If all the pages identifying its author were removed, I’d still be able to tell that An Academic Question was written by one of my great favourites, Barbara Pym. The book includes many of her types of characters: dissatisfied wives, potty animal lovers, peevish, backstabbing academics, supportive mother-in-laws, lonely spinsters, and vain, asexual men who frequently assume the role of confidantes. While Pym often writes of the world of the clergy, there are no confused vicars here, but the church appears in the background for its role of stepping in for that end-stage of death and dying. The matter of author ‘identification’ is important as An Academic Question is an unfinished novel but it’s still quintessential Pym, put together from two drafts and Pym’s notes after her death by her biographer, literary executor and “editorial associate,” Hazel Holt. When I came across the novel, I was a bit puzzled. How could I have missed a Pym Novel? Why hadn’t I noticed it before? Of course, these questions were answered when I read the flyleaf. It’s certainly not Pym’s best, and I hope that first-time readers don’t find this Pym title first. Publishing an unfinished novel raises the question whether or not the book should have been released. As a Pym fan, I’m glad I read it, but this reading comes after enjoying all of her other titles, and I’d recommend leaving this to the end.
This is the story of Caroline, “changed to Caro,” for her identification with “poor Lady Caroline Lamb, who said she was like the wreck of a little boat for she never came up to the sublime and beautiful.” Caro is married to Alan, an emotionally-remote academic, but there’s a lot that’s remote about Caro too. In her youth, she had a “Byronic affair,” and while there are no details, it’s clear that the relationship ended badly. We know, because he pops up later in the book, that this “Byronic suitor” was David, her “first love,” and it’s possible that the embers still burn. Did Caro marry Alan because he was dull and reliable, the polar opposite of that first wild and miserable affair?
Caro and Alan have one child, 4-year-old Kate, who’s mostly taken care of by the physically impressive Inge, the au pair, and Caro seems to have a horror of taking care of her own child. The few glimpses we see of Kate aren’t flattering. There’s a slyness to the child that’s vaguely repugnant. Part of Caro’s dilemma is that she feels useless, but she’s also discontent. She married Alan right after finishing university, and while she doesn’t want a career, she’s aware that she’s “lacking any special maternal feeling and this seemed an even greater inadequacy.” She feels inadequate in all regions of her life: as a wife (her husband works with Iris, a very attractive, divorced woman), and as a mother (she thinks that Inge is much better with Kate). The subject of Caro taking a part-time job is discussed, and because of this desire to occupy her time, at the suggestion of one of her friends, Dolly, Caro finds herself reading to the elderly at Normanhurst, an “old people’s home.” (Now there’s a term from the past)
“Alan thinks I ought to have a job,” I told her, “and as I can’t really help him with his work I suppose I’ll have to look for something else–something to do with research and card indexes he would like, but I’d prefer something unusual that I could make my own.”
“What about the old people’s home?” Dolly suggested.
My dismay must have shown itself on my face, for she went on to say that some people there were quite interesting.
“It’s for gentlefolk, as Sister Dew never tires of pointing out, and most of them have their own furniture with them.”
The idea of elderly persons of gentle birth surrounded by their own bits of Chippendale and Sheraton, not to mention Chelsea, Waterford and Meissen, was not one that attracted me, and I said so.
“Besides, what could I do there?”
“Read to them,” said Dolly.
“Read to them? How appalling! What should I read?”
“Novels and biographies, poetry, the Bible–do you know that Professor Maynard sometimes looks in on a retired missionary there?”
So Caro begins reading to former missionary, Reverend Stillingfleet, a man who guards a chest full of unpublished manuscripts that both Alan and his department head, Crispin Maynard want to get their hands on….
Caro finds herself involved in some morally questionable shenanigans, and while that might seem to be the novel’s central dilemma, an unexpected problem also appears in her relationship with Alan. Caro is very jealous of Alan’s relationship with his colleague, the very attractive and available Iris. Is she a threat or is Caro imagining an attachment where there is none?
An Academic Question is clearly much less polished that Pym’s other superb (perfect) novels. Caro, as the book’s central character lacks a solid centre. She’s sometimes sympathetic, but at others quite repellent. In common with other Pym heroines, she’s a little lost, not sure of her role in life–she’s more an appendage to her husband than anything else. She contemplates taking a lover, but an accidental meeting with an old beau seems to reinforce the tepidness of such a move.
One of the wonderful things about Pym as a novelist is that she is always very generous to her characters, and this author’s novels of manners are, above all, gentle. Somehow, An Academic Question is a little harsher and there’s some definite ugliness. There’s an abortion, an affair, and some cruel words spoken. Written at a point in Pym’s career when she was used to publisher rejections, she stopped work on this novel as she considered too much like all the others. Instead she continued to work on A Quartet in Autumn which is my very favourite Pym novel, and makes my all-time favourite book list. A Quartet in Autumn is one of the best books on the subject of aging that I’ve ever read, and while it’s sad in its depictions of the lonely lives of 4 retirees, An Academic Question gives us a peek under the layers of society on some of the same issues: those who are young, vigorous and on their way upwards in their careers, and those who are facing death. Alan can’t wait for Crispin Maynard to retire, and although Alan may not directly benefit from Crispin’s departure, he has the notion that Crispin stands in the way of his career. The old must make way for the young. Caro sees Crispin as kind and thoughtful, but Alan sees him as an archaic thinker, a backstabber of the first order.
The book’s best scenes are those of the nastiness of Academia. The dinner parties, the lectures–they’re all opportunities for conceit and snide insults. Pym understood the worlds she created, and so the scenes of academic life–the two-faced smiles and the backstabbing at faculty dinners and parties are perfect.
The biggest problem with the novel is that some of the characters are undeveloped and underutilized. One of my favourite characters is Dolly, a spinster who pours her love and her life into hedgehogs. Whatever else is going on in the world matters little when compared to Dolly’s colony of hedgehogs she nurtures in her back garden. She is the epitome of Pym’s belief that we all need something to love–no matter the object. Dolly’s sister, Kitty, a vain woman who lived on a Caribbean island and misses the privilege of her colonial lifestyle, is mostly talked about and not seen. Her asexual, gossipy, vain son, Coco is in his 40s but still lives with his mother; his relationship with Caro is complicated and could have been developed. The most troubling problem with the novel, however, is that the two central dilemmas in Claire’s life are unresolved. They are both biggies and yet they just seem to melt away….Of course, it’s impossible to guess how Pym would have finished this novel before submitting it for publication. We can only speculate.