1

One From the Archive: ‘An Academic Question’ by Barbara Pym ***

First published in June 2012.

Virago have recently reprinted several of Barbara Pym’s novels, all with new introductions by a selection of different authors, all avid fans of her work.  The introduction of  An Academic Question, first published posthumously in 1986, has been written by novelist Kate Saunders, who believes the book to be ‘witty, sharp, light as a syllabub… and with a cast of typically Pym-like eccentrics’.  She goes on to say that ‘no other novelist has celebrated our national silliness with such exuberance’.

An Academic Question is essentially an amalgamation of two different manuscripts which Pym wrote and was dissatisfied with.  The novel tells the story of Caroline Grimstone, a ‘dissatisfied faculty wife’.  Caro and Alan live in a neo-Georgian house in the ‘provincial’ university sprawled across a nameless town in which Alan lectures.  They have a four-year-old daughter named Kate and a rather flippant Swedish au pair named Inge, both of whom Caro believes ‘in name and appearance, seemed very suitable, I thought, for a modern couple like Alan and me’.

The novel opens with the characters of Kitty Jeffreys and her middle-aged son Coco, both of whom left their home in the Caribbean ‘after the death of [Kitty’s] husband and, more importantly, the election of an all-black government’.  Coco, having been awarded a fellowship at the university, works alongside Caro’s husband Alan.
Many secondary characters feature throughout the novel, the majority of them academics and lecturers at the university.  Certainly the two most interesting and eccentric characters are hedgehog fanatic and local bookshop owner Dolly Arborfield who spends large chunks of her pension money on brandy, and Crispin Maynard, an ardent collector of Africana.

Caroline’s first person perspective is used throughout.  The narrative voice works relatively well with the story but Caroline herself is not always a likeable character.  She is a rather self-pitying woman who feels ‘abandoned and neglected’.  She sees her young daughter as a burden and tries to palm her off onto the au pair as much as possible.  She is rather disgruntled with what life has afforded her but she essentially lacks drive to change the elements which she is displeased with.  The only thing which Caro does in order to give herself a sense of ‘self-worth’ is to begin to read to an elderly man named Reverend Stillingfleet, a resident at a local nursing home.  This arrangement seems rather too convenient, as Alan and his colleague Crispin Maynard have been wanting to read Reverend Stillingfleet’s manuscripts for some time but have thus far been unable to get hold of them.

The novel does tend to be rather dark in places.  The majority of the characters have secrets and shames which they try to keep from others, but it feels as though we, as readers, do not know the characters as well as we should.  Even Caroline as a first person narrator seems aloof and elusive.

Pym’s writing shines above the storyline and characters which she has created.  Throughout the novel, her descriptions are sometimes charming and always original.  For example, the wife of the university’s assistant librarian ‘seemed never to have recovered from the worries of card indexes and bibliographies in the days when she too had worked in a library’, and Coco and Kitty ‘always made a point of arriving last at everything, like royalty’.  Despite this, the prose does sometimes feel a little repetitive, which is a shame.

The writing style of the novel works well but there is little wit and amusement involved.  Whilst the two manuscripts have been merged together relatively well, it feels as though An Academic Question is lacking in something – whether a more likeable narrator, a slightly more in-depth storyline or an ending that does not feel so rushed, it is unclear.

Purchase from The Book Depository

1

One From the Archive: ‘Our Spoons Came From Woolworths’ by Barbara Comyns ****

First published in July 2013.

Our Spoons Came From Woolworths was first published in 1950 and has been recently reissued by Virago, along with two of Comyns’ other novels.  The introduction to this new edition has been penned by author Maggie O’Farrell, who tells rather a lovely story about her discovery of Barbara Comyns in a secondhand bookshop.  She describes how,  ‘as I have a habit of buying up any Virago Modern Classics I don’t already own, I decided to… make the purchase.  It would prove to be the best fifty pence I ever spent.  I began to flick through the pages as I walked away from the shop.  Just five minutes later, I was so engrossed that I had to stop and sit down on a bench on the Cobb; I didn’t make it back to the holiday flat for some time’.  She believes that Our Spoons Came From Woolworths is a novel ‘in which you are never quite sure what will happen next’. 

