Saturday 8 June 2013

An Academic Question by Barbara Pym

As luck would have it, one of the Pym books I placed on order earlier in the week (after enjoying Excellent Women so much) turned up at work this afternoon just as I was leaving for my 4 day long weekend.

The first thing I want to point out is that the only versions available in Australia are the 2012 Virago's with the covers as pictured.

I don't actively dislike these covers, but after my gorgeous Designer collection cover for Excellent Women and seeing Thomas' book cover post at My Porch (where he highlighted the fabulous cover collection designed by Jackie Schuman), I was left feeling somewhat disappointed.

Thomas poses the question that perhaps these new covers by Jessie Ford appeal to a younger audience.

After extensive research (ie chatting with my 19 year old colleague) whose immediate and unprompted response when she saw the book was "cool cover!" I can only assume that, yes, these new covers do appeal to a younger audience!

An Academic Question (1986) was published posthumously by Pym's friend & biographer, Hazel Holt who combined the various versions, notes and drafts left by Pym on her death in 1980.

All the usual Pymesque elements are at play in An Academic Question (cups of tea, gentle observation, biting humour, index cards and solitude). However this time we follow the day to day life of a married woman unsatisfied with her 4 yr child and household duties.

I've read many comments about how unsatisfactory this 'married with children' plot since Pym was obviously writing about something she was not familiar with herself!
This type of criticism gets up my nose for three reasons!!
1. Where would we be if authors had to restrict themselves to writing about what they know? We would have no historical fiction, no science fiction, no fantasy, no poetry, no magical realism.
2. Just because she was unmarried didn't mean that Pym's life was devoid of relationship experience or that she was somehow unable to use her sharp-eyed observational skills on the married couples in her circle.
3. As a teacher of 18 years I can assure you that there are many women who struggle to feel maternal instincts and who chaff at the whole domestic arrangement. Pym is simply writing a story about one of those women.

Now that I've got that off my chest, let me say that this story is not as enthralling as Excellent Women was. But there's enough there to keep me going until the finish.

Finally, a big thank you to Thomas at My Porch for hosting the Pym Reading Week. It has been entertaining and informative. My life feels richer for having discovered the world of Pym :-)
"The small things of life were often so much bigger than the great things . . . the trivial pleasures like cooking, one's home, little poems especially sad ones, solitary walks, funny things seen and overheard."



  1. So far I have ordered two Pym books, just from reading reviews - despite the three I already have waiting on my TBR shelves. I'm having to exercise serious restraint not to add more - including this one!

  2. I prefer the other covers as you do. Interesting that a random sample of young people prefer the other one. I should read more Pym too.

  3. I'm beginning to think that tea and index cards are essential ingredients for my enjoyment of a book after this week! (Re the covers, I don't know if you've seen the reprints of Mary Stewart's books? They are really quite pretty, but totally have nothing to do with the plots and often the clothes are not even of the appropriate era.)

  4. My daughters prefer the Virago covers, too. The oldest (now 23) read Excellent Women a couple of years ago, but it didn't do much for her. The covers may appeal to a younger audience, but I'm beginning to think you must be of a certain age to fully appreciate Pym's novels.

    I'll keep an eye out for a copy of An Academic Question.


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