On a cold blowy February day a woman is boarding the ten A.M. flight to London, followed by an invisible dog. The woman’s name is Virginia Miner: she is fifty-four years old, small, plain, and unmarried—the sort of person that no one ever notices, though she is an Ivy League college professor who has published several books and has a well-established reputation in the expanding field of children’s literature.
Foreign Affairs won the Pulitzer Prize in 1985, and that’s kind of why I picked it up – or downloaded it.
When I hear ‘Pulitzer Prize’ my thoughts immediately go to serious, heavy, intellectual, books that make my head spin and are weighted down with its splendiferous and bamboozling plot structure.
So to read this book, which seems comparatively light and occasionally humorous, is a, well let me be honest here, it was quite a relief. And a fast read too. Was I expecting a slog? Why yes, a little. So why bother? Pulitzer Prize! But what’s the point? I don’t know, ticking things off a list perhaps?
But enough with the whys and instead, here’s the what.
Foreign Affairs is the story of two academics, Virginia (Vinnie) Miller and Fred Turner who are colleagues at a college in the US and are traveling to England for research. They may both be in the English department but they don’t really know each other and their paths don’t really cross in England, other than gatherings with some mutual friends.
They lead very different lives. Fred is young and recently separated from his wife, oh and he’s good looking too, the kind of good looking that strangers stare at, wondering if he’s an actor or something. Vinnie is in her 50s, single, and a little quirky – there’s that imaginary dog Fido of hers, and her fondness for stealing little things like the lotions and soaps in the airplane bathroom.
Foreign Affairs has that additional plus of being set in England, with American Anglophiles and non-Anglophiles – or rather they were Anglophiles before they arrived in England. Because I’m a bit of an Anglophile myself and went to the University of Sussex for graduate school.
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.
I have this rather soft spot for Vinnie. She is such a great character, a little eccentric and humorous, and who is fond of intellectuals, even in her fantasies.
She had thus over the years enjoyed imaginary relationships with, among others, Daniel Aaron, M. H. Abrams, John Cheever, Robert Lowell, Arthur Mizener, Walker Percy, Mark Schorer, Wallace Stegner, Peter Taylor, Lionel Trilling, Robert Penn Warren, and Richard Wilbur. As this list shows, she rather preferred older men; and she insisted on intellectuals. When several members of a women’s group she belonged to in the early seventies confessed that they had pas-sionate fantasies about their carpenter, their gar-dener, or the mechanic at the service station, Vinnie was astonished and a little repelled. What would be the point of going to bed with someone like that?
And the way she reasons with herself on not living with someone.
And then there is the noise and clutter that’s involved in having someone else always around, walking from room to room, opening and shutting doors, turning on the radio, the television, the record player, the stove, and the shower. Having to negotiate with this someone before you did the simplest thing: having to agree with them about when and where and what to eat, when to sleep, when to bathe, what film to see, where to go on holiday, whom to invite to dinner. Having to ask permission, as it were, to see her friends or hang a picture or buy a plant; having to inform someone every single damn time she felt like taking any action whatsoever.
Ah Vinnie. I wanted the book to be all about her and not Fred, who could be amusing at times and also whiny. She is original, charming in her own way and just unforgettable. Foreign Affairs was such a delightful book. And who says delightful can’t win the Pulitzer Prize?
Love and Friendship (1962)
Imaginary Friends (1967)
Real People (1969)
The War Between the Tates (1974)
Only Children (1979)
Foreign Affairs (1984)
The Truth About Lorin Jones (1989)
Women and Ghosts (1994)
The Last Resort (1998)
Truth and Consequences (2006)
The Language of Clothes
Don’t Tell the Grown-ups: Subversive Children’s Literature
Boys and Girls Forever