The novel is told through the eyes of twenty one-year-old Sophia Fairclough, who is embarking on a new life as a married woman.  She begins with a striking passage: ‘I told Helen my story and she went home and cried.  In the evening her husband came to see me and brought some strawberries; he mended my bicycle, too, and was kind, but he needn’t have been, because it all happened eight years ago, and I’m not unhappy now’.  After such introductions to our protagonist have been made, the story quickly shifts back to her impending marriage, some time in the past.  She meets her partner, Charles, on a train journey and talks to him only because both are carrying portfolios.  They soon decide to marry in secret.  Despite this, the information leaks back to Charles’ relations, and she has to bear the wrath of them in all their beastly glory: ‘there was a great thumping at the door and when it opened in tumbled all Charles’s maternal relations.  I tried to run up the stairs, but they just fell on me like a swarm of angry hornets.  One woman in a stiff black hat gripped me by the arm…  She said I was an uncontrolled little beast and when was I expecting the baby…  Charles just looked very white and scared; he wasn’t very much help.’  Several weeks afterwards, Sophia and Charles find that they are going to become parents.  Whilst apprehensive about the news herself, Charles is incredibly negative and dismissing, stating ‘How I dislike the idea of being a Daddy and pushing a pram’, and telling his wife that ‘it was no use crying about something that was not going to happen for seven months, I might have a miscarriage before then’.

As a narrator, Sophia has a lightness of touch, and as such, the happy and sad elements of her life are delivered in the same chatty tone.  Rather than add frivolity to the text, this serves merely to make the unhappy events all the more poignant and memorable.  From the outset, she is a quirky heroine.  She does such things as taking her pet newt to dinner with her and letting it ‘swim in the water jug’, and she believes that the reason she does not see her brother is because ‘they thought I was a bit “arty” and odd, but expect they hoped now I was becoming a mother I would improve’.  She is also delightfully naive, which is the most endearing quality about her.  On her wedding day, she is made to sit in a pew with Charles’ father, and comments ‘I felt a bit scared in case they married me to him by mistake’.

Comyns’ style is engaging, and her writing matches the story perfectly.  Rather than portray a humdrum account of married life and early motherhood, she has made Sophia come to life on the first page.  As a result, Our Spoons Came From Woolworths is a difficult novel to put down.  She creates such sympathy for her protagonist, particularly during the scenes on the labour ward, where she goes to give birth to her son: ‘I longed to see the baby, but they said I couldn’t yet.  It had stopped crying and I was worried in case it was dead.  So I cried about that, too.’  Comyns illustrates the peaks and troughs of life as a parent and struggling to survive on uneven wages in bustling areas of London in the most marvellous manner.  Every lover of literary fiction is sure to find a memorable friend in Sophia Fairclough.

Purchase from The Book Depository

3

‘The Crime at Black Dudley’ by Margery Allingham ****

Vintage Crime Classics have just republished Margery Allingham’s first Albert Campion mystery, The Crime at Black Dudley.  Published in 1929, the novel has not been printed in an English edition for over thirty years.  Queen of crime Agatha Christie says that Allingham ‘stands out like a shining light’, and one cannot help but feel that her work is certainly due a resurgence.

The premise of The Crime at Black Dudley is sure to appeal to lovers of crime, particularly those with a penchant for the more old-fashioned or ‘cosy’ mysteries.  In the novel, a group of London’s ‘brightest young things’ accept an invitation to the Black Dudley mansion.  ‘Skulduggery is most certainly afoot, and the party-goers soon realise that they’re trapped in the secluded house’.  Albert Campion, one of the trapped, is on hand to assist the others in unravelling ‘the villainous plots behind their incarceration’.

The way in which Allingham describes the house adds a feeling of foreboding almost immediately.  She writes that, ‘Miles of neglected park-land stretched in an unbroken plain to the horizon and the sea beyond…  In the centre of this desolation, standing in a thousand acres of its own land, was the mansion, Black Dudley; a great grey building, bare and ugly as a fortress’.

