“Again the idea that he has fallen into a Henry James novel occurs to Fred; but now he casts Rosemary in a different role, as one of James’ beautiful, worldly, corrupt villainesses.”
Late last year, I read and enjoyed Alison Lurie’s novel, The War Between the Tates, and so I decided to reread Foreign Affairs, a novel I enjoyed the first time around, and one I enjoyed even more on a reread. This is a very clever, subtle book with more than a touch of Henry James, but then what else could we expect with two Americans–one a hopeless Anglophile, both in Britain for research. Even though these two Americans, one in his prime and the other a middle-aged woman, have vastly different attitudes towards Britain, they are both seduced by the culture in different ways, and one of these Americans catches himself feeling rather like a lost character in a Henry James novel.
The novel’s main character is 54-year-old Virginia, “Vinnie,” Miner, an American professor who fancies herself as inherently more British than American, so when she finds herself on a flight to London sitting next to Chuck Mumpson, a loud, badly dressed American tourist who mistakes her for a woman who’s returning home, she’s initially annoyed by his disruptive presence but then secretly delighted by his assumption that she’s British. Hailing from New York and teaching at “upstate” Corinth university, Vinnie is travelling to Britain for a six-month long research study into “folk-rhymes of schoolchildren.” Vinnie sees Britain as her spiritual home, and if she could wrangle a way to move there permanently, she would. She feels that she’s a “nicer person there and that her life was more interesting.” In London, she has a regular round of friends and a more glamorous social life that seems to be lacking at Corinth.
England, for Vinnie, is and always has been the imagined and desired country. For a quarter of a century she visited it in her mind, where it had been slowly and lovingly shaped and furnished out of her favorite books, from Beatrix Potter to Anthony Powell.
Vinnie’s chance encounter with Chuck, the very sort of American tourist she doesn’t want to be associated with, continues when Chuck, deciding that Vinnie is the only person he knows in Britain, asks for help tracing his noble ancestry. Vinnie, at first annoyed by Chuck, soon begins to feel a sort of responsibility for him.
The novel’s second main character is the young, extremely handsome professor, Fred Turner also from Corinth, who’s supposed to be in London researching John Gay. Following a quarrel, Fred and his wife are in a “trial separation,” and that leaves Fred alone and lonely in London, unable to concentrate on his research in the British Museum (renamed Bowel Movement), surrounded by “other readers, many of them eccentric or possibly insane,” and leading a miserable existence on a pittance. Fred’s life seems to turn around when he meets the glamorous British actress, Rosemary at one of Vinnie’s parties. Rosemary is known for “frequent, sexual lapses–referred to later with laughter in phrases like ‘I don’t know what came over me’ or ‘It must have been the Champagne.’ “
The novel follows the literal and figurative “foreign affairs” of Fred and Vinnie. Fred, is swept up in Rosemary’s intimate circle, and he’s soon embroiled in the social life of her set, leaving his American friends and acquaintances in the dust. Partly by observing Fred, Vinnie, on the other hand, begins to feel not so involved with her British acquaintances, and the fact that Fred is invited to social events that she isn’t a part of serves to underscore the tourist/temporary nature of her many stays in Britain. The novel has a great deal to say about being an American in Britain, and ultimately our characters realize the impossibility of thoroughly fitting in or completely understanding the subtler nuances of behaviour and conversation which isn’t something one can read about in a guide book or pick up casually during a few months holiday. Fred’s miserable American friends Joe and Debbie Vogeler are prime examples of tourists who don’t get it. They feel that Britain has somehow been misrepresented–from the weather to the food–everything is a huge disappointment:
After making a big effort for over a month they have given up on the whole scene. They are also really pissed off at themselves for having been dumb enough to come here on leave from the adjacent Southern California colleges at which they teach, with a year-old baby on top of everything. They were warned, but they had been brainwashed by their admiration for British literature (Debby) and British philosophy (Joe). Why hadn’t they listened to their friends? they keep asking each other. Why hadn’t they gone to Italy or Greece, or even stayed home in Claremont, for god’s sake? Britain might have been great in the past, all right, but in their opinion modern London sucks.
In one very humourous scene, the Vogelers complain about the natives: the grocery shop owner was who “really disagreeable,” when Debbie suggests he stock American items, a disgruntled plumber, and the woman at the dry cleaners who handled Debbie’s pants “as if they had a smell.” Disillusioned and feeling swindled by images of a Britain that exists only in their imagination, Debbie and Joe are convinced that the locals are “in collusion” against “dumb young American professors.” Fred’s attempts to get the Vogelers to mingle only ends in disaster, and oddly enough while the Vogelers can’t assimilate, they are entranced by a Druids meeting that Fred finds absolutely appalling. Fred felt just as alienated and disappointed in Britain as the Vogelers, but falling for Rosemary changed his mind.
One of the novel’s themes is appearances vs reality, so of course, the fictional imagined postcard Britain is unfavourably compared to the reality of unattractive accommodations, the impossibly tiresome British Museum and the tinselness of the tourist circuit. As Fred notes:
I get this weird idea that I’m not really in London, that this place isn’t London, it’s some kind of imitation.
And of course as a tourist, regular daily life is something that Americans in London will not experience. The theme of appearances vs. reality also extends to the two main characters, Fred and Vinnie. Vinnie has always been a plain woman, but now in her mid 50s, slim and neat, she’s suddenly attractive when compared to other women of her own age group. She thinks she’s ‘almost’ British, but in reality, Rosemary’s set find her rather peculiar. And then there’s Fred–a man who is so good-looking that incorrect assumptions are made about his character. Both characters are judged on their appearances and neither of them really have a good grasp on how they appear to others. Vinnie also initially judges Chuck on his appearance, dismissing him as exactly the sort of noisy uncouth American tourist she doesn’t want to be associated with.
Foreign Affairs is, above all, a very amusing novel of two academics far from home engaging in behaviour that would not exist in their native surroundings. Vinnie is a delightfully real character–bribing urchins to recite, as it turns out, raunchy rhymes, and at other times retreating into self-pity or revenge fantasies against her academic enemies. She also has a habit of appropriating items and adding them to her household “in the vague but recurrent belief that life owes her a little something.” In spite of the novel’s lively humour, there’s also a sad strain to the story which involves last loves and disillusioned love. Emma’s review shares my enthusiasm, but with a different take.