This flawless novel earned the 1985 Pulitzer Prize for fiction, and once again illustrates Lurie's talent for capturing the subtle ironies of human relationships. Two professors are sent to London on research assignments but end up spending more time together than on their work! Now in trade paperback.
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Alison Lurie's non fiction books include studies of folklore and children's literature, and her novels include such favourites as The War Between the Tates, Foreign Affairs, The Truth about Lorin Jones and Last Resort.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
As I walked by myself
And talked to myself,
Myself said unto me,
Look to thyself,
Take care of thyself,
For nobody cares for thee.
On a cold blowy February day a woman is boarding the ten a.m. flight to London, followed by an invisible dog. The woman’s name is Virginia Miner: she is fifty-four years old, small, plain, and unmarried—the sort of person that no one ever notices, though she is an Ivy League college professor who has published several books and has a well-established reputation in the expanding field of children’s literature.
The dog that is trailing Vinnie, visible only to her imagination, is her familiar demon or demon familiar, known to her privately as Fido and representing self-pity. She visualizes him as a medium-sized dirty-white long-haired mutt, mainly Welsh terrier: sometimes trailing her silently, at other times whining and panting and nipping at her heels; when bolder, dashing round in circles trying to trip her up, or at least get her to stoop down so that he may rush at her, knock her to the ground, and cover her with sloppy kisses. Vinnie knows very well that Fido wants to get onto the plane with her, but she hopes to leave him behind, as she has successfully done on other trips abroad. Recent events, however, and the projected length of her stay, make this unlikely.
Vinnie is leaving today for six months in England on a foundation grant. There, under her professional name of V. A. Miner, she will continue her study of the folk-rhymes of schoolchildren. She has made this journey a number of times, and through a process of trial and error reduced its expense and discomfort to a minimum. She always chooses a daytime charter flight, preferring those on which no films are shown. If she could afford it, she would pay the regular fare so as to avoid boarding delays (she has already stood in various lines for nearly an hour); but that would be foolishly extravagant. Her grant is small, and she will have to watch expenses carefully as it is.
Though patience is held to be a virtue most appropriate to women, especially aging women, Vinnie has always particularly disliked waiting for anything, and never does so if it can be avoided. Now, for instance, she elbows her way deftly past less experienced passengers who are searching for their seat numbers or are encumbered with excess luggage or with children, excusing herself in a thin pleasant voice. By crossing through the galley to the far aisle and back again between two rows of seats, she outflanks a massed confusion of obvious rubes with carry-on bags labeled sun tours. In less time than it takes to read this paragraph she has made her way to a window seat near an exit in the nonsmoking section, pausing only to extract the London Times and British Vogue from a magazine rack. (Once the plane is airborne, the stewardess will distribute periodicals to all the passengers, but those Vinnie prefers may vanish before they reach her.)
Following her usual procedure, Vinnie slides into her place and unzips her boots. In stocking feet she climbs onto the seat and opens the overhead locker; since she is barely over five feet tall, this is the only way she can reach it. She removes two pillows and a loose-woven blue blanket, which she drops onto the center seat beside her handbag and her British periodicals, thus tacitly claiming this space if—as is likely in midweek and mid-February—it hasn’t been assigned to anyone. Then she arranges her worn wool-lined raincoat, her floppy beige felt hat, and her amber-and-beige Liberty-print wool shawl in the locker, in such a way that only the rudest of fellow passengers will attempt to encroach upon them. She slams the locker shut with some difficulty, and sits down. She stows her boots under her own seat along with a carton of duty-free Bristol Cream sherry, and puts on a pair of folding slippers. She arranges one pillow beside her head and wedges the other between her hip and the arm of the chair. Finally she smooths her crisply cut graying hair, leans back, and with a sigh fastens the seatbelt across her tan wool sweater and skirt.
A disinterested observer, Vinnie is quite aware, might well consider these maneuvers and condemn her as self-concerned and grasping. In this culture, where energy and egotism are rewarded in the young and good-looking, plain aging women are supposed to be self-effacing, uncomplaining—to take up as little space and breathe as little air as possible. All very well, she thinks, if you travel with someone dear to you or at least familiar: someone who will help you stow away your coat, tuck a pillow behind your head, find you a newspaper—or if you choose, converse with you.
But what of those who travel alone? Why should Vinnie Miner, whose comfort has been disregarded by others for most of her adult life, disregard her own comfort? Why should she allow her coat, hat, and belongings to be crushed by the coats and hats and belongings of younger, larger, handsomer persons? Why should she sit alone for seven or eight hours, pillowless and chilled, reading an outdated copy of Punch, with her feet swollen and her pale amber eyes watering from the smoke of the cigarette fiends in the adjoining seats? As she often says to herself—though never aloud, for she knows how unpleasant it would sound—why shouldn’t she look out for herself? Nobody else will.
But such internal arguments, frequent as they are with Vinnie, occupy little of her mind now. The uneven, uncharacteristically loud sigh she gave as she sank back against the scratchy blue plush was not a sigh of contentment, or even one of relief: it was an exhalation of wretchedness. Her travel routine has been performed by rote; if she were alone, she would break into wails of misery and vexation, and stain the London Times with her tears.
Twenty minutes ago, while waiting in the departure lounge in a cheerful mood, Vinnie read in a magazine of national circulation a scornful and disparaging reference to her life’s work. Projects such as hers, the article stated, are a prime example of the waste of public funds, the proliferation of petty and useless scholarship, and the general weakness and folly of the humanities in America today. Do we really need a scholarly study of playground doggerel? inquired the writer, one L. D. Zimmern, a professor of English at Columbia. No doubt Mr. or Ms. Miner would answer this query by assuring us of the social, historical, or literary value of “Ring-around-a-rosy,” he continued, sawing through the supports of any possible answer; but he, for one, was not convinced.
What makes this unprovoked attack especially hideous is that for over thirty years the Atlantic has been Vinnie’s favorite magazine. Though she was raised in the suburbs of New York and teaches at an upstate university, her imaginative loyalties are to New England. She has often thought that American culture took a long downward step when its hegemony passed from Boston to New York in the late nineteenth century; and it has been a comfort to her that the Atlantic continues to be edited from Back Bay. When she pictures her work receiving general public recognition, it is to this magazine that she awards the honor of discovery. She has fantasized the process often: the initial letter of inquiry, the respectfully eager manner of the interviewer, the title of the finished essay; the moment when her colleagues at Corinth University and elsewhere will open the magazine and see her name printed on its glossy pages in its characteristic and elegant typeface. (Vinnie’s ambition, though steady and ardent, is comparatively modest: it hasn’t occurred to her that her name might be printed upon the cover of the Atlantic.) She has imagined all that will follow: the sudden delighted smiles of her friends; the graceless grins of those who are not her friends and have undervalued both her and her subject. The latter group, alas, will be much more numerous.
For the truth is that children’s literature is a poor relation in her department—indeed, in most English departments: a stepdaughter grudgingly tolerated because, as in the old tales, her words are glittering jewels of a sort that attract large if not equally brilliant masses of undergraduates. Within the departmental family she sits in the chimney-corner, while her idle, ugly siblings dine at the chairman’s table—though, to judge by enrollment figures, many of them must spout toads and lizards.
Well, Vinnie thinks bitterly, now she has got her wish; her work has been mentioned in the Atlantic. Just her luck—because surely there were others whose project titles might have attracted the spiteful attention of L. D. Zimmern. But of course it was she he chose, what else could she expect? Vinnie realizes that Fido has followed her onto the plane and is snuffling at her legs, but she lacks the energy to push him away.
Above her seat the warning light has been turned on; the engines begin to vibrate as if with her own internal tremor. Vinnie stares through the streaked, distorting oblong of glass at gray tarmac, pitted heaps of dirty congealed snow, other planes taxiing toward takeoff; but what she sees is a crowd of Atlantic magazines queuing for departure or already en route, singly or in squadrons, flying over the United States in the hands and briefcases of travelers, hitching their way in automobiles, loaded onto trucks and trains, bundled and tied for sale on newsstands. She visualizes what must come or has already come of this mass migration: she sees, all over the country—in homes and offices, in libraries and dentists’ waiting rooms—her colleagues, ex-colleagues, students, ex-students, neighbors, ex-neighbors, friends, and ex-friends (not to mention the me...
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