(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

Foreign Affairs follows the adventures of two American professors who find love and self-knowledge while on sabbatical in London. The major character, Virginia (“Vinnie”) Miner, is a successful teacher and specialist on children’s literature and an Anglophile who makes regular visits to London. Although she has sophisticated friends and a good career, Vinnie’s personal life is meager. She has no husband, no lover, no children, no home life—only her imaginary dog Fido, the repository of all her accumulating self-pity. In addition, her latest book has been dismissed by the influential critic L. D. Zimmern as useless and out of date. With her work devalued, Vinnie worries that, at bottom, she has nothing. This changes when she is seated on the plane to London beside a brash, clumsy sanitary engineer from Tulsa, Oklahoma, named Chuck Mumpson.

Mumpson has, in a classic American way, gone from rags to riches, but a lifetime of moneymaking has left him lonely and at loose ends. Estranged from his wife and children, Mumpson is traveling alone to England to track down what he imagines will be an illustrious family tree. Mumpson at first mistakes Vinnie for an Englishwoman, and she does, indeed, aspire to the kind of Englishness associated with good taste, breeding, and a high cultural level. Vinnie at first disdains Chuck as a typical American boor, but she begins to realize that they are both lonely and unloved. As he has a fantasy of noble lineage, she has been assuming the pose of an English lady, quite above the likes of a Chuck Mumpson.

Although they become friends and then lovers, Vinnie’s snobbery continues to be a factor in their relationship. He is the kind of provincial American she thinks that her English...

(The entire section is 715 words.)


(Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

Virginia Miner is an unmarried fifty-four-year-old professor of children’s literature at Corinth University, a major Ivy League college. She is flying to London for a six-month stay on a grant to study British schoolyard rhymes, her field of expertise. Her work has been criticized, most notably by fellow academic L. D. Zimmern, for being slight and inconsequential.

Miner is, by her own admission, unattractive (she is prone to self-pity and has an imaginary dog named Fido who appears whenever she feels sorry for herself). Although married briefly, she has been content with the series of prosaic, if passionate, affairs that she has had over the years, certain that she will never find love.

During the long transatlantic flight, Chuck Mumpson, a married waste-disposal engineer from Tulsa, Oklahoma, beginning a bargain package tour of England, engages Vinnie in rambling conversation, although Vinnie finds him unpleasant and coarse. He is overweight and is a sloppy drinker and a smoker. Desperate to distract him and to curtail their conversation, Vinnie gives him a copy of the British children’s classic Little Lord Fauntleroy, a story about a poor Brooklyn schoolboy who finds out he is in fact a British aristocrat and the heir to a fortune. Vinnie and Chuck arrive at Heathrow Airport. Vinnie is unable to find a taxi, so Chuck invites her to ride with him on his tour bus to her hotel.

Meanwhile, Fred Turner, a strikingly handsome assistant professor of literature, also at Corinth, is in London on a five-month sabbatical to research a book on playwright John Gay. After a tempestuous argument with his wife, Ruth, a successful and controversial photographer (her current exhibition features photos of three penises, only one of which is Fred’s, making him disquietingly jealous), Fred faces the possibility that his marriage to the free-spirited and independent Roo, as he calls Ruth, may be over. Not willing to offend a colleague who will have a considerable say in his upcoming tenure review, Fred attends a dinner party hosted by Vinnie. There he meets Lady Rosemary Radley, an older British television and cinema icon whose fawning temperament and needful...

(The entire section is 895 words.)