A 1930s college is the setting for a new novel about three young friends divided by waring ideologies

When you walk around Oxford's ancient colleges, it's easy to think of the university as being outside time, a little aloof from the realities of the everyday world. Read Elizabeth Edmondson's latest novel, however, which is set partly in Oxford during the 1930s, and you realise that inside the centuries-old buildings, students are buffeted by the same political and social forces as the rest of their generation.

Voyage of Innocence charts the political journeys of three Oxford students after their arrival in 1932 at the women-only Grace College. Verity is a clergyman's daughter, Claudia, her aristocratic cousin and Lally, a senator's daughter from Chicago.

While Claudia flirts with fascism, in part due to her charismatic lover John Petrus, Lally remains impervious to the political fervour around her and plays the stable role of friend, wife and mother. Verity, however, influenced by idealistic communist Albert Gore, is eventually recruited by the Russians. Although soon disillusioned, she is forced to do things for them that leave her on the brink of a nervous breakdown which is when the book starts, as she disappears from the boat she's travelling on in 1938.

It's a very interesting book, not only because it gives a flavour of university life in the thirties, but also because it helps to explain how people are pulled into the extremist paths of the day. It's a way of imbibing history for those who don't read non-fiction and a good yarn too.

When I interview Elizabeth by phone (she's escaping cold Oxford while her husband does some research in France), I ask how she came to write it. "It was partly because of hearing my parents and my friends talking about life in the thirties," she said. "They could sense even as early as 1934-35 that war was inevitable and casting a shadow.

"I really got interested in what it must have been like to be young in the 1930s, with all those things going on, the depression, all sorts of things that would touch anybody with a conscience, who would realise that things had to change, that the system didn't work."

What Elizabeth finds so fascinating is how that might have affected people. "Would you be apathetic? Would you become very left-wing? Or would you be like Claudia and a lot of English people very attracted by fascism?" she said.

The germ of the idea for the book really came from Verity's character. "What would make someone from that background, the daughter of a Yorkshire clergyman, almost cold-bloodedly betray her country and what would be the consequences of that on herself and everyone around her?"

Elizabeth originally planned to set the university part in Cambridge, given its close associations with espionage in the 1930s. "My father had been at Cambridge at that time and actually had been very left-wing and knew people like Maclean and Burgess," she explained. Both men later became British diplomats and spied for Russia until they defected in 1951.

When she came to write the book, she decided it would be easier to place the university scenes in Oxford, so she could use her own experience as an English student at St Hilda's College during the late sixties. "There's a continuity of the geography and the climate," she explained.

Elizabeth comes from a family of writers. Her father was a journalist, while her mother and grandmother were published writers in South America. Her son, Anselm Audley, is now carrying on the family tradition. A successful fantasy author, he has had three novels published so far.

Although her first book, The Frozen Lake, was also set in the thirties, Elizabeth has moved on to 1950s Italy for her next. Called The Villa in Italy, the story revolves around four strangers who meet for the reading of a will. "I found The Voyage of Innocence, the whole thirties thing, really quite daunting and emotionally draining," she said. "Because of the fascism, because of the communism, because of the Spanish Civil War, because of the depression, the poverty and the hardship that people were going through. And the sense of doom. It's a very traumatic time really, and I just felt I'd had enough."

Elizabeth usually divides her time between Oxford and Italy, where she has a house in a rural area north of Rome. The one thing from her student years that she used directly in the book was climbing in to single-sex colleges to avoid strict curfews. "I can tell you I knew the route out of various men's colleges and I certainly knew all the ways into St Hilda's," she said.

  • The Voyage of Innocence is published by HarperCollins at £6.99.