Foreign Affairs

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 11)

The War Between the Tates (1974), which chronicles the disintegration of a contemporary university and a contemporary marriage, is the best known of Alison Lurie’s six previous novels. It is a lively example of the academic novel, that quaint genre of fiction written of, by, and for professors. Lurie, who teaches at Cornell University, set her work at Corinth University, an Ivy League institution in upstate New York.

Foreign Affairs is an epistle about the Corinthians, but, except for its opening scene at Kennedy Airport and some flashbacks to a troubled Corinthian marriage, it is set entirely in England. Its two main characters, Vinnie Miner and Fred Turner, are on leaves of absence from Corinth’s English department, Vinnie to pursue “a comparative investigation of the play-rhymes of British and American Children” and Fred to do research on John Gay, the eighteenth century author of The Beggar’s Opera. Vinnie is a senior professor, a modestly renowned authority on children’s literature, while Fred is a very junior member of the faculty anxious about his prospects for tenure. Each is barely aware of the other’s existence, though their guardian fates seem to be cronies. Lurie’s novel crosscuts alternating chapters on the adventures of each, parallel lives of ignoble Americans in London, England.

One’s first glimpse of Vinnie, as she boards her flight to England, suggests not very auspicious material for a fictional heroine: “She is fifty-four years old, small, plain, and unmarried—the sort of person that no one ever notices.” Lurie does notice Vinnie, quite aware that in doing so she is going against the grain of literary tradition. In one of the book’s more prominent authorial intrusions, one that also reflects Vinnie’s own literary self-consciousness, the omniscient narrator observes: “Even today there are disproportionately few older characters in fiction. The conventions hold, and the contemporary novelist, like an up-to-date fruit-grower, reconstructs the natural landscape, removing most of the aging trees to leave room for young saplings that haven’t yet been grafted or put down deep roots.” Still, some species, such as Vinnie, take many years to bear fruit, and Foreign Affairs demonstrates that, despite her self-portrait as embattled spinster, Vinnie Miner is a worthy and lively focus of novelistic attention.

She is a proudly independent woman who harbors resentments the way London does tugboats. One of Lurie’s finer touches is ascribing to Vinnie a demon familiar, a spectral, dirty-white long-haired mutt she calls Fido and imagines as an embodiment of her accumulated self-pity. Fido accompanies Vinnie during all her encounters with the hostile world, but he becomes far less assertive as the novel develops. Occasionally, and discreetly, sexually active, Vinnie nevertheless believes herself too plain and in any case beyond the age at which love could transform her life. Against her better and worse judgment, this Eastern bluestocking becomes involved with a boorish, semieducated sanitary engineer from Tulsa. Chuck Mumpson has come to England as part of a gawky tourist group and to salvage some self-esteem. He stays to trace his genealogy, to a legendary hermit of Southley who lived in a cave, and to provide a plot complication.

At twenty-eight, Fred Turner “is a handsome, athletic-looking young man, the type that directors...

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Form and Content

(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

Foreign Affairs has twelve chapters that alternate in their focus on first Vinnie’s adventures and then Fred’s. Although Vinnie Miner and Fred Turner know each other from the English Department at Corinth University in New York—she is an imposing senior professor, and he is a promising assistant professor hoping for tenure—they hardly have the grounds for a close relationship.

Vinnie Miner is an old visitor on the London scene, a self-admitted Anglophile who tries her best to snub Chuck Mumpson, an open, affable, retired engineer from Tulsa, Oklahoma, when he sits down beside her on the long flight to Heathrow Airport. Vinnie’s business is contemporary folklore, and she is in London to collect rhymes from ten-and eleven-year-olds. British children, she believes, have older, more literary materials to offer her than do the American children of a newer, cruder culture. Her scholarship and her human prejudices about people, then, are all of a piece and lean toward a sniffy preference for all things British. Chuck has just accepted a big retirement settlement from his company but is in disfavor with an apparently haughty wife and is traveling to England with a tour group.

Fred Turner is having a miserable time in London. He has little money and no friends other than his graduate school acquaintances, Joe and Debby Vogeler, who manage to get on his nerves. He suffers from the crash of his marriage with Roo, a radical but romantic feminist with a vision of life that is much less conformist than Fred’s. Roo is a photographer who, to Fred’s dismay, included in one of her exhibitions several photographs of his anonymous but emphatically erect penis. Moreover, the display of several other anonymous male members stirred Fred’s suspicions—apparently unjustly—and split the two apart.


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(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

Alison Lurie is not customarily thought of as a feminist, not at least as one whose work is relentlessly, single-mindedly tendentious. In fact, her novel The Truth About Lorin Jones (1988) disapproves lesbian extremism, and her critical orientation as a publishing academic frowns on the loose coalition of poststructuralist factions. Yet it is clear that Roo is a feminist, not overtly political but governed by a sense of self that will allow no violations of her human dignity. Only the most irredeemable of cankered male chauvinists would criticize Roo, and only the most zealous feminist would condemn her for not devoting her life to taking arrows on the ramparts. She is perhaps Lurie’s ideal.

Vinnie Miner longs for male companionship and sex, but she cannot be patronized by anyone. She has made her way as a professional against the sneers of the contemptible critic L. D. Zimmern (who she is shocked to learn is Roo’s father) and has elbowed her way around as a small person in a big person’s world. Her romance with Chuck Mumpson—a man’s man when matched against her British friend Edwin—develops a gratifying example of the sexual comfort still sought, and available to, people past their carnal prime.

Foreign Affairs is more academic than feminist, most obviously in the scholarly preoccupations of Vinnie and Fred. An especially amusing example of this insider aspect to academia derives from Vinnie’s romantic fantasies about men: “She had thus over the years enjoyed imaginary relationships with, among others, Daniel Aaron, M. H. Abrams, John Cheever, Robert Lowell, Arthur Mizener, Walker Percy, Mark Schorer, Wallace Stegner, Peter Taylor, Lionel Trilling, Robert Penn Warren, and Richard Wilbur.” These men—critics, creative writers, or both—are all hallowed names in English departments and far past their prime, if not dead, at the time that the novel was written. In addition, M. H. Abrams was Lurie’s colleague at Cornell University when she wrote Foreign Affairs. Many laughs are easily imagined over this passage.

The tempered feminism, the grounding in a setting of liberal humanist pursuits and allusions, the affiliations with Henry James, Sinclair Lewis, and Jane Austen—all bespeak a sensibility that keeps the past in mind while commenting on the present. Lurie’s accomplishment in Foreign Affairs was recognized with a Pulitzer Prize and a nomination for the American Book Award.

Historical Context

(Novels for Students)

The History of the Academic Novel

Foreign Affairs is a variant of the genre known as the academic novel, which...

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Literary Style

(Novels for Students)

Fairy Tales and Folklore

Lurie uses elements from fairy tales to enhance the theme of transformation. People are not...

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Compare and Contrast

(Novels for Students)

  • 1980s: Americans appreciate the high quality of British television programs and the charming picture of British life and...

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Topics for Further Study

(Novels for Students)

  • To what extent is the United States still an Anglo culture with a special relationship to England? Using Internet research, analyze how...

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Media Adaptations

(Novels for Students)

  • Foreign Affairs was adapted for television in 1993, and as of 2006, it was commercially available on VHS. It was directed by...

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What Do I Read Next?

(Novels for Students)

  • Lurie's novel The War between the Tates (1974) is an academic novel that takes place on the campus of the fictional Corinth University, which is based on Cornell University, where Lurie teaches. The novel treats in satiric fashion the collapsing marriage of Brian Tate, a professor of political science, and his wife, Erica.
  • British author David Lodge writes exceedingly funny academic novels. In Changing Places: A Tale of Two Campuses (1975), English and American academic life are subjected to hilarious satire when English academic Philip Swallow of the University of Rummidge swaps places for half a year with American scholar Morris Zapp of State University of Euphoria.
  • Henry James's novel The Ambassadors (1903) shows the interaction of American innocence with sophisticated European society. Lambert Strether is sent by a rich widow to Paris to persuade the woman's son, who has taken up with an aristocratic Frenchwoman, to return home to the family business in Woollett, Massachusetts.
  • Richard Russo's Straight Man (1997) is a hilarious adventure in the neurotic weekend of an interim chairman of English at a struggling U.S. university, at which administrators are laying off tenured faculty and shifting curriculum from traditional subjects, such as English literature, to more marketable applied subjects, such as technical and computer courses.

Bibliography and Further Reading

(Novels for Students)


Clemons, Walter, "Lovers and Other Strangers," in Newsweek, September 24, 1984, p. 80.


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(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

Boston, Richard. “Minerva in London.” Punch 288, no. 7520 (January 23, 1985): 52. Identifies V. A. Miner as an anagram of Minerva, the Roman goddess of wisdom. Observes that many minor elements, such as exchange rates, seem outdated. Complains of loose ends but generally approves of the portrayal of English behavior.

Butler, Marilyn. “Amor Vincit Vinnie.” London Review of Books, February 21, 1985, 5-6. Applauds Lurie for “insisting on something nowadays intellectually unfashionable: on the existence outside the confined world of her fiction, not of a proliferating series of fictions, but of a stable and knowable real...

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