The novel opens with the character of Dr George Abbershaw, a ‘minor celebrity’, who soon becomes one of the story’s protagonists.  Whilst on holiday at Black Dudley, ‘Much to his own surprise and perplexity, he had fallen in love’ with a young woman named Margaret Oliphant.  The weekend is being hosted by the owner of the house, Colonel Gordon Coombe, ‘an old invalid who liked the society of young people so much that he persuaded his nephew to bring a houseful of young folk down to the gloomy old mansion at least half a dozen times a year’.

Centuries past at Black Dudley, a murder was committed with the house’s revered Dagger, which is still kept in pride of place.  It is this ritual of sorts which is recreated by the characters on the first night.  Of this act, Campion says, ‘”All this running about in the dark with daggers doesn’t seem to me healthy”‘, thus creating fissures within the body of the protagonists.  Further peculiar goings-on such as this soon ensue, and serve to both deepen the mystery and add texture to the plot.

One of the main points comes at the instance in which Colonel Coombe dies after a supposed heart attack.  Questions about the situation being ‘fishy’ are almost immediately raised by many of the guests.  As a doctor, Abbershaw goes to view the body under the guise of signing the cremation certificate.  After doing so, ‘The fussy, pompous personality that he had assumed dropped from him like a cloak, and he became at once alert and purposeful.  There were many things that puzzled him, but of one thing he was perfectly certain.  Colonel Gordon Coombe had not died of heart disease’.  Moreover, Abbershaw becomes ‘convinced that there were more secrets in Black Dudley that night than the old house had ever known.  Secrets that would be dangerous if they were too suddenly brought to light’.

Throughout, Allingham is both witty and amusing, whilst being rather to the point.  Of Abbershaw’s falling in love, for example, she writes the following: ‘He recognised the symptoms at once and made no attempt at self-deception, but with his usual methodical thoroughness set himself to remove the disturbing emotion by one or other of the only two methods known to mankind – disillusionment or marriage’.  The perceptions which Allingham gives of her characters too are very shrewd: ‘The man was an arresting type.  He was white-haired, very small and delicately made…  Under the sleek white hair which waved straight back from a high forehead his face was grey, vivacious, and peculiarly wicked’.  The author is also a master at piecing together places and scenes, and second to none at building moments of tension or shifting experiences in just a single sentence: ‘The house-party which had seemed as large round the dinner-table now looked amazingly small in this cathedral of a room’.

With The Crime at Black Dudley, one has the feeling of being in the company of a very skilled writer.  The plot has been well constructed to the extent that not a dull page exists within the novel, the character development is wonderful, and the dialogue is never staid or predictable.  The only thing which does not quite ring true is the speed at which relationships between characters are declared; thankfully, though, such instances are few and far between.  On reading The Crime at Black Dudley, it is clear to see why Agatha Christie, P.D. James, and other such writers so admire Allingham.

Purchase from The Book Depository

0

Saturday Poem: ‘The Burning Kite’ by Ouyang Jianghe

What a thing it would be, if we all could fly.
But to rise on air does not make you a bird.
I’m sick of the hiss of champagne bubbles.
It’s spring, and everyone’s got something to puke.
The things we puke: flights of stairs,
a skyscraper soaring from the gut,
the bills blow by on the April breeze
followed by flurries of razor blades in May.
It’s true, a free life is made of words.
You can crumple it, toss it in the trash,
or fold it between the bodies of angels, attaining
a permanent address in the sky.
The postman hands you your flight of birds
persisting in the original shape of wind.
Whether they’re winging toward the scissors’ V
or printed and plastered on every wall
or bound and trussed, bamboo frames wound with wire
or sentenced to death by fire
you are, first
and always, ash.
Broken wire, a hurricane at each end.
Fire trucks scream across the earth.
But this blaze is a thing of the air.
Raise your glass higher, toss it up and away.
Few know this kind of dizzy glee:
an empty sky, a pair of burning wings.