:3 (2017), 8-9.

Mental Health and Wellbeing in Literature

With exams and deadlines looming, this can be a busy time of year. Across the Bodleian Libraries, we’ve been thinking a lot about wellbeing and how we can offer support, from alpacas (and a llama!) and therapy dogs to walks and coffee mornings. Here at the EFL, we’ve done what we do best – we’ve turned to literature!

You might have noticed a new display in the library, exploring how mental health and wellbeing has been represented in literature since the nineteenth century. If you’ve not caught the display yet, read on to find out more about it. Or if you have seen the display and want to discover more about some of the topics for yourself, read to the end for a handy list detailing the resources used in putting the display together.

Madness in nineteenth-century literature

Madness was a common and popular theme in nineteenth-century literature. The field of psychology and understandings of mental health as we know them today were starting to emerge in this period, and novelists and poets could play just as important a role as scientists and philosophers in the formation of this emerging discipline.

Although it’s now an outdated term, for Victorian authors and readers ‘madness’ encompassed a whole range of different conditions which are today recognised as mental disorders and illnesses. Those suffering from madness – who were often (though not always) women – might withdraw from the world, waste away, or even be hidden and locked away. Whether they were locked up for their own good, for the safety of those around them, or because their condition and behaviours were shameful, is not always clear.

Not all nineteenth-century literatures of madness approached their theme in the same way. Here, we have two different examples: Romantic madness and Gothic madness.

Cover image: Selected Poems by Alfred Lord Tennyson. A slightly blurry black-and-white photo of a girl in a Victorian dress, looking at leaves and flowers on a treeThe Romantic view

Alfred Lord Tennyson’s poems often feature a Romantic version of madness, with women who are isolated and trapped becoming dream-like and ethereal as a result of grief and suffering. Think of Mariana waiting in her ‘lonely, moated grange’ for someone who will never return, or the Lady of Shalott who can only watch reflections of the world from her isolated tower.

Cover image: The Clarendon Edition of the Novels of the Brontes. Charlotte Bronte, Jane Eyre. Dark blue text on a plain light blue coverThe Gothic view

Charlotte Brontë takes a much more Gothic view of madness than Tennyson did. In Jane Eyre, Bertha – Mr Rochester’s first wife, who is kept under lock and key in the attic – embodies a far more menacing type of madness than Tennyson’s other-worldly women. She is a source of danger and horror, presenting a threat which can only be resolved through her death.

Illness in twentieth-century literature

In the twentieth century, attitudes toward mental illness in literature began to change. Gone was the madwoman in the attic and the Romantic woman sighing over lost loves – twentieth-century authors (and society) understood ‘madness’ very differently.

Part of the change was in the medium of writing about mental illness. Instead of poems or novels, there was a shift toward authors drawing on their own experiences of mental illness to inform their writing. That could sometimes be in the form of essays or memoirs, but it could also include autobiographical (or semi-autobiographical) fiction.

This shift meant twentieth-century literature about mental illness brought with it a more sympathetic approach to mental ill-health in literature. There was a recognition of the experience of the sufferer rather than just the reactions of those around them, and the causes of mental ill-health began to be explored.

Cover image: Mrs Dalloway by Virginia Woolf. Dark blue broad paint brush strokes form the background, with the title and author name in a cream box on the upper left hand sideShellshock

Virginia Woolf struggled with mental illness, and her personal experiences of ill-health informed her writing. In Mrs Dalloway, this is reflected in Septimus, a veteran of WWI suffering from what would now be recognised as PTSD. Unlike many of her contemporaries (including medical professionals) who considered ‘shellshock’ to be weakness or cowardice, Woolf portrays Septimus sympathetically, revealing the callousness of a society and medical profession which failed him.

Cover image: The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath. In the centre is a drawing of a young woman with blonde hair; the background is dark blue; the author's name is in red text at the top, and the title in yellow text at the bottomSociety and expectations

Like Woolf, Sylvia Plath’s struggles with mental illness fed into her writing. Many readers see echoes of Plath’s own depressive episodes and hospitalisation in The Bell Jar. Other critics have suggested The Bell Jar speaks to more than Plath’s personal experiences, revealing the pressures resulting from the toxic culture of a society with contradictory and conflicting expectations of women.

Mental health in twenty-first century literature

Today, we are far more open about mental health than in years gone by. We’re still a long way from dismantling all taboos and stigma around mental health, but society as a whole is far more ready to acknowledge mental health issues – including in literature.

Cover image: Summer by Ali Smith. The top half of the cover has a yellow background, with the author's name in light yellow text and the title in black text. The bottom half of the cover is a drawing of a path running through green fields with trees either sideThis openness took on new importance during the COVID-19 pandemic and lockdowns. The first ‘pandemic novels’ are only just starting to appear – Ali Smith’s Summer, published in 2020, was one of the first out of the gate. Summer is the last instalment of Smith’s rapidly-written Seasonal Quartet, a series which aimed to respond to events in as close to real-time as possible. In Summer, she explores how the pandemic increased the pre-existing fragmentation in her characters’ relationships with one another.

Cover image: Portable Magic: A History of Books and their Readers by Emma Smith. The cover has a dark blue background. There is a drawing of an open book surrounded by flames in the bottom centre. The author's name is centre top in orange text, the main title (Portable magic) underneath in white text, and the subheading in dark orange text beneath thatBooks are immensely powerful, as Emma Smith has revealed in Portable Magic: A History of Books and Their Readers. Perhaps that’s why many consider books and literature to be uniquely placed to support people’s mental health. As the examples below show, both readers and authors can reap the benefits of literature …

Mental health in literature

In modern literature, we can see the development of the twentieth-century trend of writing about – and from – one’s own experiences. In Transcendent Kingdom, Ghana-born and Alabama-raised Yaa Gyasi explores the consequences of immigration for an entire family: from the brother who succumbs to addiction and the mother struggling with depression, to the father who cannot cope and returns home, all viewed through the eyes of Gifty, a high achieving yet repressed first-generation American.

Two cover images. On left: Transcendent Kingdom by Yaa Gyasi. A green-and-pink background, with a white-and-pink allium motif. The author's name and title are in the centre. On the right: In the Dream House by Carmen Maria Machado. The cover background is orange, with a photo of a woman with her arms over her face cut out into the shape of a house (a square with a triangle on top) in the middle. The title is at the top and the author's name at the bottom, both in black text

Carmen Maria Machado similarly writes from her own experiences. In the Dream House is Machado’s response to the abuse she herself suffered, an attempt to help others suffering abuse in same-sex relationships know that they are not alone. Through her innovative and experimental form and style, Machado catapults the reader into the fragmented and disorienting mental state that she experienced.

Mental health through literature

As well as representing mental health issues, literature can also be a way of supporting mental health, through what has been termed ‘bibliotherapy’. While studies can be inconclusive in terms of the concrete psychological benefits of bibliotherapy (have a look at the list below for some examples), the two writers here show through their memoirs how literature unequivocally helped them to deal with illness.

Yiyun Li writes about her struggles with depression and mental health, reflecting in Dear Friend on the importance of literature in the wake of her hospitalisation following suicide attempts. She describes reading as her means of survival, offering both recovery and discovery. Similarly, in Metamorphosis Robert Douglas-Fairhurst has written about how turning to literature helped him after he was diagnosed with MS. In literature, he found characters who shared his suffering, through whom he could understand and make sense of his illness.

Two cover images. On the left: Dear Friend, from My Life I Write to You in Your Life by Yiyun Li. A yellow-toned cover, with a drawing of a woman sitting on a bench reading a book in the bottom right corner. The title is in yellow text (top left) and the author's name in black text underneath. On the right: Metamorphosis by Robert Douglas-Fairhurst. The cover has a plain white background. The title is at the top, mostly in black text with the first 'M' and the last 'S' highlighted in red. There is a picture of a bug on its back at the bottom centre, with the author's name in black text underneath

Hopefully you’ve found this whistle-stop tour of mental health in literature interesting. As promised, to end this post, here are some of the sources and resources used in creating this display, which you may like to use as a starting point to find out more about some of the topics covered  

Sources and Resources

Featured in the display (in order of appearance)

Alfred Lord Tennyson, Selected Poems (London, 2007).

Charlotte Brontë, Jane Eyre (Oxford, 1969). First published 1847.

Peter Melville Logan, Nerves & Narratives: A Cultural History of Hysteria in 19th-Century British Prose (Berkeley, 1997). Also available as an open access e-book.

Virginia Woolf, Mrs Dalloway (London, 2011). First published 1925.

Sylvia Plath, The Bell Jar (London, 1966). First published 1963.

Elizabeth J. Donaldson (ed.), Literatures of Madness: Disability Studies and Mental Health (London, 2018).

Ali Smith, Summer (2020).

Emma Smith, Portable Magic: A History of Books and their Readers (2022).

Yaa Gyasi, Transcendent Kingdom (2020).

