A Tale of Two Cities

 

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!

 

 

Oh and a big thank you to the lovely Kimbofo who introduced me to Rosy Thornton’s work. You can read her review of the novel here.

28 thoughts on “A Tale of Two Cities

  1. Litlove, so pleased you enjoyed Rosy Thornton’s book! Your thoughts on it are so much more eloquent than mine. Martha’s inability to find a work/life balance intrigued me too, especially given it was an all-female college, because surely systems would be in place to ensure women could have the best of both worlds? Perhaps, though, Martha was just one of those people who lacked confidence in her abilities and thought she needed to work her butt off, so to speak, in order to do her job properly. If her home life suffered, then so be it.

  2. Goodness, shock-horror for a moment there -thought you were posting on Dickens! Got to say I’ve never heard of these two – books I mean. I have a lasting love of campus books from the great age of Lodge and Bradbury, but quite a few have disappointed me since. Of them the only one I remember now was by Howard Jacobson and the title escapes me. These sound interesting, but does this exhaustion by academy only apply to women, or is it an avenue for feminist authors that makes it appear to be the case? I’ve just checked these titles on our area’s library catalogue. They have eight copies of the Thornton, but none of the other. Perhaps you’re not the only one to disagree with the general praise for Mendelson!

  3. Kimbofo – I thoroughly enjoyed this book and I had to link to your site because I thought your review of it was just so good. I also think you hit the nail on the head when you talk about Martha’s lack of confidence. Cambridge is a university that drains anyone’s confidence and the whole culture of the place is overwork. I can only think of one college that provides any kind of childcare and yet thousands of women work here in various capacities. It’s not very good with families and their needs! Bookboxed – I have to confess that I rather cheekily wondered whether I would surprise you! But I give in! I’ve decided I will certainly try to read Great Expectations (would you say that has the most mother-interest of his works?). I’m trying to think of other great campus novels and can only think of Richard Russo’s Straight Man at this point, and Alison Lurie’s novels (The War Between the Tates was particularly good). I think female academics are more open to exhaustion, having a ‘good girl’ syndrome that often makes it hard for them to say no. Also, I remember when our tutors’ meetings used to take place on Saturday mornings and be strung out until lunchtime by (male) fellows I suspected of wanting to avoid the demands of their young families. I knew I had to go back home and make up the lost time somehow. How intriguing that the library should stock so differently! I think you’d like the Thornton, but in many ways I would have liked you to read the Mendelson to see what you made of it.

  4. Thornton’s novel sounds right up my alley. Alas, neither my library nor any of my local bookstores appear to have a copy. Mind you, I think I’m due for a British book binge from the Book Depository, so I guess that’s one to add to my list. Their policy of free shipping even overseas is irresistible!

  5. I haven’t read Rosy Thornton but have heard it praised elsewhere and now really want to! But I did love Daughters of Jerusalem.

  6. Thanks so much for reading, Litlove – and for your very generous review. I’m glad you enjoyed the irony of Martha’s very un-feminist home life. Don’t you find that the university (like other places, too, no doubt) is full of apparently politically enlightened women who still unquestioningly take on the lion’s share at home, and at work shoulder the bulk of the administrative and pastoral work while their male counterparts focus on research…? ‘Having it all’ still too often seems to mean having to do it all.

    Although I use multiple viewpoints in the book, Martha’s home life is only ever seen through her eyes, so the reader receives no prompts to question her priorities. But I’m sure you are right to do so – she has got things wrong and may still be doing so as the book ends. (My partner found her insupportable – the most martyred, joyless woman imaginable – and said he could quite see what had driven her daughter to depression and her husband to drink. A male presepctive, perhaps?)

  7. Haven’t read the Mendelson (though I should have – she’s my editor!) but I do agree about the Thornton: she captures the double-bind of good-girl syndrome operating in a world which appears to be equality minded and isn’t.

    I have a theory that the campus novel is really the form the hospital romance takes for the literati. The closed world where survival depends on understanding the written and unwritten rules; the way relationships become so overheated in a place which absorbs so much emotional as well as practical energy; the way professional and personal relationships reinforce and oppose each other.

    It’s also significant, I think, that so many such books begin with the main character (or the main character’s would-be nemesis) arriving, like a birth, in that world. Then the mainspring of the plot is how the new arrival changes things and is changed, and ends with one or other or both leaving – as it were – the home they’ve grown up in.

  8. Books that everyone loves ring warning bells for me, and I am also not a fan of Rachel Cusk. I think I will try the Thornton and pass by Mendelson.

