There’s just one more novel I’d like to comment on in my current fixation with romance fiction.
Kingsley Amis (1922 -95) would probably have been surprised to think that he had written a romance. (Certainly he considered Jane Austen to be snobbish and ‘second rate’.) Lucky Jim, published in 1954, can be seen as a war between Jim and everything that he hates – arty pretentiousness, academic laziness (though Jim is hardly a shining light in this area) and emotional manipulation. Some see it as a satire on the ‘redbrick’ universities, though equally it could be seen as an attack on the way in which the vices of the traditional universities like Oxford got transferred into the newer ones. But for all this, it has the conventional structure of a romance. Jim and Christine meet, their relationship faces obstacles, and these are ultimately overcome.
Jim Dixon is a junior History lecturer of no particular academic achievement in an unnamed provincial university, still on probation, and anxious to make a good impression – or rather to correct the bad impression he has already unintentionally made. He is a very ordinary young man of no particular social class, but with a flat northern accent – enough to mark him out as being different from many of his colleagues. He is attempting academic life because he doesn’t think he would be any good as a school teacher. But he is bored with his subject, mediaeval history, despises his boss, Professor Welch, and feels uneasily that he is being drawn into a relationship he doesn’t really want with Margaret, a colleague in the department. At an ‘arty’ weekend at the Welches’ house, he meets Christine, the girlfriend of the Professor’s son, Bertrand; she seems to sum up everything in a young woman that he wants but can’t have. After a series of very funny social disasters, culminating in the shambles of Dixon’s public lecture on Merrie England, each of them rejects their previous emotional entanglement, and they end up together.
The book differs in two main ways from a traditional romance. First, the main character is male, and the story is told from his point of view. He feels out of his depth with women, especially women like Christine. ‘The notion that women like this were never on view except as the property of men like Bertrand was so familiar to him that it had long since ceased to appear an injustice. The huge class that contained Margaret was destined to provide his own womenfolk’. When he gets to know her a bit better, things seem just as hopeless. ‘The girl was doubly guilty, first of looking like that secondly of appearing in front of him looking like that’. When Christine proves friendly, he can scarcely believe it. Dancing with her, he can barely resist ‘breaking out into an imbecile smirk of excitement and pride’.
Second, Christine’s feelings are never really explained, and she remains very much just a symbol of what Dixon wants but doesn’t think he can get. ‘You don’t think she’d have you, do you? A shabby little provincial bore like you’, a jealous Margaret screams at him. And it isn’t really clear why Christine does like him.
I haven’t much enjoyed anything else that Amis wrote. I find it interesting that it is just where he departs from the concerns of female romance writers that I find him lacking in his other books – his relentlessly male approach, and his disregard of, and even disrespect for women.
Lucky Jim is incredibly funny. This is partly because of the inner dialogue in Jim’s head, as in the following example: ‘The bloody old towser-faced boot-faced totem pole on a crap reservation, Dixon thought. “You bloody old towser-faced boot-faced totem pole on a crap reservation,” he said’. It is also partly because of the hilarious situations he gets himself into, and partly because he overcomes such deserving targets as snobbery and pretension. And it is the humour that lets him get away with a character like the unregenerate Jim. While Lucky Jim fits the romance formula, it may be popular despite this rather than because of it. But it’s still well worth reading.
Lucky Jim also made it onto Time’s All Time 100 list. You can find out more about Lucky Jim here.