Friday, 7 June 2013

An Academic Question by Barbara Pym



I first read An Academic Question not long after it was published in 1986, absolutely delighted to have a Pym I hadn't previously read. I knew that it was written in the early '70s, coinciding with the time when I was leaving home, though I don't think the world changed as fast between the time of writing and that of publication as it would in the next decade. Mr Stillingfleet's box of papers would still, in 1986, have been entirely in hard copy, inaccessible to all unless he chose to make them available. "Computerisation" is mentioned in disparaging tones.

Caro Grimstone is the wife of an anthropologist at a new university (formerly a technical college) in the west of England, a slightly dystopian institution in a dilapidated spa town with a background rumble of student unrest and a growing immigrant community. Re-reading the early chapters made me think of an old favourite, a television series called A Very Peculiar Practice, in which the elderly head of a campus health practice ruminated on "the sick university" while a pair of nuns in full habits overthrew dustbins and wrote graffiti on walls -- Pym on acid? (If you don't know it, I urge you to give it a try, it's very English and utterly wonderful; I think Barbara Pym, with her jaundiced view of academia, would have adored it.)

I've also just finished A Glass of Blessings, and there are some parallels: like Wilmet, Caro is rather dissatisfied with her marriage. For a start, Alan isn't quite up to her mother's standards, he's of a lower class than Caro is -- but then, Caro herself has proved not to be up to Oxbridge: they met at another, unspecified university and married straight afterwards. Unlike Wilmet, Caro has a daughter, but she's not terribly maternal, and feels that the au pair deals much better with Kate. Caro's another aimless wife -- she could have a job if she wanted but feels that it would probably be pointless work. She does agree, however, to visit the local retirement home to read to the old people, and here she meets Mr Stillingfleet, a retired missionary, whose box of papers just might contain something which would advance Alan's research and give him the edge over his rival. Can Caro get hold of them -- somehow?

Caro's a spiritless sort of girl for a heroine, lacking warmth, maternal qualities, drive, interest in home-making... her mother planted the flowering camellia in the garden, not Caro. Significantly, it's scentless. She's still a recognisable product of the time, I think, but it seems that Pym considered that some of this at, least, might be a problem, as she wrote a second, "sharper", draft in the third person. In fact, the book is an amalgamation of two drafts, completed by Hazel Holt after Pym's death. Holt sees it as a transitional novel, written during the drought years before Pym's return to publication, and Caro as "by nature and upbringing an excellent woman, fitting uneasily into the more contemporary role of graduate wife". There was never much expectation of its being published, in fact, and it's a much slighter work in comparison to everything else by Pym. Which is not to say it's not a good book -- it's actually very much of its time, even if publishers wouldn't have seen in it something to draw lots of readers. The moral question behind the academic one of the title is never fully resolved (I loved, incidentally, a sly reference to a then well-known modern novel in a book otherwise devoid of Pymmish literary quotation). I also welcomed the mention of one of my favourite Pym characters, Esther Clovis, if only in celebration of her demise.

If you're a completist, as I am, this is a must-read. It's also an entertaining read in its own right, but don't go there expecting ladles of Pym-type deliciousness. Or delightful food:
"What's for dinner?"
"Dinner's too grand a word," I said. In my mind's eye I saw one of those dehydrated curries or risottos with which young wives in television advertisements surprised and delighted their husbands at short notice. Fresh from the triumph, as it seemed to be, of having his article accepted, would Alan be surprised and delighted too?



10 comments:

  1. For all Barbara Pym fans: Radio 4 Extra is broadcasting an adaptation of "Jane and Prudence" at 2 pm every day next week. But you do need digital radio to listen to R4X.

    Wondering who will play the leads. I'm betting on Penelope Wilton as Jane.

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    1. I managed to catch some of it, but not all, sadly...not the most convenient time of day.

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  2. I have a copy of this and will of course read it -- it is too bad she was never able to complete a final draft. The modern elements make me think of other writers like Penelope Lively; there have been bits in some of the books I've read thus far that remind me in some distant way of Lively's own preoccupations (particularly A Few Green Leaves).

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    1. I'm slightly ashamed to say I can't remember Penelope Lively well enough to comment! Have read, but not recently - I liked her, but didn't love her.

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  3. I've just been directed to you by Sensibilia and am interested in all you say about Barbara Pym. Having read her years ago, I've recently come across "A Very Private Eye" and "A Lot to Ask" and am now about to reread the novels. I never knew there was a BP Society. I'm glad; I was wondering if she was semi-forgotten these days, but no!

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    1. My thanks to Sensibilia! Pym's a lovely author to re-read, I think, you spend so much time smiling in recognition of her sly jokes, and meeting old friends. The society seems pretty healthy both here and across the Atlantic, which is great.

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  4. I'm half way through this book. I'm not loving it as much as Excellent Women, my first Pym last week, but I do enjoy the sly observations, the indexing cards and food!

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    1. I don't think you could love this one as much as EW. One of my other favourites, though, is Less Than Angels, which has wonderful digs at academics. I know many readers don't like it as much as some of the others, but I'm very fond of it and it always makes me laugh.

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  5. Ref R4X serial "Jane and Prudence" - Penelope Wilton is narrating!

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    1. Penelope Wilton has a wonderful voice for BP :-)

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