You have the perfect location for your next book, but it’s not open to the public. Never mind, you’re going to an event there – and then the Covid lockdown happens. How are you going to research it now? This was the puzzle Fiona Veitch Smith faced while writing her latest Poppy Denby mystery, set in Somerville College, Oxford. So, with the help of alumna authors, she began imagining Somerville.
“The porter led the way through the portico and into a quadrangle, carrying a large golfing umbrella that protected them both from the now persistent rain. Poppy imagined the green lawns of Somerville on a sunny day, speckled with young women talking and reading.” From The Crystal Crypt.
I started writing The Crystal Crypt, the sixth book in my 1920s murder mystery series about reporter sleuth Poppy Denby, in December 2019. I was inspired to write about the murder of a female scientist in a basement laboratory in Oxford after learning about the Nobel Prize-winning chemist, Dorothy Crowfoot Hodgkin. Hodgkin was a Somerville College graduate (1931) and researched x-ray crystallography in a laboratory housed in the basement of the Old Ashmolean (now the History of Science Museum).
My literary hero, Dorothy L Sayers, author of the Lord Peter Wimsey and Harriet Vane novels, was also a Somerville graduate (1915), and later worked across the road from the Old Ashmolean at Blackwell’s Bookshop.
Sayers had already had a cameo role in Poppy’s third adventure, The Death Beat, when she and Poppy rub shoulders on a fictional cruise to New York in 1922. And in The Crystal Crypt, Poppy muses as she first arrives at Somerville to interview a potential witness in her murder case: “Hadn’t the novelist Dorothy L Sayers studied here?”
Indeed, she had. As had her creation, Harriet Vane. Sayers wrote about Harriet returning to a fictional version of Somerville, which she called Shrewsbury College, in Gaudy Night (1936): “As Harriet followed Miss Lydgate across the lawn, she was visited by an enormous nostalgia. If only one could come back to this quiet place, where only intellectual achievement counted…”
Because of these two Somerville connections, I decided that the victim in the novel, Dr June Leighton, would be an alumna of the college, and would still have some rooms there as she tutored alongside her research work.
The book is set in 1925, and as Alden’s Guide to Oxford (1920) helpfully reminds us: “By a Statute of Convocation passed in 1920 Societies of Women Students duly conforming to the required conditions received official recognition by the University, and members of such Societies became eligible for matriculation. Their status is in all essential respects equal to that of men students.”
This was a long-fought battle, as Vera Brittain, a Somerville graduate herself, observes in The Women at Oxford (1960): “[In 1919] what woman student from any college could now repress the heady sense of a new and hopeful return to life when it was actually combined with the increasing certainty that the long-withheld degrees would come?”
I was reading another Vera Brittain book, her first novel, The Dark Tide, when I visited Oxford in January 2020, on the first of two research trips. The Dark Tide, set 1919–1921, is a semi-autobiographical novel, with the character of Virginia based loosely on the author. The other main character is the exuberant Daphne, possibly based on Vera’s flatmate, the novelist Winifred Holtby. Daphne and Virginia both attend a thinly-disguised fictional version of Somerville, known as Drayton College.
“[Daphne] felt rather lost a few minutes after the cab had deposited her at Drayton, and moved self-consciously across the little entrance hall, whose windows were darkened by the burnished leaves of the autumn creeper.” – The Dark Tide (1923).
The novel did not go down well with the lady dons of Somerville who felt that Brittain, one of their alumni, had portrayed the college in a poor light. This was not helped in that some of the characters appeared to be caricatures of actual staff members and students. The book was subsequently banned.
Brittain revisited Somerville in her magnum opus, Testament of Youth (1933). Her ambivalence about her time at the college, and how she felt she was treated by some of the students and staff, is clear. She was also still smarting from the reviews she had received for The Dark Tide, as she is quick to defend parts of it for which she had received criticism.
I first came to know Somerville through the literary works of Sayers and Brittain, so it was already alive in my imagination when I approached its doors in January 2020. But the doors were shut. I had foolishly assumed there would be parts of the campus open to the public to just wander around. This was not the case. So, on that first visit I was confined to glimpsing the lawns and buildings through the gatehouse.
I supplemented my voyeurism with information, photographs and videos from the College website. Undeterred, I conducted the rest of my research into other parts of Oxford that appear in the book and planned to come back on an arranged visit to Somerville later in the year. The Dorothy L Sayers Society, of which I had recently become a member, would be holding its residential convention there in August 2020. So, I booked to go. But then came the global pandemic…
The convention was cancelled. I managed to get back to a partially shut-down Oxford again in the summer for further research, but again I was unable to get inside Somerville. So, all I had left was my second-hand research and the literary reconstructions of Sayers and Brittain.
I did, finally, get inside Somerville in August 2021 when I attended the delayed convention. But by then The Crystal Crypt had been written, edited and was at the printers when I took my first steps through the gatehouse and into the College quadrangle.
I spent much of the convention with ears on the wonderful speakers, but eyes on the layout, architecture and furnishings of the older parts of the College. Had I got it right when I said Poppy went up this particular staircase or was accosted by the baddy in that particular room? Fortunately, there was nothing glaringly amiss.
Nonetheless I issue an apology in the historical notes at the back of the book:
“Somerville College is, of course, a real place, but due to the restrictions necessitated by the pandemic, the Somerville you read about in this book is mainly what I have gleaned of it from reading books set there in the ’20s and ’30s (including Gaudy Night and The Dark Tide), a 1920s guidebook of Oxford, my viewing of it from the outside in, and the Somerville College website. Beyond that, I have fictionalised the layout for the purposes of this story. So once again, I beg forgiveness from Somerville alumni who know the place better than I do.” – The Crystal Crypt (2021)
The Crystal Crypt by Fiona Veitch Smith is published on 19 November, 2021. Fiona is the author of the Poppy Denby Investigates novels, Golden Age-style murder mysteries set in the 1920s. The first book, The Jazz Files, was shortlisted for the CWA Historical Dagger in 2016.
- Somerville College, Park Building by Aivin Gast: Wikimedia
- Dorothy L Sayers: Wikipedia
- Somerville College – photograph from author’s own copy of Alden’s Guide to Oxford (Alden & Co, Oxford, 1920)
- Vera Brittain in VAD uniform: McMaster University, Mills Memorial Library* via the First World War Digital Archive Library
- Somerville College Oxford, Hall from High Table by Aivin Gast: Wikimedia
*The digitised Vera Brittain material may be used for educational purposes only and remains the copyright at all times of the Literary Executors for the Vera Brittain Estate, 1970 and The Vera Brittain Fonds, McMaster University Library. In any distribution or display of the material this acknowledgment must be clearly indicated.