Babel: Or the Necessity of Violence
The trouble with writing an Oxford novel is that anyone who has spent time at Oxford will scrutinize your text to determine if your representation of Oxford aligns with their own memories of the place. Worse if you are an American writing about Oxford, for what do Americans know about anything? I offer my defence here:
Babel is a work of speculative fiction and so takes place in a fantastical version of Oxford in the 1830s, whose history was thoroughly altered by silver-work (more on that shortly). Still, I’ve tried to remain as faithful to the historical record on life in early Victorian Oxford as possible, and to introduce falsehoods only when they serve the narrative. For references on early nineteenth-century Oxford, I’ve relied on James J. Moore’s highly entertaining The Historical Handbook and Guide to Oxford (1878), as well as The History of the University of Oxford volumes VI and VII, edited by M.G. Brock and M.C. Curthoys (1997 and 2000, respectively) among others.
For rhetoric and the general texture of life (such as early nineteenth-century Oxford slang, which differs quite a lot from contemporary Oxford slang),* I have made use of primary sources such as Alex Chalmers’s A History of the Colleges, Halls, and Public Buildings Attached to the University of Oxford, Including the Lives of the Founders (1810), G.V. Cox’s Recollections of Oxford (1868), Thomas Mozley’s Reminiscences: Chiefly of Oriel College and the Oxford Movement (1882), and W. Tuckwell’s Reminiscences of Oxford (1908). Since fiction can also tell us much about life the way it was lived, or at least the way it was perceived, I have also dropped in details from novels such as Cuthbert M. Bede’s The Adventures of Mr. Verdant Green (1857), Thomas Hughes’s Tom Brown at Oxford (1861), and William Makepeace Thackeray’s The History of Pendennis (1850). For everything else, I’ve relied on my memories and my imagination.
For those familiar with Oxford and thus eager to cry, ‘No, that’s not how things are!’, I’ll now explain some peculiarities. The Oxford Union was not established until 1856, so in this novel it is referred to by the name of its predecessor, the United Debating Society (founded in 1823). My beloved Vaults & Garden café did not exist until 2003, but I spent so much time there (and ate so many scones there) that I couldn’t deny Robin and company those same pleasures. The Twisted Root as described does not exist, and as far as I’m aware no pub exists in Oxford of that name. There is also no Taylor’s on Winchester Road though I am pretty fond of the Taylors on High Street. The Oxford Martyrs Monument does exist, but was not completed until 1843, three years after the conclusion of this novel. I’ve moved the date of its construction up just a little bit, all for the sake of a cute reference. The coronation of Queen Victoria happened in June 1838, not 1839. The Oxford-to-Paddington railway line was not laid until 1844, but here it was constructed several years earlier for two reasons: first, because it makes sense given the altered history; and second, because I needed to get my characters to London a bit faster.
I took a lot of artistic liberties with the commemoration ball, which looks a lot more like a contemporary Oxbridge May/Commemoration Ball than any kind of early-Victorian social event. For instance, I’m aware that oysters were a staple of the early-Victorian poor, but I choose to make them a delicacy because that was my first impression of the 2019 May Ball at Magdalene College, Cambridge – heaps and heaps of oysters on ice (I hadn’t brought a purse, and was juggling my phone, champagne glass, and oyster in one hand, and spilled champagne all over an old man’s nice dress shoes as a result).
Some may be puzzled by the precise placement of the Royal Institute of Translation, also known as Babel. That is because I’ve warped geography to make space for it. Imagine a green between the Bodleian Libraries, the Sheldonian, and the Radcliffe Camera. Now make it much bigger, and put Babel right in the centre.
If you find any other inconsistencies, feel free to remind yourself this is a work of fiction.
City of Oxford
Map of Babel
Author’s Note on Her Representations of Historical England, and of the University of Oxford in Particular
About the Author
Also by R. F. Kuang
About the Publisher
|August 29, 2022
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