4

‘A Lot to Ask: A Life of Barbara Pym’ by Hazel Holt *****

After Barbara Pym’s death, American author Anne Tyler wrote: ‘What do people turn to when they’ve finished Barbara Pym?  The answer is easy: they turn back to Barbara Pym.’  Although I have not quite completed her oeuvre, I very much appreciate this perspective; Pym’s novels have so much to offer, and her strength of place and character, as well as her delicious wit, are worth revisiting over and over again.

I realised some months ago that there are many authors whose work I have greatly enjoyed, but whom I know very little about as individuals.  Trying to remedy that, I requested a copy of Hazel Holt’s biography A Lot to Ask: A Life of Barbara Pym from my local library, and settled down with it on a peaceful afternoon. 20590911

In this biography, says the blurb, ‘… we come to know a person whose humour and sharp observation were uniquely combined with a compassionate acceptance of human nature – qualities that made her such an outstanding novelist.’  It is promised that Pym ’emerges from these pages as an entertaining companion with an insatiable curiosity and an unquenchable delight in the eccentricities of her fellows.’

Holt was a good friend to Pym, and also acted as her literary executor, before passing away in 2015.  In her introduction, Holt writes: ‘It seemed right… to try to put Barbara into her own setting, to define the manners and mores of the social scene around her (one day her novels will be a rich source for social historians), to describe her friends and colleagues, and to show how her books were moulded by her life, as well as the other way around.’  The book includes many entries from Pym’s private papers, as well as a lot of her correspondence; this is particularly true in the case of the friendship between herself and poet Philip Larkin.  Even in the briefest correspondence, Pym writes beautifully and compassionately to her intended.

Rather than focus entirely on Pym, Holt gives some of the rather colourful history of her parents and grandparents.  Pym’s own childhood, in a small market town in Shropshire, was ‘comfortable and conventional’, quite by contrast to the life of her illegitimate father, and filled with ‘a great deal of quiet affection’.  When she moved to Oxford to study English Literature at University, however, Pym became somewhat more alive.  She kept a diary, which she regularly filled with ‘sightings’ of men whom she liked, and certainly had a great deal of adventures with them.  Whilst at University, Pym occasionally attended Labour Party meetings, but ‘more for the young men than for the politics’.

Holt continually asserts how important Pym’s imagination was to her; she often preferred her conjured fantasies and imagined relationships with others to whatever was happening in reality. Holt follows Pym through various love affairs; here, she observes, Pym often ‘made the mistake of expecting more than the other person was prepared to give, of building a great romantic castle on shifting sand.’

In some ways, Holt writes, Pym was rather naïve, and this was particularly true when it came to politics, or the problems of the wider world.  When she moved to Poland to work as a governess in the tumultuous days of 1938, she largely ignored the threat of war: ‘Although she notes without comment that the Germans had entered Prague she gives equal space in her diary to the fact that she had been served fried potatoes with yoghurt.’   Holt captures, quite vividly, Pym’s travels around Europe, which become extensive following the Second World War, as well as the war work which she completed in Naples, Italy.

In A Lot to Ask there is, as one might expect, a lot of commentary about Pym’s books and her writing practices, which I found rather enlightening. Holt quotes at length from many of Pym’s books, in order to further illustrate points.   It is clear that even as a teenager, Pym was already developing her signature prose style, capturing scenes and individuals in such vivid detail in just a sentence or two.

Pym wrote thirteen novels, four of which were published posthumously, after her untimely death from cancer in early 1980.  There was, however, a painful fourteen-year period in which Pym could not find a publisher for her books, and which impacted her greatly.  She is a novelist who has thankfully, and deservedly, risen to prominence once again in the twenty-first century, and I for one feel grateful that I still have several of her books yet to read.

First published in 1990, A Lot to Ask is a biography of the loveliest measure.  One can tell how fond Holt was of Pym, yet the biography still feels as considered and far-reaching as it would be had the pair never known one another at all.  Like her subject, Holt writes with a great deal of warmth and understanding.  So absorbing, and highly readable, A Lot to Ask has so much depth to it, and feels entirely harmonious.  Holt’s biography is a sheer delight, both charming and satisfying.  I would dearly like to read more of her work, as well as the remainder of Pym’s correspondence in the near future.

4

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

First published in 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’.

71ww2biwk9nlAn 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.

3

‘Quartet in Autumn’ by Barbara Pym ****

I am sure that many readers will agree with me when I declare that it is such a treat to come to a Barbara Pym novel. I so enjoy her writing, but have been trying to eke out the few books of her oeuvre which I have not yet read, so that I know I have some treats in store. I had not picked up a Pym novel in such a long time that I requested a lovely Picador copy of Quartet in Autumn from my local library, and began it almost as soon as I checked it out.

Pym was relatively well celebrated during her early publishing career. However, there was a gap of sixteen years between her first six novels and the publication of Quartet in Autumn. In this time, Pym had fallen rather out of favour; she was declared ‘the most underrated writer of the century’ by Philip Larkin. She has thankfully enjoyed a resurrection of sorts in recent years, thanks largely to Virago Press reissuing the majority of her books.

The Picador edition contains an introduction written by Alexander McCall Smith. This does give rather a lot of the story away, so I must admit that I did not read his critique of the novel in full before I began; rather, I came back to it. He comments that Quartet in Autumn is a ‘delicate and poignant novel [which] was the crowning glory of a literary career that in many respects reflected the author’s life.’ McCall Smith, quite rightly, lauds her as ‘surely the finest recorder of lives lived on the margins of a shabby and fading England.’

Quartet in Autumn is set in 1970s London, and follows a quartet of colleagues – Edwin, Norman, Letty, and Marcia. All are in their sixties – their autumn years – and nearing retirement. They work in rather an anonymous office – it is never made quite clear what they do, and Pym mentions that once all four have retired, their department will be dissolved entirely – and are all contending with loneliness. Edwin describes the quartet as ‘Four people on the verge of retirement, each one of us living alone, and without any close relative near…’.

Each character has been fantastically drawn, which will not be a surprise for anyone familiar with Pym’s work. Each is complex and feels lifelike; they are both predictable and not. Marcia, for instance, is a rather crotchety and proud lady, who lives alone. She takes ‘every opportunity to find out what was due to her in the way of free bus travel, reduced and cheap meals, hairdressing and chiropody, although she never made use of the information.’ Her idea of an enjoyable holiday away from work is to visit the doctor’s surgery about her various ailments.

Edwin is a particular man, quite involved with his local church, who treats himself to a jelly baby as ‘the last course of his midday meal’. Letty is by far the most sociable of the four. She rents a small flat, where she lives with a fashionable and up-to-date wardrobe stuffed with garments, given her penchant for shopping at every given opportunity.

Norman is perhaps the character we get to know the least, but there are still some quite memorable details given about him. Pym writes, for instance: ‘Norman and Letty both felt the pull of the open air, Norman to take his mind off his teeth, and Letty because she had the slightly obsessive or cranky idea that one ought to get a walk of some kind each day.’

Marcia and Letty retire at the same time, and a drab party of sorts is thrown for them. Pym comments: ‘If the two women feared that the coming of this date might give some clue to their ages, it was not an occasion for embarrassment because nobody else had been in the least interested, both of them having long ago reached ages beyond any kind of speculation.’ On her first day out of the office, Letty amusingly ‘still kept to her rules – one did not drink sherry before the evening, just as one did not read a novel in the morning, this last being a left-over dictum of a headmistress of forty yeas ago.’

Quartet in Autumn is peppered with amusing scenes and memorable exchanges between the characters. There are quite a few tender moments too, and reflections on what it means to be ageing, and to be lonely. This novel feels particularly prescient to be reading during the current turmoil which the pandemic is leaving in its wake, when many older people are completely separated from family and friends. Pym is shrewd throughout, particularly when she writes about being alone at Christmastime.

