Wilde Lives at Magdalen

[For more on Magdalen’s impeccable queer credentials, see the trail On the Wilde Side which includes Oscar Wilde (Magdalen, 1874-1878) and Lord Alfred ‘Bosie’ Douglas (Magdalen, 1889-1893) and Neil Bartlett‘s foreword to this site]


Other famous, and infamous, names associated with both queerness and Magdalen include Conservative Party politician, author, and broadcaster Baron (Bob) Boothby (1900-1986) who studied Modern History at Magdalen from 1919 to 1921. A colourful character, Boothby was twice married, fathered at least three children by the wives of other men, and had many same-sex affairs, one of the most notable being with gangster Ronald Kray.


Still one of the country’s best-loved poets, John Betjeman (1906-1984) attended Magdalen from 1925 where his tutor was CS Lewis (the two did not get on). As a schoolboy Betjeman began a lifelong fascination with the tragedy of Oscar Wilde. He even established a correspondence and subsequent friendship with Lord Alfred Douglas, then in his fifties and married. Once at Magdalen (surely chosen purposefully) Betjeman hosted a party for Douglas in the older man’s former rooms.

An inveterate socialiser, Betjeman had many gay friends at Oxford in front of whom he relished playing the Oxford aesthete. Perhaps echoing his fascination with Wilde, Betjeman’s passionate attachments to certain men appear to have been largely unrequited although Oxford lore holds that he had a fling with WH Auden, the latter having to bribe his college scout £5 to keep quiet when the two undergraduates were discovered in bed together. ‘It wasn’t worth the £5’ Auden is subsequently alleged (by his brother) to have said. Later in his life, Betjeman threatened legal action to prevent the story being published.

A lifelong champion of outsiders, Betjeman often expressed his dismay at the way society treated men-loving men (whom he fondly referred to as ‘cups of tea’), notably in the poem ‘The Arrest of Oscar Wilde at the Cadogan Hotel’ (1937). There are bisexual nuances in ‘A Subaltern’s Love Song’ (1941) and in his autobiography in verse ‘Summoned by Bells’ (1960) which originally included the lines ‘Electric currents racing through my frame / Was this the love that dare not speak its name?’


A straight man with impeccable queer credentials, H. Montgomery Hyde (1907-1989) was a barrister, author, biographer, and politician. From 1928 to 1930 Hyde studied Law at Magdalen where he occupied Oscar Wilde’s former rooms on Kitchen Stairs. He wrote several works about Wilde as well as one of the first modern histories of same-sex desire, The Other Love (1972). From 1950 Hyde was Ulster Unionist MP for Belfast North but was deselected by his party in 1959 as a result of his campaigning to decriminalise homosexuality. Hyde was, in fact, one of the most vocal voices to advocate decriminalisation of his generation. He was married three times.


Screenwriter, novelist, and biographer Gavin Lambert (1924-2005) spent a year at Magdalen from 1943 to 1944 where he shared rooms, and a bed, with Peter Brook (see below). Lambert left Oxford as he also evidently disliked his English tutor, CS Lewis, and often skipped their scheduled sessions. As a result, the president of Magdalen called Lambert’s parents to a meeting at which he announced that their son had not only neglected his studies but also ‘brought back American soldiers to his rooms at night’. Lambert defended himself by stating that he had only picked-up one G. I. in a pub. In a prolific career, Lambert was nominated for an Oscar for his screenplay Sons and Lovers (1960). His later work often focused on queer people and themes.


Influential theatre and film director Peter Brook CH, CBE (b. 1925) attended Magdalen from 1942-1943 (enough time for him to earn a wartime degree). Brook packed a lot into this short period. He briefly involved himself with student drama, proposed a motion (with Noël Coward) at the Oxford Union that ‘the community owes a duty to the artist rather than the artist to the community’, became president of the Oxford Film Society, collaborated with Gavin Lambert on a short experimental film called A Sentimental Journey (Lambert made an appearance as a drunken slut), got into a serious dispute with the authorities at Magdalen over the payment of a fine (levied for having a friend in college after hours), and entertained the (bisexual) occultist Aleister Crowley at the Randolph Hotel. Brook also found a preference for heteroeroticism but clearly took the scenic route to get there. Later in his life he stated: ‘When I was at Oxford, girls were remote, there were only two colleges for girls. So the first thing I did was to plunge into every homosexual affair I could. Yet whenever I saw a girl I wanted to pick her up, and I could not accept for a moment that there was a definition – ‘homosexual’ – that precluded me liking girls as well as boys.’ Celebrated for his innovation, Brook galvanised experimental theatre in Britain. His book The Empty Space (1968) remains an extremely influential piece of performance theory.

Peter Brook writes for Queer Oxford:

Oxford and Cambridge were wondrous places and it was a great privilege to have been part of the upper class British way of life.

At the same time, not only did the ancient myth of male superiority dominate, it made of the Universities places where no women could ever be members of the Colleges. There was just one women’s college on the outskirts of Oxford.

Naturally, boys discovering their sexual urges already in public schools found themselves in Colleges where the only sex possible was with one’s own sex. Homosexuality was illegal, but the college was a law to itself. Boys were labelled ‘queer’ and then could do what they pleased within the stone walls. A student’s rooms were his castle, with an outer door he could lock – this was called ‘sporting your oak’. Society’s only defence was the use of a tolerantly scoffing term ‘They’re queer!’ I myself felt the need for romance and a very tender relationship with a boy called Gavin, with hugs, embraces but no intercourse continued rewardingly till he was scooped away by an older man providing real sex and I found my natural way to girlfriends. Almost all my friends were queer, especially a flamboyant character called Freddy who starred in my student film ‘A Sentimental Journey’. I can today give thanks to the world of queers that so finely nourished the feeling for quality in the world of art. Beer and the Army on the one hand, the sherry at the Top Table and beauty on the other – Oxford was an irreplaceable doorway to the world.

Peter Brook, 2019


Businessman and Labour peer Michael Montague, Lord Montague of Oxford CBE (1932-1999) attended Magdalen and maintained many other local links throughout his life. He was, for example, Governor and Chairman of the Audit Commission at Oxford Brookes University and a sponsor of the Oxfordshire Festival. After Montague collapsed and died while attending the House of Lords on 5 Nov 1999, his partner of 35 years, Takashi Sizuki, was forced to sell their home in Dorchester-on-Thames to pay death duties. In February 2000, Lord Alli raised the issue in the House of Lords as illustration of the way in which gay and lesbian relationships were discriminated against by the rules that governed inheritance tax. The issue formed part of a wider campaign that resulted in the Civil Partnership Act of 2004.


Jeremy Wolfenden (1934-1965), the gay-identified son of John Wolfenden, Chair of the Wolfenden Committee the famous 1957 Report of which led to the decriminalisation of male-male sex acts in Britain, read Philosophy, Politics and Economics at Magdalen, graduating with a First. He subsequently became a Prize Fellow of All Souls. Wolfenden’s brilliant academic talents were wasted as he worked as a foreign correspondent for The Daily Telegraph and spy at the height of the Cold War. He became an alcoholic, a condition which appears to have led to his early death. His story features prominently in the excellent 2007 BBC Four drama Consenting Adults with Charles Dance as John Wolfenden and Sean Biggerstaff as Jeremy Wolfenden.


Award-winning author Alan Hollinghurst (b. 1954) read English at Magdalen graduating in 1975. He subsequently took the further degree of Master of Literature. While at Oxford he shared a house with Andrew Motion and was awarded the prestigious Newdigate Prize for poetry in 1974.

Alan Hollinghurst
Daily Information, 21 October 1981

In the late 1970s Hollinghurst became a lecturer at Magdalen and then at Somerville and Corpus Christi. In 1981 he joined The Times Literary Supplement and was the paper’s deputy editor from 1982 to 1995. His first novel, The Swimming-Pool Library (1988), gives a vivid account of London gay life in the early 1980s. It was followed by other works with gay themes including The Folding Star (1994), The Spell (1998), The Line of Beauty (2004), The Stranger’s Child (2011). The Line of Beauty won the 2004 Booker Prize and was adapted into a successful TV drama in 2006.



Social and political commentator Andrew Sullivan (b. 1963) studied at Magdalen. He was also a Chairman of the Oxford Union. Sullivan’s 1993 essay ‘The Politics of Homosexuality’, published in The New Republic, has been hailed as the most influential article on LGBTQ+ rights of the 1990s. Subsequent works include the critically-acclaimed books Virtually Normal: An Argument about Homosexuality (1995) and Love Undetectable: Notes on Friendship, Sex and Survival (1998). One of the first political journalists to start a personal blog, The Daily Dish is one of the most widely read political blogs on the internet.



Magdalen College 2010
Magdalen College, 2010 (photograph Ross Brooks)



© Ross Brooks, 2020