An Academic Question (1986): Barbara Pym

★★½

I enjoyed Barbara Pym’s Excellent Women so much that perhaps it’s inevitable I’d feel underwhelmed when I picked up another of her books. Having said that, there does seem to be something objectively thin about this novel of mild academic skulduggery and frustrated marriage in a provincial university. Our narrator is Caro Grimstone, a young woman of good family who has somehow found herself married with a four-year-old daughter. Seeking for a way to occupy her time (since her anthropologist husband doesn’t seem to need her to type or index his books – the usual role of an academic wife), Caro drifts into helping at a local nursing home. Here, while reading to a retired missionary, who jealousy guards his field-notes from his African sojourn, she realises that she may be able to be of use to Alan in another way – but at what cost?

The problem with Pym’s novel is that there isn’t really any consequence to Alan and Caro’s ‘borrowing’ the Reverend Stillingfleet’s manuscript. I was expecting some kind of moral crisis, or a public confrontation with a suspicious colleague, but instead Alan writes an article, Caro leaves the manuscript lying around for a while, and finally she reinserts it into the rest of Stillingfleet’s papers (an ultimately pointless act). What is the groundbreaking information that so excites Alan, and which enables him to write his article challenging the work of his senior colleague Professor Maynard? We never find out. The whole business of the manuscript is nothing more than a McGuffin. We’re teased with the prospect of a showdown with Maynard, but it never comes. Instead, we spend the book watching Alan and Caro attend vacuous departmental parties, full of self-absorbed scholars, and Caro drifts here and there, dissatisfied with herself, dissatisfied with her marriage, but unable or unwilling to do anything about it. The only time the book really comes to life is during her conversations with the idle, terrifically camp Coco, who has somehow managed to get a research fellowship in Caribbean Studies – and perhaps I found this entertaining mainly because he reminds me of someone I used to know.

In the introduction, Kate Saunders tells us that Pym started writing An Academic Question in 1970 in an effort to follow modern trends (this was during the period when Pym’s books had fallen from grace and she was no longer able to get published). Saunders suggests, perceptively I feel, that Margaret Drabble’s shadow lingers over Pym’s novel. Although I’ve only read The Garrick Year so far, I can see that Pym might well have been aiming for that same sense of bored, sophisticated detachment, but for some reason she can’t quite carry it off. It feels as though Caro should have closer relationships with those around her, but as if she’s been somehow surgically removed from them. Her daughter Kate and the Swedish au pair Inge appear only occasionally to add colour or comedy, and Caro’s relationship with Alan – even if we accept that it is struggling – is strangely distant. When he confesses to infidelity, her initial reaction (going to stay with her mother) doesn’t chime with her later behaviour. When the novel requires Caro to return home, she does so: there’s little discussion of the matter and it’s barely mentioned again. Essentially, one feels that Pym is throwing in plot devices (infidelity, an intellectually frustrated woman, the strain of motherhood) without really thinking about how they’ll affect the story and her characters long-term.

Pym only really seems to be excited by her eccentric secondary characters, who fit as comfortably into this modern university town as a porcupine in a yarn basket. There’s Dolly, a genial spinster who runs a second-hand bookshop and spends most of her time brooding over a troop of beloved hedgehogs. We’re supposed to believe that she’s Caro’s confidant, but Dolly doesn’t seem to spend enough time in the ‘real world’ of cut-and-thrust academia to make this plausible. Dolly is, even less plausibly, the sister of the glamorous Kitty, who has returned to her home town with her son Coco after a period as chatelaine of a Caribbean island. Pym implies that Kitty’s colonial reign has been curtailed by the appointment of ‘an all-black government’, which hints at a desire to deal with fashionable racial issues – but in fact just leads to a series of scenes in which Kitty is gracious to local Caribbean immigrants. It’s all rather awkward. You can’t help feeling that Pym’s sympathies lie with Kitty and the romantic, hierarchical world she left behind on the island, where people knew how to dress for dinner, and butlers were always on hand to assist at drinks parties. I hardly need to say that Coco’s ‘research’ into West Indian integration in the town goes no further than occasional handouts of questionnaires, and that he spends most of his time idling elegantly with his mother.

So what is Pym actually trying to do here? It’s a perfectly fine novel – a bit of fluff to read on a hot afternoon, and a serviceable farce – but I didn’t feel that Pym felt very comfortable in the setting she’d chosen, nor that she had very much interest in her characters. Although she does her best to weave in favoured themes – anthropologists; genteel characters fallen on hard times – she seems to be fumbling. I suspect part of the problem stems from the fact that the text, as we read it here, is not Pym’s own creation. She wrote two drafts of this book, one trying to be much ‘edgier’ and modern than the other (unsuccessfully), and the final text that we see today is the result of a cut-and-paste job by her literary executor Hazel Holt. She stitched the two versions together in the way that gave the best story, and the text was only published in 1986, after Pym’s death. Perhaps this is why there’s a staccato, uneven feel to the narrative flow, and perhaps this is why the story feels lost among a series of inconsequential vignettes. I hope this was just a duff one, and that the rest of Pym’s novels live up to the joyful eccentricity of Excellent Women, which I loved. I’m pretty sure they will.

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