Carmen Maria Machado, In the Dream House (2020).

Yiyun Li, Dear Friend, From My Life I Write to You in Your Life (2018).

Robert Douglas-Fairhurst, Metamorphosis (2023).

Nineteenth Century

General Background

Chaney, Sarah, “A Hideous Torture on Himself”: Madness and Self-Mutilation in Victorian Literature’, in The Journal of Medical Humanities, 32:4 (2011), pp.279-289.

Pedlar, Valerie, The Most Dreadful Visitation: Male Madness in Victorian Fiction (Liverpool, 2006). Also available as an e-book.

Rylance, Rick, Victorian Psychology and British Culture 1850-1880 (Oxford, 2000).

Shemilt, Jane, ‘Tracing the portrayal of mental disorders in literature over time, through five books’, on CrimeReads (3 May 2022). Accessed 11 May 2023.

Romantic madness

Demoor, Marysa, ‘“His way is thro’ chaos and the bottomless and pathless”: The gender of madness in Alfred Tennyson’s poetry’, in Neophilologus, 86:2 (2002), pp.325-335.

Whitehead, James, Madness and the Romantic Poet: A Critical History (Oxford, 2017).

Gothic madness

Horner, Avril and Sue Zlosnik (eds.), Women and the Gothic: An Edinburgh Companion (Edinburgh, 2016). Also available as an e-book.

Sinha, Sunanda, ‘Gendering Madness and Doubling Disability in Jane Eyre’, in The Grove, 28 (2021), pp.111-126.

Twentieth Century

General background

Taylor, Steven J. and Alice Brumby (eds.), Healthy Minds in the Twentieth Century: In and Beyond the Asylum (Cham, 2020). [Open access]

Viusenco, Anca-Luisa, ‘The madness narrative, between the literary, the therapeutic and the political’, in Romanian Journal of English Studies, 10:1 (2013), pp.309-323.

Virginia Woolf

Gordon, Lyndall, ‘Woolf [née Stephen], (Adeline) Virginia’, in ODNB (23 September 2004). Accessed 12 May 2023.

Lohnes, Kate, ‘Mrs. Dalloway: novel by Woolf’, in Encyclopedia Britannica (27 July 2018). Accessed 12 May 2023.

Yu, Eileen Xiaoxi, ‘Indifference over Sympathy: Transcendental Communication in Virginia Woolf’s On Being Ill and Mrs Dalloway’, in Virginia Woolf Miscellany, 89/90 (2016), pp.57-59.

Sylvia Plath

Churchwell, Sarah, ‘An introduction to The Bell Jar’, from British Library Discovering Literature: 20th & 21st Century (25 May 2016). Accessed 2 May 2023.

Hunt, Daniel and Ronald Carter, ‘Seeing through The Bell Jar: Investigating linguistic patterns of psychological disorder’, in Journal of Medical Humanities, 33 (2012), pp.27-39.

Marcarian, Hannah and Paul O. Wilkinson, ‘Sylvia Plath’s bell jar of depression: Descent and recovery’, in The British Journal of Psychiatry, 210:1 (2017), p.15.

Twenty-first century

The Books

Arbuthnot, Leaf, “It felt like a piece of bad news I should pass on to someone else” – Robert Douglas-Fairhurst on his MS diagnosis’, in The Spectator (25 February 2023). Accessed 16 May 2023.

Conrad, Peter, ‘Portable Magic: A History of Books and Their Readers review – a spine-tingling adventure’, in The Observer (15 May 2022). Accessed 15 May 2023.

Lea, Richard, ‘Calloused, not callous: Healing the scars of displacement’, in TLS (21 March 2021). Accessed 15 May 2023.

Mbue, Imbolo, ‘Yiyun Li’s brave look at depression and the consoling power of literature’, from The Washington Post (16 February 2017). Accessed 3 May 2023.

Morrison, Blake, ‘Metamorphosis by Robert Douglas-Fairhurst review – books as therapy’, in The Guardian (17 February 2023). Accessed 16 May 2023.

Sagers, Flora, ‘Time on our hands in Ali Smith’s Summer’, in Moveable Type, 13 (2021), pp.102-105. [Open access]

Thomas-Corr, Johanna, ‘In the Dream House by Carmen Maria Machado – review’, in The Observer (5 January 2020). Accessed 15 May 2023.

Books as Bibliotherapy

Carney, J. et al., ‘Five studies evaluating the impact on mental health and mood of recalling, reading, and discussing fiction’, in PLoS ONE, 17:4(2022)

Feigel, Lara, ‘Inside story: the first pandemic novels have arrived, but are we ready for them?’, in The Guardian (27 November 2021). Accessed 15 May 2023.

Troscianko, Emily T., ‘Fiction-reading for good or ill: eating disorders, interpretation and the case for creative bibliotherapy research’, in Medical Humanities, 44:3 (2018), pp.201-211.

Wigand, Moritz E. et al., ‘Migration, Identity, and Threatened Mental Health: Examples from Contemporary Fiction’, in Transcultural Psychiatry, 56:5 (2019), pp.1076-1093.

Women’s History Month 2023: A Brief History of Women’s Writing

For Women’s History Month, we’ve put together two displays in the library exploring the history of women writing from the seventh century BCE (Before Common Era) to the twentieth century, as well as an exploration of some of the women who’ve studied at the University of Oxford in the last hundred-odd years. The displays highlight examples of writing by women and try to place those texts within the context of broader change.

If you’ve not caught the display in the library, or if you’ve already left Oxford for the vacation, don’t worry! We’ve put together an overview of the display here. Read to the end for a list of all the texts featured in the display, as well as some other resources you can find at the library.

A Brief History of Women Writing

Glass display case in the library, titled 'A Brief History of Women Writing'. There are six texts on display. From left to right: If Not, Winter: Fragments of Sappho. The Book of the City of Ladies, by Christine de Pizan. Oroonoko, by Aphra Behn. The Female Quixote, by Charlotte Lennox. A Vindication of the Rights of Women, by Mary Wollstonecraft. A Room of One's Own, by Virginia Woolf

The First Women Writing: 7th Century BCE to 14th Century CE

The first ‘writing women’ featured in this display are Sappho and Christine de Pizan. Sappho ‘flourished’ – that is, ‘either lived or was born or was known to be living’ – roughly 2,000 years ago, in the seventh and sixth centuries BCE. Very little is known about her life. She was from the island of Lesbos, and at some point was exiled to Sicily – though we don’t know when or why. But despite this dearth of knowledge about her ‘real person’, her poetry remains as fascinating today as it was popular in antiquity. Today, only one poem survives in its entirety (you can have a look at the original Greek alongside a translation into modern English in If Not, Winter: Fragments of Sappho by Anne Carson, which features in the display); the rest are fragments.

Two book covers. Left: If not, winter: Fragments of Sappho by Anne Carson. Right: The Book of the city of Ladies, by Christine de PizanWe know more about the other early woman writer in the display – Christine de Pizan. In 1390, de Pizan was widowed, left with no inheritance or income and three small children to support. Out of necessity, she turned to her pen, becoming the first woman to earn a living through her writing.

De Pizan’s The Book of the City of Ladies – which is the book included in the display – represents nothing less than the first work written by a woman in praise of women. De Pizan argues that women are not naturally inferior to men, but that they lack the opportunities – and most importantly, education – afforded to men at that time. To a modern reader, her ideas are strikingly feminist; to her contemporaries, they were revolutionary and unprecedented.

(Later in this post, we’ll discuss Mary Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, in which she makes a similar argument roughly 400 years after de Pizan was writing. Depressingly, it was considered just as revolutionary then.)

Writing Fiction in English: 17th to 18th Centuries

From fifteenth-century France, we jump to seventeenth-century England, where Aphra Behn is writing both plays and prose. Behn has often been cited as the first professional female writer, including by Virginia Woolf in A Room of One’s Own (we’ll return later to Woolf and A Room of One’s Own!). There are striking similarities between Behn and her predecessors: Christine de Pizan was earning a living through her writing in the fourteenth century, and we know very little of Behn’s early life – though admittedly more than we know about Sappho.

Christine de Pizan notwithstanding, Behn was the first known Englishwoman to make a living through her writing, and – as Woolf argued – paved the way for the women who would write after her. But later audiences and readers turned away from her work, put off by her open treatment of sexuality and other ‘unfeminine’ topics. While she was a trailblazer, eighteenth-century women’s writing was markedly different. Enter: Charlotte Lennox.

Two cover images. Left: Oroonoko by Aphra Behn. Right: The Female Quixote: or, The Adventures of Arabella by Charlotte Lennox.

Lennox wrote novels, plays and poetry; her most popular work was and remains the novel, The Female Quixote. It recounts the adventures and misadventures of Arabella, a socially isolated young woman who believes that the romance stories she reads accurately reflect real life.

One reason given for the growing number of female writers in the 1700s was women’s ability to commercially exploit ideas of femininity. They explored the ambiguities of innocence as both integral to femininity and a potential source of danger which could leave young women open to corruption. The Female Quixote encompasses these themes, as Lennox shows how Arabella’s innocence and naivety get her into trouble. It is a marked departure from the more open sexuality in Behn’s writing.

For Women, Of Women, By Women: 18th to 20th Centuries

It wasn’t only fiction that women were writing in the eighteenth century. Mary Wollstonecraft, for example, is best remembered for her political writing. In A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, she argues that women are not weak and superficial by nature. Instead, their supposed inferiority stems from their lack of education. Society taught women to be pretty and to please men, not to be rational, independent moral people.

Cover image: A Vindication of the Rights of Woman and A Vindication of the Rights of Men, by Mary WollstonecraftHer arguments are similar to those made by Christine de Pizan in the fourteenth century: just because so many learned (male) writers say women are inferior to men, does not mean that it’s the natural order. But there are key departures in Wollstonecraft’s work, not least the anger that shines through her writing and her witty ripostes to her (predominantly though not exclusively) male critics. After 400 years where so little seemed to have changed, perhaps her anger and frustration aren’t surprising.

Cover image: A Room of One's Own and Three Guineas, by Virginia WoolfIn the early twentieth century, Virginia Woolf was equally concerned with women’s rights. In A Room of One’s Own, she offers a history of women’s writing and of female authors – or, more accurately, a history of the reasons why women have not been able to write. Her argument builds on what Wollstonecraft had said, in that a lack of education held women back. But Woolf went further, arguing women need not only an education, but also the opportunity to use it: women historically lacked an income and privacy, epitomised by having a room of their own. A Room of One’s Own explores themes which form the undercurrent of all Woolf’s writing, namely the question of woman’s nature and what she can contribute to civilisation.

So there you have it – a brief overview of women’s writing, in the smallest of nutshells! You can find links to the SOLO records for all the books at the end of this post, as well as links to some other resources.

At this point, you may be thinking: the history of women’s writing is all very well, but what were women closer to home writing? Well, wonder no longer! Our second display case for Women’s History Month explores writing by women who were students at Oxford in the twentieth century.

A Brief History of Oxford Women Writing

Close-up of the display case, titled 'Women at the English Faculty'. There are three books in this image. From left to right, they are: Gaudy Night by Dorothy L. Sayers; The Sea, The Sea by Iris Murdoch; and Orangers are not the only fruit, by Jeanette Winterson.

It was only 103 years ago that women first received degrees from the University. Women had been able to study at Oxford before then – Vera Brittain, for example, first came up to Oxford in 1914, though her studies were interrupted by the First World War – but it wasn’t until 1920 that women were able to receive their degrees.

Early Twentieth Century: Vera Brittain and Dorothy L. Sayers

Brittain attended Somerville College in 1914, reading English Literature. At that point, she wouldn’t have been able to use the English Faculty Library, which only allowed women in from 1916. After one year of studying, Brittain decided to delay her studies so she could support the war effort, working as a nurse. Testament of Youth (1933) is based on diaries she kept of her experiences during the First World War. In 1919, Brittain returned to Oxford to read History.

Left: Testament of Youth, by Vera Brittain. Right: Gaudy Night, by Dorothy L. SayersBrittain wasn’t the first woman to study at Oxford by any stretch. Dorothy L. Sayers, for example, received the Gilchrist Scholarship for Modern Languages to Somerville College in 1912, graduating with first-class honours in 1915. Although she couldn’t receive her degree at the time, Sayers came back in 1920 and was among the first women to receive an Oxford degree. Gaudy Night (1935) is a mystery novel set at the fictional Shrewsbury College, Oxford, and draws on Sayers’s own university experiences.

Mid- to Late-Twentieth Century: Iris Murdoch, Jeanette Winterson, and Wendy Cope

By the mid-twentieth century, the pace of change was picking up. In 1948, Agnes Headlam-Morley was appointed Professor of International Relations at St Hugh’s College, the first woman to be awarded a full professorship at the University. That same year, Iris Murdoch started teaching philosophy as a fellow of St Anne’s College.

Murdoch had been a student at Sommerville College from 1938 to 1942. While she had initially intended to study English Literature, she ended up switching to ‘Greats’ (a combination of classics, ancient history, and philosophy). The Sea, The Sea (1978) – which features in the display – was her nineteenth novel.

In 1974, male colleges at Oxford started to admit women (it wouldn’t be until 1979 that women’s colleges would begin to admit men). One of the first male colleges to admit women was St Catherine’s College; four years later, Jeanette Winterson went up to St Catherine’s to read English Literature. Her 1985 novel, Oranges are not the only fruit, is a semi-autobiographical work inspired by her experience of coming out as a lesbian.

Top left: The Sea, The Sea, by Iris Murdoch. Bottom left: Two Cures for Love, by Wendy Cope. Right: Oranges are not the only fruit, by Jeanette Winterson.

To give another example of Oxford students’ writing: Wendy Cope read History at St Hilda’s College, training as a teacher and teaching in primary schools before becoming a freelance writer in 1986. Her poetry collection, Two Cures for Love, features poems she wrote between 1979 and 2006. In 2010, Cope was awarded an OBE – nearly a decade before Oxford would achieve gender equality in undergraduate admissions, in 2019.

Women’s writing has certainly come a long way. From Sappho to Virginia Woolf, and from Vera Brittain and Dorothy L. Sayers neither able to use the English Faculty Library nor collect their degrees in the early twentieth century, to the University of Oxford being awarded the silver Athena Swan award for progress towards gender equality in 2023, the pace of change has picked up considerably over the last 100 years.

Interested in finding out more? Have a look at some of the other resources you can access, either in the library or online using your Oxford SSO.

Featured texts (in chronological order as they appear in the display)

Carson, Anne, If Not, Winter: Fragments of Sappho (2003).

De Pizan, Christine, The Book of the City of Ladies (1983). First published 1405.

Behn, Aphra, Oroonoko (2020). First published 1688.

Lennox, Charlotte, The Female Quixote: or, The Adventures of Arabella (1986). First published 1752.

Wollstonecraft, Mary, A Vindication of the Rights of Men: A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, [and] An historical and moral view of the French Revolution (2008). First published 1792.

Woolf, Virginia, A Room of One’s Own; Three Guineas (2000). First published 1929.

Brittain, Vera, Testament of Youth: An autobiographical study of the years 1900-1925 (2014). First published 1933.

Sayers, Dorothy L., Gaudy Night (2016). First published 1935.

Murdoch, Iris, The Sea, The Sea (2001). First published 1978.

Winterson, Jeanette, Oranges are not the only fruit (1985). First published 1985.

Cope, Wendy, Two Cures for Love: Selected Poems 1979-2006 (2008).


Other sources and resources

Amory, Hugh, ‘Lennox [nee Ramsay], (Barbara) Charlotte’, in Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, 21 May 2009. [accessed 8 March 2023]

Anderson, Emily Hodgson, ‘Novelty in Novels: A Look at What’s New in Aphra Behn’s “Oroonoko”’, in Studies in the Novel, 39:1 (2007), pp.1-16.

British Library, ‘Aphra Behn’s Oroonoko, 1688’. [accessed 8 March 2023]

DuBois, Page, Sappho (2015).

Gallagher, Catherine, Nobody’s Story: The vanishing acts of women writers in the marketplace, 1670-1820 (1995).

Goldberg, Jonathan, Sappho: Fragments (2018).

Gordon, Lyndall, ‘Woolf [nee Stephen], (Adeline) Virginia’, in Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, 23 September 2004. [accessed 8 March 2023]

Taylor, Barbara, ‘Wollstonecraft [married name Godwin], Mary’, in Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, 1 September 2017. [accessed 8 March 2023]

Todd, Janet, ‘Behn, Aphra [Aphara]’, in Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, 23 September 2004. [accessed 8 March 2023]

Turner, Cheryl, Living By the Pen: Women writers in the eighteenth century (1992).

Podcast: The Great Forgetting: Women Writers Before Austen (2016). ‘A free podcast series addressing the lives and works of eighteenth-century women writers, devised and produced by one journalist and three academics.’ 

Timeline: 100 years of women’s history at Oxford. [accessed 6 March 2023]

Green Action Week: Virtual Display

This week (20 to 24 February) is Green Action Week across the University, hosted by the University’s Environmental Sustainability team and featuring a host of exciting events that empower and celebrate environmental action.

Our first display this term focused on Pastoral Poetry, and if you’ve seen it in the library you may have wondered what pastoral themes look like in contemporary literature. That’s where the Green Action Week display comes in!

Modern versions of the pastoral are often associated with activism, for example around climate change or other environmental concerns. They might aim to raise awareness or inspire action, celebrate green choices and explore ethical concerns, or incorporate environmental awareness into literary and wider humanities research.

