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An Academic Question (1986)

by Barbara Pym

Other authors: See the other authors section.

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5032649,041 (3.34)1 / 72
A small English community is thrown into a hilarious uproar in this delightful comedy of manners from the acclaimed Man Booker prize-nominated author.   Caroline (Caro) is the wife of Dr. Alan Grimstone, a lecturer at a provincial university in a West Country town in England. She knows her circle believes that she should do more with her life. She is the mother of a young daughter, but happy to leave the girl in the care of an au pair. Her one selfless act--reading aloud to a former missionary at a rest home--is sullied when she allows her husband to "borrow" some of the old gentleman's papers in order to get the better of a colleague.   This seemingly small act sets in motion a series of academic and amorous rivalries that will touch a surprisingly large number of lives in this bright, witty, and perceptive novel. Barbara Pym completed the first draft of her satirical "Academic Novel" in 1970, ten years before her death. It was first published posthumously in 1985, thanks to her friend and biographer Hazel Holt.… (more)
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Showing 1-5 of 24 (next | show all)
The black sheep of the Pym canon, I came to An Academic Question at the tail-end of my Pym journey, and find I rather like it.

Pym wrote this novel during her "wilderness years", the 16-year stretch in which her works were unpublished due to lack of interest from publishers. Her first draft was an attempt to write in the style of Margaret Drabble (which comes across in the first half) while her second draft tried to add a bit of weight to the piece, but neither impressed her enough - or publishers, as it turned out. After Pym's death in 1980, following her rediscovery by the world, her literary executors amended and trimmed the manuscript to create a version for publication.

The novel sits in an odd place between Pym's early and late periods. It is, I would argue, one of her least cynical novels. At the same time, it lacks (partly deliberately) the warmth and wit of her earlier, most popular works. And the tension of these elements is what makes it ultimately unsatisfying. The first half is quite strong, introducing a ready-made world in a university town, an unsatisfied academic's wife, and an oddball assortment of friends and acquaintances. But after a major revelation at the halfway point, one feels the Drabble-ness slip away. Pym's natural tendency is toward bittersweet endings, characters who don't get what they want, and know it, but who try and "make do" with what they have. Here, she is trying to fight this urge to be a different type of writer, and failing. In that sense, the second half feels adrift, although one can't really tell how much of that was the inevitable result of a draft manuscript being edited posthumously.

The secondary characters promise to sparkle, but don't always do so. The eponymous question provides grist for the plot but never perhaps becomes what it should. And the real question of the novel, posed with the midpoint revelation, is unsatisfactorily answered because it never really is. Pym shies away from following it down any particular path, retreating to the type of story she finds comfortable rather than the type of story she has set up for herself. Not ideal when you've already made it halfway up someone else's mountain!

Nevertheless - it may be odd to say - I found this immensely readable and, truthfully, more satisfying than the two preceding novels, No Fond Return of Love and An Unsuitable Attachment. Perhaps because the world feels more real in a sense. In my reading of her books, I feel that once she hit 50, Pym lost that youthful desire to write the comedies of manners which so sparkle at the start of her oeuvre. But she kept trying for some time, resulting in some lacklustre (although still quintessentially Pymian!) efforts. For all its faults, An Academic Question feels like a mature novelist adapting. This is the transition to the final stage of Pym's career, when she would write some of her most penetrating novels.

I would not direct new Pym fans to start here, as without the youthful wit or the mature depth it's not a notable read. But from my seasoned vantage-point, it did not really disappoint. ( )
  therebelprince | Apr 21, 2024 |
So strange for Barbara Pym to have written in the first person. On the whole, I found that jarring, but not enough to shake me out of that wonderful Pym groove. ( )
  judeprufrock | Jul 4, 2023 |
Pym's popularity has ebbed and flowed over the years and it looks like her novels are enjoying a bit of a resurgence, for good reason. I've only read one novel so far and its obvious that they can be read and enjoyed on the surface level or for their deeper and more tragic undertones.

I've already started recommending her to all of my friends who appreciate irony and sarcasm.

An Academic Question is a comedy of manners and an academic satire, with a smidgen of mystery/thriller. Underpinning it all are serious issues of self-fulfillment, career satisfaction, and relationships (romantic, friendship, work, familial), to name a few.

I was only planning on reading one of her novels for the Barbara Pym Reading Week, but just started my second, Jane and Prudence, which was first published in 1953. I don't remember the last time I've read two novels by an author back-to-back.

http://wildmoobooks.blogspot.com/2013/06/my-first-pym-academic-question.html ( )
  Chris.Wolak | Oct 13, 2022 |
"Pym is widely regarded as an Important Author in her time and genre, and as I've never read her I grabbed this at a library sale. I knew going into it that it wasn't considered 'major Pym' but is was a dollar and I figured it would give me a general idea of what to expect from her other works, one of which is on the TBR cliff.

