An Academic Question 
by Barbara Pym.
Macmillan, 182 pp., £9.95, July 1986, 0 333 41843 3
Show More
A Misalliance 
by Anita Brookner.
Cape, 191 pp., £9.95, August 1986, 0 224 02403 5
Show More
Show More

‘Old people were rather in fashion at the time. Every week one or the other of the quality Sunday papers included a feature on the elderly, and if it could be shown that they were being ill-treated or neglected so much the better.’ Yes, that’s authentic Pym, with the true depth of exuberance in it: what Philip Larkin accurately called her ‘innocent irony’ – innocent because not just seemingly innocent. In another writer it might be malicious or mechanical or just for show. In Evelyn Waugh or Muriel Spark the same kind of observation would have about it a routine conscientiousness, a reminding of the reader what things are like, and a reassurance that the author’s outlook and style are perfectly fitted to do them justice. Pym is not like that. In 1970, after seven years of silence and exile imposed by her publishers, and with another seven years to go before the evil spell was broken by two rescuing princes in the TLS, she started to write what she called her ‘Academic Novel’. She had had an operation for breast cancer and was beginning to think of retiring from her job as Assistant Editor of Africa.

She was anxious to write a novel in the contemporary style ‘to which people are now turning’, as publishers had told her. But personality is what matters, and hers was not so easily metamorphosed. No doubt she knew this, because she felt her new effort was unlikely to get into print, and she hoped ‘my immediate circle of friends will like to read it.’ The ‘I’ of the story is at once and reassuringly familiar, although she is a departmental wife with a small daughter and a not very satisfactory lecturer husband. She is the slightly sharper sister of Mildred and Wilmet in the earlier novels: as lively as they are, as enigmatically unfulfilled (unlike Pym, they did not write novels), and, like the Brookner heroine in Look at me, taking the same involuntary pleasure in the dreary little comedies of daily routine. Pym was a bit despondent about this. ‘It was supposed to be a sort of Margaret Drabble effort,’ she wrote to Philip Larkin, ‘but of course it hasn’t turned out like that at all.’ She tried to recast it in the third person, then abandoned both versions on completion and began to think about the novel that was to become Quartet in Autumn. Her sister Hilary and Hazel Holt have skilfully married the two manuscripts into a novel as readable and characteristic as any in the Pym canon.

As in the other posthumous novel, Crampton Hodnet, which dates from an earlier period, and all the previously published ones, there are passages of no particular account which make one laugh until helpless. The heroine is taken on for part-time work in an academic library, and, after the coffee problem has been solved, a woman friend of hers who works there is instructed to tell her what to do. ‘She moved her hands among the papers and cards on her table, enjoying the importance of her position.’ Again, this might be malicious in another novelist: but Mrs Armitage is very nice; she and the heroine get on excellently; it is just that we are all like that at work. The heroine is given some labels, already written out, and instructed to stick them on the books. ‘I stuck on one of the labels, slightly crooked.’

Humorists like P.G. Wodehouse can be something of a trial to read because the humour is part of their professional equipment – their patter, as it were. This is not the case with Pym. It is embarrassing to record one’s delight in her things, because those who feel the same will be impatient, and so will those who don’t. Yet the spontaneity of the humour is fundamental to this novelist’s unique marriage of art and life. Other novelists have a professional dependence on how piercing their insights are: they have to take things hard, and significantly, in ways that Pym does not. The Pym moral reflexes are so just and so spontaneous (like the humour) that she shows us without effort or comment how terribly shaken and upset the heroine is by a casual one-off infidelity on her husband’s part. ‘I lay stiffly on my side of the bed, so near to the edge that I was in danger of falling out.’