For Green Action Week, we’ve brought together some examples of literature from the EFL’s collections which show the huge range of environmental issues, discussions and activism in contemporary literature. You won’t find any dystopian sci-fi or fantasy in this selection, but if that’s something you’re interested in have a look at our blog post from last term.

Some of the choices here might seem surprising, but they all tie into the University’s Environmental Sustainability Strategy, focusing on the themes of Biodiversity, Research, Travel, and Sustainable Food. Read on to find out more about the books we’ve selected, and check out the list of sources and resources at the end if you’d like to find out more.

And don’t forget to have a look at the full event programme for Oxford Green Action Week – whether you’re interested in science, research, activism, comedy, art, literature or food, there’s an event for everyone!


Identify and address the University’s principal biodiversity impacts through its operations and supply chain and enhance biodiversity on the University’s estate.

‘… because she was a scientist in love with the English language, and an observer of the natural world with few peers, her ability to communicate what she saw increased exponentially.’

(L. Lear, review in Environmental History, Summer 1993, p.32)

Cover for Silent Spring by Rachel Carson. The background is green. In the centre is a photo of a leaf with the shape of a bird cut out of the middle. The title is in white text at the top, and the author's name in white text at the bottom. The subtitle is in brown text above the title, it reads: 'The classic that launched the environmental movement.'Rachel Carson, Silent Spring (1962).

Silent Spring was Carson’s response to the death of wildlife and birds as a result of chemical pesticide use. She was an accomplished scientist who amassed a huge amount of research and evidence, bringing public attention for the first time to issues which scientific organisations, governments and the chemical industry ignored or hid. But more than her scientific knowledge, Carson was a gifted writer.

Carson’s belief that we must balance human needs and actions with nature was radical among scientists at the time. Today, no informed person would countenance the indiscriminate use of chemical pesticides – but with ongoing biodiversity loss and environmental damage, have we really learnt anything?

This edition was published in 2002, to mark the 40th anniversary of the original publication.


Increase research and engagement in environmental sustainability.

‘… climate change fiction builds worlds in which readers might be immersed and creates characters with whom we identify in order not merely to evoke emotional response but to provoke ethical reflection.’ (p.54)

Cover image for Climate Change and the Contemporary Novel by Adeline Johns-Putra. The top half is light green, with the title in black text and the author's name below it in black text. The bottom half is a photo of snow, featuring a lump of ice with the black silhouette of a person walking and reading inside it.Adeline Johns-Putra, Climate Change and the Contemporary Novel (2019).

It’s not just the sciences which conduct environmental research, and nor are humanities scholars limited to helping scientists communicate with the public! Ecocriticism in the humanities is an important and growing approach to research. From explorations of climate change in fiction to the terms in which we discuss environmental issues, literary studies have a lot to offer our understandings of environmental issues, and how people can be encouraged to engage with them.

In Climate Change and the Contemporary Novel, Johns-Putra interrogates and problematises the ways literature inspires environmental activism. In particular, she takes issue with appeals to posterity – the idea that we should protect the natural world for the sake of our children and grandchildren – which is a common centrepiece of calls to environmental action.

Johns-Putra makes a vital point, that we cannot limit our ethical concerns to the legacy we leave for the next generation, nor can we assume they’ll ‘fix’ the problems we create. It’s a powerful demonstration of the value of ecocriticism in literary research.

This book is also available online with your Oxford SSO.


Limit transport emissions by reducing the need to travel, encouraging walking, cycling and the use of public transport and managing the demand to travel by car.

‘Transit time is experienced so differently across modes of transport – with trains in particular, your attention is manipulated by the anticipation of particular stops and the way a timetable becomes a measure of distance between stations. Your route rolls along a set of tracks, and that can make you less alert to the present moment.’

(Helen Oyeyemi, interviewed by Sarah Neilson for Shondaland)

Cover for Peaces by Helen Oyeyemi. The cover is dark green, with a line drawing of a train track extending from the bottom of the cover into the middle distance. There is a dot of light in the middle of the cover, which the tracks run to. Around the light, the title 'Peaces' is written six times in gold text that increases in size. The author's name is in gold text at the bottom.Helen Oyeyemi, Peaces (2021).

Peaces is a surrealist fantasy novel which takes place on a train. The Lucky Day is a former tea-smuggling train, now home to its reclusive owner, Ava Kapoor, and her friends/employees Allegra and Laura. When Otto and Xavier Shin embark for their not-honeymoon honeymoon, the train and its inhabitants begin slowly revealing their secrets.

This may not be your traditional train, but Oyeyemi’s intricate and playful novel nonetheless explores the possibilities and potentialities of train travel. Aboard The Lucky Day, ‘barrelling forward toward an unknown destination of unknown import, lurching back and forth between the interiors of eccentrically decorated train cars and the playfully enigmatic interiorities of the characters’ (from New York Times review), you can’t help but think – this is so much more fun than driving!

Sustainable Food

Reduce the carbon emissions and biodiversity impact of our food.

‘Violence is part of being human, and how can I accept that I am one of those human beings? That kind of suffering always haunts me. […] Eating meat, cooking meat, all these daily activities embody a violence that has been normalised.’

(Han Kang, interview in World Literature Today, May/August 2016, p.64)

Cover image for The Vegetarian by Han Kang. The background is a close-up of a leaf in pink and purple. A large white wing is in the centre. The title is in white text in the centre, and the author's name is in pink-purple text beneath it.Han Kang, The Vegetarian: A Novel (2018).

Food can become a fraught issue when we start to consider the environmental impacts of what we eat. There are certainly implications for climate change – we can choose to eat locally grown food, avoid pesticides, and limit our consumption of meat. But there are also ethical considerations which go to the heart of our relationship with animals, nature, and indeed each other – and it’s these ethical questions which Han’s novel explores.

Following horrific dreams, Yeong-hye, a hitherto dutiful and obedient housewife, announces she will no longer be eating meat. Her decision is met with astonishment and contempt. Yeong-hye’s vegetarianism is a response to the violence she has seen perpetuated against animals, but it leads to violence against her (including force-feeding, sexual objectification and abuse), and her eventual refusal to eat anything at all.

This is a deeply disturbing read, pitting one woman’s ostensibly personal (albeit extreme) decision against the inflexibility of the patriarchal society around her. Amid the violence, it may seem the novel doesn’t have much to do with food choices. But it prompts us to ask: how can we respond to human violence against each other and our planet, and can our dietary choices make a difference?

Sources and Resources

Rachel Carson, Silent Spring (1962).

Work by Carson at the EFL 

Carson, Silent Spring (2002).

Carson, Silent Spring & Other Writings on the Environment (2018). Edited by S. Steingraber.

Articles and reviews 

Atwood, Margaret, ‘Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, 50 years on’, in The Guardian, 7 Dec 2012. [accessed 31 Jan 2023]

Lear, Linda J., ‘Rachel Carson’s “Silent Spring”’, in Environmental History Review, 17:2 (1993), pp.23-48.

Maxwell, Lida, ‘Queer/Love/Bird Extinction: Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring as a Work of Love’, in Political Theory, 45:5 (2017), pp.682-704.

Adeline Johns-Putra, Climate Change and the Contemporary Novel (2019).

Work by Johns-Putra at the EFL 

Johns-Putra, Climate Change and the Contemporary Novel (2019).

Johns-Putra, The History of the Epic (2006).

Articles and reviews 

Buckley, Chloe Germain, ‘Climate Change and the Contemporary Novel by Adeline Johns-Putra (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2019)’, in Open Library of Humanities, 8:1 (2020).

Johns-Putra, Adeline, ‘Climate change in literature and literary studies: From cli-fi, climate change theater and ecopoetry to ecocriticism and climate change criticism’, in WIREs Climate Change, 7:2 (2016), pp.266-282.

Johns-Putra, Adeline, ‘“My Job Is To Take Care Of You”: Climate Change, Humanity, and Cormac McCarthy’s The Road’, in Modern Fiction Studies, 62:3 (2016), pp.519-540.


Han Kang, The Vegetarian: A Novel (2016).

Work by Han at the EFL

Han, Human Acts: A Novel (2020).

Han, The Vegetarian: A Novel (2018).

Articles and reviews 

Kim, Won-Chung, ‘Eating and Suffering in Han Kang’s The Vegetarian’, in CLCWeb: Comparative Literature and Culture, 21:5 (2019).

Lee, Krys, ‘Violence and Being Human: A Conversation with Han Kang’, in World Literature Today, 90:3-4 (2016), pp.61-67.

Tai, Yu-Chen, ‘Hopeful Reading: Rethinking Resistance in Han Kang’s The Vegetarian’, in College Literature, 48:4 (2021), pp.627-652.


Helen Oyeyemi, Peaces (2021).

Work by Oyeyemi at the EFL 

Oyeyemi, The Icarus Girl (2005).

Oyeyemi, White is for witching (2010).

Oyeyemi, Boy, Snow, Bird: A Novel (2014).

Oyeyemi, What is not yours is not yours (2016).

Oyeyemi, Gingerbread (2018).

Oyeyemi, Peaces (2021).

Articles and reviews 

Bingham, Chelsea, ‘PEACES by Helen Oyeyemi’, in Harvard Review Online, 13 Aug 2021. [accessed 3 Feb 2023]

Kleeman, Alexandra, ‘Helen Oyeymi’s New Novel Is Not a Fairy Tale’, in The New York Times, 6 April 2021. [accessed 3 Feb 2023]

Silcox, Beejay, ‘Peaces by Helen Oyeyemi review – a hurtling hothouse of a novel’, in The Guardian, 3 Nov 2021. [accessed 3 Feb 2023]

Midwinter Ghosts: A Short History of Tall Tales

It’s the most wonderful time of the year …

There’ll be scary ghost stories

And tales of the glories

Of Christmases long, long ago …

I’m sure many people will have heard this classic Christmas song many times (and apologies if you now have it stuck in your head for the rest of the day!), but have you ever wondered why – amidst all the jingle bells, carolling, and other accoutrements of the ‘hap-happiest season of all’ – there are scary ghost stories?

A snowman wearing a coat and winter hat, holding a lantern

He doesn’t seem scared! Photo by Myriam Zilles on Unsplash

Although ghouls and general spookiness are now more closely associated with Halloween, there is a very long tradition of indulging in tales of horror during the long winter evenings at this time of year. If you’ve visited the EFL recently, you might have spotted our Beyond A Christmas Carol display, which shows that although Dickens’s A Christmas Carol has undoubtedly become the archetypal Christmas ghost story, it’s not the only one. The display draws a thread through time linking Beowulf to A Christmas Carol and more modern stories and retellings, to show the evolution of mid-winter ghost stories.

Of course, we couldn’t possibly fit everything into a display case (or two), so in this post we’ve taken a more detailed look at the development of the midwinter ghost story. We’ll explore why ghosts are associated with this time of year, how representations of those festive terrors have changed over time, and – in a shameless but perhaps unsurprising plug – some of the spooky-yet-festive books, audio-visual resources, and other material you can find at the EFL.

The Origins of Midwinter Ghosts: Or, Why Did Cromwell Hate Christmas?

There has long been an association between the winter solstice, ghost stories and the supernatural. We’ve already mentioned that, today, we might more readily associate ghosts with Halloween than Christmas, but in fact the two aren’t so far removed as they first appear.

On 31 October and 1 November, the Celts celebrated the festival of Samhain. Taking place halfway between the autumn equinox and the winter solstice, this festival marked the end of the harvest season and the beginning of winter. It was also believed to be the moment when the barriers between the human world and the world of the gods were at their weakest, meaning spirits could roam the earth and mischievous gods could play tricks on unsuspecting humans. While there is some debate about the exact relationship between Samhain and Halloween, it is generally accepted that Halloween as we know it today has been strongly influenced by the Celtic festival.

So, the idea of changing seasons – and particularly wintertime – as a liminal period between the old and new, when ghosts and spirits could return to earth, has a long history. On a human level, it makes sense: what better way to pass the long, cold nights than sat around the fire imagining what might be lurking out there in the dark? With the rise of the Christian churches and the move towards our modern calendar, the focus shifted from the harvest to Christmastime as marking the end of the year. But the link between winter celebrations and the supernatural remained.

In fact, it likely played a part in Oliver Cromwell’s infamous attempt to ban Christmas in the seventeenth century. The 1644 ban wasn’t only an anti-fun crusade, but also an attempt to purge what Puritans considered a solemn religious occasion of its ‘frivolous’, pagan elements – including ghost stories and the supernatural. Nor was it only the horrors of paganism that Puritans sought to eradicate. The enduring legacy of Catholic ideas of purgatory, even after the Reformation, continued to influence popular stories of ghosts and restless spirits well into the seventeenth century and beyond (Belsey, 2010).

An image of a person sitting on a bench reading a newspaper, with the headline 'Christmas BANNED' and a photo of Father Christmas in the middle of a stop sign

Bad news for Christmas fans in 1644. Original photo by krakenimages on Unsplash

With the restoration of the monarchy in 1660 and the reign of Charles II – the king who brought back partying, after all – Christmas was back. But the damage had been done, and many traditions were lost. It would be another 200-odd years before a prolific Victorian writer would breathe new life, as it were, into the ghosts of midwinter …

The Re-Invention of Christmas Ghosts

That’s not to say that ghost stories disappeared between the seventeenth and nineteenth centuries, although it’s true they haven’t received much historical attention (Handley, 2007). But it was undoubtedly the Victorians who took the ghost story to new heights. Part of the appeal of ghost stories for the Victorians was the tales’ ability to turn the natural world on its head, thereby challenging the political and cultural assumptions of the day (Smith, 2013).

The most famous Victorian ghost story – perhaps the most famous Christmas ghost story of any period – is Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol. Dickens, who was after all a journalist and campaigner as well as a writer of novels, certainly made the most of the subversive potential of ghost stories. A Christmas Carol is at its heart a social critique aiming to inspire charity and philanthropy during the festive season, with Scrooge coming to see the error of his miserly ways just in time for Christmas!

If you’ve visited the ghost story display at the library, then you’ll know already that A Christmas Carol is but one link in the (clinking) chain of midwinter ghost stories. But it wasn’t the only Victorian ghost story either. Ghost stories were a popular festive genre among both authors and readers. Take the 1870 edition of Routledge’s Christmas Annual, for example: four of the eleven festive stories (all of which you can read online) presented in the volume feature ghosts and seasonal terrors, from ghosts who seek revenge to those who inhabit strange boxes …

A black-and-white line drawing. In the foreground, a thin elderly man steps out of a triangular box. In the background, through an open door a frightened man is sitting up in bed.

Old Dodson escapes from the peculiar three sided box. From Routledge’s Christmas Annual (1870)

Indeed, ghost stories were so prolific that their narrative tropes and style could be satirised to great effect. That’s what Dickens did in another of his festive publications, A Christmas Tree (originally published in Household Words in 1850, the illustrated edition in the Bodleian’s collection dates from 1911 – and you can read it online too!).

This short tale runs through a series of festive reminiscences, beginning with child-like wonder at Christmas delights before turning to ghost stories shared around the fire. The stories presented are stereotypical versions of classic tales, with ghosts for example foretelling death and taking advantage of a temporary seasonal weakening of the walls that separate the living from the dead. By the end, there is a return to the original sense of Christmas joy, though the innocence and child-like nature is gone. The story concludes with a curious reminder of the liminal potential of this time of year and the sense of endings which pervades it:

A colour drawing of a group of people in Victorian-style clothes around the fireplace. An elderly man sits in a chair telling a story, with a crowd of young people gathered round

Ghost stories round the Christmas fire. From A Christmas Tree, by Charles Dickens.

Now, the tree is decorated with bright merriment, and song, and dance, and cheerfulness. And they are welcome. Innocent and welcome be they ever held, beneath the branches of the Christmas Tree, which cast no gloomy shadow! But as it sinks into the ground, I hear a whisper going through the leaves, “This, in commemoration of the law of love and kindness, mercy and compassion. This, in remembrance of Me!”

– from A Christmas Tree, pp.39-40

Modern Christmas Terrors

Even today, we see the enduring legacy of Victorian Christmas traditions – including ghost stories. There have been a huge number of adaptations of A Christmas Carol alone, from TV specials like Doctor Who in 2010 or the perennial classic, and my personal favourite, The Muppet Christmas Carol (1992). Both can be accessed via Box of Broadcasts (BoB) when you sign in with your Oxford SSO.

Three little ghosts wearing white sheets, standing in a line

Ghosts waiting patiently for their stories to be retold. Photo by Dawn McDonald on Unsplash

But these aren’t the only stories which have had long-lasting appeal. If you’ve had the chance to visit the display in the library, you’ll know that ghost stories have been told and retold countless times and in many different forms. The Anglo-Saxon midwinter tale Beowulf, for example, has been adapted into an animated film (dir. Robert Zemeckis, 2007) while Hamlet, Shakespeare’s most-ghostly drama, has been adapted on screen (for example by Kenneth Branagh in 2007) and is staged regularly. The recording of the RSC’s 2009 production features in the display in the library.

You might also have spotted in the display a journal article telling a ‘real’ ghost story. The article is from the 1931 volume of Notes & Queries (vol.160), and it tells the story of a ghostly encounter first published in 1731 in which ‘a Gentleman of unexceptional honour and veracity’ encounters an ‘Apparition’ near Perth, Scotland. You can read the whole article online or – when it’s not on display – find it in the library. It’s fascinating to think that, nearly 300 years after the supposed encounter, we’re still telling this ghost story!

Of course alongside these retellings, there are also new ghost stories to be found. One particularly prolific early twentieth century author of ghost stories was M. R. James, who started telling stories to friends gathered together on Christmas Eve. While not all of his tales take place during the festive season, the significance of the moment at which ghost stories were shared – namely, Christmastime – looms large.

