Foreign Affairs (1984) is a Pulitzer-Prize-winning novel by American author Alison Lurie. Set mostly in London, it is the story of two American professors of English from an Ivy League university who spend several months in the capital city of England. Ostensibly, Vinnie Miner, an unmarried woman in her fifties who specializes in children's literature, and Fred Turner, a twenty-nine-year-old eighteenth-century specialist who has just separated from his wife, are in London to work on their academic research projects. However, during their stay, both are drawn into unexpected romantic relationships—Vinnie with an American tourist from Oklahoma and Fred with a glamorous English actress—that have very different consequences for each character. Lurie's witty comedy of manners plays with some of the cultural differences between England and America while spinning a tale that explores the illusions of love as well as the wisdom, joy, and sadness it may bring.
Alison Lurie was born in Chicago on September 3, 1926, the older of two daughters born to Harry and Bernice (Stewart) Lurie. Her father was a teacher of social work and her mother a journalist. When Lurie was four, the family moved to New York City and soon after that to the rural suburb of White Plains in Westchester County.
From early in Lurie's childhood, her parents and teachers encouraged Lurie to believe that she was good at storytelling, but at first Lurie wanted to be a painter. It was not until she was in high school that she decided to try her hand at writing. After she graduated from a boarding school in Connecticut in 1943, she entered Radcliffe College, graduating in 1946 with a bachelor's degree in history and literature. In 1947, she worked as an editorial assistant at Oxford University Press in New York City, and in the following year, she married Jonathan Peel Bishop, a graduate student in English at Harvard University.
During the period from 1953 to 1960, Lurie gave birth to three sons. She stayed at home to raise them while her husband pursued his career at Amherst College, Massachusetts; University of California in Los Angeles; and then Cornell University in 1961. Lurie thus moved house three times during this period. She did not like caring for small children and was restless and ambitious. She had had two short stories published in magazines in 1947 and had continued writing, but during the 1950s she had no success in getting her work, which included two novels, published.
This situation changed in 1962, when her first novel, Love and Friendship, was published. In 1963, 1964, and 1966, she received Yaddo Foundation Fellowships, and in 1965, she was a Guggenheim Fellow. Her second novel, The Nowhere City, was published in 1965, followed by Imaginary Friends (1967) and Real People (1969).
In 1969, Lurie began her teaching career at Cornell University, where her husband also taught. In 1973, she was promoted to associate professor, and she became a professor in 1976. Her specialty was children's literature. By this time, she had separated from her husband, and they were divorced in 1985.
Lurie's fifth novel, The War between the Tates (1974), about a disintegrating marriage, was her first commercially successful book. It was made into a movie for television in 1977. In 1979, Lurie published her sixth novel, Only Children, a story told through the eyes of two eight-year-old girls; her seventh novel, Foreign Affairs, followed in 1984. It was nominated for an American Book Award and won the Pulitzer Prize in 1985. It was also filmed for television.
Lurie wrote two more novels: The Truth about Lorin Jones (1988) and The Last Resort (1998). As of 2006, she was the Frederic J. Whiton Professor of American Literature Emerita at Cornell University.
Foreign Affairs begins as Vinnie Miner, a small, plain-looking professor of children's literature at an Ivy League university, boards a flight to London. In her imagination, she is accompanied by a small dog called Fido, who represents self-pity, a fault to which Vinnie is prone.
Vinnie, who is unmarried, is to stay for six months in England. She has received a grant to study the folk-rhymes of schoolchildren, a subject on which she is an expert. But she is unhappy because she has just read an attack on her work by L. D. Zimmern, an American professor, in a national magazine. Zimmern thinks her work is trivial and a waste of public funds.
On the plane, Vinnie reluctantly gets drawn into a conversation with Charles (Chuck) Mumpson, a sanitation engineer from Oklahoma who is starting on a two-week package tour of England. Vinnie finds him ignorant and crass.
After the plane lands at midnight at Heathrow Airport, Vinnie is unable to find a taxi. Mumpson arranges for her to ride on the tourist bus to downtown London. When the bus drops her off, she takes a taxi to the flat she is renting on Regent's Park Road. She feels relieved that she has finally arrived.
At six in the evening, Fred Turner waits for a train in the Underground station at Notting Hill Gate in London. He is an assistant professor of English at Corinth University, where Vinnie teaches. Fred is over twenty-five years younger than Vinnie and much more attractive—tall, dark, and handsome, in fact. He is in London for five months doing research on John Gay, an eighteenth-century English writer. Fred is not happy, however, because he has just split up with his wife, Ruth. He is also frustrated because he is not getting an authentic experience of London; he attributes this in part to the disorientation that comes with being a tourist. He is also short of money.
Fred arrives for supper at the flat of his American friends, Joe and Debby Vogeler. The Vogelers, who teach at colleges in Southern California, are on leave in London and are disillusioned with it. They do not like the weather or the people, and they are unimpressed by all the tourist spots. The Vogelers commiserate with Fred over his failed marriage.
As Fred returns home, he thinks back gloomily over how he met Ruth, an attractive, dark-haired photographer. Ruth is an outspoken radical feminist, and Fred's friends were not entirely comfortable with his choice of bride.
Fred plans to attend a party given by Vinnie later that week. He does not know Vinnie well, but she will have a say in whether he gets tenure at Corinth University, so he does not wish to offend her by turning down her invitation.
Several weeks later, in March, Vinnie meets her friend, the editor Edwin Francis, at a restaurant. Edwin tells her that Fred Turner has become romantically involved with the famous English actress Rosemary Radley, whom he met at Vinnie's party. Vinnie is surprised by this news and tells Edwin that the relationship cannot last for long, since Fred has to return to Corinth in June to teach summer school. Edwin worries that if Rosemary gets too smitten with Fred, she may start skipping her professional commitments, and he asks Vinnie to persuade Fred to break off the relationship. Vinnie refuses.
The next day, Vinnie studies in the London Library Reading Room. She regrets that she asked Fred to her party, since she normally tries to keep her English friends and her American colleagues apart. She does not quite trust Rosemary Radley, and even though they meet fairly often because they get invited to the same parties, they do not like each other much.
After she leaves the library, she unexpectedly encounters Chuck Mumpson in a department store. Vinnie is not pleased to see him again, but she lets him buy her tea. She is surprised that he is still in London, but he tells her he has been laid off at work and has plenty of time. He is searching for information about an ancestor of his, a great lord who lived in the southwest of England and later became a hermit, living in a cave in the woods and becoming known as a kind of wise man. Vinnie begins to feel a professional interest in Chuck, and she advises him about how to proceed in his search.
Fred, who is in love with Rosemary partly because she is the opposite of his wife, has arranged to meet her at a theater. Rosemary is usually late, and this time she keeps him waiting for over forty minutes. They quarrel over Fred's desire to pay for his own dinner later that evening. He does not like her always paying for him.
- Foreign Affairs was adapted for television in 1993, and as of 2006, it was commercially available on VHS. It was directed by Jim O'Brien, with Joanne Woodward as Vinnie, Brian Dennehy as Chuck, Eric Stolz as Fred Turner, and Stephanie Beacham as Rosemary.
Fred and Rosemary are weekend guests at the country house of Rosemary's aristocratic friends, Penelope (Posy) Billings and her husband, Sir James (Jimbo), who is out of the country. Other guests are Edwin Francis, Nico (a young male friend of Edwin's, with whom he has a sexual relationship), and a nondescript middle-aged man named William Just, who at first appears to be a cousin of Posy. Fred feels provincial and out of place in this sophisticated English company.
After dinner, the group plays charades, but the game is interrupted by the unexpected return of Jimbo from his business trip abroad. Posy does not want him to find them playing charades, so she orders everyone out and greets Jimbo as if nothing were going on. She orders William to the boathouse and orders Fred and Nico to pack up everything in William's room. Fred wonders why William has to be banished, until Nico informs him that William is, in fact, Posy's lover. Nico knows this because Edwin told him. As Fred learns more about the goings-on in this English house, he develops distaste for the situation, but he stays on because of Rosemary.
Vinnie visits an elementary school playground and watches some little girls skipping rope. She is continuing to collect material about schoolyard rhymes. She consults with the children, and as she is leaving she is accosted by Mary Maloney, a rough, poorly dressed girl of about thirteen, who says she knows some rhymes. Mary persuades Vinnie to pay her a small sum for reciting them. Vinnie does not like the rhymes, one of which is racist and the other obscene. She hurries away.
That night Vinnie attends a performance of a Mozart opera. During the interval, she encounters Fred and Rosemary. Fred tries to get Vinnie to back him up in persuading Rosemary to hire a housekeeper for her notoriously messy house, but Vinnie does not wish to take sides in their argument.
That night, as she is lying in bed, Vinnie receives a surprise visit from Chuck. He is downhearted because he has discovered that his ancestors were not members of the aristocracy. They were farmers, mostly. He has spent several days in southwest England finding this out and now he is full of self-pity. He also tells Vinnie about his recent life back home: his fruitless search for a job, his unhappy marriage, his drinking, and his arrest for driving while intoxicated (DWI). He stayed on in England after the package tour ended because he could not bear to go back to his family. Vinnie rebukes him for feeling sorry for himself; he takes offense and leaves abruptly. But later he calls her, acknowledges she was right and offers to take her out. Vinnie is of two minds but accepts his invitation.
