Barbara Pym’s An Academic Question

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.


Filed under Books, Fiction

9 responses to “Barbara Pym’s An Academic Question

  1. Very interesting both the story of the book and how it was put together after Pym died. I have only ever read Excellent Women and have a couple other Pym books on my shelf. Perhaps I will read those before I consider giving this one a go.


  2. Barbara Pym novels are very much of a piece. I can never remember which ones I have read because no plot particularly stands out. But then, you read her to listen to her voice, and so long as you don’t consume too many in a row, it doesn’t matter that they are all very same-y. I didn’t know anything about the story behind this one, Dorothy, so thank you for sharing!


  3. I really like Barbara Pym, though I’ve only read Excellent Women so far. Somehow I don’t think I would mind that the stories are all similar, though I think I may wait to read this one. I wonder if she didn’t finish it because she passed away, or had simply set it aside to work on something else?


  4. verbivore

    I’d really like to try Barbara Pym one of these days, and I will definitely start with Excellent Women.

    It can be fun to read an author’s unfinished work, but I suspect you are right, this is more for someone who has read everything else and looking to deepen their writing process or thematic development.


  5. Stefanie — I would definitely read the other Pym books first. This one is for when you’ve read all of Pym and are dying for more and don’t know where else to turn. It’s good, but not Pym at her best.

    Litlove — after reading just two Pym novels, I can see how they are all quite alike, and I agree that that’s not necessarily a problem. Why can’t writers find their subject and continue to write about it, as long as they write about it well?

    Danielle — she didn’t finish it because she got distracted by another novel, Quartet in Autumn, I believe. This one was written during her “quiet period” when she had trouble publishing. The editor calls it a transitional novel, which makes me wonder about her development as a writer. It would be interesting to know more!

    Verbivore — I agree that it can be fun to read unfinished work, but it’s best if you can fit it into the other work, to see development and patterns. It’s probably best left to scholars and really devoted fans. I hope you enjoy Excellent Women!


  6. I keep meaning to return to Pym, as I’ve only read two of hers, but I don’t think this one will come anytime soon, thanks to your warning here.


  7. I’ve only read one Pym and that was Jane and Prudence which I thought was just wonderful. Wonderful enough, that I’ve even started collecting Pym books! Now I just need to decide which one to finally read next.


  8. Emily — I don’t mind having read the book, but I would have appreciated a warning against it, so I’m glad to help out!

    Iliana — I’ve got a copy of Jane and Prudence, which will probably be my next Pym when I’m in the mood again — I’m glad to hear it was so wonderful!


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