In fact, James’s stories continue to be closely associated with Christmas. They were the inspiration behind many episodes of the BBC’s long-running series A Ghost Story for Christmas (which you can watch on BoB with your SSO), and have featured in television Christmas schedules as recently as last year with Mark Gatiss’s adaptation of The Mezzotint (BBC, 2021; again, accessible via BoB).

Cover image: The Dark Is Rising sequence by Susan Cooper. A purple background with the author's name at the top in gold text, and the title in the middle and bottom in silver textThese classics tales of ghostly horror sit alongside more subtle modern iterations of the relationship between midwinter and the supernatural. Susan Cooper’s The Dark Is Rising sequence is a great example, with the climactic battles between Light and Dark taking place around the solstice. In the second book, The Dark Is Rising (1973), events take place in the days and weeks around Christmas, while in the fourth book, The Grey King (1975), the focus is the midsummer solstice. In other words, the point of greatest supernatural potential is the change between seasons – whether midsummer or midwinter.

The Long (After) Life of Ghosts

It’s clear that people have been telling ghost stories on cold winter nights since time immemorial. It’s equally clear that we show no sign of stopping! From the pagan tales and supernatural beliefs that motivated Cromwell to ban Christmas, to the Victorian zeal for rediscovering Christmas traditions, as well as more recent stories, ghosts’ predilection for this time of year is undeniable.

If you’d like to find out more about ghost stories, have a look at the resources below – they’re all either available in the library or online with your Oxford SSO. And don’t forget to visit the display in the library if you get the chance!

Resources and further reading


‘A Scotch Ghost-Story of the Eighteenth Century’, in Notes & Queries, CLX (7 Feb 1931), pp.97-98.

Cooper, Susan, The Dark Is Rising Sequence. Omnibus edition stored offsite ; all five books available in the Bodleian Reading Rooms as Electronic Legal Deposit items ; and The Grey King (1975) available in the library.

Dickens, Charles, A Christmas Carol: A ghost story of Christmas (2015).

Dickens, Charles, A Christmas Tree (1911).

Routledge, Edmund, Routledge’s Christmas Annual (1870).

Swanton, Michael, Beowulf (1997). Also available as an e-book.


‘A Ghost Story for Christmas: The Mezzotint’, 22:30 24/12/2021, BBC2 England, 30 mins. [accessed 28 Nov 2022]

BBC, ‘A Ghost Story for Christmas’, 1971-1978 and 2005-present. (BoB playlist)

Branagh, Kenneth (dir.), Hamlet (2007).

‘Doctor Who, A Christmas Carol’, 20:00 30/11/2014, BBC3, 60 mins. [accessed 28 Nov 2022]

Zemeckis, Robert (dir.), Beowulf (2007).

Secondary material

Belsey, Catherine, ‘Shakespeare’s Sad Tale for Winter: Hamlet and the Tradition of Fireside Ghost Stories’, in Shakespeare Quarterly, 61:1 (2010), pp.1-27.

Briggs, Julia, Night Visitors: The Rise and Fall of the English Ghost Story (London, 1977).

Clery, E. J., The rise of supernatural fiction 1762-1800 (Cambridge, 1995).

Handley, Sasha, Visions of an unseen world: Ghost beliefs and ghost stories in eighteenth-century England (London, 2007).

Johnston, Derek, ‘Landscape, season and identity in Ghost Story for Christmas’, in Journal of Popular Television, 6:1 (2018), pp.105-118.

Smith, Andrew, The Ghost Story, 1840-1920: A Cultural History (Manchester, 2013).

Websites and articles 

Carnegie Museum of Natural History, The History of Holiday Ghost Stories. URL. [accessed 28 Nov 2022].

Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica, ‘Samhain’, Encyclopaedia Britannica, September 5, 2022. URL. [accessed 28 Nov 2022].

Refugee Literature Display

A GIF of the English Faculty Library's Refugee Literature Display reading 'The EFL, in collaboration with SolidariTee, presents, A Refugee Literature Display, until 24th June'

Refugee Literature Display


Last week, in collaboration with SolidariTee, we launched our Refugee Literature Display in the library, with the intention of spotlighting the wealth and variety of material published by refugee authors.

The display features novels, short stories, recollections and reflections by a number of noteworthy figures, some educated at Oxford and all highly commended on the basis of their work. Complementing each title is a caption contributed by English Faculty Library staff or a member of SolidariTee, which briefly introduces the recommendation and describes any motivation for making the selection.

The display is available until 24th June, with the library accessible to those with a valid library card. The library can be contacted about the display using the details on the webpage.

English Faculty Library | Bodleian Libraries (

Who are SolidariTee?

In curating the display, the library is privileged to have had the opportunity to work with some of the Oxford members of SolidariTee – an international, student-led charity that seeks for empowering, long-term change in the treatment of refugees and asylum seekers, predominantly through advocacy and fundraising. Given recent global events, their work has arguably never been more important. You can find out more about the organisation and how to support them at the link below.

SolidariTee | Fundraising legal aid for refugees and educating on refugee issues

Further Reading

Sadly, there is simply not enough room in our display cases to showcase all the excellent work produced by refugee authors. It is because of this that we have chosen to consign a couple of our recommendations to this blog post instead, and to provide an additional list of recent releases that might pique the interest of those wishing to explore literature produced by refugees. Though the list is by no means exhaustive, the titles included are available via the Bodleian Libraries and can be found at the SOLO links provided.

Blog pick: SolidariTee

Dayini, Publicity Officer at SolidariTee, Oxford

All That’s Left to You, a novella by Ghassan Kanafani, presents the stories of three Palestinian characters living in Gaza: Hamid, in opposing his sister Maryam’s marriage to Zakaria, decides to cross the desert to Jordan. For me, the oscillation between the past and the present and the interwoven narrations by Hamid, Maryam, Desert and Time without clear distinction powerfully highlights their constant state of flux in a world governed by displacement and perpetual movement.

Cover image for All That's Left to You by Ghassan Kanafani

All That’s Left to You by Ghassan Kanafani

Blog pick: English Faculty Library

Ross, Senior Library Assistant at the EFL

No Friend But the Mountains by Behrouz Boochani is an autobiographical account of the trials he has faced in travelling to Christmas Island and later during detention at an Australian immigration facility. It is a damning indictment of a system designed to dehumanise and made all the more visceral when you discover that the text is drawn from a series of smuggled files and messages.

Cover image for No Friend But the Mountains by Behrouz Boochani

No Friend But the Mountains by Behrouz Boochani

This book has been recommended previously by alum Carol Bolton as part of the English Faculty’s Telling our Stories Better Project. Find out more at the link below.

Telling Our Stories Better: Online Gallery | Faculty of English (


You might also be interested in…

Ávila Laurel, Juan Tomás, and Jethro Soutar. By Night the Mountain Burns. 2014.

Beah, Ishmael. A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier. 2008.

Donald, Jason. Dalila. 2018.

Ismailov, Hamid, and Donald Rayfield. Manaschi. 2021.

Khakpour, Porochista. The Last Illusion. 2016.

Okorie, Melatu Uche, and Liam Thornton. This Hostel Life. 2018.

Passarlay, Gulwali, and Nadene Ghouri. The Lightless Sky: My Journey to Safety as a Child Refugee. 2016.

Sīrīs, Nihād, and Max Weiss. The Silence and the Roar. 2013.

Want to collaborate with the English Faculty Library on a display? Get in touch at Preference will be given to staff and students affiliated with the Faculty of English.

Fantasy Fiction: Scattered Seeds

The eagle-eyed reader at the English Faculty Library may have spotted our new display on Fantasy Fiction: spanning two display cases that explore the ‘Classic Roots’ of fantasy in literature and the ways that it’s been ‘Branching Out’ in the last couple of decades. This blog post is the third and final part of the collection (after all, who doesn’t love a trilogy?). ‘Scattered Seeds’ looks at some fantasy-themed digital editions available in the Bodleian and beyond, and the ways in which fantasy has grown beyond fiction – and sometimes even circles right back around to its literary beginnings…

The Tale of the Shipwrecked Sailor

This tale from Middle Egypt is stated by Richard Mathews to be “the earliest” of “the oldest known examples of ancient fiction – texts we would now call fantasy” (p.6). The short tale can be read in its entirety on pages 261-264 in Ancient Egyptian Literature (which is available as both an electronic resource and in the Sackler). Lichtheim gives us this tantalizing piece of contextual information about the papyrus copy which dates from the Middle Kingdom: “The only preserved papyrus copy of the tale was discovered by Gole-nischeff in the Imperial Museum of St. Petersburg. Nothing is known about its original provenience.” (p.260). I could write a whole blog about how interesting the historical contexts of this story are, but that would be quite the tangent – besides, Joshua J. Mark has already done such a fascinating job of that over on World History Encyclopaedia.

The story, short though it may be, contains many of the trappings of a typical fantasy narrative. From the hero’s voyage, to the frame narrative that Mathews calls a “clear precursor” to The Thousand and One Nights, even down to the fantastic serpentine monster that Mathews considers a “prototype” of fantasy fiction’s greatest looming threat: the dragon (p.6). Given its age, this story is clearly not a scattered seed of the genre, but I have included it because I believe it could be the seed of the genre.

Screen Adaptations

We’ve well established within this blog post and the aforementioned displays that adaptation, reinvention, and influence are the bread and butter of the fantasy genre, linking the most modern works right back to the shipwrecked sailor. But the pivot to television and film adaptation added a whole new dimension to the fantasy genre, and encouraged massive innovation not only in the way that on-screen content was produced (e.g. special effects) but also in the way that fantasy fiction in the 21st century is often written and published with forethought to screen adaptation.

One of the oldest examples of fantasy screen adaptations is the silent movie The Thief of Bagdad, released in 1924 and later colourised and given special effects in 1940. This was the first feature-length adaptation from The Thousand and One Nights, and it’s available in the EFL’s film collection. Armitt implies that this adaptation keeps faithful to the original book when she says it “is careful to retain an overt connection with books and storytelling” (p.35). She also compares it favourably to Disney’s Aladdin (1992) in terms of its international politics (p.37). Disney, of course, has carved deep grooves in the canon of fantasy films, but they are not the only studio to wade into the genre. The last 30 years has seen a boom in the fantasy film and TV adaptation, including adaptations of the literary giants mentioned in our display.

Crucially, what these adaptations bring is not simply a motion picture of your favourite book, but a collaborative invitation of new ideas, a restructuring to benefit a different audience, or previously unseen depths to the characters, world, or narrative events. For example Peter Jackson, in his adaptation of The Hobbit, altered the plotline to include some allusions and characters that appear later in the Rings trilogy. This decision and similar choices in the Lord of the Rings films, likely served multiple purposes: for example in The Hobbit, allowing the narrative to expand across three feature-length films, or adding some female characters to what was originally a male-dominated book. Generally speaking, these kinds of changes allow a narrative to speak to different audiences, priorities, and cultural contexts.

To emphasise this final point on cultural context, let me borrow a quote from The Fantasy Film by Katherine A. Fowkes: “Tolkien eschewed an allegorical reading of [The Lord of the] Rings, but there is no denying that both the films’ military triumphalism and their emphasis on solidarity and friendship speak to and reflect the historical moment of their release.” (p.144). Her book is available to loan from the EFL, and contains a far more comprehensive exploration of fantasy cinema than could ever be achieved in a single blog post.

Fantasy Gaming

TV and film aren’t the only places that one can find an abundance of influence from fantasy fiction. Gaming has had a growth (or renaissance!) in the last few decades, from video to board to table-top, fantasy is prevalent throughout the gaming. A prime example of this is The Witcher, which began as a series of books written by Andrzej Sapkowski. The first book was released in 1986 (and the complete electronic box set is available in the Bodleian reading rooms!), and since that time the series has been adapted into, among other things, a trilogy of video games (beginning with The Witcher, 2009). The video games in particular were wildly successful, and are played in the RPG (role-playing game) style – favouring narrative and storytelling, which seems fitting given the roots of the games.

To bring my point to a full circle, I’d like to end this (already rambling) blog by talking about a different type of role-playing game – that is, the table-top role-playing game. For the uninitiated, these games are played by a group of people collaboratively telling a story and engaging in combat/exploration, aided by rolling dice. RPGs are not necessarily fantasy-themed endeavours, but one of the most renowned games: Dungeons and Dragons, was (in the words of Edward James) “initially inspired by Tolkien, but RPGs have taken their fantasy settings from other novels, and they have also been the core texts upon which novelizations have been based.” (p.75). James then goes on to mention the example of the Dragonlance universe created by Laura and Tracy Hickman, and published in hundreds of novels (some of which, yes, are available through the Bodleian: Dragonlance Tales (1991), for example). Therefore, we have books inspiring games and circling back round to inspiring books.

I bring this up because I think it is a perfect encapsulation of creativity begetting creativity. In all honestly, it is nothing new or particular to the fantasy genre that one form of art can inspire and breed creativity in another art form. A brilliant idea may begin as ‘inspired’, but grow into something independent and wonderful – even sometimes beyond the remit of the original – but nowhere does this astound me more than in fantasy: in a genre where the writer builds the world in its entirety, where that world can be populated or changed or developed by multiple hands.

Whether you are watering the growing buds of your predecessors, collecting fruits from their boughs, or climbing the branches of matured trees to catch sight of something fresh and new – it all comes from a seed – and always back to a seed.


Armitt, L., 2020. Fantasy, London: Routledge

Fowkes, K.A., 2010. The Fantasy Film, Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, 2012. Jackson, P., dir. [Film] Warner Bros Pictures

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug, 2013. Jackson, P., dir. [Film] Warner Bros Pictures

The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies, 2014. Jackson, P., dir. [Film] Warner Bros Pictures

James, E., ‘Tolkien, Lewis, and the Explosion of Genre Fantasy’ in James, E. & Mendlesohn, F., 2012. The Cambridge Companion to Fantasy literature, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

Lane, E.W. & Poole, E.S., 1865. The Thousand and One Nights: Commonly called in England, The Arabian Nights’ Entertainments: a New Translation from the Arabic, with Copious Notes, London: Routledge

Lichtheim, M., 2019. Ancient Egyptian Literature, Oakland, California: University of California Press

Mark, Joshua J.. ‘The Tale of the Shipwrecked Sailor: An Egyptian Epic.’ World History Encyclopedia. Last modified January 18, 2012.

Mathews, R., 2002. Fantasy: the Liberation of Imagination, New York; London: Routledge

Sapkowski, A., Stok, D. & French, D., 2020. The Witcher Boxed Set, London: Gollancz

The Thief of Bagdad, 2001. Walsh, R., [Film] Eureka

Spying and Espionage: Something Different

Those who frequent the English Faculty Library in the Michaelmas term may spot our not-so-top-secret display on Spying and Espionage Literature, which showcases some key texts of the genre and highlights the relationship between international tensions and the spy novel. We have works on display from giants like John Le Carré and Joseph Conrad, a few James Bond films, and even a copy of Blackwood’s Magazine in which John Buchan first published The Thirty-Nine Steps.

However, in curating the display, we found a lot more than we could put on display. This seemed like a brilliant opportunity to draw your attention to our online collection and to resources available in the wider Bodleian and beyond. Please find below a (not exhaustive!) selection of alternative resources:

Lauren Wilkinson brings a more modern take to the genre of spy novels with her debut, The American Spy, published in 2019. Her book is built around the historical figure of Thomas Sankara, revolutionary president of Burkina Faso, and explores the experiences of a black woman working in the white-male dominated intelligence community. In an interview with Electric Lit, Wilkinson said: “My experience as a black American was in line with [spying], where you spend a lot of time thinking about how you portray yourself.” Her book is available to read via ELD on Bodleian PCs.

Helen MacInnes was an espionage novelist inspired by her husband, who served in British Intelligence in World War 2, to write her first novel Above Suspicion (1941). Her work is intensely political and deeply opinionated, roiling against fascist ideologies and political systems. A list of her books available at the Bodleian can be found here, and a full biography of her life is available via the Bodleian subscription to American National Biography.

Viet Thanh Nguyen’s The Sympathiser won the Pulitzer Prize – and for good reason. The novel follows the story of a half-French, half-Vietnamese communist sleeper agent stranded in exile in America after the end of the Vietnam War. It’s an honest and at times hilarious look at identity and politics with style and flair. If you’re lucky (and quick!), you can get your hands on a physical copy at the EFL – go go go!

Some other good resources (besides a fascinating assortment of novels) include:

  • Toledo Library have published a Brief History of the Spy Genre, which is (as promised) brief but very informative. It also includes a much bigger reading list than the one above!
  • This list published by CrimeReads is a carefully curated selection of ‘Literary Thrillers about Espionage, Spies, and Double Agents’ and includes titles not mentioned in this article or in our display.
  • The Novels of John Le Carré by David Monaghan – A critical analysis of Le Carré’s work that was incredibly helpful in curating the display. This is available in a physical copy at the EFL.
  • The display alludes briefly to a very important piece by Chinua Achebe called An Image of Africa: Racism in Conrad’s The Heart of Darkness – the piece is worth reading in its entirety and available online.
  • James Bond Uncovered by Jeremy Strong is a fascinating read for film fans, with a clear focus on adapting a classic text to a variety of media for changing audiences. An electronic copy is available through Bodleian Libraries.

