Barbara Pym’s novel An Academic Question turned out to be an interesting read for unexpected reasons. I didn’t realize this when I first picked up the book, but it’s an unfinished novel, written and abandoned in the early 1970s, that editor Hazel Holt pieced together and published in 1986. It’s not unfinished in the sense that it doesn’t have an ending; rather, Pym never finished revising it to her satisfaction. Holt writes that Pym’s first draft was written in the first person, and she was in the process of changing it into the third person but was unhappy with the results. Here’s how Holt describes her editing process:
In preparing this novel for publication I have amalgamated these two drafts, also making use of some notes that she made and consulting the original handwritten version, trying to ‘smooth’ them (to use Barbara’s word) into a coherent whole.
This is all we know about how this particular version of the novel came into existence; there are no further notes about what changes Holt made or what sections came from which draft. The novel Holt published keeps the first person voice.
I enjoyed reading the book, but I think ultimately it’s best for committed Pym fans, not for someone who is just getting to know her work, because it’s clear it’s a rough draft. There are sections that feel rushed and unpolished, with some abrupt transitions and scenes and characters that seem to come out of nowhere.
But the themes the book explores are interesting and are similar to those of Excellent Women, the other Pym novel I’ve read. The story is about a “graduate wife,” a term which makes me think of a graduate student wife, but refers — I think — to a woman with a college degree who isn’t making use of it because she’s married. The heroine, Helen, has a child but isn’t particularly interested in her and would kind of like to do something more with herself and her education, but at the same time, she isn’t terribly ambitious. She’s adrift, considering taking a part-time job like many other wives she knows, but she’s less than thrilled with the available possibilities. She could help her university professor husband with his research, maybe do some typing, but her husband does his own typing and never seems to want assistance.
She ends up getting involved in her husband’s research anyway, though, in an entirely unexpected manner — while visiting an elderly man in a nursing home, she comes across a stash of papers that would help her husband publish the article that could make his career. How she obtains these papers, what she and her husband do with them, and the intrigues they lead the characters into form the basis of the plot.
What makes the book interesting, though, is the world it describes — the academic world generally and women’s place within it. And — no surprise — it’s very much a man’s world. There are female professors, but their personal lives are complicated and most people have trouble seeing them as fully feminine. Faculty wives spend their time doing their husband’s typing, doing good deeds such as Helen’s visits to the elderly, and working part-time in genteel and not too demanding jobs, such as doing filing in the library.
Nobody seems interested in challenging this status quo, including Helen herself, who feels a vague unhappiness with her life but isn’t ready to do anything about it. She’s no rebellious spirit, and she’s not the type to think methodically and analytically about what she’s experiencing. But while Helen offers no direct critique of this stultifying world, Pym illustrates the consequences indirectly, in Helen’s uneasiness and dissatisfaction with her life and her marriage. Although there’s a whole series of funny scenes and a collection of comic characters, the mood of the book is darker than that; there’s an atmosphere of hopelessness and ennui that never fully dispells. Conflicts may find resolution and relationships may heal, but life is never exciting and nothing really new happens.
I’ve only read two Pym novels so far, one of which is definitely not her best work, but these two books strike me as similar in theme and mood. I’ve got more Pym books on my shelves (No Fond Return of Love and Jane and Prudence), and I’m curious to see if this pattern continues.