  9. Kate – I would love to know what you think of it! And I so wish that I could find an American book site with free postage – or perhaps not, on reflection. Things are bad enough shelving-wise as it is! Harriet – Did you blog on Daughters of Jerusalem? If you did, I’d love to have the link so I could read it. And you know, you are amazing; I am beginning to suspect you of having read everything. And then some. Rosy – how lovely to hear from you! I did laugh at your partner’s comment about poor Martha who was only joyless because she never had any time for fun. But you are quite right about the university. It can be no coincidence (for instance) that in my department, in a university in which only 98% of professors are men, the last three Heads of Department have all been women. Hands up who will shoulder the unpleasant jobs? I rather liked it that we have no external perspective on Martha’s home life; it allows cheeky little critics like me to slide in there and suggest one for her😉 Emma – no! Mendelson is your editor? Well, she can certainly write an arresting sentence, that much I will certainly give her. I have to say that I thought your analogy with the hospital romance was just brilliant. It’s so true! Rapidly skimming through the male professorial leads in every campus novel I can think of, I see the same indulgence of egomania, the same cooing to authority, the same glamour conferred by a bizarre hierarchy. I have to say that in reality, alas, professors cannot count their change in shops and often sport the remnants of their last meal on their sweaters. They are not sex symbols. But your point is just excellent. RosyB – thank you so much for that link! I’ve been over to your site and read your fascinating comments. My, you literary foxes can put together a stunning review. And I’m glad you added your comment about names… I have to admit I was confused for about ten seconds! Duh! Becky – you know I probably shouldn’t say things like this, but I’m very happy to find someone else who doesn’t like Rachel Cusk. I think you would rather enjoy the Thornton, though, and would love to know what you think if you do read it!

  10. I have a weakness for campus novels, in spite of that fact that I feel ambivalently about academia … or perhaps because of that fact. Anyway, I do find it odd and infuriating that an institution that can critique power dynamics in a text like you wouldn’t believe can’t quite figure them out in real life.

  11. I’ve not read either of these books. Change Martha to Martin and we’ve got a pretty standard view of a “successful” man in this society. We don’t seem to care about men in this situation, it is even expected to a certain extent, thus the need for good little wives to take of everything else. Put a woman in the position though and we see how absurd and destructive all work and no balance is. But whereas no one would think of vilifying men, we do women. If only there was a way for both men and women to be successful and have a balanced life. I wonder if creating that kind of atmosphere will ultimately be up to women? Sorry for the little rant. Both books sound interesting in their own ways.

  12. I’m about two thirds of the way through the Thornton and loving it, although I had to put it down when it came to the point where Rycarte suggests that they might take an extra student the following year and Martha has to explain MASNs to him. No one in the University sector should be asked to think about MASNs on a Sunday afternoon. It probably comes under the heading of cruelty to dumb animals. I’ve been in Martha’s position professionally, if not personally, so I am really empathising with her all the way. I haven’t read the Mendelson. If I come across a copy in the library or a charity shop, I’ll pick it up and see what I think, but from what you say it doesn’t seem to warrant spending real money on.

  13. Another author to discover! Thank you, Litlove.

    Oh, by the way, does anybody really think of feminism anymore? It seems to have gone the way of polyester suits and recovered memories…

  14. I’ve never heard of either of these books, but I’m intrigued. I love “campus stories,” and your review of the Thornton book certainly makes it sound appealing. Besides, I’m a Cambridge fan myself🙂

  15. Great reviews, Litlove, am quite intrigued about both these novels and will probably look for the Thornton book first!! Thanks

  16. Dorothy – LOL! That made me laugh so much – I know exactly what you mean! Stefanie – it’s amazing that post-feminism the life of a working mother should be so taxing, but there’s no doubting that it is. Something ought to be done, I often think to myself darkly…. Please feel free to rant, so long as I can join in. Ann – I did laugh at what you had to say about MASNs. There are so many acronyms that can just make your heart sink. Cruelty to dumb animals indeed!! Do hope you enjoyed the book. LK – this is the kind of novel that makes one think it’s high time feminism was resurrected!🙂 Ravenous reader – I do love a campus novel myself. Do you like Alison Lurie? She’s one of my favourites. Verbivore – very interested, as always, to know what you think if you do read them!

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  18. Pingback: Thursday Soapbox. Rosy Thornton: Books Should be Books! « Vulpes Libris

    • I have read Gaudy Night, but it’s been a while! That being said, I do think that literary representations of Oxbridge have remained intriguingly consistent over the years, and my experience of living and working in Cambridge was often one of inhabiting a charming time loop. Were there any particular issues that you had in mind – competitive jealousy? the sense of living in a bubble?

      • It’s been a while since I read it too but I think was made me recall it was the issue of marriage and whether it was possible for the intelligent woman who also wanted a career. My recollection was that Harriet was terrified of losing her independent self if she married Wimsey; that her college was full of women who had (of necessity in that period) renounced marriage in order to pursue a university career; and that the detective element revolved around a woman who believed firmly that a woman’s place was to be married with no career of her own. (Now I’m remembering it there was a lovely little detail in that this woman’s daughter wanted to be a mechanic when she grew up.)

        I think it was very much the topic du jour at the time and your review made me think that the same themes were still being revisited 80 odd years down the line.

      • Oh yes, I see exactly what you mean! And I agree. We grew up in the ‘having it all’ era, when we were expected to embrace both motherhood and a career, but many of us found (I certainly did) that having it all just meant doing it all, and it was exhausting. I also sensed a move away from that determination to have a career that wasn’t open to our mothers in my students. They often told me that they wanted a family and to devote time to it. The backlash against the feminist years started around then, and to my view, it looked like we very quickly travelled backwards, or at least into what the Americans called the Mommy Wars, between mothers who worked and those who stayed home. I find myself torn over all this, because my head is still with that belief in female expansion into all the territories that had been forbidden, but my body remembers how difficult it was to achieve. Well, in any case you are quite right. 80 years on and we are still hashing all this out still, with no obvious solutions.

      • I strongly object to the ‘Mommy Wars’ – being a full-time mother is a perfectly valid choice, as long as it is a choice. Working at the same time is an equally valid choice; for many it’s not a choice but necessity. Having children in day care is no different from sending children to boarding school or having a live in Nanny which was the previous norm. And how many nineteenth century working class mothers found State Infant schools an absolute God send?

        I believe the whole work/stay at home thing should be about personal choice not about social or feminist expectations. (It really depresses me when women turn on other women instead of supporting them in struggles they should surely be able to identify with.)

        ‘having it all just meant doing it all’. This has struck a chord – I’ve been pondering a post for some time now along the lines of ‘What Are Men For These Days?’. When women started having careers in the same way as men, it didn’t mean that their previous roles in housekeeping and child care were shared, it meant they became ‘breadwinners’ in addition to those roles. After that we were told that women shouldn’t need men to protect them or take charge in difficult situations, they should be (disguised as ‘capable of’) doing that themselves.

        It seems to me more and more that instead of achieving an equal balance in previously gender defined roles, men have succeeded in shuffling off all their responsibilities onto women and now see themselves as fulfilling the function of a cat – an agreeable companion but of little practical use and not intended to be so. (As I type this it occurs to me that men have morphed into the nineteenth century’s concept of a woman.)

        In that case, 80 years on and it’s time for a masculine revolution. I think there needs to be a more positive assessment of what it means to be a man – we have thrown the baby out with the bathwater to general confusion. What we need, I think, is to re-claim and re-introduce those elements that are somewhere between Lord Peter Wimsey and the Dangerous Book for Boys.

      • I am so with you on the issue of the sisterhood. I love the sisterhood, and women are wonderful when they choose solidarity. So supportive, so understanding. Why would we choose anything else? Well, I have a book I’ve only dipped into about ‘mean girls’ and the author’s argument is that all such hostile behaviour comes out of deep-rooted insecurities, which seems a reasonable premise. But still, women are terrifically powerful when they work together, I think, and I love it when we do.

        I agree that if any good should come from all that we’ve been through in the last 100 years, it should be the option of real guilt-free choice. My favourite definition of feminism was that it concerned women’s relationship to power, with an eye on making that relationship one of ready access and equal rights. If we make it all about the cultural gaze – which option looks better to the outside – then that is a very poor substitute, I think.

        As for men and their roles, I would love to have a better sociological understanding of where men stand in the parenting stakes. There’s a commenter (and a friend of mine) Peter, who goes by the name of Dark Puss, who had a large hand in bringing up his child and is very keen to point out that fathers can have a very similar relationship to their children as mothers. I tend to tell him this is true, but he is rare. There’s an interesting book by Sharon Hays on mothering and the work place that I read several years ago (so it’s faded a bit) which I remember as being very pertinent. Her argument was that as capitalism continues apace, all the gentle qualities of generosity and compassion it chases out of culture are being placed in an idealistic way on the figure of the mother, hence excessive demands for perfect, over-invested mothering. I found it very persuasive when I read it. I do think that children need both mothers and fathers – well, I’m of the general opinion that it takes a village to grow a child. I think they need at least two different approaches to life in their vicinity an essential balancing out of demands and beliefs. If men understood how necessary they are to the parenting process, maybe they would be (even) more willing to participate hands-on in it?

      • You make some really interesting points. I completely agree with you that hostility comes out of deep-seated insecurities. It took me years to work that one out – I simply couldn’t understand why people would behave in such a way towards someone else – but now I’ve (finally) grasped it, it makes a lot of things clear that puzzled me before (and has made negotiating life a lot simpler).

        I like your definition of feminism as being about the relationship to equal power rather than the cultural gaze – something that most feminists I’ve met have seemed bogged down in. I’ve been thinking a lot about perception and the cultural gaze myself, recently, in an attempt to clarify ideas for a post.

        I’d argue, in my turn, that the Sharon Hays argument is an old idea reinvented – the Marian ideal – although I think the excessive level of pressure to live up to it is new.

        I agree with Dark Puss’s perspective on men being just as effective child rearers and about the need for different viewpoints. My recollection of the available research re child rearing was that it didn’t really matter about gender/relationship as long as there was a fixed primary carer. And that, although being raised by same sex parents/carers had no detrimental effect on development, there needed to be input from an opposite gender adult at a later stage in the child’s life for truly effective social assimilation.

      • Having returned after lunch I have realised I have not qualified any of my statements on men but merely referred to Men, a form of intellectual laziness I detest in others. So I must apologise to those who are bristling in defence of their partner or feeling somewhat peeved on their own behalf. It would be interesting to get your perspective.

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