In May, Fred is on his way to a party at Rosemary's. He is happier than he was before he met Rosemary but is worried that his work on John Gay is not progressing well. He is also not sure how to respond to a conciliatory letter he has received from his wife. He has put off answering for nearly two weeks.
Rosemary has hired a housemaid named Mrs. Harris, and the house looks unusually clean. At the party, Fred meets Chuck and Vinnie, and Daphne Vane, an elderly actress. Debby and Joe Vogeler also arrive with their baby son, Jakie. Jakie knocks over a vase that sends water and foliage streaming over a famous drama critic and notable bore named Oswald. After the party, Fred apologizes to Rosemary over the incident, but she says she found it amusing, since Oswald has in the past written unpleasant things about her and her friends. Then Fred tells her that he must return to Corinth University within a month. Rosemary at first refuses to believe him but then takes the news badly and throws him out of the house.
Vinnie is sick with a cold. She is also depressed because her grant to study in England has not been extended because of the opposition of Professor Zimmern, who sits on the committee. She is consoled by a telephone conversation with Chuck, who is in Wiltshire, in southwest England, still learning about his ancestors. Vinnie has in recent weeks gotten to know him better, and he has told her his life story. He grew up in a dysfunctional family and was a juvenile delinquent but straightened himself out following his military service in World War II. It also transpires that Vinnie's English friends, who met Chuck at Rosemary's party, find him entertaining and likable, regarding him as an example of a real American cowboy.
Vinnie has also recently encountered Fred, who is miserable following his break-up with Rosemary. Fred asks Vinnie to have a word with Rosemary on his behalf. Vinnie agrees reluctantly.
That evening, Chuck arrives at Vinnie's, bringing with him an Indian takeout supper. He tells her about his latest research into his ancestors. He now feels he should be more proud of Old Mumpson, the hermit. He has discovered that the old man's illiteracy was no disgrace, since a lot of country people were illiterate in those days. Chuck has also been spending time observing an archeological dig and because of his knowledge of geology has been asked to join it. He has been offered a house and is planning to stay in Wiltshire for the summer.
After dinner, Vinnie and Chuck collide in the kitchen and are drenched with soup and coffee. Their efforts to clean each other up generate some sexual tension. Vinnie sends Chuck into the bathroom to change, and he returns draped in one of her bedspreads. He kisses her, and soon they are making love.
The narrative returns to a little while before Vinnie last saw Fred. Fred is anxious to see Rosemary following their quarrel. He goes to Holland Park, where Rosemary is being filmed in a television role. As they talk afterwards, Rosemary tells him that they have been invited to Wales at the end of June, but he reminds her that he must return to Corinth. Rosemary does not understand his insistence that he must honor his commitments. She rejects him, and they part unreconciled.
As the days pass and he cannot get to see Rosemary again, Fred becomes desperate. He goes to her home in Chelsea, but only Mrs. Harris is there, and she will neither let him in nor take a message. He fills in time by seeing the Vogelers. They walk alongside a canal with the baby, Jakie, who manages to speak his long-delayed first word.
Fred tries to see Rosemary by going to the BBC building where she is taking part in a radio program. But after the program is over, he waits outside the wrong door and fails to meet her. He is angry with Rosemary and with himself. He thinks of his wife and decides that he must answer the letter she wrote him. Realizing that will be too slow, he decides to send a telegram.
Vinnie sits watching the polar bears at London Zoo, happier than she has been in months. In recent weeks, she has been seeing a lot of Chuck, and he stays overnight at her flat frequently. He has been gone for a week in Wiltshire, and Vinnie misses him. However, she does not want her friends to know that she has become romantically involved with him.
Vinnie attends Daphne's party but finds it noisy and crowded. Since Vinnie prepares to leave at the same time as Rosemary, Rosemary invites her to share a cab, and Vinnie tries to put in a good word for Fred, as she promised she would do. Rosemary, however, is drunk and hostile. She denounces Fred and insults Vinnie. Vinnie gets out of the cab in a hurry and takes a bus for the remainder of the journey home. Chuck calls and invites her to Wiltshire to stay with him for the summer. Vinnie cannot go for the whole summer but thinks she will go for a short visit.
In a bitter mood, Fred packs and prepares to return to the United States. He has not heard from his wife, and his academic work is going badly. He still has a key to Rosemary's house, and he decides to go there to reclaim his possessions. He lets himself into the house, goes downstairs, and finds Mrs. Harris in the basement kitchen. Her head is covered in a headscarf, and she does not look up as she speaks to him in an insulting way. Fred returns to the hall and then goes up to Rosemary's bedroom, which is untidy and unclean. He is angry at Mrs. Harris for not clearing up and even thinks she may be using Rosemary's room in her absence. The drunken Mrs. Harris follows him into the room. He stands in the closet as she approaches him, and to his astonishment she seems to want to seduce him, taunting him with phrases that Rosemary uses. Fred is furious at this evidence that Mrs. Harris must have been listening in on their conversations. He pushes her away and rushes out of the house. In bed later that evening, he realizes with horror that the woman he thought was Mrs. Harris was, in fact, Rosemary. He realizes that he has never had a good view of Mrs. Harris, having met her only once, for a fleeting moment. He wonders whether there ever was a Mrs. Harris. He is angry and realizes that Rosemary has played a trick on him; she has never really loved him. Then the thought occurs to him that Rosemary may not have been merely acting; she may be having a nervous breakdown. He decides he must get someone to look out for her welfare before he leaves.
Vinnie attends a symposium on children's literature but is bored. She also gets a shock when she discovers that her academic nemesis, Professor L. D. Zimmern, has just published a collection of essays that is almost certain to include the hostile piece he wrote about her. She knows that she would be able to complain about it to Chuck, but she still cannot make the decision to visit him. She does not much like living with anyone. She knows she will go to Wiltshire eventually, but she keeps trying to put it off.
Vinnie gets a telephone call from Ruth, Fred's estranged wife. She wants her to pass on a message to Fred that she will not be in Corinth when he returns the following day. She has no way of reaching him other than by leaving a message with Vinnie. Ruth also lets slip that her father is none other than L. D. Zimmern. Vinnie realizes she has a chance to revenge herself on him by failing to pass on the message, but she listens to the better side of her nature and decides to find Fred that evening. She knows he is going to watch the Druids perform midsummer solstice rites on Parliament Hill, a location on Hampstead Heath. Even though it is about eleven o'clock at night, she takes a train to Hampstead. She finds Fred, who is with the Vogelers on the Heath, and passes on the message.
Early next morning, Fred arranges to meet Edwin Francis outside Rosemary's house. Rosemary is home, but Edwin advises Fred that although she is all right, she is in no condition to see him. Fred makes his way to the airport to catch his flight home.
Vinnie wonders why she has not heard from Chuck in over a week. She fears that his affection for her may have cooled. Then she receives a call from Barbie Mumpson, Chuck's daughter, who says that her father died a few days ago. Barbie is in London, and she visits Vinnie in the afternoon, informing her that Chuck had a history of heart problems and died of a heart attack. His body has already been cremated and the ashes scattered in the English countryside. Barbie presents Vinnie with an engraving of Old Mumpson, that Chuck wanted her to have. After Barbie leaves, Vinnie weeps over her loss.
A week later, Vinnie has lunch with Edwin Francis. Edwin tells her that Rosemary is fine now and that she has had a history of odd behavior when she is not working steadily. He also offers the opinion that there never was a Mrs. Harris. The talk turns to Chuck's death, and Vinnie admits that she loved him. As Vinnie returns to her flat, she is happy that she has now loved and been loved, but she is also sad that the man who loved her is dead, and she allows herself to become self-pitying again.
Sir James Billings
Sir James Billings, known as Jimbo, is the husband of Posy Billings. He is a businessman specializing in high-risk investments.
Lady Posy Billings
Lady Posy Billings (Posy is short for Penelope) is an attractive, aristocratic English lady, a friend of Rosemary Radley. She has two young children. Posy likes to entertain at her country home, where she invites her lover, William Just, when her husband is out of town. Jimbo is fully aware of his wife's infidelity and accepts it in exchange for his own freedom.
Edwin Francis is a children's book editor, writer, and critic. He is small and rather overweight, with an off-hand, self-deprecating manner that hides the fact that he is a powerful figure in the children's book world. He is a friend of Vinnie and Rosemary and also something of a gossip. Edwin is a homosexual who has a succession of young lovers. His latest friend is Nico.
Professor Mike Gibson
Mike Gibson is an Oxford University professor who leads the archeological dig in Wiltshire to which Chuck Mumpson becomes attached.
Mrs. Harris is purportedly the cleaning woman hired by Rosemary Radley to clean up her messy house. At first, Mrs. Harris gets a reputation for being efficient, but she also acts strangely, refusing to answer the telephone or the door when she is at work. Rosemary takes a liking to her and frequently quotes her jaundiced pronouncements on current events and people in the news. Mrs. Harris also comes up with little bits of folklore that Rosemary delights in repeating, such as "Mrs. Harris believes that looking at the full moon through glass makes you loony, unless it's over your left shoulder." Later, however, it transpires that Mrs. Harris does not, in fact, exist. No one has ever seen her for more than a moment; she is merely a character that Rosemary, the actress, has invented.
William Just is a man of about fifty with a mild, self-effacing manner. He works for the BBC. William is a houseguest at Posy Billing's home and attends Posy's party. Although he is referred to as a cousin of Posy, it transpires that he and Posy are, in fact, lovers.
Mary Maloney is a skinny, badly dressed girl of about thirteen with a bad complexion. She accosts Vinnie in the school playground and offers to recite some rhymes for her, while insisting that Vinnie pay her for the privilege.
Ruth March is the wife of Fred Turner. He gives her the nickname, Roo. Ruth, a photographer by profession, is dark, sturdy, earthy, sensual, coarse, and passionate. She is a feminist and much more unconventional than her husband. When they married, Ruth would not take Fred's last name, preferring to adopt a new name altogether rather than retain her maiden name of Zimmern. (She is the daughter of Professor Zimmern.) Fred's friends Debby and Joe think, although they do not say it in as many words, that Ruth is "too emotional, too political, too arty, too noisy, and too Jewish," but Fred's parents like her. Fred and Ruth had been married for only a few years when Ruth had a one-woman exhibition of her photographs at Corinth, but she included photographs that offended her husband (not surprisingly, since they were of his genitals). She also included photos of the body parts of other men, although she denied to Fred that these men were her lovers. The long quarrel that followed the exhibition eventually led to the breakup of their marriage, although at the end of the novel, it is clear that they are likely to be reconciled.
Vinnie Miner is an unmarried fifty-four-year-old professor of children's literature at Corinth University, a fictional Ivy League university. She is small and plain in appearance, "the sort of person that no one ever notices." At the beginning of the novel, Vinnie is on her way to England to further her research on the play-rhymes of British and American children. She loves England and entertains a dream of becoming an English lady and living permanently in that country. She tends to overdo her Anglophilia, and her English friends regard her as something of a comic turn, with her passion for "everything British that is quaint and out-of-date."
Vinnie has been successful professionally, having published several books and established a reputation in her field. But she has not been successful in love. She was married once, when she was young, but the marriage was brief and unhappy. The men she has been involved with sexually since have tended to regard her more as a friend than a lover and choose her as a temporary distraction from the effort of pursuing other, more glamorous females. Vinnie, who has a strong tendency towards self-pity, no longer expects much from men, and she certainly does not expect to be loved. She still has sexual desires, however, and spends some mental energy creating imaginary erotic dalliances with literary critics whom she admires.
Vinnie has some small vices, also. She regularly pilfers small items, such as the toiletries available in the airplane's washroom, as well as flowers from nearby front gardens. She also enjoys inventing imaginary torments and deaths for those she perceives as her enemies, especially Professor L. D. Zimmern. She is not especially kind or generous, and she does not go out of her way to do things for other people.
When she first meets Chuck Mumpson, she looks down on him as an ignoramus, but later she discovers his virtues. After they unexpectedly become lovers, she becomes happier than she has been for months, perhaps for years. He finds her attractive, and she is able to respond to him as well. She finds out that even though she regards herself as elderly, if not downright old, life can still produce pleasant surprises, even love.
Barbie Mumpson, Chuck Mumpson's daughter, is in her mid-twenties, tanned and somewhat overweight. She brings Vinnie the news that Chuck has died of a heart attack.
Chuck Mumpson is a fifty-seven-year-old sanitation engineer from Tulsa, Oklahoma. He is married with two children. Chuck meets Vinnie on the plane to London, where he is going on a two-week package tour. Judging by his manner and his appearance, Vinnie thinks he is uninteresting. She pegs him as a Midwest businessman or rancher and as a typical American tourist, barely worth talking to. But after they meet by chance again in London, she gradually gets to know him. Chuck reveals that he was a delinquent in his teenage years, and he has had a drinking problem. Once when he was driving while intoxicated, he caused the death of a young man. He is in a loveless marriage and suffers from low self-esteem. When his company laid him off, he was unable to find alternative employment, and this did nothing for his self-confidence. In London, he is lonely and bored. However, despite his ignorance and his personal problems, Chuck has an engaging, bluff, friendly manner, and he is genuinely interested in and admires Vinnie. Because of his attitude toward her, Vinnie gets drawn into a sexual and romantic relationship with him. Chuck turns out to be a kind and generous lover and a good friend who listens to Vinnie's problems and cheers her up.
Myrna Mumpson, Chuck's wife, appears in the novel only through Chuck's comments about her. She is a real estate agent, and according to Chuck, she no longer has any affection for her husband.
Nico, a young Greek Cypriot, is Edwin Francis's lover. He is well educated, fluent in English, and has ambitions to work in television or cinema. His interest in others is in direct proportion to how much he thinks they will be able to help him achieve his goals.
Rosemary Radley, an aristocratic English actress, stars in a British television program Tallyhoo Castle, a comedy-drama series about upper-class country life. She is an accomplished actress on television and in films. Officially, Rosemary is thirty-seven years old, but she is probably older than that, although she does not look it. She has been married twice, unhappily, and has no children. She lives alone and has a history of short, tempestuous love affairs. As an actress, Rosemary specializes in portraying highborn women from every period in history, but she is frustrated because she is never asked to take on the big tragic roles, such as Lady Macbeth, for which she lacks the necessary gravitas. "Her voice is too high and sweet, and she doesn't project that kind of dark energy," says her friend, Edwin Francis. Rosemary is very attractive and charming, "with a teasing, impulsive intimacy which yet holds its victims at arm's length." She is graceful, sophisticated, and witty, but also impulsive and contradictory. She is flirtatious and on social occasions is always the center of attention. This suits her because she has a narcissistic personality; from her point of view, the world ought to revolve entirely around her. Rosemary enters into a romance with Fred Turner but spurns him when he tells her he must shortly return to the United States. She also reveals a nasty side of her personality when, drunk, she insults Vinnie. Eventually, her personality is revealed to be brittle and unstable, and she comes close to having a nervous breakdown.
Fred Turner is a twenty-nine-year-old American who, like Vinnie Miner, teaches literature at Corinth University. He specializes in the eighteenth century and is in London to do research on the English writer, John Gay. A handsome man, Fred is often mistaken on the street for a movie or television star. He is athletic, energetic, self-confident, and outgoing, yet with a serious manner. However, he is unhappy in London because he has just split up with his wife, Ruth, who was to have accompanied him on his trip. Fred's fortunes improve, however, when he begins a romance with Rosemary Radley, an aristocratic English actress. He falls in love with her and for a few months enjoys a pleasant social life meeting Rosemary's wide circle of upper-class English friends. But when he informs Rosemary that he must return to Corinth in June to teach summer school, she breaks up with him and refuses to see or talk to him. Angry and disillusioned with Rosemary, he effects reconciliation with his wife and recovers all his optimism as he prepares to return to the United States. He feels that he is "striding toward his future with a supernatural speed and confidence."
Daphne Vane is an elderly actress who has starred with Rosemary Radley in the television program, Tallyhoo Castle. She attends Rosemary's party.
Debby Vogeler is Joe's wife and the mother of the baby, Jakie. Dumpy and not very pretty, she teaches at a college in southern California, and she and her husband are spending some leave in London. Debby and Joe are old friends of Fred Turner. When they were students, Debby had a romantic interest in Fred, but he was unaware of it. She now thinks him immature and resents his professional success.
Jakie Vogeler is the Vogelers' one-year-old son. He is a difficult baby and causes quite a stir at Rosemary's party, when he knocks over a vase and drenches one of the guests.
Joe Vogeler is Debby Vogeler's husband. Like his wife, he teaches at a college in southern California. His discipline is philosophy. Joe is a native Californian, and the damp English climate does not agree with him, but he bears his frequent sickness stoically.
Professor L. D. Zimmern
Professor L. D. Zimmern is an American academic who writes an article in the Atlantic Monthly, attacking as trivial Vinnie Miner's research in comparative folklore.
Appearance and Reality
Both of the main protagonists, Vinnie and Fred, are initially deceived by outward appearances. Vinnie eventually learns not to judge by appearances, and Fred learns to value what he already has. Vinnie's personal growth is probably the more interesting of the two, because when she is compared to Fred—a plain, unmarried woman in her fifties, as opposed to a tall, dark, handsome young man—the odds seem so much stacked against her. Because Vinnie is an intellectual and professor of English, her expectations of life have been scripted by books. Since she was a little child, classic English fiction has "suggested to her what she might do, think, feel, desire, and become." Sadly, the older woman does not fare well in traditional English novels. As Vinnie notes, people over fifty "are usually portrayed as comic, pathetic, or disagreeable." Nothing exciting ever happens to them. True to form, Vinnie does not expect to find love at her age. After all, she believes that she has never really been loved by a man, so why should that change now? She also realizes that contemporary culture reinforces this belief. As portrayed in the media, only the young have sex. That older people might also have satisfying, even passionate sexual relationships is passed over in embarrassed silence. Vinnie is quite prepared to accept this situation, telling herself that even though she still has erotic impulses, it is time "to steer past … elderly sexual farce and sexual tragedy into the wide, calm sunset sea of abstinence."