In these matters Pym has an undoubted resemblance to Jane Austen. Nicholas Spice, in his perceptive review of Crampton Hodnet in these columns, pointed out that in many ways the Pym world is as black as hell, the vision of marriage or celibacy, work and play, equally scarifying. D.W. Harding and other academic critics have always made the same point about Jane Austen. But it really won’t do, in either case. Nothing is easier for a novelist than to show the world as black, particularly with the aid of that misnomer, ‘black humour’, just as nothing is easier than to write the kind of cheerful novels about Dr Kildares which Pym’s heroine finds herself reading to the Old People in their Home:

I opened the book and began to read. The story certainly held my attention until certain falsely romantic touches began to jar on me.

  Miss Vetch lay back on her pillows, smiling contentedly.

  ‘I like books about hospitals,’ she said.

And why should she not? Pym is wonderfully open-eyed about the self-proclamation of the caring and compassionate lobby, and the way in which, in life as in fiction, its roles get adopted and its fantasies acted out. A natural do-gooder, like most of Pym’s leading characters, the heroine cannot help wondering if there might not be a fashionable bonus in it.

  ‘It might make me more loving and feminine. Do you think it might have that effect?’

  ‘Is that what you want?’ asked Dolly unhelpfully.

Such exchanges show the way in which Pym went to school on the Compton-Burnett novels, though there is no trace of the moral and satiric formula on which those novels rely. Conversely, although nothing is more moving than the death of Marcia in Quartet in Autumn, and her fantasy about Mr Strong the surgeon, Pym never sets out to be ‘moving’, just as she never tries to be funny. As for ‘falsely romantic touches’, she is well-aware that they are not only to be found today in hospital romances. Her novels, like Austen’s, have a disconcerting way of showing up their modish equivalents in feminist fiction.

Like Jane Austen, Pym can be read as either optimist or pessimist, cheerful do-gooder or secret and bitter misanthrope. It depends on the way we like our novels. To know both visions is the achievement of their art, but it would be perverse to claim that sweetness and consolation is not also at the root of the achievement. The paradox about Pym, revealed in the volume of her diaries and letters, A Very Private Eye, is that she seems so very jolly and straightforward, particularly when young: mooning over some handsome cad, serving her country, wondering when Mr Right would come along. When he didn’t (she was the world’s worst picker – perhaps because she didn’t really want Mr Right?), it was natural for her to become one of her own ‘excellent women’, though one incongruously endowed with the power to observe and to write like the recording angel. All her devotees seem to feel the seduction of this contrast.

Anita Brookner has much in common with Barbara Pym. They can both be formidable – battle-axes under the banter. Male readers, who like to wonder fondly at the sharpness of nice women, enjoy this severity. Love is the big reality to them both, though its objects and stratagems are inevitably comic. Pym seems to write as naturally as Miss Bates talks (and Miss Bates is Jane Austen’s most significant and most original heroine), but the Brookner style gets in the way when we begin the novel. It is the product of care and scholarship, seminars and concentration, and at first one fans it away rather pettishly, like the smoke of an exotic cigarette. But soon, as with all really good novels, it becomes its own proper and revealing medium. Blanche Vernon, in A Misalliance, is as much a Brookner heroine as Prudence or Wilmet, or Caro in An Academic Question, are Pym heroines. It used to be a specification of the separate reality of the Brookner world that the heroine’s obsession – timid and honourable as it might be – deprived the other characters of ordinary credibility. That has changed. The Brookner heroine has learned to make her acquaintance as real as herself, if she has learnt nothing else. Blanche has a ‘timorous decency, disguised as brusqueness’. Like a Pym heroine, with whom below the surface she has a kind of secret relationship, she desires to be of service, and for that reason is usually overlooked or victimised by pushier types, even by her nice husband, ‘who would have valued her much more if she had been sought after by other men, if she had been vain rather than bookish’. The Brookner heroine is more stylised, more stereotyped, more compulsive even, than the Pym one, but she can grow on the reader just as much. She values the ridiculous more discreetly, but with just as much relish, and she is the perfect foil to and observation post on Sloane Rangers, stripe-shirted wordly ones, and other London fauna, with whom she strives without entire conviction to keep up. ‘Blanche was not a foolish woman, although she eagerly contemplated foolishness in others, hoping to steal some lightness of touch from their behaviour.’ That exactly describes the Brookner fictional technique. A serious, highly cultivated writer, both gentle and genteel, hoping to steal some lightness of touch from the rackety behaviour of those whom her wit attends on.