LGBT+ History Month 2021

Note: LGBT+ is used throughout this blog post in keeping with terminology adopted by the University of Oxford’s Equality and Diversity Unit:


This month is LGBT+ History Month, a period of advocacy and awareness-raising intended to promote equality and diversity. To celebrate this campaign, this post aims to highlight LGBT+ influences on and within literature. It begins by showcasing some topical overviews, available to University members online, and includes a list of English Faculty Library staff’s favourite titles written by LGBT+ authors.

In line with the aims of LGBT+ History Month, work is ongoing across the Bodleian Libraries to diversify collections in the Humanities and Social Sciences. A great place to find out more about this is the Changing the Narrative LibGuide, introduced in 2020 as part of a project to enhance the visibility and coverage of collections concerning LGBT+ Studies, Women’s Studies, Disability Studies, Black and Minority Ethnic (BME) Studies and their intersections. A success of the project has been the recent acquisition of the LGBT Magazine Archive, which includes some of the longest-running, most influential publications of this type. Targeted purchasing is an important aspect of the Libraries’ drive to rebalance its provision and recommendations for resources are welcome.

LGBT+ Influence in Literature

It is impossible to capture comprehensively the enduring effects LGBT+ people have had on literature; as Hannah Gabrielle of the British Library notes, “LGBTQ perspectives, themes, influences and contributions cut through all sections of the literary canon.”

The texts listed below are therefore intended only to provide an indication of some of the different ways linkages between LGBT+ experiences and literary mediums can be conceptualised and explored. At the time of writing, each title is accessible to University members online via Single Sign-On.


Meem, Deborah T., and Michelle Gibson, Finding Out: An Introduction to LGBT Studies (London: SAGE, 2010)

About the Book:

By combining accessible introductory and explanatory material with primary texts and artifacts, this text/reader explores the development and growth of LGBT identities and the interdisciplinary nature of sexuality studies.

Section III provides a concise summary on LGBT+ literary and artistic contributions and the impact of these works in shaping distinctive cultural identities.


Rivkin, Julie, Literary theory: An Anthology, 3rd edn (Hoboken: John Wiley & Sons Incorporated, 2017)

About the book:

The new edition of this bestselling literary theory anthology has been thoroughly updated to include influential texts from innovative new areas, including disability studies, eco-criticism, and ethics. Covers all the major schools and methods that make up the dynamic field of literary theory, from Formalism to Postcolonialism Expanded to include work from Stuart Hall, Sara Ahmed, and Lauren Berlant. Pedagogically enhanced with detailed editorial introductions and a comprehensive glossary of terms.


Stevens, Hugh, The Cambridge Companion to Gay and Lesbian Writing (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010)

About the book:

This Companion introduces readers to the range of debates that inform studies of works by lesbian and gay writers and of literary representations of same-sex desire and queer identities. Each chapter introduces key concepts in the field in an accessible way and uses several important literary texts to illustrate how these concepts can illuminate our readings of them. Authors discussed range from Henry James, E. M. Forster and Gertrude Stein to Sarah Waters and Carol Ann Duffy. The contributors showcase the wide variety of approaches and theoretical frameworks that characterise this field, drawing on related themes of gender and sexuality. With a chronology and guide to further reading, this volume offers a stimulating introduction to the diversity of approaches to lesbian and gay literature.


McCallum, E. L., The Cambridge History of Gay and Lesbian Literature (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2014)

About the book:

The Cambridge History of Gay and Lesbian Literature presents a global history of the field and is an unprecedented summation of critical knowledge on gay and lesbian literature that also addresses the impact of gay and lesbian literature on cognate fields such as comparative literature and postcolonial studies. Covering subjects from Sappho and the Greeks to queer modernism, diasporic literatures, and responses to the AIDS crisis, this volume is grounded in current scholarship. It presents new critical approaches to gay and lesbian literature that will serve the needs of students and specialists alike. Written by leading scholars in the field, The Cambridge History of Gay and Lesbian Literature will not only engage readers in contemporary debates but also serve as a definitive reference for gay and lesbian literature for years to come.


Sanchez, Melissa E., Shakespeare and Queer Theory (London: The Arden Shakespeare, 2019)

About the book:

Shakespeare and Queer Theory is an indispensable guide on the ongoing critical debates about queer method both within and beyond Shakespeare and early modern studies.

Clearly elucidating the central ideas of the theory, the field’s historical emergence from feminist and gay and lesbian studies within the academy, and political activism related to the AIDS crisis beyond it, it also illuminates current debates about historicism and embodiment.

Through a series of original readings of texts including Othello, The Merchant of Venice, and Venus and Adonis, as well as film adaptations of early modern drama including Derek Jarman’s The Tempest and Edward II, Gus Van Sant’s My Own Private Idaho, Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet, and Julie Taymor’s Titus, it illustrates the value of queer theory to Shakespeare scholarship, and the value of Shakespearean texts to queer theory.


Friedman, Dustin, Before Queer Theory: Victorian Aestheticism and the Self (Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 2019)

About the book:

Late Victorian aesthetes were dedicated to the belief that an artwork’s value derived solely from its beauty, rather than any moral or utilitarian purpose. Works by these queer artists have rarely been taken seriously as contributions to the theories of sexuality or aesthetics. But in Before Queer Theory, Dustin Friedman argues that aestheticism deploys its “art for art’s sake” rhetoric to establish a nascent sense of sexual identity and community. Friedman makes the case for a claim rarely articulated in either Victorian or modern culture: that intellectually, creatively, and ethically, being queer can be an advantage not in spite but because of social hostility toward nonnormative desires.

Showing how aesthetes—among them Walter Pater, Oscar Wilde, Vernon Lee, and Michael Field—harnessed the force that Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel called “the negative,” Friedman reveals how becoming self-aware of one’s sexuality through art can be both liberating and affirming of humanity’s capacity for subjective autonomy. Challenging one of the central precepts of modern queer theory—the notion that the heroic subject of Enlightenment thought is merely an effect of discourse and power—Friedman develops a new framework for understanding the relationship between desire and self-determination. He also articulates an innovative, queer notion of subjective autonomy that encourages reflecting critically on one’s historical moment and envisioning new modes of seeing, thinking, and living that expand the boundaries of social and intellectual structures.

Before Queer Theory is an audacious reimagining that will appeal to scholars with interests in Victorian studies, queer theory, gender and sexuality studies, and art history.


Sinfield, Alan, Cultural politics — Queer Reading (Philadelphia, University of Pennsylvania Press, 2015)

About the book:

Was Shakespeare gay? Is The Merchant of Venice anti-Semitic? How does mainstream reading differ from that of subcultural groups? In this lively and readable book, Alan Sinfield challenges the assumptions of English literature and investigates the principles and practices that may inform lesbian and gay reading.


Herring, Scott, Queering the Underworld: Slumming, Literature, and the Undoing of Lesbian and Gay History (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2007)

About the book:

At the start of the twentieth century, tales of “how the other half lives” experienced a surge in popularity. People looking to go slumming without leaving home turned to these narratives for spectacular revelations of the underworld and sordid details about the deviants who populated it. This book, a major rethinking of American literature and culture, explores how a key group of authors manipulated this genre to paradoxically evade the confines of sexual identification. It examines a range of writers, from Jane Addams and Willa Cather to Carl Van Vechten and Djuna Barnes, revealing how they fulfilled the conventions of slumming literature but undermined its goals, and in the process, queered the genre itself. Their work frustrated the reader’s desire for sexual knowledge, restored the inscrutability of sexual identity, and cast doubt on the value of a homosexual subculture made visible and therefore subject to official control. The book is polemical in connecting these writers to ongoing debates about lesbian and gay history and politics.


Carroll, Rachel, Transgender and The Literary Imagination: Changing Gender in Twentieth-Century Writing (Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2020)

About the book:

Transgender and the Literary Imagination examines a selection of literary fiction by British, Irish and American authors first published between 1918 and 2000, each text featuring a protagonist (and in some cases two) whose gender identity differs from that assigned to them at birth: George Moore’s naturalistic novella set in an 1860s Dublin hotel, Albert Nobbs (1918); Angela Carter’s dystopian feminist fantasy The Passion of New Eve (1977); Jackie Kay’s contemporary fiction inspired by the life of a post-war jazz musician, Trumpet (1998); Patricia Duncker’s historical fiction based on the life of a nineteenth-century colonial military surgeon, James Miranda Barry (1999); David Ebershoff’s The Danish Girl (2000), a rewriting of the life of Lili Elbe, reputed to be the first person to undergo gender reassignment treatment.

A key concern for this study is the way in which transgender lives – whether historical or fictional – have been ‘authored by others’: named, defined and appropriated in ways which obscure, displace or erase transgender experiences, identities and histories. By revisiting twentieth-century narratives and their afterlives, including stage and film adaptations, this book aims to examine the legacies of this representational history, exploring the extent to which transgender potential can be recovered and realised.

Staff Picks

Some of our favourite books, poems and films by LGBT+ authors.

Find Out More

LGBT+ advocacy manifests in a variety of activities across the university, from open lecture series to society events. Readers of this post may find the following links of interest: