The Warden's Niece

What a joy it was to read this book again! I adored The Warden's Niece when I was about ten, and read it many times -- you can tell it was a favourite because the corners were all torn off and chewed (terrible habit). Reading it again, I can see why it appealed -- Maria is 'thin and brown and silent, but rather better than most girls,' and despite living most of her life in a haze of embarrassment and social indecision, is still capable of bold action where necessary. As the intimidating Thomas tells her, 'For someone so mouse-like, I must say you do some startling things -- storming Bodley, for instance.'

The setting is Victorian-era Oxford, where 'lady students' are just beginning to attend lectures. Orphan Maria runs away from her truly frightful school to live with her uncle, the Warden of (fictitious) Canterbury College, and shares lessons with the three Smith boys who live next door. Their tutor is temporarily replaced by the alarmingly eccentric Mr Copplestone, immensely tall and completely devoid of social embarrassment, and with his encouragement, Maria tries to impress her uncle with a piece of original research, which leads to 'house-breaking, playing truant, gatecrashing into the Bodleian, and being a receiver of stolen property.'

First published in 1957, The Warden's Niece is a very gentle book, but the mortifying Francis Copplestone is a wonderful character, and the three Smith boys, lofty Thomas, nervous Joshua and the insufferable James, are so vividly drawn that I have never forgotten them. (I may have had a slight crush on Thomas.) I was so pleased to discover that there are more books about the Smith family -- Maria's story ends just as you would hope it might, with her mystery solved and an affectionate relationship beginning to develop with her uncle. I think this might be where my adolescent love of Oxford, later nourished by Brideshead Revisited, truly began.

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