Magazine article The Spectator

The Usual Suspects

Magazine article The Spectator

The Usual Suspects

Article excerpt

An Academic Question by Barbara Pym Virago, £8.99, pp. 192, ISBN 97805860736 It is disconcerting to discover that a novelist a generation older than oneself has been trying to write 'a sort of Margaret Drabble effort', even if the book 'hadn't turned out like that at all'. This is how Barbara Pym described her then unpublished campus novel An Academic Question in 1971 to her friend and admirer Philip Larkin. Naturally I was intrigued to know what she meant.

Pym's publishing history is well known:

between 1950 and 1961 she published six highly praised novels, and then ran up against a solid rock of refusals. Jonathan Cape dropped her, and she was told her work was out of fashion. Puzzled and down-hearted, she went on writing, somewhat hopelessly, because she couldn't help it. What else was she to do with her observations, her time, her talent?

Then, in 1977, she was rediscovered as suddenly and arbitrarily as she had been rejected, and a new if sadly brief period of success followed, launched by the remarkable Quartet in Autumn, an unsparing account of retirement, redundancy and old age, perhaps her finest work. Reprints and posthumous novels followed, and her lasting popularity was assured.

An Academic Question, assembled from drafts and notes by her literary executor Hazel Holt, is not vintage Pym, but it is very entertaining, and contains many of her hallmark subjects - academic wrangles, voyeurism in a 'neighbourhood of voluntary spies' , shrewd sociological asides on food and manners, a goodlooking clergyman 'at ease in the company of women', a comfortingly cosy homosexual friend, and one or two characters drawn from earlier works.

But it appears that Pym was also making a conscious effort to engage with the unwelcoming 1970s. Her spokesperson, Caro, is the underemployed wife of an upwardly mobile anthropologist 'with a slight but pleasing provincial accent', and mother of a small daughter. We are somewhere in the territory between Lucky Jim (1954) and the astonishing apparition of The History Man (1975), with a bit of Drabble on single motherhood mixed in.

Pym is not good on motherhood, and Caro is a less plausible narrator than the self-deceiving but ultimately self-satisfied wife Wilmet, elegant narrator of The Glass of Blessings. …

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