Foreign Affairs Criticism
by Alison Lurie

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Bryan Aubrey

(Novels for Students)

Aubrey holds a Ph.D. in English and has published many articles on twentieth century literature. In this essay, he analyzes the interaction between British and American culture in Foreign Affairs.

Placing American characters in a London setting gave Lurie the opportunity to show, just as Henry James had done nearly a century earlier in The Ambassadors, the interaction between two cultures. But where James had contrasted American provincialism with European culture and sophistication, Lurie's contrasts are not so easily categorized. If Foreign Affairs is seen as a clash between different cultures, the naturalness and sincerity of American culture eventually proves itself equal if not superior to the present condition of English upper-class society.

Perhaps the best case for England rests not with the English but with the classic example of the American Anglophile, Vinnie Miner, who sits in her "flat" (i.e., apartment) with a "pot of Twining's Queen Mary tea" and sometimes entertains the notion that one day she might even be able to become a citizen of the country she has loved since childhood. For Vinnie, England has always been "the imagined and desired country," formed in her understanding by all the English literature she read, long before she ever visited the country in person. London seems like home to her, a welcome change to "billboards, used-car lots, ice storms and tornadoes," as well as "sensational and horrible news events," not to mention political demonstrations and drunken student brawls at Corinth University. Such is Vinnie's jaundiced view of American culture, to which she seems a complete stranger. Indeed, Vinnie acts in such an English manner, outdoing even the English, that it is not surprising that on the airplane Chuck Mumpson, the engineer from Oklahoma, mistakes her for an Englishwoman. A sub-theme here is the clash between two Americas; Vinnie's New England-inspired tact and refinement is set against Chuck's hearty directness and vulgarity, which earns him and his ilk Vinnie's sneer at "half-literate middle Americans." She and Chuck may be from the same country, but they are from different worlds.

Vinnie's Anglophilia is juxtaposed with the disillusionment of the Vogelers. The narrator points out that they are like many American teachers of English literature who fall in love with England based on its literature but then are disappointed when the reality fails to match their idealized expectations. Thus, the Vogelers complain that London is cold and wet, the people are unfriendly, and the tourist attractions are all disappointingly small, as if they are imitations of something grander. For the Vogelers, Britain's long and illustrious past may rise up in the imagination like an impressive mountain range, but its present reality is a collection of very ordinary foothills. Even when they start to mix with real upper middle-class English people, at Rosemary's party, they are not impressed. Joe Vogeler considers them "kind of phony-baloney" and tells Fred, "That's how the English are, especially the middle-class types … You never really know where you are with them."

Chuck also has a rather negative impression of London, complaining to Vinnie about the lumpy bed in his hotel and that English food "tastes like boiled hay; if you want a half-decent meal, you have to go to some foreign restaurant." Chuck is a practical, curious type, and he finds some evidence that backs up the Vogelers' disappointment in tourist attractions when he discovers that at the Tower of London, the crown jewels he has just paid good money to see are, in fact, copies; the real crown jewels are locked up somewhere else, inaccessible to the likes of him and other tourists. This little piece of fakery suggests indeed that London is, at least for tourists, not all that it might seem to be in the glossy travel brochures back home that seduce them into making the trip.

The English setting gives the American author plenty of opportunities for...

(The entire section is 6,439 words.)