Faculty Towers: The Academic Novel and its Discontents Elaine Showalter

OUP, pp.166, 12.99

Do campus novels reflect the reality of university life? When I was a Fellow of Peterhouse, back in the Eighties, I was asked with tedious regularity whether the experience resembled Porterhouse Blue, Tom Sharpe’s grotesquely overblown satire. But even as I (truthfully) denied it, a few vignettes would slide past my mind’s eye — such as my very first Governing Body meeting, when, sombrely robed, the Fellows debated, hotly and with manifest ill-will, whether the vomit by the chapel was beer- or claret-based.

This was, of course, a matter of college politics. In every faculty or university, you will find the progressives ranged against the traditionalists, the puritans against the cavaliers, the utilitarians against the idealists, left against right, science against humanities. The vomit might have been left-wing (a by-product of the Students’ Union bar), or right-wing (spewed out by the would-be toffs of the Pitt Club). Divisions in Peterhouse in that era ran deep and rancorous.

One can see why novelists are attracted to the campus novel — which Showalter, following David Lodge’s criteria, defines as a novel set in a university which concentrates on the teachers rather than the students. This necessarily excludes a vast range of ‘varsity’ novels, from The Adventures of Mr Verdant Green through Brideshead Revisited to I am Charlotte Simmons, but gives an excellent focus to the book.

The fellowship of a university or college offers a novelist a ‘small world’, in the title of David Lodge’s novel: a tightly-enclosed enclave in which passions run high, with malice whetted by intellect; and in which ambition and self-esteem (and their bitter grey shadows, frustration and an all-pervasive sense of failure) are fuelled by a shifting but brutally clear power-structure. There are gulfs of status between student and post-graduate, and between CV-conscious junior fellow or still insecure, ever-climbing lecturer and the professor who has attained the Olympian plateau of tenure.

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Enforced proximity can make the mixtures of personalities and motives explosive. It is no wonder that there is a whole sub-genre of campus murder-mysteries. Oxford, of course, has the biggest British body-count — from the whimsical novels of Edmund Crispin (his detective, Professor Gervase Fen, boasts in 1944 that he is the only literary critic in the business. Not any longer …) to the Morse series (where you can guess that any Fellow who drinks port did it).

Elaine Showalter suggests that the microcosmic world of the campus novel can be used to ‘comment on contemporary issues’, though usually, she admits, somewhat after the event, and to ‘satirise professorial stereotypes and educational trends’.

Her reading of academic fiction is shaped by her awareness of time. All academic novels, as she points out, are structured round the academic year: most begin in autumn. She gives here some excellent quotations describing autumnal beginnings — but not, sadly, the one from Nabokov’s Pnin, though this would be doubly appropriate. Pnin is often hailed as itself a new beginning, a truly pioneering campus novel: it also has surely the best beginning-of-term opening ever:

The 1954 Fall Term had begun … Again in the margins of library books earnest freshmen inscribed such helpful glosses as ‘Description of nature’ or ‘Irony’; and in a pretty edition of Mallarmé’s poems an exceptionally able student had already underlined in violet ink the difficult word oiseaux and scrawled above it ‘birds’.

I do not intend this review to be a donnish complaint of omissions (Showalter includes so much that one cannot claim her book also needs to encompass, say, Robertson Davies, Barbara Pym and Jeffrey Moore); but surely Nabokov’s Pnin and Pale Fire are seminal?

Perhaps the omission is because Nabokov’s oddities do not fit easily into Showalter’s outline of the development of the genre, which is crisply divided by decade. In the Fifties, the secure world of C. P. Snow, in which the values of the academic institution are serenely unchallenged, is assaulted by the anarchic satire of Lucky Jim. But Amis is just as sure what he doesn’t like (the list is endless, including madrigals, women who wear wooden beads, and academic articles on ‘strangely neglected’ topics) as Snow is of the values he cherishes: Jim’s rebellion is a far cry from the chill internal doubts and intellectual dismay one can trace later.

The turbulence of each era seeps, though with a certain delay, into fiction. As the grande dame of ‘gynocriticism’, Elaine Showalter is particularly interested in the turmoils arising from the women’s movement. Her chapters on the representation of frustrated faculty wives allow her to glance at the sharply observed novels of Alison Lurie; and she has some good passages, too, on the post-Oleanna phenomenon of trust destabilised by accusations of sexual harassment. (I was glad to read her appreciative assessment of James Lasdun’s haunting novel The Horned Man.) Only occasionally, in these analyses, does one feel that she is marking the novelists and their protagonists a little rigidly, according to unbending feminist criteria. (Is this, perhaps, why she omits A. S. Byatt’s later university novels?)

In general, though, this study is enjoyable precisely because it conveys enjoyment, rather than disapproval — even, or indeed particularly, if she is herself the object of satire (‘I have been a character in academic fiction at least twice, one a voluptuous, promiscuous, drug-addicted bohemian, once a prudish, dumpy, judgmental frump’). She revels in the creations of Malcolm Bradbury and David Lodge, whose best-known fictional academics — Howard Kirk, the History Man, and the egregious Morris Zapp — epitomise ‘the movers and shakers, the sexist rogues and academic climbers of the new universities’, which both writers simultaneously relish and deplore. Even Malcolm Bradbury, whose dissection of Howard’s moral failings is merciless, was himself that most modern of phenomena, the celebrity don. ‘What is the difference between God and Professor Bradbury?’ ran the graffiti in the lavatories of the University of East Anglia. ‘God is here but everywhere. Professor Bradbury is everywhere but here.’

‘Remote and ineffectual don, / Where have you gone, where have you gone?’ Elaine Showalter, his absolute antithesis, would never mourn his passing, and is perhaps impatient with some of the elegaic grace-notes of this genre; but her study of the campus novel is always stimulating.

This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated