By Barbara Pym.
182 pages
New York: Plume Fiction, 1986.

Comments by Bob Corbett
March 2003

The novel is a gentle story of academic life in new small English university in the early to mid 1960s. Catherine Grimstone tells the story from her own perspective. She’s the wife of a young and coming scholar of African Studies, Alan Grimstone. Alan’s in a somewhat bitter struggle with the aging leading scholar in his field, Crespin Maynard.

The story is sprinkled with interesting characters, especially Coco Jeffrey’s, a professor of Caribbean Studies. He is of indeterminate gender and Catherine’s best friend.

This well-told work has little plot of significance, what makes the book so charming are the unusual characters and Pym’s telling of the tale.

What particularly grabbed my attention was a deeper level of honesty and unusual probing which Catherine brings to her first person narration. She is brutally honest, not out of meanness or cynicism, but in her innocence and gullibility. Her own husband is a serious scholar and would have been an up and coming scholar in any world. But in these mid-60s he is situated as a junior professor in one of the “new” universities which were springing up at that time. Her view is that most of the teachers are in no way worthy of university positions, and the students are neither up to the task of a “real” university education, nor interested in it.

Catherine describes one young professor as arrogant, aggressive and more interested in the on-going social revolution than in any scholarly work.

I found her perspective quite challenging. I was definitely in the position of the young professor, though I’d like to think I wasn’t arrogant! I’d prefer to think of myself as passionate. However, as a young professor I was at a small college growing because of the new social trend of children of the masses going to college for the first time. Like Ian Ashton of Pym’s tale, I wanted my students to challenge the status quo in life and politics and was convinced new structures for the university were necessary. Catherine regards the notion of students choosing their own courses as simply madness, and for me it was clearly a necessity for a more democratic world.

Many a time over my 36 years of teaching at the university I brutally criticized the world, lifestyle and views of the Catherine Grimstones of the world and Pym is the first person whom I’ve read who was able to present THE OTHER SIDE in a manner that made me pause and see the strengths of the “old world” more fully and clearly than ever before.

Ultimately I think the issue comes down to the clash of aristocratic values and those of democratic equality. Within the aristocratic values there remain some important contributions. How well the “new world” of the modern university preserves those – dedication to intellectual rigor among faculty and students alike, the belief in knowledge as valuable in itself, and advancing both the individual and society’s interests – remains a major issue. One of the weaknesses of our modern educational revolution seems to have been a dramatic shift from knowledge being the dominant aim and value to a world where credentialing is the ruling position.

Bob Corbett

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Bob Corbett