An Academic Question

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 9)

Loyal readers of Barbara Pym’s novels will be pleased with the posthumous publication of An Academic Question, following so soon after the appearance of Crampton Hodnet in 1985. The novel has been made available through the editorial efforts of Hazel Holt, Pym’s literary executor. Working from the notes and drafts which Pym accumulated during the late 1960’s and early 1970’s, she has made available a delightful novel which will be a valuable addition to the eleven others in the Pym canon. Pym herself did not expect the novel to be published, although she commented that “perhaps my immediate circle of friends will like to read it.” Her discouragement was understandable following her failure, throughout the 1960’s and well into the 1970’s, to find a publisher for any of her manuscripts. This was a distressing period for her in which she became convinced that her career as a novelist was over. It is not difficult to see, in retrospect, why her efforts met with such little success in the 1960’s. The poet Philip Larkin succinctly expressed it in a letter to a friend at Faber and Faber, one of the publishers who had turned down Pym’s An Unsuitable Attachment: “I feel it is a great shame if ordinary sane novels about ordinary sane people doing ordinary sane things can’t find a publisher these days. This is the tradition of Austen and Trollope, and I refuse to believe that no one wants its successors today. Why should I have to choose between spy rubbish, science fiction rubbish . . . or dope-taking nervous-break-down rubbish?”

Fortunately, Pym is now back in favor, and An Academic Question is likely to consolidate further her still growing reputation. It is set in a provincial English university town, and like most of Pym’s novels, the plot is slight. It centers on the academic rivalry between two members of the sociology and anthropology department. A young scholar, Alan Grimstone, publishes an article which challenges the theories of the professor of the department, Crispin Maynard. Grimstone has dishonestly obtained important material from the papers of a dying missionary in the local old people’s home, but after a few twists and turns of the plot, he escapes detection. The second element of the plot is Grimstone’s extramarital affair with the assistant editor of the journal that is publishing his article.

Yet Pym, as is her custom, avoids treating these events in highly dramatic fashion. The chief interest of the novel is not in what happens, but in Pym’s characteristically understated wit, her wry observations, through the medium of the narrator, Grimstone’s wife, Caroline, about the rituals of academic life. It is in Pym’s acute awareness of all the nuances of social intercourse, her observation of the small details of behavior which reveal large things about people that her success lies. Chief of these rituals is communal eating and social drinking. Much of the novel takes place at dinner or luncheon parties. Even the hardworking Alan Grimstone is more interested in the progress of the Yorkshire pudding than in the book review he is writing, and the editor of an academic journal fondly looks back on a “memorable asparagus mousse” as if it were a great work of art. Small pleasures count for much in Pym’s novels.

Caroline, known as Caro, is not a typical Pym heroine, in that she is a young married woman rather than a middle-aged spinster. She has married slightly below herself (or so her mother believes) and sees herself as a frustrated graduate wife. She is not ambitious and finds herself taking a part-time job at the university library, along with other graduate wives “striving to fulfill [them]selves with useful work.” She often reflects on her sense of inadequacy and ignorance, but this stems more from her intelligence and self-awareness than any lack of it. She can see through and beyond the closed world of others.

Through Caro, Pym gently satirizes the solemn rat race of academe, where the most important thing in life is what one publishes and where one publishes it (making sure certainly that one send offprints to all the right people). Caro has learned to keep up appearances and refrains from making jokes about the odd titles of articles in learned anthropological journals. She is quite ready to enjoy the annual Dabbs Memorial Lecture (to be given by the “able” young Iris Horniblow) until she finds that the dead hand of the sociologist’s jargon has ruined it, and she regards the “ongoing” professional rivalry with detached amusement, not having more than a dutiful interest in her husband’s attempts to climb the academic ladder.

Anthropologists appear in many of Pym’s novels, and Pym often commented on the similarity between the work of the anthropologist and the novelist. Each is concerned with the detached, objective observation of human behavior. Much of the amusement to be gained from An Academic Question is in seeing the tables...

(The entire section is 2044 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 9)

Booklist. LXXXII, August, 1986, p. 1663.

Chicago Tribune. August 26, 1986, V, p. 3.

Kirkus Reviews. LIV, July 1, 1986, p. 968.

Library Journal. CXI, August, 1986, p. 172.

The London Review of Books. VIII, September 4, 1986, p. 20.

Los Angeles Times Book Review. September 14, 1986, p. 6.

New Statesman. CXII, August 15, 1986, p. 31.

The New York Times Book Review. XCI, September 7, 1986, p. 25.

Publishers Weekly. CCXXX, July 11, 1986, p. 53.

The Wall Street Journal. CCVIII, September 9, 1986, p. 26.