An Academic Question by Barbara Pym – a look at life among a University staff in the 1960s.
Barbara Pym was a skilful and unique writer, but she had a period when her writing was not published. This book is largely a product of her fallow period, and was assembled from two versions. Nonetheless it has a unique charm and an unusual storyline in that the focus is on the wife of a young academic, who tells her story with a touching innocence and ideal of what her role is in a community of half known couples and individuals associated with a provincial university in the late 1960s. This is a lively book with many hallmarks of Pym’s earlier novels, with assumptions, naivety and general bewilderment about people and situations by a main female character. The details of clothes, the ambiguous relationships, the splendid character portraits are pure Pym, even the description of meals and receptions which the characters are obliged to attend echo so many to be found in the earlier novels. This novel may have largely been put together by Hazel Holt, but fans of Pym’s work and many others.
The novel is narrated by Caroline, a young graduate married to Alan. She has a four year old daughter, Kate, and a full time nanny, Inge. Her friends are mainly connected to the University, but represent a wide range of people. As the book opens he is talking to her friend Coco and his attractive mother Kitty. Coco runs a project at the University, and like his mother is obsessed with clothes and appearance. Kitty’s sister Dolly is very different; she owns a second hand book shop and is obsessed with hedgehogs. Their advice and conversation varies from the other people Caro comes into contact with who are connected to the university in other ways, librarians and their wives, the head of department Crispen and sundry women who see their roles as supporting their husbands, typing and sorting out their work, getting acknowledgement. One female academic is everything that Caro feels she is not, “able” and capable. Caro feels lost, without a purpose, and wonders if she should get a job working in the library which would boost her self confidence. Instead she volunteers to read to some of the residents of a local nursing home, including a Mr Stillingfleet who was on the mission field. When Alan gets ideas she feels uncomfortable, and she begins to get suspicious about his behaviour on several fronts. As the story progresses Caro gets more and more involved with the behaviour of the people around them, and there are several set pieces of events such as a memorial service. Her confusion leads into several discoveries, which has an effect on those in the small community.
I found this a light read but with some depth of characterisation and a great understanding of people. I particularly enjoyed the reappearance of characters from previous books and events which bear a strong resemblance to earlier ideas. This is a good read on many fronts, familiar and friendly, with the gentle humour of Pym’s best writing. It lacks some of the consistency of her other books, but its good humour and honest appreciation of the select people involved in this novel of academic life and the relationships therein is very enjoyable. Caro is a well written character and this is a very readable book, especially for those who know and appreciate Pym’s books.