Far more than just a jolly trip down memory lane, with a backdrop of dreaming spires, this is a moving and mature work
Memory is like a stained glass window. Sometimes the light streams through, illuminating the past with warmth and colour. More often, it remains dim, dark or even opaque. Our recollection is clearest when we revisit our youth, but even then we see only vignettes, glimpses of glory and anguish, fixed forever in the mind. Like glazed medieval images, they are remote in time, yet vivid and immediate. Reminiscences are windows into our souls, suffused with gratitude or regret, as the case may be.
Such are the scenes evoked by an old photograph in Fenella Gentleman’s The Reading Party. Far more than just a jolly trip down memory lane, with a backdrop of dreaming spires, this is a moving and mature work by any standards, let alone a first novel by an author at an age when most people are thinking about retirement. Her background in publishing hardly diminishes her splendid achievement in launching a writing career in her sixties.
Gentleman has located her debut in the Oxford of 1977, basing it closely on her own experience there as one of a handful of female undergraduates at a male college (in her case Wadham) that had only just, after much agonising, “gone mixed”. I was in the same year (at Magdalen, then still single-sex) and knew the author. Her narrator, however, is not a student but Sarah Addleshaw, a newly-elected junior fellow and the college’s first female tutor. This choice of authorial voice is slightly tricky, because Gentleman has never been an Oxford don, but she pulls it off convincingly. The fact that Sarah herself is new to the game too is a useful device, enabling her creator to explain the arcane traditions and jargon of that time and place, though a useful glossary of Oxford terminology is also provided.
At first I was disconcerted by Sarah’s preference for indirect speech, and her habit of being nonplussed by the sheer masculinity of Oxford life; but I need not have worried. As the narrative gathers pace, so the energy of the prose picks up too. Gentleman can do gentlemen and she also does dialogue very well.
The plot revolves around the Reading Party: an annual vacation study week in a Cornish country house for a dozen undergraduates, supervised by the gauche but gutsy redhead Sarah and Dr Dennis Loxton, an elderly and intimidating philosopher. Carrock Loose, the coastal refuge where the Reading Party gather in late spring, is a character in its own right: ancient, creaky and comfortable, it provides the occasions for endless combination and combustion as the undergraduates get to know one other and themselves.
If The Reading Party sounds rather like a cross between Agatha Christie, Donna Tartt and P.G. Wodehouse, it is none the worse for that. Variations on two classic English themes — the drawing room comedy of manners and the academic novel — are played here in a distinctly minor key. Gentleman does not feel the need to compete with Evelyn Waugh or Kingsley Amis, though her wry sympathy for those who don’t quite fit into institutional life reminds me slightly of Angus Wilson’s Anglo-Saxon Attitudes.
At the heart of The Reading Party is a love story. As she emerges from a sticky chat with the Warden about what is expected of her during her first Reading Party, Sarah collides with a young man, sending her papers flying. Tyler Winston, a Rhodes Scholar from Harvard, is older, sexier and more sophisticated than his British counterparts, but as a student he is strictly off-limits to a tutor, however junior. He is so discreet that she is left unsure whether her interest is reciprocated. Her awareness of this forbidden fruit at Carrock Loose is a delicious but disturbing distraction for Sarah, who is simultaneously trying to do the right thing while not letting herself be walked over, either by bumptious male students or by her senior colleague, seemingly the embodiment of patriarchy.
Loxton (or Dennis, as she eventually decides to call him) is the most enigmatic presence of all. Is he the driest of dry sticks, a confirmed bachelor, possibly homosexual but certainly a misogynist, whose emotional development was stunted by wartime service as a codebreaker at Bletchley Park? Or is there more to the old boy than Sarah, a social historian of early feminists and suffragettes, at first assumes? The complex personality that gradually emerges is surprising to the narrator but not to this reader, at least. In my time at Oxford and Cambridge I encountered several men in the Loxton mould; invariably such dons proved to be the most exemplary and unselfish of teachers.
The undergraduates fall into two camps: privileged and more or less pretentious, or shy and more or less anxious. Yet however they struggle to keep their ends up or to mask their insecurities, in the enchanted world of the Cornish retreat all are seized by an infectious and irresistible zest for adventure.
There is little that is melodramatic about the action of this novel. It draws pleasure from the ordinary business of preparing food and keeping warm, playing games and getting drunk. But the charged atmosphere conjured by Gentleman lends even her account of the long hours spent reading an extraordinary fascination. Nothing happens for a week — and yet nothing will ever be the same. What she has done in The Reading Party is to fix in amber the experience of a generation — our generation. It reminded me of Wordsworth’s definition of poetry: emotion recollected in tranquillity.