All I can say is I think I missed something. Possibly, I missed everything. The cover's pull quotes all talk about the comedy and the introduction, written by Kate Saunders, refers to it as a 'comic novel'. I didn't see it. It's not a cultural thing either, I don't think; I generally find the British sense of humour incredibly funny.

Caro is the wife of an academic, in what I think must be somewhere around mid-century? 70's maybe?, who is bored, dissatisfied with her life and disinclined to do anything about it (or maybe feels helpless to do anything about it - it's unclear). She starts reading to a blind academic at the local old folks home, who happens to have a trunk full of papers that will advance her husband's career, so he visits with her one day and steals it. And lets her bear the burden of the guilt. Apparently a comedy of errors ensues; apparently so subtly that it flew right past me without notice.

I thought about going 2.5 stars, because honestly nothing ever happens, but in spite of its unfinished feel, I didn't mind the writing. I wasn't bored when I was reading it, and that has to be worth something, I guess." ( )
  murderbydeath | Jan 17, 2022 |
I enjoyed Barbara Pym’s Excellent Women so much that perhaps it’s inevitable I’d feel underwhelmed when I picked up another of her books. Having said that, there does seem to be something objectively thin about this novel of mild academic skulduggery and frustrated marriage in a provincial university. Our narrator is Caro Grimstone, a young woman of good family who has somehow found herself married with a four-year-old daughter. Seeking for a way to occupy her time (since her anthropologist husband doesn’t seem to need her to type or index his books – the usual role of an academic wife), Caro drifts into helping at a local nursing home. Here, while reading to a retired missionary, who jealousy guards his field-notes from his African sojourn, she realises that she may be able to be of use to Alan in another way – but at what cost?

For the full review, please see my blog:
https://theidlewoman.net/2020/05/26/an-academic-question-1986-barbara-pym/ ( )
  TheIdleWoman | Mar 15, 2021 |
Showing 1-5 of 24 (next | show all)
Barbara Pym’s novel An Academic Question was begun in 1970, in a mistaken attempt to write something ‘sharp’ and ‘swinging’ about a provincial university. . . . The result is thin and unappealing.
added by KayCliff | editPassions of the Mind, A. S. Byatt (Feb 14, 1993)
 

» Add other authors (1 possible)

Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Barbara Pymprimary authorall editionscalculated
Ford, JessieCover artistsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Holt, HazelForewordsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Klein, KatarzynaCover artistsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Saunders, KateIntroductionsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed

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"What jewels will you be wearing tonight, Mother?"
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"In my day, behaviour of neighbours over the garden fence would hardly have been deemed worthy of serious academic study. The trouble is we're running out of primitive peoples so we're driven back on ourselves."
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(Click to show. Warning: May contain spoilers.)
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A small English community is thrown into a hilarious uproar in this delightful comedy of manners from the acclaimed Man Booker prize-nominated author.   Caroline (Caro) is the wife of Dr. Alan Grimstone, a lecturer at a provincial university in a West Country town in England. She knows her circle believes that she should do more with her life. She is the mother of a young daughter, but happy to leave the girl in the care of an au pair. Her one selfless act--reading aloud to a former missionary at a rest home--is sullied when she allows her husband to "borrow" some of the old gentleman's papers in order to get the better of a colleague.   This seemingly small act sets in motion a series of academic and amorous rivalries that will touch a surprisingly large number of lives in this bright, witty, and perceptive novel. Barbara Pym completed the first draft of her satirical "Academic Novel" in 1970, ten years before her death. It was first published posthumously in 1985, thanks to her friend and biographer Hazel Holt.

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Book description
It is 1970 and there is student unrest throughout England. In a small university in the West Country, Caroline Grimstone, the wife of an ambitious young ethno-historian, is also uneasy. Is she an adequate mother? How can she enter more fully into her husband's work? Alas, the only thing she can do to further her husband's career lies heavily upon her conscience...

VIRAGO EDITION : In a provincial university town Caro Grimstone, a dissatisfied faculty wife, becomes the unwilling accomplice to her husband Alan's ambition. When she volunteers to read to a blind, esteemed anthropologist in a nursing home, Alan seizes the opportunity to steal his papers - research that could both advance his reputation while refuting the findings of a respected colleague. A delightful comedy of manners with a touch of mystery, An Academic Question is prime Barbara Pym territory.
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