The latest Barbara Pym to be reissued by Virago is a bit of a departure from the Pym I'm used to. It hails from her time in the wilderness when she couldn't get her novels published and whilst the first draft was finished in 1971 'An Academic Question' first appeared in 1986 (6 years after Pym died), sometime in-between she had rewritten it in an attempt to make it more contemporary 'to swing' even (horrible thought) but the existing version is an amalgamation of the two versions along with notes that Pym's literary executor put together.
There is a slightly apologetic introduction that explains this isn't Pym's masterpiece, and fair enough it maybe isn't, but it's a lot better than I expected after reading the intro. I except that Pym doesn't write naturally about motherhood or marriage but she does a terrific job of capturing the awkwardness of essentially conservative people trying to be liberal with their manners and morals.
Told from the viewpoint of Caro Grimstone the graduate wife of rising young academic Alan, all the action takes place against the background of a provincial university. Caro, much to her mother's disappointment didn't manage to make it to Oxford or Cambridge, and didn't manage to marry the Byronic David, now a successful politician. Alan she considers to be somewhat below her daughter. Caro herself has reached something of a dead end. Having married Alan straight out of university she's never had any sort of career, he doesn't want her assistance with his work, and their daughter is looked after by a capable au pair. She has rather a new house, very self consciously modern with furniture that's already looking shabby, they take The Guardian, and Caro even has a gay best friend.
It's a situation that's almost as foul as it sounds, the gloss is off the marriage and life for Caro is rather empty. For something to do she starts to read to the elderly; the old man she reads to was once a missionary and anthropologist, just the field her husband is in. It's an opportunity that he exploits to steal some papers that will give him the chance to make his reputation whilst getting one over on a senior and highly respected colleague.
Caro's life of leisure, complete with good works, is quite Victorian and raises the question of what do you do with your life when you don't have much personal ambition? Having help in the house is clearly a sign of success , as is not having to work - but again what does it leave? Caro's friend Kitty who represents an older generation, and who used to live a life of colonial luxury on a Caribbean island until a minor coup made it all rather uncomfortable, had no such problems. She sees it as woman's role to be decorative, her occupation, which she finds absorbing is to 'preserve' herself and dress, and yet her life is undoubtedly more satisfying than Caro's.
Kitty's sister Dolly also lives in the town running a junk shop and keeping hedgehogs - she doesn't worry about being successful and is also happy, and again it raises questions. It might not be Pym at her best but it's still really good.