08 July 2009

In search of Porterhouse, Pelby and colleges of the imagination

Pembroke College, Cambridge … the alma mater of Tom Sharpe, who used some of its details in Porterhouse Blue (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

Over the last few days, I have been amused by some of the fiction and lore that has developed around Sidney Sussex College. Is Oliver Cromwell’s head buried in the antechapel? And was Sherlock Holmes an undergraduate at Sidney Sussex?

But apart from historical fiction and fictional characters, Cambridge also has its share of fictional and fantasy colleges with names that sometimes sound more credible that the story of Cromwell’s head or the escapades of Sherlock Holmes as he tried to join the Night Climbers of Cambridge.

Before returning to Sidney Sussex this year, I re-read Porterhouse Blue, with its description of Portherhouse College by Tom Sharpe. Sharpe’s description of his fictional college suggests Peterhouse, the oldest college in Cambridge, although he probably intended the name of his college to be a pun on college porters and porterhouse steaks.

But the kindness that has been shown to me by the porters in Sidney Sussex this year and last year – and the hospitality and care extended to me by the porters at Christ’s College when heavy snow last February left me dependent on their generosity and attention – would never allow me to confuse these stalwarts of Cambridge college life with the likes of Scullion in Porterhouse.

Porterhouse is said to be based loosely on either Pembroke College, Sharpe’s alma mater, or on neighbouring Corpus Christi. The geographical clues Sharpe provides indicate it is located somewhere near Peterhouse and Pembroke, around Trumpington Street.

Other writers have created fictional Cambridge colleges but have refused to name them. C.P. Snow disparaged what he called the “Christminster” convention of naming fictitious colleges, and his colleges remain unnamed in The Masters and other novels in the Strangers and Brothers series.

But the creation of fictional colleges allows authors a greater licence to describe the more intimate activities of a Cambridge college while giving them a way to place events in their novels that might otherwise be impossible because of the actual geography of Cambridge.

My favourite fantasy college in modern fiction is Laud’s College, named after William Laud, the 17th century Archbishop of Canterbury, which features in a number of the clerical novels by Susan Howatch. She has endowed a chair at Cambridge held by Dr Fraser Watts, who was one of the lecturers at the IOCS summer school in Sidney Sussex College last year.

In those novels, Charles Ashworth is a fellow of Laud’s College, and many of the characters studied there. Laud’s is also the location of Cambridge Cathedral. But Cambridge is in the Diocese of Ely and the city has no cathedral. So, perhaps, Christ Church Oxford, which is both a college and a cathedral, provided her with the inspiration for Laud’s College.

A martyred bishop and a Pope have also given their names to fictional Cambridge colleges – Fisher College and Breakespeare College. Fisher College, which features in The Cambridge Murders by Dilwyn Rees, stands between the real Saint John’s College and Trinity College and is named after the martyred Cardinal John Fisher (1469-1535), who is closely associated with Saint John’s. He was the first Lady Margaret’s Professor of Divinity in Cambridge before becoming Chancellor of the University, introduced Erasmus to Cambridge, and has already given his name to Fisher Hall, the Roman Catholic chaplaincy in Cambridge.

Is Brakespeare College in G.K. Chesterton’s Manalive named after the only English-born pope, Nicholas Breakspeare, who became Pope Adrian IV (1154-1159)?

As the War of the Roses seriously delayed the completion of building work at King’s College Chapel, it is only appropriate that fictional Cambridge colleges include Lancaster College and Tudor College. Lancaster College, which features in a number of books by Simon Raven, has more than a passing resemblance to King’s College, while Tudor College is the college of the main characters in The Night Climbers by Ivo Stouron.

The fictitious Bursill-Hall Hall is named after a lecturer in the History of Mathematics. Although most of Mary Stewart’s novel Stormy Petrel is set on the Isle of Mull, Dr Rose Fenemore appears as the English tutor at Haworth College.

Garret Hostel Lane … too narrow a passageway to squeeze Saint Stephen’s College in between Trinity Hall (left) and Trinity College (right) (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

A geographical understanding of Cambridge colleges and streets provides an extra insight into the imaginative creativity of some authors. Saint Stephen’s College in For the Sake of Elena by Elizabeth George, is located between Trinity College and Trinity Hall. But the reader would have to know Cambridge well to grasp that this is a physical impossibility. The two colleges share similar names but are separate foundations – Trinity Hall was founded in 1350 while Trinity College was founded in 1546 by Henry VIII. They stand side-by-side on Trinity Lane and are separated only by Garret Hostel Lane, a narrow alleyway that is only five to ten feet wide at any one point.

In Penelope Fitzgerald’s The Gate of Angels (1990), Saint Angelicus College is close to Christ’s Pieces, at the back of Christ’s and Emmanuel, and has a cellar that extends under Butt Green. The quirky “Angels” has no accommodation for students and a legacy of jokes about how difficult it is to find. In theory it does not exist, because it was founded by a Pope who was dethroned … a neat and curious joke from the niece of the theologian Ronald Knox.

Saint Cedd’s College, which appears in a number of books by Douglas Adams, is based on his alma mater, Saint John’s. Other fictional colleges named after saints that appear in modern novels include Saint Agatha’s, Saint Alupent’s, Saint Barnabas’, Saint Bartholomew’s, Saint Bernard’s, Saint Dunstan’s, Saint Ignatius’, Saint Margaret’s, Saint Martin’s, Saint Mary’s, Saint Matthew’s and St Radegund’s (presumably on the site of Westcott House on Jesus Lane, opposite Jesus College), while Ruth Dudley Edwards gave us Saint Martha's in Matricide at St Martha’s.

On the other hand, some fictitious or imaginary colleges do not derive their existence from the imaginations of creative authors and novelists. Instead, they exist in the minds of students, or have been created by the exam system, or even the university itself. They include Pelby College, Saint Cake’s, Bishop Weblog’s College, Coli College and Saint Botolph’s.

Cambridge students often point to Pelby College when they are playing pranks as they give directions to tourists. They say it is an “unmistakable landmark,” and convention dictates that it is located somewhere between Magdalene and Saint John’s. With directions like that, one could only drop into The Mitre on Bridge Street for a pleasant drink.

Saint Botolph’s College is a sample college that appears in documentation from the Cambridge University Computing Service. Perhaps its founders were thinking of Saint Botolph’s Church on Trumpington Street, next door to Corpus Christi and across the street from Saint Catharine’s.

Saint Cake’s College appeared in In Gardie’s – The Opera, a comic opera based on the struggle to save “Gardies.” It was staged at Queens’ College four years ago after Gonville and Caius College lost a major PR battle in its efforts to close the Gardenia, a popular late-night student eatery. Saint Cake’s may be forgotten today, but the Gardenia remains open in Rose Crescent, with a takeaway menu on the ground floor and a fine Greek-style menu upstairs.

Heath College first appeared in a Cambridge undergraduate magazine. The magazine went on to report rumours that Heath would be amalgamated with Robinson College. At the time, Robinson had not yet admitted students – graduate students first arrived in 1977, and the first full entry of undergraduates was in 1980. In a delightful piece of comic literary engineering, the merged colleges would form Heath-Robinson College.

Bishop Weblog’s College and Coli College have both featured in recent courses and exams. Bishop Weblog’s College featured last year and the year before in examination papers as a college with some micro-organism-based conundrum for students to solve. In a similar vein, Coli College featured in a practical class on the same course during Lent term last year. The college was suffering from an outbreak of food poisoning caused by a virulent strain of a mysterious bacterium. Let’s hope no-one got an “E” grade in those exams.

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