For one thing it is full of details about how the university college functions, how the staff and students inter-relate, and the idiosyncrasies and bureaucracy of academia. For another I didn’t want it to end, so I didn’t read through at breakneck speed in my usual way, but rationed myself and took it slowly. It may look from the book jacket that it is a light and fluffy love story (well there is a love story in there), but it is much more than that, posing moral dilemmas that are not limited to the academic world. I’m not sure I would have picked up this book just from its cover, so I’m really pleased that Rosy Thornton, who is a Fellow of Emmanuel College, Cambridge, sent me a copy to read.
St Radegund's College, an all-female college has just broken with 160 years of tradition by appointing former BBC executive James Rycarte as its new Head of House as successor to the former Mistress, the much-loved Dame Emily. The problems facing James seem to mount as, in addition to the rent strike by the students, he has to contend with opposition from some of the Fellows to his headship. There is the thorny question of his title – should he be called ‘Master’ which has “unfortunate resonances” in a women’s’ college or some other title such as ‘President’ or ‘Provost’ or ‘Warden’; for a while he goes by the title ‘Mistress’ before settling for ‘Master’. The library is sinking into the Cambridge fen mud and there isn’t enough money in the building contingency fund to pay for the remedial work; and Martha’s post of Senior Tutor is coming to the end of its period of office, the only suitable candidate being Dr Ros Clarke, who is leading the opposition to James as Head of House.
The perfect solution appears when Luigi Alvau, an old friend offers James a large donation. This would cover the costs of repairing the library and enable the college to set up scholarships for students who would otherwise not be able to afford a place. The sting in the tail is that Alvau’s daughter is applying for a place at the college. James with Martha’s support gradually wins over some of the Fellows. Martha meanwhile has her own problems. Not only is she faced with the problem of continuing her career, she has a depressed teenage daughter who refuses to go to school and spends her days in bed and a husband who seemingly exists on writing one or two poems in Italian every now and then, spending much of his time “thinking”. The only comfort she gets at home is from her ginger tomcat Maynard. Through Martha’s situation we are presented with the classic situation of how to balance work and home, with the added complications of difficult mother/daughter relationships between Martha and her daughter and Martha and her own mother.
Relationships are a key theme in the book, as James works to establish his relationships with the staff, the difficulties of maintaining a long-distance relationship with his son and his increasing reliance on Martha. Then there are the students and their relationships with each other and the Dean. How James survives in a “woman’s world” provides much scope for gently poking fun - for example I loved the tale of the SCR curtains, agreed upon by the Pictures, Plate and Furniture Sub-Committee and James's amazement that this is discussed by the entire academic staff at the annual meeting of the Governing Body. Opinion is divided between a traditional William Morris print and a more geometric Mondrian-style pattern.
More seriously the book raises questions, such as should the college compromise its integrity and take a donation when it cannot be sure of its origins? When its origins could be ill-gotton gains from bribery and corruption? Should the library be left to sink? And what about the question of donations from parents – are they evidence of bribery for a place or a genuine means of raising funds? Should students be penalised if they can’t afford their education? Or indeed should students be denied a place if their parents make donations? I was intrigued to read on and see how or if these questions were resolved?
There are echoes of C P Snow's novels, that I read and enjoyed many years ago, particularly The Masters in the Strangers and Brothers series and I noticed in the acknowledgements that the book developed from a joke about Snow. This is an intelligent and witty novel which kept me greatly entertained and gave me food for thought. I do hope there will be more books from Dr Thornton.
Hearts and Minds by Rosy Thornton, published by Headline Review, 2007, hardback, 341 pages.