Blanche’s husband, head of a highly prosperous firm of estate agents, abandons her for his secretary, and it is the consequences of this effectively commonplace situation that the novel explores. The Brookner method is both literary and painterly, with a strong Continental streak – Constant, Fromentin, that sort of thing. Her most moving moments – and they really are moving – go right back to Racine. All her heroines give the impression that they could recite the famous lines of his forsaken queen:

Que le jour recommence, et que le jour finisse,
Sans que jamais Titus puisse voir Berenice,
Sans que, de tout le jour, je puisse voir Titus?

And they would recite them with the same stoicism and the same reserve. The underpinning of the novel depends on the ancient formula of ‘mousy woman makes good and wins in her own way’, with the added irony that Blanche’s rival, the detestable secretary who carried off her spouse, is actually known as ‘Mousie’. The banal simplicity of the plot is a perfect foil for the meticulous sympathy with which its true innerness is dissected, its meaning for a woman who found only in her vanished husband ‘intimations of her own validity’: ‘without him that validity disappeared. This was no way, she knew, for a self-respecting modern woman to feel.’ Nonetheless, she feels it, and the novelist makes us feel it too – very intensely. It is her best novel so far: Hotel du Lac, the Booker Prize-winner, was the weakest.

As in all Brookner novels, there is a good deal of emphasis, not really needed, on the metaphysics and the meaning, underpinned by analogies and examples from the world of painting and art. Providence, a touching and highly successful novel, hardly required its extended twinning with a reading of Adolphe. Here the forsaken Blanche makes visits to the National Gallery a part of her pattern of loneliness: she makes the discovery that art has specialised in adulatory tributes to her actual or putative rivals – tough, hard-faced gods and goddesses of what she has come to see as London’s pagan world. Her eye is constantly meeting ‘the knowing and impervious smiles of those nymphs, who, she now began to see, had more of an equivalence in ordinary life, as it is lived by certain women, than she had ever suspected’. A more specific analogy is with the Tiepolo allegory of Venus and Time, which is related to a louche young mother with a child, with whom Blanche in her loneliness takes up. She is one who thrives on ‘close shaves, ill-gotten gains, flights to freedom, escapes of all sorts. Truly weightless, like the characters in mythology. And, like them, unscrupulous.’

All this art is well enough in its way, though it lacks the generic point and fantasy of Anthony Powell’s excursions into the fine arts in A Dance to the Music of Time. Far from being pretentious, or a form of showing-off, it reveals a touching lack of self-confidence. She no more needs it than Pym needs the comedies and rituals of a churchy setting. Art, or the Church, lends the reassurance of familiarity to situations which remain, where fiction is concerned, essentially modest. But both novelists are masters of the trade, and nothing shows this more than their handling of plot. Pym’s Academic Question has a proper triviality, an exact lightness of touch, which keeps up the reader’s curiosity without his noticing there is any plot at all. Brookner’s air of stasis has an infinite economy about it, particularly where characters are concerned. It is as if she had absolutely to brace herself for the introduction of a new one. This whets the appetite, and the new one is always fascinating. Patrick, the family friend, a high-ranking civil servant who repairs harpsichords and who lives for moments of social tension – ‘Patrick sat, his patrician features minimally relaxed, enjoying the spectacle’ – is a masterpiece. He belongs to that not uncommon category of people today who ‘want to be reprehensible’.

