Or at least, two tales of two cities, as I’ve happened to read two university novels recently, one set in Cambridge, one in Oxford. One I appreciated a great deal, the other, well, not so much. Let’s begin with the one I loved, Rosy Thornton’s Hearts and Minds. It’s the story of St Radegund’s College, one of the last bastions of single-sex education in Cambridge and something between a refuge and a lair for a formidable and utterly authentic collection of women dons. Alas, this great female fortress has been invaded, of necessity, by a new male Head of House, media man James Rycarte, who finds himself at the bottom of a steep learning curve at the beginning of the academic year. His predecessor, the ‘mother to them all’, Dame Emily, has recently suffered a debilitating stroke and is languishing in a nursing home, which only accentuates her loss to the college, and James is uncomfortably aware of some of the ruthless opponents to his appointment amongst the governing body, who may have been outvoted in the democratic ballot, but who are determined to do their best to oust him. Not only must he tread carefully through the intellectual minefield in which he must now do battle, but he has to contend with four centuries’ worth of arcane and irrational practices, which no one has explained to him. Worst of all, he can’t even find a kettle to make himself a cup of coffee. Like the vast majority of Cambridge Colleges, St Radegund’s is rich only in tradition. The research fellowships now come without salaries, the students are organizing a rent strike to protest against the raise in their room rents, and when a corner of the library turns out to be sinking into the Fens, the money to pay the £300,000 bill to fix it is absolutely nowhere to be found. At this propitious moment, an old friend and colleague of James’s turns up with a million pound donation to make, but only in exchange for a college education for his daughter. The stage is set for a terrific battle between financial expediency and the quasi-sacred principles of meritocracy that determine Cambridge selection procedures.
James Rycarte finds an unexpected but welcome friend in his Senior Tutor, Dr Martha Pearce. Martha has her own troubles, having backed herself up a cul-de-sac both professionally and personally. A decade in the job – one of the most prestigious on offer within a college, but so administratively demanding that it has prevented her from completing the publishing that might secure her career – finds her stagnating and uncertain what to do next. When the year ends, so does her tenure as Senior Tutor and she must move on. At home she has a depressed, drop-out daughter, victim of her mother’s time-consuming job, and a layabout husband who’s stopped engaging. Unquestioningly, Martha’s first loyalties are time and again to her college, but her outstanding loyalty seems to come at the price of her family life. What I loved most about this book is how incredibly accurate it is as a portrayal of Cambridge University from the college perspective. The way the college functions, the way the dons behave, and most of all, the crippling, workaholic atmosphere of the place are all brilliantly conveyed. It’s a very good story about the problems that beset an institute of higher learning when there’s no money, not always much compassion, and intellectual principles of reinforced tungsten.
One aspect of the book that isn’t overtly discussed but which intrigued me greatly, is the question of feminism. Many of Martha’s colleagues, and indeed Martha herself, belong to a group called RadFem whose intention is to educate young women on feminist issues so that they might change the world according to their needs. All this sits contrarily with Martha’s own life, so hidebound to her work obligations that her disintegrating family is simply one more nuisance to be filed along with difficult students and intransigent colleagues. Martha never once questions the unreasonable workload placed on the shoulders of a woman with a family and no family support whatsoever. She is so busy being professionally marvelous that even her guilt about her daughter’s depression never really scratches the surface of her work ethic. In fact, in two extraordinary, crux scenes, Martha insists that both daughter and husband should get jobs, as if this might be the solution to their problems. Now when a family has insufficient money, then jobs are the answer, but not when the issue is insufficient love. Martha’s libido is so firmly directed towards work that she cannot imagine how any one else could be different. I found this representation of life for women in a high-powered institute immensely intriguing, and certainly true of Cambridge, and it made me wonder how far feminism has really come, if university life is wholly unable to recognize the specific needs of its female academic employees, and those women are prepared to be complicit with its Kafkaesque authority.
Well, them’s fightin’ words, but Rosy Thornton’s vivid and lively account of Cambridge life makes one feel, if not quite ready to take on the world, then fired up enough to enter the fray. By contrast I had some difficulties with Charlotte Mendelson’s farcical tale of a dysfunctional Oxford family, Daughters of Jerusalem. Before I say anything else I should point out that as far as I have been able to verify, I am the only person on the planet who hasn’t liked this book. It’s had glowing reviews from the papers (The Guardian said it was ‘Superb…funny, exciting, lyrical, poignant, redemptive – it was a privilege to review this book’ which made it even more of a shame that the journalist got one of the main character’s names wrong), and on amazon all the customer reviews were enthusiastic. So we have to proceed here assuming that the fault lies entirely with me. The story concerns the Lux family: Victor, the ghastly, vindictive, eccentric, grudge-bearing father, Jean, his insubstantial, passive wife, Eve, a self-harming, unlovely adolescent destined for over-achievement, and Phoebe, the utterly spoilt younger daughter who is doing her best to perfect the art of manipulation. Over the course of the novel, Victor must face up to his nemesis, his arch-rival in academia, Raymond Snow, Jean will seek a very different kind of freedom, and the two daughters will deal with the fallout of their mother’s distinctive and harmful favouritism. I’ll say straight out that Mendelson’s writing can be delightful. As Jean bicycles to lunch one day, she decides she is sick to death of everything quintessentially Oxford, and her list includes:
‘the stringy-haired pedaling mothers like moulting hens on wheels, the damp, the incessant sound of violin practice […] the fact that every dowdy woman or soiled geriatric she passes is not her equal, but is likely to be one of the world’s cleverest people: a Nobel laureate, a pioneering biochemist, the head of a college whose furniture is five centuries old. She is sick of navy blue corduroy, Gothic arches, famous fig trees, shabby dons’ wives, cellars, rivers, genius children, stuttering and gold leaf.’
So this is also very much an insider’s view of Oxford and, I think, an equally authentic one, but informed in this case, not by mitigating compassion, but by a black and frustrated irritation with the blinkered oddities of the place. Where Rosy Thornton soft-pedals the tribulations of belonging to a don’s family, Charlotte Mendelson sticks a rocket under them, and her portrayal of damaged and self-damaging Eve is painful to read. Misunderstood by her mother, who thinks her sister’s lack of cleverness needs to be compensated by the bulk of her maternal love, and falling below the radar of her father’s gaze, pinned as it is on the heights of academic achievement, she has no solid parental love to base her security in, and has conflated her survival with the need to be perfect. Of course, this only leads to a series of disasters and an ever more murderous rage against her sister. I guess my problem with this book is that it seemed to me to be about a tribe of unsympathetic people who never won me over. Now I would be the first to dismiss lack of sympathy with the characters as a reason not to enjoy a novel, but I suppose I also felt that by the end none of them had any greater insight into their own situation, or that I had any satisfying understanding of their motivations. But let me stress again, I’m the only person to think that way, and critical support for this novel has been pretty unanimous. Oddly enough, Mendelson reminds me of Rachel Cusk, who is another much-praised author I personally do not like, so it’s obviously a certain subset that troubles me. I would love for someone else to read this book (or let me know if you’ve read it) and help me to see what I’m obviously missing. Not least because I have another book my the same author on my shelves and I was rather hoping I would enjoy her writing!