Amor vincit Vinnie

Marilyn Butler

  • Foreign Affairs by Alison Lurie
    Joseph, 291 pp, £8.95, January 1985, ISBN 0 7181 2516 9

An American professor of English literature, small, female, fiftyish, moves about in a jumbo flying towards London. Through long practice, she solves the problems of avoiding the film and finding the best journals, though she fails to deflect the conversation of an unsophisticated American fellow-traveller, and she comes near to losing her luggage. Haven’t we read other novels that begin somewhere along this very journey? The question is least academic when the reader is a British woman academic heading for leave in the States, who has moreover on previous transatlantic crossings imbibed, at a conservative listing, Marilyn French’s Bleeding Heart, Malcolm Bradbury’s Stepping Westward and Rates of Exchange, and David Lodge’s Changing Places and Small World. Now, all around the large cabin, other refugees from Roger Moore in For Your Eyes Only and from Gene Wilder in The Woman in Red have their noses stuck into novels. Could it be that a certain kind of novel is being produced for this very market, just as a certain kind of film is? Are these other readers encountering looking-glass versions of themselves?

At least Alison Lurie’s Foreign Affairs turns out not to be the more familiar kind of campus novel. Its heroine Vinnie Miner is going to London to do research, but she is not visiting some windswept new or crumbling old campus, and will not have to cope with superseded elderly professors or thrusting young ones. The new Lurie doesn’t resemble a Bradbury or Lodge, or for that matter an early Lurie, so much as William Boyd’s Stars and Bars, which also investigates how members of one Anglophone culture don’t merely observe but exploit the other one. The protagonists in the new Lurie and Boyd novels are diffident people in mid-life, misfits or at least non-competitors in their own countries, and they view the transatlantic crossing as a mode of escape into a bolder, freer world. The authors pursue them on a journey which tests this preconception, and the two novels are both naturalistic comedies and witty reconstructions of the fictional states which Britain and America become for those who don’t live there.

Vinnie Miner researches into the rhymes, games and songs of pre-adolescent children, and she teaches children’s literature. Being an educated American, employed on the faculty at Corinth, Alison Lurie’s version of Cornell, she has faced up to the psychological implications of an interest in the world of the child. The classic writers in the genre, Carroll, Barrie, Grahame, Kipling, were, she considers, happier as young children than they were afterwards. They wrote for children because they wanted to retain or recover their own childhoods, not because they felt as adults any liking for children – which most did not. Both in her warm feelings about her own childhood and in her cool feelings about the child in general, Vinnie is at one with the authors she most likes to study.

Her present project is more folkloric and comparative – an examination of the differences between the games and songs of British and American children. She has a favourite hypothesis to prove: that British children’s practices are older, more continuous with a remote past, less contaminated by modern commercial culture. For Britain in Vinnie’s eyes is a world still caught up in its traditional social games, peopled with eccentric and charming figures who play at pre-adolescent relationships. Vinnie models her behaviour on theirs, and hopes to be taken for an English lady. As her punning name betrays, she is at once a miner, a delver underground, and a minor, or arrested child. In American terms, this is deviant behavior and the uselessness and regressiveness of her specialism has not gone unnoticed back home. At the airport before takeoff, she opened the Atlantic to find herself and her research singled out as particularly pointless by a New York intellectual called L.D. Zimmern. Zimmern is someone Lurie-readers have met previously: briefly a member of the Corinth English faculty in The War between the Tates, he now stands for the newer American academic professionalism, for its characteristic mid-European impatience with antiquarianism and with the nostalgia for things English. The article makes Vinnie look forward more keenly than ever to the safety of her English play-world.

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