Academic Angst

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Some books I set out to read, others I get involved with by accident. And since I so often enjoy those accidents, if I am heading off to a holiday cottage, for example, I may well fail to pack any books and decide to see what I find when I get there. Unless it’s an exceptionally streamlined matt black and chrome kind of rental, there’s always a shelf in the living-room or a beam in the corridor where at least a handful of battered paperbacks have been left either by the owner in a half-hearted attempt at thoughtfulness or by previous visitors.

It was on just such a holiday that I came to read Ivy Compton- Burnett’s Pastors and Masters and Malcolm Bradbury’s The History Man in quick succession. And since one is the predecessor of the campus novel and the other a seminal example of the genre, inevitably I started comparing. Compton-Burnett I’d been meaning to read for a while. But Bradbury had already been written off somewhere in my head. I’d enjoyed his criticism. Probably because of vague memories of snatched glimpses of the TV version, I’d pigeonholed The History Man as shallow and chauvinistic.

Certainly, arrogant men dominate both novels. But in Ivy Compton-Burnett’s novel, the central male, Nicholas Herrick, is not actually an academic at all but owns a boys’ school in order to fulfil his desire to be perceived as an academic as he swans around his old university town. By contrast, Malcolm Bradbury’s book is absolutely entrenched in the lectures, lives and parties of the new campus university of Watermouth, where the central male character, Howard Kirk, is a radical sociology lecturer.

There are of course many other differences, including the period. Pastors and Masters was published in 1925, and its atmosphere makes me feel that the characters are spooning marmalade on to their toast and crisping bacon by the fender around the end of the 1800s. The History Man was publish

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About the contributor

Josie Barnard is writing a book for Virago. She very much hopes that it will be of the entertaining and enriching variety.

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