I made myself a New Year’s promise to get back to writing this reading journal. Over these last four months or so my reading hasn’t been particularly focused, and I certainly chose books that I could cruise through without much further attention. Hilary Mantel’s The Mirror and the Light sits at my bedside with a bookmark still at about page 30 where I left it when I put it down in March. Thomas’s Cromwell’s ongoing politics just didn’t quite fit my mood in these anxious days.
I am currently reading Alison Lurie’s Foreign Affairs, for which she won the Pulitzer Prize in 1984. It’s the next selection of my book group. Lurie, who died on December 3, 2020, is a wonderful writer who draws you right into the heart of this story about two academic colleagues from the same college who are both on sabbatical in England. One, Fred, is a 28 year-old man. The other, Vinnie, is a 54 year-old woman. The story is a good one and quite funny.
There was one section at the beginning that really spoke to me. I love England, and especially London, where I can walk for hours and hours. Just stepping onto a London sidewalk infuses me with energy, sometimes to the detriment of people who are walking along with me! When I read these words about Vinnie’s love of England I totally identified with them. So I leave this for your pleasure and invite you to read Foreign Affairs.
“England, for Vinnie, is and has always been the imagined and desired country. For a quarter of a century she visited it in her mind, where it had been slowly and lovingly shaped and furnished out of her favorite books, from Beatrix Potter to Anthony Powell. When at last she saw it she felt like the children in John Masefield’s The Box of Delights who discover that they can climb into the picture on their sitting-room wall. The landscape of her interior vision had become life-size and three-dimensional; she could literally walk into the country of her mind. From the first hour England seemed dear and familiar to her; London, especially, was almost an experience of déjà vu. She also felt that she was a nicer person there and that her life was more interesting. These sensations increased rather than diminished with time, and have been repeated as often as Vinnie could afford. Over the past decade she has visited England nearly every year—though usually, alas, for only a few weeks. Tonight she will begin her longest stay yet: an entire six months. Her fantasy is that one day she will be able to live in London permanently, even perhaps become an Englishwoman. A host of difficulties—legal, financial, practical—are involved in this fantasy, and Vinnie has no idea how she could ever solve them all; but she wants it so much that perhaps one day it can be managed. Many teachers of English, like Vinnie, fall in love with England as well as with her literature. With familiarity, however, their infatuation often declines into indifference or even contempt. If they long for her now, it is as she was in the past—most often, in the period of their own specialization: for the colorful, vital England of Shakespeare’s time, or the lavish elegance and charm of the Edwardian period. With the bitterness of disillusioned lovers, they complain that contemporary Britain is cold, wet, and overpriced; its natives unfriendly; its landscape and even its climate ruined. England is past her prime, they say; she is worn-out and old; and, like most of the old, boring. Vinnie not only disagrees, she secretly pities those of her friends and colleagues who claim to have rejected England, since it is clear to her that in truth England has rejected them. The chill they complain of is a matter of style. Englishmen and Englishwomen do not open their arms and hearts to every casual passerby, just as English lawns do not flow into the lawns next door. Rather they conceal themselves behind high brick walls and dense prickly hedges, turning their coolest and most formal side to strangers. Only those who have been inside know how warm and cozy it can be there. Her colleagues’ complaints about the weather and the scenery Vinnie puts down to mere blind pique, issuing as they do from people whose native landscape is devastated by billboards, used-car lots, ice storms, and tornadoes. As for the claim that nothing much ever happens here, this is one of England’s greatest charms for Vinnie, who has just escaped from a nation plagued by sensational and horrible news events, and from a university periodically disrupted by political demonstrations and drunken student brawls. She sinks into her English life as into a large warm bath agitated only by the gentle ripples she herself makes and by the popping of bubbles of foam as some small scandal swells up and breaks, spraying the air with the delightful soapy spume of gossip. In Vinnie’s private England a great deal happens; quite enough for her, at least.”
Lurie, Alison. Foreign Affairs: A Novel (pp. 18-19). Open Road Media. Kindle Edition.