I have just finished Michael Chabon‘s The Mysteries of Pittsburgh (1988), the unforgettable but certainly not unmissable story of the rather tears-prone Art Bechstein, college student and gangster’s son, and how he spends a summer. I say ‘not unmissable’ because you’ve probably read it already. The trio of neurotic and rather boring narrator, attractive/irritating/enigmatic girl and enticing/enigmatic/somewhat homosexual male friend is also to be found in The Talented Mr. Ripley (aren’t the current Radio 4 versions dreadful?), The Secret History and Brideshead Revisited ; all of which function to a greater or lesser degree as examples of the genre. The remainder of Pittsburgh, Highsmith- Tartt- and Waugh-free, owes a great deal to F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Gatsby and a bad case of genre confusion, but already I know I’ll reread it. As a whole, The Mysteries of Pittsburgh doesn’t live up to its opening, which has a brilliance of style and a kind of enormous narrative swoop that promises golden prose and enjoyable heartbreak. Read it for the opening. If you’re reading this and know me, I’ll lend you my copy. If you like books about crime, America, colleges, homosexuality, doomed youth and doomed love, you’ll like this and quite frankly I do and that’s why. I’ll definitely be reading other Chabon soon. Oh, and the bastard wrote the book for his MFA thesis. Life’s not fair.
BUT. There is a but. There’s a big but, and one which brings us right back to Brideshead. Apparently, they’ve (by which I mean director made a film of Pittsburgh. A film, which, on its ‘Story‘ and ‘Meet the Cast‘ pages, makes no mention of anybody playing the novel’s second main character – Art’s namesake, corruptor and sometime lover, the (as I mentioned) enticing/enigmatic/somewhat homosexual Arthur Lecomte. With Art’s mostly unseen father (the gangster – no, really, it’s brilliant, the Mafia’s in it lots), Lecomte is the most interesting part of the story. I fear that the film of Pittsburgh, in sidelining Arthur/Art for the heterosexual romance between Art and Phlox, makes the same mistake as the airless, degayed and de-Catholicked Brideshead (re)-adaptation last year. Phlox is played by Mena Suvari, and if Phlox is the film’s heroine, it’s going to be a film with a vacuum at its centre.
Phlox is at the kind of girl who only exists in the campus novel. Like Jane, she’s unreal; less real even than Julia Marchmain, or Howard’s various sad-eyed victims in The History Man (1975). I wondered if this was an I-Blame-The-Patriarchy moment with something to be imputed to male authorship, but no. In Donna Tartt’s The Secret History (1992), the most successful campus novel of recent years and (to my mind) the most beautiful (and heavily indebted to Chabon), Camilla is completely unreal, only a grey-eyed little image (albeit a beautiful one) about whom we know things, rather than knowing her. The other women, central to the story are Papen’s California friend Judy (to be unfavourably contrasted with Camilla – loud, brash, freckled, promiscuous) and Bunny’s girlfriend Marion (a ‘little thing’ who’s ‘not afraid to wear a dress – [Bunny] likes that’).
Perhaps, depressingly, it’s impossible for the female to be anything other than the Other in a novel about education. Alan Bennet makes the point admirably in The History Boys, through the lips of Mrs Lintott – but isn’t it telling that, first off, the female character added to the film was Fiona (visible sex bomb vs. referenced sex bomb of the stage script), and that second, although we’ve had the Man and now the Boys, we’ve yet to meet The History Women?
I should say that I love – absolutely adore – all the texts I’ve just mentioned. I wouldn’t change them. But I would, if I could, give them sisters; female narratives of education to rank alongside, either talking about both sexes without casting one as Other, or focussing on women as earlier texts did on men. My favourite novel of all, Dorothy L. Sayers‘s Gaudy Night (1936, and rather madly annotated here) does this, getting to the heart of the problems of learning, sex and academia, and arguing them as honestly as possible. But I don’t know anything that’s done so, in the same dirty-handed, articulate, beautiful way, since Sayers.
That children’s fiction used to do this for girls in secondary education – Blyton, the endearing Oxenham, Bruce, Angela Brazil etc – is simultaneously recognised and derided. A quick guide – if you read the above authors now, Blyton will seem the most familiar, Oxenham the gayest, Bruce the most formulaic and Brazil weepingly funny. There are earlier, more radical texts, like the BLISSFUL er, v complex and interesting Alice Stronach’s A Newnham Friendship (1901), which is unusual in that a) it’s set at Cambridge, b) it actually gets involved with the heroines’ academic lives (Homer! Translations!) as opposed to merely their sporting/pranking exploits or noble and really quite racist capturing of unfortunate German spies, and that c) it’s really, really good.
Moreover, unlike Oxenham, Brazil, Blyton and Elinor Brent-Dyer, writing from and for generations when women’s education, although questionable, was not unthinkable, Stronach had grown up with novelists like Charlotte M. Yonge (author of such anti-educationalist thrillers as The Clever Woman of the Family, 1865, which reaches roughly the same conclusions about women’s education as this parody), and sages such as Havelock Ellis, who thought that too much education (especially single-sex education) turned women into highly-strung lesbians, if not send them entirely insane (it should be admitted that I do not entirely disprove this theory).
There’s also the subgenre of the convent school novel, the most famous of which is probably Antonia White’s Frost In May (1933, recommended by no less than Hermione Lee and, um, Chloe). Mostly it’s about how Our Heroine goes to a convent and is fervent and everyone else is fervent but then she does something scurrilous and gets expelled. The sequels, so Chloe promises, involve her getting married and going Into The World, with the promise of more fervour and also nervous breakdowns. Splendid stuff, but fewer role models. I wonder if there are Seminary Novels for boys? I would probably read them, if so.
Trawling through my bookshelves and memories of those at home, I can only recall two other detailed portraits of modern academic women in school or campus novels (widening the net) that have reached the maintsream: Robyn Penrose in David Lodge’s Nice Work (1988, and which gets extra points for being set in the Midlands – talking of which, did you know you can get Black Country T-Shirts? The news that you can get CRADLEY HEATH written on a tshirt makes me happier than I can express) and, of course, Jean Brodie in Muriel Spark’s The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (1961, and I’ve never really thought it was any good). I would welcome more, in recommendations and in new writing.
My childhood reading memories are littered with kindly Headmistresses and female mentors (Miss Grayling, Madame, Drs. Smith and Jakes), but where are the academics? The women’s campus novels? Are there any not narrated by men, but written in the voices of women? Preferably, please god, not novels that start with academics but end/spend a lot of time in mental institutions. So no, I am not counting bloody Prozac Nation (1994) or The Bell Jar (1963) or, with regret, Jennifer Dawson’s wonderful The Ha Ha (1961, MUCH BETTER than the first two, and not just because it starts at Oxford). Start with them and you’ll end up including Sarah Kane’s Cleansed (1995) because it happens to take place in ‘an university’. Does the female-academia novel really agree with Havelock Ellis that too much learning hath made us all mad? I hope not. I’m waiting to be proved wrong.
Dr Sophie Duncan is Fellow in English at Christ Church, University of Oxford. She works regularly as a historical advisor and as a dramaturg for theatre, TV, radio and film. She likes theatre, detective fiction and cocktails.