When Vinnie first meets Chuck, she cannot see beyond the surface of the man. She thinks of him as a cartoon American tourist who wears a cowboy costume and is loaded up with cameras, maps, and tour guides. He appears to lack everything she values, including an education in the humanities. Education to Vinnie means being well read; it does not mean gaining the knowledge to become a sanitation engineer and earning enough to retire comfortably in one's late fifties.
However, when circumstances conspire to throw her and Chuck together, she realizes that Chuck has some substance to him that she has hitherto overlooked. He has the capacity to appreciate her, to make her feel like a woman, and he is, as she puts it, "wonderful in bed." This gives her a new perspective on what it means to participate fully in life. She is ready to cast away the predetermined script handed down to her by her beloved books and embrace what life brings her. She starts to write her own life script rather than act out someone else's. She learns, to use a cliché, that just as all that glitters is not gold, all that does not glitter is not trash. Behind Chuck's almost comic appearance and Midwestern drawl—which is also all her English friends observe in him—is a solid human being with something to offer her that she desperately needs. In her acceptance of the unexpected, her whole outlook changes. She realizes that "this world … is not English literature … [there is] plenty of time for adventure and change, even for heroism and transformation."
Vinnie's new openness to life carries over into her attitude toward her profession. Now that for the first time she has found value in a man who is completely nonintellectual, she shows some impatience with the ponderous rituals of her chosen academic profession. This shift in attitude is apparent when she becomes bored at the conference on children's literature. She is impatient with an English professor who drones on about some abstraction he calls "The Child." Vinnie wants to shout at him that "There is no Child … there are only children, each one different, unique, as we here in this room are unique." She has discovered that it is an error to pigeon-hole people, whether they are children, people over fifty, or people who happen to go around in cowboy outfits.
The unlikely romance that comes to plain, fifty-four-year-old Vinnie suggests that youth and beauty to do not have all the triumphs in love. Fred, for example, is much younger than Vinnie and is the epitome of a sexually attractive man. But while Vinnie's fortunes rise, Fred's fall. His infatuation with Rosemary almost brings him to disaster. He is so attracted to the image that Rosemary presents that he cannot bear to think of her as embodying any other qualities. He thinks of her as a heroine from a novel by Henry James, not only beautiful and delicate but also "too generous … lighthearted and trusting" to see that her friends Posy and Edwin are not true friends. Rosemary does not, in Fred's eyes, "see them as they are." In reality, however, it is Fred who does not see Rosemary as she is. He is blind to the reality that Rosemary is all appearance and little substance. Only finally, after going through all the agonies that a spurned lover endures, does Fred learn Vinnie's lesson about seeing through surface appearances. Then he realizes that whatever the faults of his wife, who is in every way Rosemary's opposite, she could never be false in the way that Rosemary has been. Once he is free of the spell cast on him by Rosemary, he assesses his life and his conduct in a more objective way. He realizes that he was foolish to allow his quarrel with his wife to get out of hand, and he also accepts that the fiasco with Rosemary was in part his fault, since he encouraged her to love him even when he knew he would be returning to America in a short while. With greater self-knowledge, free of the dream of the appearance of love, Fred places his feet on the firmer ground of reality.
Fairy Tales and Folklore
Lurie uses elements from fairy tales to enhance the theme of transformation. People are not always quite what they appear, and they can change. The most fully developed allusion is to the classic fairy tale of the frog prince, a tale that has existed, its first author unknown, for hundreds of years in Europe. It was published by Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm in Germany in 1812. The basic story is that a young princess encounters a frog at a stream after the ball she is playing with falls into the water. The frog says he will retrieve the ball for her if she will love him and let him live with her. She agrees and allows him to get the ball, but then she goes home and forgets the frog. The next day, just as the princess is sitting down to dinner, the frog knocks on her door and reminds her of her promise. The princess's father tells her she must keep her word, so she allows him to eat and then sleep the night on her bed. Then he leaves in the morning. This goes on for three nights. When the princess awakes on the fourth morning she is astonished to see that the frog has turned into a handsome prince. They live happily ever after.
In Foreign Affairs, the frog is Chuck Mumpson, the princess Vinnie. When Vinnie first speaks to Chuck on the airplane, she notices that he blinks slowly. When she next encounters him, unexpectedly, she notices that "he blinks at her in the slow way she recalls from the flight," thus identifying him with the small reptile in question. Moreover, Chuck wears a "semitransparent greenish plastic raincoat," a kind of reptilian skin which Vinnie dislikes. This raincoat later acquires symbolic importance.
Topics For Further Study
- To what extent is the United States still an Anglo culture with a special relationship to England? Using Internet research, analyze how immigration patterns to the United States have changed over the last century. From what countries do most immigrants now come? How does this compare to the nineteenth century? How are changing immigration patterns changing America? Write an essay on your findings.
- Write a short essay in which you analyze the technique by which Lurie builds up to the revelation that Mrs. Harris and Rosemary are the same person. How do the narrator's comments about Rosemary's character, her acting ability, etc. ensure that the revelation is believable while at the same time a huge surprise for the reader?
- Chuck says in Foreign Affairs that the English talk funny, and sometimes he has difficulty understanding them. Form a group with three or four other students and listen to one another talk. What accents do you hear? Are they all the same or are they different? In what way? How does a Brooklyn, New York, accent differ from, say, a Midwestern accent? Do you think that the prevalence of a national mass media is reducing the variety of regional accents? If it is, is this a good trend or something to be deplored?
- Select a British show from PBS, BBC America, or any other source. What image of England does it present? Is it romantic and idealized, or does it seem realistic? What are the main differences that strike you between the culture as presented in this program and the American culture with which you are familiar? Make a class presentation to illustrate your points, using clips from the program, if possible.
On their first meeting, like the princess in the tale, Vinnie allows Chuck to do her a favor (arranging for her to get to downtown London on the tourist bus) and then, like the princess, promptly forgets all about him. Again like the princess, Vinnie then has three encounters with her "frog." On her first two encounters, she is indifferent to him, even contemptuous. On her second encounter, for example, when Chuck comes to her flat for the first time (chapter 5), she chides him for his self-pity, and he leaves. But her third encounter is different. This is the meeting in which the "frog" undergoes a process of transformation. Accidentally, his clumsiness gets the two of them covered with avocado-and-watercress soup, a green mixture that might resemble pond slime. But when he emerges from the bathroom comically wrapped in Vinnie's bedspread, it is as if he has shed his frog's loathsome skin, and the prince has started to emerge. Vinnie discovers that she likes being the object of his attentions and that he is a sensitive and generous lover, which is exactly what she needs. The theme of the frog losing its skin and becoming something else is emphasized by Vinnie's tossing of his plastic raincoat into the trash can. When she picks it up, she does so with distaste, "observing how the greenish-gray plastic managed to feel stiff and slimy at the same time." She likens it to a "dead fish," which is the author's thinly disguised reference to the underlying frog-prince theme.
This being a worldly-wise novel, however, it comes as no surprise that the happy ending of the fairy tale is subverted. Vinnie and Chuck, princess and frog/prince, do not live happily ever after.
Lurie uses more folklore elements in the Rosemary Radley/Fred Turner plot. The lovely Rosemary, who holds everyone in thrall but is fully known by no one, is like an enchantress who bewitches Fred. This pattern echoes a fairy tale found in various literary works, including John Keats's poem "La Belle Dame Sans Merci." In his poem, a beautiful lady tells a knight that she loves him; he falls under her spell (just as Fred falls under the spell of Rosemary's irresistible charm), and she takes him into, what Keats calls, "her elfin grot" (Rosemary's house in Chelsea). Then he is cast out and ends up miserable and alone. Similarly, after Rosemary rejects him, Fred endures long empty days and nights and wanders the streets of London alone. Again, however, in Foreign Affairs, there is a reversal of the fairy tale motif, since Fred, after his initial distress, is able to come to his senses and return to his wife.
Lurie adds yet another fairy tale allusion when Rosemary is presented as a beautiful enchantress who turns into an ugly old hag (Mrs. Harris). This is both the equivalent of a comic reversal of the frog-into-prince motif and a reversal of the more common theme in folklore, of the ugly hag who turns out to be a beautiful princess. (Keats's poem "Lamia," in which a beautiful woman seduces a young man but is then transformed into a serpent, suggests the variant theme.)
On two occasions, Lurie directly mentions fairy tales, as if hinting to the reader about the subtext of her novel. The first occurs when Vinnie, who is trying to educate Chuck, sends him down to Wiltshire with a book of English fairy tales to read. The second occurs when Vinnie is shown at her typewriter, writing a review of four books of folktales.
The History of the Academic Novel
Foreign Affairs is a variant of the genre known as the academic novel, which satirizes life on the college campus. One of the earliest and most amusing of all academic novels is Lucky Jim (1954) by British writer Kingsley Amis, in which Jim Dixon, a young working-class lecturer in history, attains a position at a provincial university where he has to deal not only with his own dislike of the job but also with the upper-class fool who heads the department. In addition to being extremely witty, Amis also makes insightful points about the attempts of the post-World War II generation to break through England's traditional class structure. Following in Amis's footsteps were other British writers, including Malcolm Bradbury, who wrote Eating People Is Wrong (1959), Stepping Westward (1965), and The History Man (1975), and David Lodge, whose novels Changing Places (1975) and Small World (1984) manage to satirize both British and American academic life. Barbara Pym's An Academic Question (1986), which focuses on academic rivalry between two professors of sociology at a provincial university, is also a notable contribution to the genre.