Quartet in Autumn, the penultimate novel of Pym’s to be published during her lifetime, was a delight to sink into. I loved learning about the realistic and quite unusual protagonists, and their relationships with one another, as well as with peripheral characters. Quartet in Autumn is reflective and touching, just as it is memorable and witty. It is a marvellously balanced novel, which I would highly recommend.

6

The 1977 Club

As is sadly becoming habit, my studies and my current book-buying ban have left me with relatively little time to find a title from 1977 to contribute to the excellent ‘club’ run by Karen at Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings and Simon at Stuck in a Book.  Whilst I have therefore been unable to contribute a full review, I thought I would collect together ten titles published in 1977 which I am looking forward to reading in future.

 

1. Quartet in Autumn by Barbara Pym 27411950
In 1970s London Edwin, Norman, Letty and Marcia work in the same office and suffer the same problem – loneliness. Lovingly and with delightful humour, Pym conducts us through their day-to-day existence: their preoccupations, their irritations, their judgements, and – perhaps most keenly felt – their worries about having somehow missed out on life as post-war Britain shifted around them.  Deliciously, blackly funny and full of obstinate optimism, Quartet in Autumn shows Barbara Pym’s sensitive artistry at its most sparkling. A classic from one of Britain’s most loved and highly acclaimed novelists, its world is both extraordinary and familiar, revealing the eccentricities of everyday life.

 

2. Delta of Venus by Anais Nin
In Delta of Venus Anaïs Nin penned a lush, magical world where the characters of her imagination possess the most universal of desires and exceptional of talents. Among these provocative stories, a Hungarian adventurer seduces wealthy women then vanishes with their money; a veiled woman selects strangers from a chic restaurant for private trysts; and a Parisian hatmaker named Mathilde leaves her husband for the opium dens of Peru. Delta of Venus is an extraordinarily rich and exotic collection from the master of erotic writing.

 

799093. In Patagonia by Bruce Chatwin
An exhilarating look at a place that still retains the exotic mystery of a far-off, unseen land, Bruce Chatwin’s exquisite account of his journey through Patagonia teems with evocative descriptions, remarkable bits of history, and unforgettable anecdotes. Fueled by an unmistakable lust for life and adventure and a singular gift for storytelling, Chatwin treks through “the uttermost part of the earth”— that stretch of land at the southern tip of South America, where bandits were once made welcome—in search of almost forgotten legends, the descendants of Welsh immigrants, and the log cabin built by Butch Cassidy. An instant classic upon publication in 1977, In Patagonia is a masterpiece that has cast a long shadow upon the literary world.

 

4. Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter by Mario Vargas Llosa
Mario Vargas Llosa’s brilliant, multilayered novel is set in the Lima, Peru, of the author’s youth, where a young student named Marito is toiling away in the news department of a local radio station. His young life is disrupted by two arrivals.  The first is his aunt Julia, recently divorced and thirteen years older, with whom he begins a secret affair. The second is a manic radio scriptwriter named Pedro Camacho, whose racy, vituperative soap operas are holding the city’s listeners in thrall. Pedro chooses young Marito to be his confidant as he slowly goes insane.  Interweaving the story of Marito’s life with the ever-more-fevered tales of Pedro Camacho, Vargas Llosa’s novel is hilarious, mischievous, and masterful, a classic named one of the best books of the year by the New York Times Book Review.

 

5. The Hour of the Star by Clarice Lispector 762390
The Hour of the Star, Clarice Lispector’s consummate final novel, may well be her masterpiece. Narrated by the cosmopolitan Rodrigo S.M., this brief, strange, and haunting tale is the story of Macabéa, one of life’s unfortunates. Living in the slums of Rio and eking out a poor living as a typist, Macabéa loves movies, Coca-Cola, and her rat of a boyfriend; she would like to be like Marylin Monroe, but she is ugly, underfed, sickly, and unloved. Rodrigo recoils from her wretchedness, and yet he cannot avoid realization that for all her outward misery, Macabéa is inwardly free. She doesn’t seem to know how unhappy she should be. Lispector employs her pathetic heroine against her urbane, empty narrator–edge of despair to edge of despair–and, working them like a pair of scissors, she cuts away the reader’s preconceived notions about poverty, identity, love, and the art of fiction. In her last book she takes readers close to the true mystery of life and leaves us deep in Lispector territory indeed.

 

6. Petals of Blood by Ngugi wa Thiong’o
‘The puzzling murder of three African directors of a foreign-owned brewery sets the scene for this fervent, hard-hitting novel about disillusionment in independent Kenya. A deceptively simple tale, Petals of Blood is on the surface a suspenseful investigation of a spectacular triple murder in upcountry Kenya. Yet as the intertwined stories of the four suspects unfold, a devastating picture emerges of a modern third-world nation whose frustrated people feel their leaders have failed them time after time. First published in 1977, this novel was so explosive that its author was imprisoned without charges by the Kenyan government. His incarceration was so shocking that newspapers around the world called attention to the case, and protests were raised by human-rights groups, scholars, and writers, including James Baldwin, Toni Morrison, Donald Barthelme, Harold Pinter, and Margaret Drabble.

 

3387497. The Ginger Tree by Oswald Wynd
In 1903, a young Scotswoman named Mary Mackenzie sets sail for China to marry her betrothed, a military attaché in Peking. But soon after her arrival, Mary falls into an adulterous affair with a young Japanese nobleman, scandalizing the British community. Casting her out of the European community, her compatriots tear her away from her small daughter. A woman abandoned and alone, Mary learns to survive over forty tumultuous years in Asia, including two world wars and the cataclysmic Tokyo earthquake of 1923.

 

8. Anne Sexton: A Self-Portrait in Letters by Anne Sexton (edited by Lois Ames)
An expression of an extraordinary poet’s life story in her own words, this book shows Anne Sexton as she really was in private, as she wrote about herself to family, friends, fellow poets, and students. Anne’s daughter Linda Gray Sexton and her close confidant Lois Ames have judiciously chosen from among thousands of letters and provided commentary where necessary. Illustrated throughout with candid photographs and memorabilia, the letters — brilliant, lyrical, caustic, passionate, angry — are a consistently revealing index to Anne Sexton’s quixotic and exuberant personality.

 

9. Monkey Grip by Helen Garner 7405876
In “Monkey Grip”, Helen Garner charts the lives of a generation. Her characters are exploring new ways of loving and living – and nothing is harder than learning to love lightly. Nora and Javo are trapped in a desperate relationship. Nora’s addiction is romantic love; Javo’s is hard drugs. The harder they pull away, the tighter the monkey grip. A lyrical, gritty, rough-edged novel that deserves its place as a classic of Australian fiction.

 

10. Song of Solomon by Toni Morrison
Milkman Dead was born shortly after a neighborhood eccentric hurled himself off a rooftop in a vain attempt at flight. For the rest of his life he, too, will be trying to fly. With this brilliantly imagined novel, Toni Morrison transfigures the coming-of-age story as audaciously as Saul Bellow or Gabriel García Márquez. As she follows Milkman from his rustbelt city to the place of his family’s origins, Morrison introduces an entire cast of strivers and seeresses, liars and assassins, the inhabitants of a fully realized black world.

 

Have you read any of these?  Which is your favourite book published in 1977?

1

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

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’.

9781844087235An 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.

Caro’s first person perspective is used throughout. The narrative voice works relatively well with the story but Caro 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.

Whilst the writing style of the novel works well, the wit and amusement involved seems sparse and uncharacteristic of the author. 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

0

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 with new introductions by a selection of different authors, all of whom are 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.

Caro’s first person perspective is used throughout. The narrative voice works relatively well with the story but Caro 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.

Whilst the writing style of the novel works well, the wit and amusement involved seems sparse and uncharacteristic of the author. 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

2

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

0

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 with new introductions by a selection of different authors, all of whom are 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’ by Barbara Pym

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.

Caro’s first person perspective is used throughout. The narrative voice works relatively well with the story but Caro 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.

Whilst the writing style of the novel works well, the wit and amusement involved seems sparse and uncharacteristic of the author. 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