A reader not familiar with the works of Barbara Pym might come away from reading An Academic Question less than enthused. Hence, it would behoove them to read her Booker Prize nominated Quartet in Autumn first and put this one last on the list. Written during her "silent" years when she was unable to get a publisher to represent her work, An Academic Question centers primarily on Caroline Grimstone, the wife of an academic who finds herself embroiled in the studious affairs of her husband, Alan, a climbing intellectual wannabe whose book smarts are all that he has going for him. He truly is a one dimensional character if ever there was one. Yet, having worked in academia myself, the caricature of Alan is not too off the mark and certainly not a literary failing of Pym's. She has his dullish and repressed mannerism pretty much down pat. Unfortunately, that's essentially it with him. Though as a character I found him less than interesting, it is Alan who gets the ball rolling by having his bored wife, Caroline, act as a thief on his behalf. In academia, it is vital to get published, to get a name established, for that can lead to tenure, research grants, name recognition and endowed chairs. Alan wants that, for even though he is an up-and-comer, he is still a junior professor with very limited credentials. The story begins to move forward when a former missionary with research papers of profound academic interest to Alan and a competing professor named Crispin Maynard, is moved into Normanhurst, a large, Edwardian detached house where retirees go to spend their twilight years. Ever the opportunist, Alan nudges his wife to "volunteer" at the home and perhaps help herself to his private papers in order to enhance his own writings, for his speciality is a form of sociological anthropology. However, his own writings need to be beefed up a bit. A loving wife to the end, she complies. And in the process of doing so, she enters a phase internal contemplation about how she wound up acting as a kind of university spy for her husband. The absurdity of her actions begin to hit home, and she ponders about her own intelligence and also being reduced to something mirroring a Barbara Cartland novel without the romance. Without a true support system to help her out, she is reduced to the eccentric people around her, mainly Dolly Arborfield, an "antiques" dealer with a bizarre penchant for, of all things, hedgehogs and Coco Jeffreys, a rather gossipy and effeminate male Caribbean expert who works in her husband's department. Together, they are her counsel. But she would do well without them. The latter thinks she should have an affair, apparently the most daring act that a quasi nonplussed academic can take in order to find themselves. Yet, that is not her speed. Ultimately, the missionary does die, and his papers get housed in the university library where academics can sift through the research treasures. And right on cue, Alan recommends that Caroline work part-time at the library, to "occupy" some of her free time, fill out index cards and label books. And while she's at it, help herself to some of the research papers. Again, she complies and succeeds. Her reward for her devotion? Well, a reader will just have to find that out for him or herself. For me, I thought it was repellent, and Barbara Pym, in a way, does ask for forgiveness. It is only though internal contemplation and the nutty characters that make Caroline see beyond the the monotony and dullness of her marriage and life in academia, for it changes into comforting consistency and a place of development, a constant academic test to study and conquer. Life. And in the end, Caroline Grimestone becomes an A+ student, precisely because she is able to navigate around the ridiculousness of life. While an Academic Question may not be the best of Pym's literary output, it definitely has her mark on it. And it was appropriate that she chose academia for the conveyance of this particular message. It is witty, subtle and very lightly imbued with an almost unnoticed dark edge.
A reader not familiar with the works of Barbara Pym might come away from reading An Academic Question less than enthused. Hence, it would behoove them to read her Booker Prize nominated Quartet in Autumn first and put this one last on the list. Written during her "silent" years when she was unable to get a publisher to represent her work, An Academic Question centers primarily on Caroline Grimstone, the wife of an academic who finds herself embroiled in the studious affairs of her husband, Alan, … more
Pym's reputation will not be enhanced by the publication of this edited first draft of a novel from her "silent years." Set in a provincial university, the story is narrated by Caro Grimstone, the dissatisfied wife of Alan, a rising anthropologist. Caro unwittingly becomes the means by which Alan dishonestly obtains a manuscript that will both advance his reputation and refute the findings of a respected, elderly colleague. Around this academic misdemeanor, the Grimstones and a cast of unrealized academic eccentrics revolve until the whole is resolved in a literal burst of fireworks. Absent is Pym's genius for creating characters whose concerns, no matter how trivial, engage the reader. Her fans, however, will probably demand the book. Andrea Caron Kempf, Johnson Cty. Community Coll. Lib., Overland Park, Kan. Copyright 1986 Reed Business Information, Inc.--This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.