In the United States, Randall Jarrell's Pictures from an Institution (1954), set in the fictional Ben-ton College, a women's college resembling Bryn Mawr, is the first post-World War II academic novel. Lurie continued the tradition with her The War of the Tates (1974). Foreign Affairs might be considered a variant of the genre, since it is not set on a college campus, but it does feature academics in major and minor roles and has much to say about the frustrations and perils of the academic enterprise.
Academic Study of Children's Literature
One of Lurie's specialties as a professor of English during the 1970s and 1980s was children's literature. She also made her heroine, Vinnie Miner, a professor who "has a well-established reputation in the expanding field of children's literature." As an academic discipline, the study of children's literature established itself only in the 1970s. In the novel, Vinnie complains "that children's literature is a poor relation in her department—indeed, in most English departments: a stepdaughter grudgingly tolerated." During the 1980s and afterward, however, the study of children's literature grew quite rapidly, with many colleges and universities starting to offer courses, and even entire degree programs, in children's literature. Children's literature began to be studied with the same critical theories that were applied to other forms of literature, such as structuralism, reader-response criticism, and feminism. Scholars explored issues of ideology, class, and gender, and argued that children's literature is important because it shapes how children see the world and the attitudes they are encouraged to adopt. Lurie herself made a contribution to the field in her book, Don't Tell the Grown-ups: Subversive Children's Literature (1991). In Lurie's view, the best children's literature is as good as, and even more influential than, the best adult literature.
Compare & Contrast
- 1980s: Americans appreciate the high quality of British television programs and the charming picture of British life and culture these programs present. British serial dramas such as Upstairs, Downstairs and comedies such as Monty Python's Flying Circus, shown on Public Broadcasting Service (PBS), gain a wide following.
Today: PBS reduces its British-based programming in favor of more American programming. But American lovers of British television can still watch British imports on BBC America, the Arts and Entertainment Channel (A&E), and Bravo.
- 1980s: The so-called special relationship between the United States and Great Britain flourishes. President Ronald Reagan and British prime minister Margaret Thatcher, who are both political conservatives, develop a strong rapport and pursue similar economic and foreign policies.
Today: Britain remains the closest European ally of the United States in the war against terrorism. Britain sends more troops to aid the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq than any other country.
- 1980s: Tourism is one of the largest industries in Britain, contributing about 3.6 percent of its gross domestic product. In 1980, Britain receives two million visitors from North America. However, during the 1970s and 1980s, revenue in London from tourism is adversely affected by fears of terrorist attacks by the Irish Republican Army (IRA).
Today: The number of tourists visiting Britain from North America doubles, when compared to the 1980s, to about 4.5 million per year. This number includes 3,616,000 visitors from the United States (in 2003). In 2004, the United Kingdom (Great Britain and Northern Ireland) ranks sixth in the international earnings league from tourism. Tourism provides an estimated 1.4 million jobs in the United Kingdom, which amounts to about 5 percent of all people in employment.
Reviewers were quick to praise Foreign Affairs. The general opinion was that it was Lurie's best novel up to that time. In Newsweek, Walter Clemons calls it "ingenious" and "touching" and praises Lurie's skill in characterization: "Vinnie is an entirely successful creation, Chuck almost as good." Clemons had some trouble believing what eventually happens to Rosemary and had a few other quibbles, but he acknowledges that "Vinnie Miner is granted a moving acknowledgement of love."
Like Clemons, Christopher Lehmann-Haupt in the New York Times comments favorably on the author's handling of her characters, who are "so securely fixed … at just the right distance between the pathetic and the ridiculous—that we can both like them and laugh at them." Lehmann-Haupt also comments on the novel's structure:
I couldn't help visualizing a diagram with the rise of Vinnie's fortunes superimposed on the decline of Fred Turner's. There's something almost musical in the way the two plots interplay, like two bands marching toward each other playing consonant music.
The reviewer for the New Yorker, November 5, 1984, comments on "the originality of Alison Lurie's comic vision, which has a sharp edge and a dark side," while People Weekly emphasizes the character development that the two protagonists undergo: "Vinnie is transformed by love from a mean-spirited old lady into someone who makes a difficult romantic gesture. Turner is changed from a prudish postadolescent into an appreciative husband."
Over twenty years after its publication, Foreign Affairs had retained its position as Lurie's finest novel.
Aubrey holds a Ph.D. in English and has published many articles on twentieth century literature. In this essay, he analyzes the interaction between British and American culture in Foreign Affairs.
Placing American characters in a London setting gave Lurie the opportunity to show, just as Henry James had done nearly a century earlier in The Ambassadors, the interaction between two cultures. But where James had contrasted American provincialism with European culture and sophistication, Lurie's contrasts are not so easily categorized. If Foreign Affairs is seen as a clash between different cultures, the naturalness and sincerity of American culture eventually proves itself equal if not superior to the present condition of English upper-class society.
Perhaps the best case for England rests not with the English but with the classic example of the American Anglophile, Vinnie Miner, who sits in her "flat" (i.e., apartment) with a "pot of Twining's Queen Mary tea" and sometimes entertains the notion that one day she might even be able to become a citizen of the country she has loved since childhood. For Vinnie, England has always been "the imagined and desired country," formed in her understanding by all the English literature she read, long before she ever visited the country in person. London seems like home to her, a welcome change to "billboards, used-car lots, ice storms and tornadoes," as well as "sensational and horrible news events," not to mention political demonstrations and drunken student brawls at Corinth University. Such is Vinnie's jaundiced view of American culture, to which she seems a complete stranger. Indeed, Vinnie acts in such an English manner, outdoing even the English, that it is not surprising that on the airplane Chuck Mumpson, the engineer from Oklahoma, mistakes her for an Englishwoman. A sub-theme here is the clash between two Americas; Vinnie's New England-inspired tact and refinement is set against Chuck's hearty directness and vulgarity, which earns him and his ilk Vinnie's sneer at "half-literate middle Americans." She and Chuck may be from the same country, but they are from different worlds.
Vinnie's Anglophilia is juxtaposed with the disillusionment of the Vogelers. The narrator points out that they are like many American teachers of English literature who fall in love with England based on its literature but then are disappointed when the reality fails to match their idealized expectations. Thus, the Vogelers complain that London is cold and wet, the people are unfriendly, and the tourist attractions are all disappointingly small, as if they are imitations of something grander. For the Vogelers, Britain's long and illustrious past may rise up in the imagination like an impressive mountain range, but its present reality is a collection of very ordinary foothills. Even when they start to mix with real upper middle-class English people, at Rosemary's party, they are not impressed. Joe Vogeler considers them "kind of phony-baloney" and tells Fred, "That's how the English are, especially the middle-class types … You never really know where you are with them."
Chuck also has a rather negative impression of London, complaining to Vinnie about the lumpy bed in his hotel and that English food "tastes like boiled hay; if you want a half-decent meal, you have to go to some foreign restaurant." Chuck is a practical, curious type, and he finds some evidence that backs up the Vogelers' disappointment in tourist attractions when he discovers that at the Tower of London, the crown jewels he has just paid good money to see are, in fact, copies; the real crown jewels are locked up somewhere else, inaccessible to the likes of him and other tourists. This little piece of fakery suggests indeed that London is, at least for tourists, not all that it might seem to be in the glossy travel brochures back home that seduce them into making the trip.
The English setting gives the American author plenty of opportunities for observations about the differences between the two cultures. On the airplane to England, Vinnie takes note of the excessive friendliness of Americans when traveling, and how detailed personal information is so readily divulged. Vinnie, like the true Englishwoman she is in spirit, finds this off-putting, noting that in England, "the anonymity of travelers" is preserved, and conversations between strangers are limited to topics of general interest. For his part, Chuck, who is a lot more observant and intelligent than Vinnie at first gives him credit for, notices the self-deprecating quality that is so much a part of the English character; the English have the ability to make fun of themselves, and he notes how different things are in Tulsa, Oklahoma, where the rule is "Smile, accentuate the positive, keep your eye on the doughnut, that kind of thing." Anyone who is familiar with both cultures will recognize the accuracy of Chuck's and Vinnie's observations.
Fred Turner, who like Vinnie is steeped in English literature but unlike her is on his first trip to England, also observes some cultural differences, especially when he stays for the weekend at Posy Billings's country house and takes part in a game of charades. He notes that unlike the American version of the game, which is competitive and rewards individualism and speed, the British version is more leisurely and cooperative; there are no winners, and the game is not much more than an excuse for dressing up and behaving in a silly fashion.
Lurie also calls attention, as one might expect, to some of the more obvious differences in language that an American visitor to England could hardly fail to note: the English use "lorry," for example, for truck, and "ring" someone on the telephone rather than call them, as an American would say. Only once does Lurie's ear let her down, and that is when she has an English girl who is employed as Rosemary's answering service tell Fred that Rosemary is "out of town." This phrase is not used in England; more likely the girl would have said something like "He's away at the moment," which in characteristic English fashion conveys unavailability while divulging as little information as possible.