In an early Pym novel a character assumes an enigmatic smile when a question about her ‘past’ comes up, and the novelist herself not infrequently comments on people’s need, where romance is concerned, to have both a past and a future. Both she and Brookner give the impression of having their ‘secret’, and, however vulgar this may sound, it does unquestionably add to our sense of their work, and to our pleasure in it. Contact with a personality is one of the most obvious joys of novel-reading, but how very seldom is such a contact provocative and absorbing, or even interesting. In our shameless age the novelist is usually all too accessible: the pleasures of speculation seem beside the point. This is where the gentility of Pym and Brookner is a priceless though always slightly mysterious asset, for on the face of it both are almost brutally honest about themselves and their situation. The heroine of An Academic Question enquires if her new client at the Home is a woman. ‘ “A lady,” Sister Dew corrected me.’ For both novelists it is an important distinction, socially and morally. In the technical sense, Pym herself was only marginally a lady, while Brookner’s European background makes the English social concept seem merely quaint, but there is no doubting the fervour with which both tacitly support its best traditions as the ideal. Being a lady is a state of mind, and in both writers there is a vast store of unspoken contempt for an age and a society which has no secrets, no reticence, and very little sense of decency. Both also have a sort of permanent reserve of gentlewomen, and others, who could recur in all their novels, and, in the case of Pym’s, actually do. Her readers have met Sister Dew before; and the heroine of An Academic Question attends a memorial service for Esther Clovis at which the address is given by Digby Fox, now professor in the anthropology department, who as a student in Less than Angels married Deirdre Swan, who had been so much in love with that young man who died tragically in Africa ...

All this may seem very simple-minded, but it underlines the fact that both these novelists are accustomed to live in and with their characters. This is rare today, when readers of superior fiction are conditioned to accept that the persons in it have no real – that is, fictional – existence, but are aspects of the structure and convention the novelist uses. Pym and Brookner and their creations live in a sort of continuum, subject to the same queries and the same comfortable gossip – whatever happened to so-and-so? Oh we’ve hardly seen her since she got married at the end of that novel, but Deirdre tells me ... etc, etc.. This continuum would have been well understood by Jane Austen – perhaps even inhabited by her had she lived into late middle age to write many more novels. In it the author becomes one of her characters, subject to the same sort of speculation, but only in terms of the fiction itself. In spite of all we learned of the Pym history from A Very Private Eye, the real Pym, the character of fiction, is only to be found in the novels: doting on her cat as the parson’s wife in An Unsuitable Attachment; giving in to love as if to the flu with Leonora of The sweet dove died; deciding to write a novel with Emma of A Few Green Leaves, the last and most savorous of all her works; thinking, with the heroine on the last page of An Academic Question, ‘how “ongoing” life was, and how I was at the moment glad of it. Later I might change my mind.’

Ladies don’t cry for help. The nearest they come to it could be in writing wonderfully accomplished humorous novels, in which a cry can be heard, a cry on behalf of their characters, and only by implication for themselves. Novels like these are also a way of dealing with dreams, fantasies and obsessions, with things that might have happened but didn’t, with custodial disappointments, with the long perspectives in life as fiction, and fiction as life, that link us to our losses. One of the strangest things about these novels – and about Jane Austen’s – is that they raise the question of what it means to be a ‘born novelist’. So many writers are simply and definitively nasty by nature, and their art is a secretion of their condition, a secretion that makes a pearl. Both Brookner and Pym can be imagined as living miles away from the novel, busily cooking, sewing, being sharp but kind, making marmalade, raising happy families. And yet they are also dedicated souls who from the age of sixteen or so wanted above all things to write. Could their secret be that they write in the full knowledge of what it means to be happy and fulfilled, in ways in which art by its nature brings no fulfilment? They are anti-Flauberts, embodying in their art, like the scrofulous beggar in Madame Bovary, another world, a world of sunshine and green leaves. But enough of the ‘romantic touches’, at which Pym would smile. In the throes of an unhappy love affair during the war she noted in her diary: ‘Patience and Courage still – and struggle on.’ And then added that if she ever had any children, ‘I think I must call them Patience and Courage. Twins – rather dreary stolid little girls.’

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN

Please include name, address, and a telephone number.

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences