An enclosed environment: a huge house surrounded by lavish grounds. Young people—insecure and deeply flawed—performing different identities for an audience of peers. They fall in love, they hurt each other, they make amends. They do it all again.
This could describe almost any episode of reality television, from ‘The Bachelor’ to ‘Love Island’. It could also describe the niche literary genre known as the campus novel.
If you’ve read The Secret History, or Normal People, or Brideshead Revisited—or even if you’ve watched an episode of ‘Desperate Housewives’—you’ll know that environments where people live on top of each other are hotbeds for drama. That’s one of the reasons why, when I sat down to write a novel in Sydney’s first lockdown in March 2020, I decided to set it at a university campus.
Photo of Diana Reid taken by Daniel Boud
Love & Virtue follows the friendship of Michaela and Eve, two very different but equally brilliant young women in their first year at university. They live in adjacent rooms in a residential college, and as they navigate issues of class, power, consent, and privilege, they discover just how fragile friendship is.
While campuses are just like any enclosed environment—in that they generate their own hierarchies, and tend naturally to personal intrigue—they are also unique. Universities, as well as being places where students eat, and drink, and sleep (often, with each other), are places of education. They are natural theatres for ideas, as young people examine the wider world, and try to determine what kind of person they want to be when they eventually take their place in it.
For a lot of idealistic young people, university is their first foray into adulthood. Consequently, it’s the first time their ideals have butted heads with reality. Like the characters in Love & Virtue, I studied philosophy at university, and I’m always interested in the way abstract principles interact with our concrete, complex reality. Nowhere is human fallibility starker than between the self-assurance and purity of thought of an academic essay, and the messy, adolescent conduct of a not-quite-adult “finding their limits” on the weekend. In Love & Virtue, the characters’ politics—from feminism, to class—are constantly tested.
In the academic staff, too, we can find great examples of people who are highly specialised in one area, and fools almost everywhere else. Michaela and Eve’s philosophy professor, for example, publishes papers about love, but struggles to give it, and lectures about morality, but cannot seem to behave the way he knows a good person should.
But for everything they have to teach us about personal relations, and wider social issues, and for all their popularity, campus novels, to date, have not loomed large in Australian literature. In 1992, Helen Garner’s ‘The First Stone’ examined residential colleges in Melbourne through a non-fiction lens, and asked questions about sex, power and consent, that we’re still reckoning with today. These are questions that Love & Virtue also deals with, in a fictional setting, hopefully with some of the humour, drama, and intrigue that have made other campus novels so popular.
If you’ve never tried or liked campus novels, I hope Love & Virtue converts you to the genre. And if you’re already a fan, I hope you find my debut a worthy contribution, and that it whets your appetite for more campus novels set a little closer to home.
Love & Virtue by Diana Reid is available in store and online now.