It might be argued that all these differences, while no doubt accurately recorded, are unremarkable, little more than common knowledge for the transatlantic traveler. Just occasionally, however, in Foreign Affairs, the stereotypical ideas about each culture prove unsatisfactory and have to be revised. Vinnie, for example, believes that British playground rhymes are older and more poetic than their American counterparts, which she thinks are newer and cruder. But this is apparently disproved by Vinnie's jarring encounter with the scruffy young girl, Mary Maloney, whose obscene rhymes shock the staid professor. There are some ironies, too, relating to the two cultures, as when Chuck Mumpson, whilst declaring himself unimpressed by London, shows also, in his aspiration to find in his ancestry an English lord, that he is not immune to the lure of the older culture.
What does all this playing with cultural differences amount to? In short, by the end of the novel, honest American virtues have demonstrated their usefulness, even when matched against a society that has been shaped by hundreds of years of civilization. This can be seen first in English-in-spirit Vinnie, who overcomes her prejudice against a man who happens to come from what dwellers on the coasts of the United States are said to refer to as "flyover country." She learns to value the Midwestern virtues of sincerity, openness, and friendliness, as embodied in Chuck, even though he is so far removed from her idea of what a cultured man should be that until she makes her confession to Edwin Francis, she conceals her relationship with him from her English friends. Vinnie's friends might not understand, but she now acknowledges that the smooth, polished exterior—as embodied in Rosemary and her aristocratic friends—may not be the ultimate arbiter of value.
What Do I Read Next?
- Lurie's novel The War between the Tates (1974) is an academic novel that takes place on the campus of the fictional Corinth University, which is based on Cornell University, where Lurie teaches. The novel treats in satiric fashion the collapsing marriage of Brian Tate, a professor of political science, and his wife, Erica.
- British author David Lodge writes exceedingly funny academic novels. In Changing Places: A Tale of Two Campuses (1975), English and American academic life are subjected to hilarious satire when English academic Philip Swallow of the University of Rummidge swaps places for half a year with American scholar Morris Zapp of State University of Euphoria.
- Henry James's novel The Ambassadors (1903) shows the interaction of American innocence with sophisticated European society. Lambert Strether is sent by a rich widow to Paris to persuade the woman's son, who has taken up with an aristocratic Frenchwoman, to return home to the family business in Woollett, Massachusetts.
- Richard Russo's Straight Man (1997) is a hilarious adventure in the neurotic weekend of an interim chairman of English at a struggling U.S. university, at which administrators are laying off tenured faculty and shifting curriculum from traditional subjects, such as English literature, to more marketable applied subjects, such as technical and computer courses.
This is the lesson also learned, even more profoundly, by Fred Turner. A comparison with James's The Ambassadors illumines the point. In that story, Chad Newsome, the twenty-eight-year-old provincial American in Paris has been educated in the social graces by an older, aristocratic Frenchwoman. In Foreign Affairs, another American in his late twenties forms a relationship with an aristocratic Englishwoman at least eight years his senior, who introduces him to her upper-class circle of friends. But unlike Chad Newsome, Fred Turner is not an uncultivated provincial. He is a professor at an Ivy League university and is as intellectually sophisticated as any of the British people he meets, and he is not in the least overawed by them. In fact, after his weekend at the country house of the Billings, he is hardly enamored of the morals or lifestyles of England's rich and famous. Then when he discovers that Rosemary is, to say the least, not all she appears, with some relief he repairs his relationship with Ruth, his estranged American wife.
Rosemary and Ruth (known as Roo) emerge almost as symbols of their respective cultures. Roo is earthy, lusty, robust; she is associated with the freedom of nature and the outdoors. She likes to make love in the open air, and when Fred thinks of her, he visualizes her exposing her naked, tanned body to the sun and the air or wandering nude around the house, as was her habit. Roo is in this respect a true child of nature, not of art or civilization. The white-skinned Englishwoman Rosemary, on the other hand, is all art. She conceals rather than reveals, both physically and psychologically. She tells Fred nothing of her past, and she bathes and dresses alone. Although they are lovers, Fred has never seen her completely naked, and she makes her clothes part of her mystery and her elusiveness. Her art is the art of illusion. Fred's return to Roo, therefore, represents his flight from the mannered, artificial world of London high society—behind its genteel politeness, what secrets may lie?—to the virtues of American naturalness, which may be crude but is not false.
Source: Bryan Aubrey, Critical Essay on Foreign Affairs, in Novels for Students, Thomson Gale, 2007.
In the following interview, Lear talks with Lurie about writing, the author's works and characters, and the people and places that inspire her.
[Liz Lear:] I am interested in the idea that creative people are attracted to certain places in the world. Some of these places are said by some to have a cosmic quality or energy. Do you think Key West is one of those places?
[Alison Lurie:] I don't know that I believe in cosmic vibrations. I think that for a variety of reasons there are places that are particularly hospitable to artists and writers. First and foremost would be a relaxed and permissive atmosphere; writers are not comfortable in the typical small town because they would stand out like freaks and misfits. Secondly, the place should have life and vitality without certain standards of behavior or appearance. Climate, accessibility and beauty are other important factors. Key West certainly fits that criterion. It's a multi-cultured society living together in comparative harmony. Eccentric or original ideas, dress or behavior won't bring down disapproval. It's a sunny charming resort and there's something very seductive about living somewhere that other people pay to go to. Writers attract other writers who are friends. Once a critical mass of creative people establish themselves in a certain spot, more energy is created. There are more people to talk to, more ideas. There are people around who have read your books, who are even eager to discuss them with you. Writers have been coming to Key West for 60 years. So many writers come here now that, in fact, a critical mass does exist. Obviously it's a good time to be a writer in Key West.
Do you find this an easy place to work? Or do you find the underlying sensuality distracting?
I would find it boring to lie in the sun all day. I suppose some writers need a grey, regimented, puritanical atmosphere to keep their noses to the grindstone. I'm not one of those.
Did you always want to write? And when did you start?
I always thought it would be nice. I was encouraged as a child to think that I was good at inventing stories, so writing was always in the back of my mind as a fantasy. First I thought I'd be a painter. Then I realized that I'd become abstract and I wasn't interested in that because I was more interested in imitating nature than in playing with paint. I was in high school when I decided to try to write.
Do you write every day?
When I'm in the middle of something, I do. Sometimes I don't write at all. And sometimes I get stuck in the middle of something and have to stop and work on something else.
Who are your favorite writers?
Oh, that's difficult! From the past, I would say Dickens, Jane Austen, George Eliot, and many of the other Victorian novelists. In the 20th century, the ones who influenced me the most were people like Christopher Isherwood and Mary McCarthy. I also admire many writers that I don't have much in common with, like Bellow and Updike in America, and Waugh and Greene in England.
Have other writers been supportive of your work, and is there one in particular to whom you owe a debt of gratitude?
Many writers have been very good to me. I would say initially that my friend, Edward Hower, an excellent writer, is very important to me. I would say that I owe the most to my friend, Diane Johnson. She and I exchange manuscripts as soon as we have finished. We have been doing this for many years—actually, since she started to write and my books started to be published. Philip Roth has also been most helpful. He read a number of my earlier books and his constructive criticism was invaluable.
Of all your books, which is your favorite?
That's like asking a mother which is her favorite child. I would say that I like them all equally. When I go back to them I'm as glad to see them as I am to see my rather far-flung children when they return for a visit.
You teach at Cornell, and university life has played a large part in your books. Has this in any way affected your relationships with other faculty members?
I don't think so. I am always careful not to write about people I know, or create characters and situations that might be recognizable.
In Real People, which I presume takes place at Yaddo, the writer's retreat, you say that there's a rule that those who accept their hospitality must never write about it; if that rule is broken, they will never be allowed to return. Since you have broken this rule, are you now persona non grata at Yaddo?
I haven't asked to go back, so I really can't say. The old director who felt so strongly about this is no longer there. Possibly the new one feels differently. They try to avoid publicity as a whole simply to avoid being inundated with applications and tourists. I haven't asked to go back there because I don't need it anymore. When I first went there, I had children and no money of my own. Now I can afford my own writer's retreat.
Continuing with Real People, there is a paragraph that says, "The worst industrial hazard of literature is the poisonous gas of reputation that is discharged around a writer in direct proportion to his success." Do you feel that success and celebrity corrupt everyone to a degree?
I certainly don't. As I remember, I was talking about what happens to writers living in conventional society, which is certainly something to be avoided. I think that it's very important to know who and where you are in life at the time you attain success. If you come to it quietly and relatively late, as I did, then it isn't damaging. If you're young—say, in your twenties—suddenly you're famous for writing something very autobiographical and you're a celebrity for being the kind of person you have written about, then this can be very destructive. Truman Capote and Erica Jong are good examples of this. If you're constantly surrounded by people who tell you that you're a certain kind of person, it's very hard to go beyond that point and grow.
One of the characters in Only Children, which takes place in 1935, says, "The women we grew up with before the 19th Amendment are usually pretty irrational, like children really, because that's how they were brought up to be. When they got the vote and short skirts, it was too late for them." Did you find this true of your mother's generation?
I don't think the character in my book was right about all women. My mother and her friends were privileged not to be in that situation, even though they grew up before the 19th Amendment. They went to college, they had jobs after marriage, or did serious volunteer work. I and my friends were lucky that our mothers were not that kind of woman. As I grew older, I met a lot of women whose mothers were not in that privileged position. I think it's true that the majority of women don't know how to cope with the new freedom.
Does the character, Mary Ann, stem from your own childhood recollections? She would have been about the same age.
I tried to remember as much as I could about my own childhood in terms of what the world looked like or how I felt. The family situation in the book had a resemblance to mine, but was also similar to that of two little girls who were friends of mine at that time. I think that Mary Ann and Lolly are exaggerations of myself as a child. Mary Ann in the book is more sensible and down-to-earth than I was, and Lolly more drifty, dreamy and wrapped up in her imagination. I guess I stood somewhere between the two.
I liked your character, Anna, tremendously. Is her philosophical view of life and love similar to yours?
One can never make one character spokesperson for everything one thinks. Anna was a very real person and an exception to my rule of not putting real people in my books. She was long dead by the time I thought of this book. Also, there were no descendants to be disturbed. Besides, my view of her was so positive. Anna was the headmistress of the little progressive day-school that I attended. She was a very important influence in my life. In those days professional women were thought to be spin-sterish and oppressive. She wasn't like that all. She was very much in charge of her own life, yet always warm and kind. She was very good to me and encouraged me to write and draw, and impressed upon my parents the importance of taking me seriously.
Would that we all had someone in our lives like Anna!
I was lucky in both my parents and my school in that I didn't have to go through what so many women of my generation went through—that fight to get out of the mind-set idea that women were only good enough to take second place to men.
Is War Between the Tates particularly biographical? It seems to have chronologically coincided with some important changes in your life.
No. You feel that way because of the lag between the book's conception and the publication date. War Between the Tates was conceived while my marriage was all right. It was based on the cases of a handful of women I knew or had heard of, whose husbands had left them for younger women. My marriage broke up about six years after War Between the Tates was conceived, and for quite different reasons.
Do you still believe that there's a rule that we get what we want in life, but not our second choices?
I think that unless you're very lucky, you don't get your second choice. Anyway, your second choice usually contradicts your first.
In one of your books you comment that college campuses are filled with tired words. Was this a momentary cry from the heart?
When I first started to teach, it was on a year-round basis. This can be very oppressive. Now, at Cornell, I only teach four months out of the year, so I enjoy it very much. I think there's still a lot of tired words around because when you teach there is a continuing flood of student papers on literature and most of them aren't very inspiring.
Things are very tight in the publishing business, and it's almost impossible for anyone but an established writer to get published. As a teacher of writing, do you see much hope in the future for your students, and what advice do you give them?
It's true that things are tight, but there are some hopeful signs. For instance: there's said to be 14,000 small-press publishing houses in operation. If you have a success with one of them, you stand a good chance of getting published by a major company. Another hopeful thing is that there are many opportunities in journalism. When I was a graduate student, journalism was rather cut-and-dried, impersonal stuff. The new journalism allows you to write in an interesting, individual way, about things that take your fancy. Among my students, only a handful have published books, but many of them have gone into journalism. Some have gone into television, and get their ideas across that way.
It's rare for a book to become a bestseller. Occasionally, it happens. Most of the writers I know have at least one unpublished novel in a desk drawer. When their first book is published, it's only after having been sent around to a great many places.
Do you take an active part in politics, or support a particular political party?
I wouldn't say so. Occasionally, I give a little financial support, or sign things I approve of both locally and on the national level, but it's no big thing in my life.
What prompted you to write Imaginary Friends, and did it require a great deal of research?
I have always found sociology fascinating, and my father was a sociologist. I was reading a book one day called, When Prophecy Fails. The book was about a team of sociologists who infiltrate a midwestern cult which thinks that the world is coming to an end. I was interested in the question of cults and believers, and at the time there was an abundance of them. People were seeing flying saucers and claiming to see each others' auras and meditation was the big thing. I was fascinated with all of these things that were happening. I wondered what kind of people were susceptible and what was necessary to have that kind of belief. I thought it would make a good story, so I invented a couple of sociologists and wrote the book.
I noticed that a character named Zimmer appears in all of your novels. What is the significance of this?
Leonard Zimmer was the hero of my first unpublished novel. I felt sorry for him because he was never able to publicly express himself. Later on I started to mention him in my books and it became sort of a joke. Now I introduce him peripherally into all my books.
Your characters are real people to you then?
Yes, I suppose, in a way, they are real people.
You live in Ithaca, New York, where you teach. Key West is home part of the year and you also spend time in London. Why London?
I usually go to London for a month each year. My books are all published there and I have had relatively more success in England than I have had over here. Over the years I've got to know a lot of English people. I have friends that I want to see each year, so I do.
The publishing business has long been and still is dominated by men. The women's movement has accelerated the emergence of more women writers than ever before. Men's literature seems to be in need of a new theme, a new road to adventure and a new kind of hero. Much that is new and innovative today seems to be coming from women writers. Do you foresee a more favorable balance in the world of publishing because of this?
Since the early 19th century there have been a great many women writers. It was one of the few careers open to intelligent women of that time. Statistically, there were probably as many books written by women as by men. They just didn't achieve the same sort of reputation, except in a very few cases. In Victorian England there were famous male novelists like Dickens, Trollope, and Thackeray. Their female equivalents were the Brontës, Jane Austen, and George Eliot. The problem, as I see it, isn't a lack of women writers, but that their work hasn't been taken as seriously. A woman has to work harder and publish more before she gets the same kind of professional recognition even though her sales might be as good. For example, it took me four published novels to get a low-level teaching position at Cornell. Had I been a man, with published novels of equal quality and success as far as sales and reviews were concerned, I would have got the job much faster.
I do think that women are moving into more positions of power and it will be easier for women to get serious consideration in times to come. Unfortunately, there seems to be some back-sliding on the equality issue.
I was reading the Mellon Fellowship Award list the other day. I was pleased to note that there were 61 female awardees and 56 males. Some of them will be at Cornell.
A healthy sign. We always try to take people into our graduate program who have been out in the world for a while. We find that people who have been in school since kindergarten just haven't experienced enough to write about. Though they might write charmingly, they just aren't worldly enough. I think one can be a wonderful poet at twenty, but not a great novelist.
Your new book, Foreign Affairs, was nominated for the American Book Award, the prestigious Critics Circle Award, and received the 1984 Pulitzer Prize. Do you think this is your best book to date?
It's always nice to know that people are reading your book. It's all so arbitrary because I don't think that this book is any better than my other books. So much depends on timing, publicity, or whether or not your editor has another book he wants to push. Does your editor and publisher think that what you have to say is going to appeal to a larger audience? In this instance they do because the book says that it's possible for a not particularly attractive woman over fifty to have a romantic love affair. The publisher thinks that a great many women, forty and over, are going to want to read this book. When they guess something is going to be a success they spend a great deal of money on advertising and promotion and like a self-fulfilling prophecy the book becomes successful.
One last question. Do you think there is hope for continuing life as we know it on this planet? Or do you think we will annihilate ourselves?
I'm hoping we won't annihilate ourselves. I'm a little more optimistic than some of my friends because I remember my father saying, after the bomb was dropped on Hiroshima, that the world would end in ten years. Well, it didn't. So I think we might muddle through for a while yet.
Source: Liz Lear, "Alison Lurie: An Interview," in Key West Review, Vol. 1, No. 1, Spring 1988, pp. 42-52.
In the following review, Wickenden describes Lurie's novel as an "exercise in verbal and structural ingenuity" and argues that her characters are unappealing with secrets "no longer enticing."
Alison Lurie's world, for all its domestic discord, has always been snug. She draws us inside the sheltered environs of academe and marriage with homely scenes and limpid prose, and then regales us with indiscreet confidences about her characters' lives. We are made to feel a privileged acquaintance, with whom she can share her exasperation about the blunders, the neuroses, and the self-indulgences of the others. In her early fiction, and in her widely admired fifth novel, The War Between the Tates, Lurie submitted her characters to all of the indignities of the post-'50s social and sexual revolution, and left them battered and dazed. In her last novel, Only Children, a clever though rather cloying pastoral comedy which takes place at a summer house over the Fourth of July weekend in 1932, she examined the sexual antics of two couples and their hostess largely through the eyes of two 8-year-old-girls. Underlying all of this disorder was the sardonic voice and steady hand of Lurie herself, deftly putting the pieces back in place.
In Foreign Affairs, although Lurie leaves her American setting behind and ventures into the bowels of the British Museum and the drawing rooms of country estates, she carries along many of her old belongings. The two characters at the center of the story, Vinnie Miner and Fred Turner, are by now familiar types in her fiction: professors from Corinth University who are painfully aware of their own provincialism, but seemingly incapable of overcoming it. Vinnie is a jaded, unattractive middle-aged specialist in children's folklore with "no significant identity outside her career"; Fred, a dashing but priggish and dimwitted young colleague who is writing a book about John Gay and pinning over his estranged wife, Roo (who has grown from the animal-loving child in The War Between the Tates into a defiantly feminist photographer). They are on leave to pursue projects in London of equally dubious scholarly merit, and to indulge in unrestrained Anglophilia.
