BookBin2010: Felicity & Barbara Pym

Reading Harrison Solow’s book, Felicity & Barbara Pym, has brought me to a personally disturbing realization: I have become a lazy reader.

As many denizens know, I have a degree in English. More than this, I loved being an English major. I loved the hours of reading, the piecing together of analytical puzzles, the solving of previously unseen riddles. Therefore, the world that Solow’s characters inhabit in this skillfully crafted hybrid of academic and artistic reflection is a world with which I was once intimately familiar. It was a world in which there was time enough at last to dissect Aunt Jennifer’s tigers or to contemplate the feminist victory hidden within The War of the Worlds. Literature was sacrosanct and scrutable in one broad stroke and authors were gods to be questioned with delicious impunity.

Since my undergraduate days, my opportunities to read with such analytical fervor have all but disappeared. Life has reduced my reading time to the moments right before Wynken, Blynken, and Nod swing by to pick me up in their little wooden boat, with bonus time added for beach and rainy day reading. However, there are moments, such as those I felt while reading this book, in which I long for my English major days.

Solow has captured with laudable precision both what makes this course of study delightful and exasperating. She acknowledges the nadir that many English majors reach during their studies in which they begin to question the worth of their efforts. “Why should I study _____?” She also addresses the sometimes questionable approaches and attitudes of those responsible for guiding students through their studies.

I very much applaud this aspect of Solow’s narrative. While I encountered far more within my collegiate experience who were exemplary teachers (including the extraordinary English professor who inspired me so much that I chose English as my own undergraduate path), I encountered quite a few who resided at the far opposite end of this spectrum. This included one professor whose terminal disinterest and megalomaniacal self-promotion caused me to call into question everything pertaining to my field of study.

Plus, Solow does all of this while utilizing a form of writing that delights me when I find it being utilized by modern authors: the epistolary approach. I suppose it would be more appropriate to label Solow’s work “e-pistolary,” since the entire effort transpires through e-mail. This particular e-pistolary novel is monologic in approach. The only voice we ever read is provided by protagonist Mallory Cooper, who has taken on tutoring the eponymous Felicity as she prepares for an upcoming seminar on English author Barbara Pym.

I suspect that I would have both revered and feared a professor like Mallory Cooper, the former for her enviable knowledge of literature as well as her analytical and linguistic prowess, and the latter for the boldness of her critiques and expectations. She strikes me as the professor most inclined to learn the limits of her students’ comfort zones, and then to proceed to require performance that pushes well beyond those limits. She also strikes me as the kind of professor every student should encounter, even if only once during their studies, as she will leave you exhausted but inevitably improved.

Final Verdict: One of my favorite quotes from My Fair Lady comes from Professor Henry Higgins as he explains to Eliza Dolittle why it is so important that she succeed in her efforts to speak properly: “The majesty and grandeur of the English language, it’s the greatest possession we have. The noblest thoughts that ever flowed through the hearts of men are contained in its extraordinary, imaginative, and musical mixtures of sounds. And that’s what you’ve set yourself out to conquer, Eliza. And conquer it you will.”

I think this is an appropriate summary of Mallory Cooper’s (and ultimately Harrison Solow’s) message to Felicity. Literature encompasses some of the noblest thoughts, the most glorious imagery, and the most contentious arguments to ever flow from the minds of those who dare put pen to paper (or fingers to keys in this modern age). Whether it is a work from a scion of the literary canon or from a lesser known voice like Barbara Pym, there is worth to be found, meaning to be examined. And while the ultimate goal to literary analysis is not conquering but rather understanding, it is still a field deserving of a conqueror’s focus and drive.

With Felicity & Barbara Pym, Solow has written both a love letter and an admonishment to those within her field of literary analysis, and she has done so with grace, accuracy, and honesty. I will happily be placing this one on my shelf right where it belongs: among the classics that I discovered while earning my degree in English.