Unexpectedly, however, sexual adventures beckon for both of them. In an effort to forget Roo, Fred impulsively takes up with a stunning British aristocrat and actress named Lady Rosemary Radley; and Vinnie, who is nursing her rage over a vicious reference in The Atlantic to her life's work as "a scholarly study of playground doggerel," is slowly won over, to her chagrin, by the man who sat next to her on the flight to London, a retired waste disposal engineer from Tulsa named Chuck Mumpson. As Vinnie is making her startling discovery of the true Chuck (he's a lovable—even witty—oaf, not a boorish one), Fred is slowly uncovering the sordid truth about Lady Rosemary (her refined Boucher-like features mask dissipation, just as his own Edwardian looks and manners disguise an empty soul). In the process each stumbles across the rotting underbelly of Britain's upper class, and both briefly reckon with their own neglected consciences.
There is potential here for the kind of sharp social satire Lurie excels in, and the novel contains flashes of her distinctive wit and style. But Foreign Affairs, like its two protagonists, is hampered by an inability to surmount its own pettiness. The plot is mechanical and cluttered with unpolished jottings on everything from tourist disorientation to the ways in which specialists in Vinnie's field relate to real children; and the characters are both overwrought and undeveloped. Even Lurie's keen ear for colloquial speech and her eye for revealing mannerisms frequently fail her: in characterizing Chuck and Rosemary, Lurie vacillates between joining Vinnie and Fred in their crude typecasting—Chuck talks in an exaggerated Western twang; Rosemary flutters and giggles and pouts—and taking them to task for it.
All of Lurie's novels are programmatic: like most comic writers she relies upon formal contrivances to heighten irony, to create startling juxtapositions, to make a larger point about the individual's accommodations to the demands of society. In The War Between the Tates Erica and Brian's marital battles were punctuated by a sonorous voice-over narration which compared them to the social and political upheavals accompanying the Vietnam War. In Only Children Lurie failed in her occasional attempts to blend the naïveté of two little girls with her own stinging cynicism. But Erica and Brian were energetically and realistically drawn; and Lolly and Mary Ann, if somewhat limited as narrators, brought a fresh glimpse into the old themes of marital boredom and infidelity. In both novels Lurie credibly evoked a chapter in American social history. Alas, in Foreign Affairs the characters are so unappealing and the contrivances of plot so labored that the ironies are leaden rather than leavening. And, its title notwithstanding, the only affairs she addresses here are carnal.
As for the lessons Lurie lays out, they are of the most rudimentary sociopsychological sort. Yet these two reputable professors are maddeningly slow learners. Fred, filled with self-love, can't find happiness until his obsession with what Lady Rosemary represents is replaced by a clear-eyed recognition of what she is. (Even his lovers assume the shape of academic equations in his mind: "She is small, soft, and fair; Roo large, sturdy, and dark…. In manner and speech Rosemary is grateful, melodious; Roo by comparison clumsy and loud—in fact, coarse. Just as, compared with England, America is large, naïve, noisy, crude, etc.") It is during a game of charades—what else?—that he has his first vague glimmerings that Rosemary is not quite the fragile English flower she seems. Suddenly she and her cultivated friends appear raucous, even depraved: Rosemary "is not only vulgarly made up and loaded with costume jewelry, but is wearing the lace butterfly nightgown in which, just a few hours ago…. He wants to protest, but makes himself laugh along with the rest; after all, it's only a game." Vinnie, for her part, filled with self-hate, must not only cease to see Chuck Mumpson as a source of revulsion and pity, but herself as well. "Vinnie doesn't want her London friends to confuse her with Chuck, to think of her as after all rather simple, vulgar, and amusing—a typical American." In the end, of course, it becomes clear to Fred that Lady Rosemary, far from representing "the best of England," actually embodies the destructive self-indulgence of a decadent class society; and to Vinnie that Chuck, who reminds her of all that's shameful and ugly in America, in fact personifies American openness and stolid decency.
Still simplicities and stereotypes aside, Lurie is as deft as ever when she turns to the mortifications of romance. She is an uncannily accurate observer of the ambivalent emotions that enter into unconventional sexual alliances, and when she abandons her gimmicky plot devices and moral posturing, Foreign Affairs is funny, touching, and even suspenseful. As Fred's affair with Lady Rosemary is being consumed in horror (the final revelation scene is a weirdly appropriate combination of Hitchcock suspense and Lurie humor), Vinnie's affair with Chuck is being consummated in a moment of poignant farce. This odd couple is finally brought together thanks to a suitably ludicrous matchmaker: Chuck's plastic fold-up raincoat.
At last, a character with integrity. This homely garment not only has a perverse charm of its own, it also helps to transform Vinnie, the perpetually peevish man-hating snob, into a flustered, touchingly vulnerable woman. When Vinnie and Chuck first bump into each other in London, she disdainfully notes that he is wearing "a semitransparent greenish plastic raincoat of the most repellent American sort," and registers it as an emblem of his personality: coarse, tasteless. Yet the raincoat comes to show Vinnie more about her own shortcomings than it does about Chuck's. Her hatred of it festers over the weeks, and she turns on it in furious embarrassment after Chuck's first bumbling embrace in her tiny kitchen, in which he knocks a bowl of watercress and avocado soup over them both: "If he only had a decent raincoat instead of that awful transparent plastic thing—she gives it a nasty look as it hangs in the hall—then he could wear that while his clothes dried, or even go home in it." In several quick scenes the raincoat explains Vinnie's social pretensions and fragile dignity; and in the scenes that follow, it gives credence to the evolution of her contempt for Chuck into tolerance, affection, and—most remarkably of all—hearty sexual appetite.
In Foreign Affairs Lurie shows once again that she is a farsighted observer of human fallibilities, but an odd kind of moralist. Hers is a particularly brutal form of mockery: she forces her characters into compromising positions and then denies them any real escape. The end of the novel superficially follows the traditional comic pattern—the characters are sent back home; the social order resumes—but Lurie doesn't think much of spiritual regeneration. In the departure lounge at Heathrow, Fred begins to berate himself for behaving like a cad toward both Roo (who has forgiven him) and Rosemary (who has not), and to reflect on his shattering experiences in London. "Well, if he's learned one thing this year, it's that everyone is vulnerable, no matter how strong and independent they look…. Fred feels worse about himself than he has ever felt in his adult life." Even this elementary insight, however, is quickly supplanted: "he is, after all, a young, well-educated, good-looking American, an assistant professor in a major university; and he is on his way home to a beautiful woman who loves him." Vinnie, whose affair has ended no less disastrously, is courageous enough to confess to her gossipy British friend Edwin, who makes a slighting remark about Chuck, that she loved him. "Something has changed, she thinks. She isn't the same person she was; she has loved and been loved." An hour later she's telling herself, "It's not her nature, not her fate to be loved … her fate is to be always single, unloved, alone."
Of course, neither Fred nor Vinnie has essentially changed at all: he is still impossibly obtuse, she has reverted to whining self-pity. This elaborate novel is more of an exercise in verbal and structural ingenuity than it is a full-fledged comedy or melodrama. The snugness has become oppressive, and the secrets Lurie invites us to share, no longer enticing, are for the most part trivial, sordid, and sad.
Source: Dorothy Wickenden, "Love in London," in the New Republic, Vol. 191, No. 15, October 8, 1984, pp. 34-36.
Clemons, Walter, "Lovers and Other Strangers," in Newsweek, September 24, 1984, p. 80.
Keats, John, Keats: Poetical Works, edited by H. W. Garrod, Oxford University Press, 1973, p. 351.
Lehmann-Haupt, Christopher, Review of Foreign Affairs, in New York Times, September 13, 1984, p. C21.
Lurie, Alison, Foreign Affairs, Random House, 1984.
Review of Foreign Affairs, in New Yorker, November 5, 1984, p. 170.
Review of Foreign Affairs, in People Weekly, Vol. 22, November 5, 1984, pp. 18-19.
Costa, Richard Hauer, Alison Lurie, Twayne, 1992, pp. 55-60.
Costa offers a reading of Foreign Affairs that emphasizes Lurie's debt to Henry James, especially to James's novel, The Ambassadors (1903).
Lear, Liz, "Alison Lurie: An Interview," Key West Review, Vol. 1, No. 1, Spring 1988, pp. 42-52.
Lurie talks about living in Key West, Florida, where she spent the winter months; her writing practices; her favorite authors, and other topics.
Newman, Judie, "Paleface into Redskin: Cultural Transformations in Alison Lurie's Foreign Affairs," in Forked Tongues? Comparing Twentieth-Century British and American Literature, edited by Ann Massa and Alistair Stead, Longman, 1994, pp. 188-205.
Newman discusses the interactions in the novel between American and British culture.
Rogers, Katharine M., "Alison Lurie: The Uses of Adultery," in American Women Writing Fiction: Memory, Identity, Family, Space, edited by Mickey Pearlman, University of Kentucky Press, 1989, pp. 114-34.
This article covers Lurie's fiction up to and including Foreign Affairs. Rogers's analysis focuses on how the protagonists in these novels learn to look critically at their own lives.
Showalter, Elaine, Faculty Towers: The Academic Novel and Its Discontents, University of Pennsylvania Press, 2005.
Elaine Showalter's study is a decade-by-decade survey by a leading American feminist scholar of the history of the academic novel. Showalter discusses Lurie's work as well as books by David Lodge, Philip Roth, Jonathan Franzen, Francine Prose, Mary McCarthy, Malcolm Bradbury, and others. Showalter argues that academic novels provide a comprehensive social history of the university as well as a guide to the academic profession