Virginia Miner, a fifty-something, unmarried tenured professor, is in London to work on her new book about children’s folk rhymes. Despite carrying a U.S. passport, Vinnie feels essentially English and rather looks down on her fellow Americans. But in spite of that, she is drawn into a mortifying and oddly satisfying affair with an Oklahoman tourist who dresses more Bronco Billy than Beau Brummel.
Also in London is Vinnie’s colleague Fred Turner, a handsome, flat broke, newly separated, and thoroughly miserable young man trying to focus on his own research. Instead, he is distracted by a beautiful and unpredictable English actress and the world she belongs to.
Both American, both abroad, and both achingly lonely, Vinnie and Fred play out their confused alienation and dizzying romantic liaisons in Alison Lurie’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel. Smartly written, poignant, and witty, Foreign Affairs remains an enduring comic masterpiece.
“A splendid comedy, very bright, brilliantly written in a confident and original manner. The best book by one of our finest writers.” –Elizabeth Hardwick
“There is no American writer I have read with more constant pleasure and sympathy. . . . Foreign Affairs earns the same shelf as Henry James and Edith Wharton.” –John Fowles
“If you manage to read only a few good novels a year, make this one of them.” –USA Today
Alison Lurie is the author of many highly praised novels, including The War Between the Tates, The Truth About Lorin Jones (Prix Femina Etranger), and Foreign Affairs (Pulitzer Prize for fiction). She teaches writing, folklore, and literature at Cornell University.
Question: Did Foreign Affairs come to you in terms of a character or of a structure?
Alison Lurie: Mostly in terms of a theme. Once I started spending time abroad, I noticed that friends and colleagues who moved from one country to another sometimes got a second chance at life. I wanted to write about how people, when they are in a new place and not surrounded by the expectations of others, can change. I think that can also happen when you move from one part of this country to another. When I see friends from New York in Key West, they often seem different there from how they are in New York.
Q: You do a lot with allegorical figures and animal equivalents, like the invisible little dog that follows Vinnie onto the plane in the first scene. Do you see the characters like animals in your mind’s eye?
AL: I must think that way because I find that I keep doing it. By the way, Vinnie’s dog isn’t always little. The thing about Fido is that his size changes depending on how sorry she’s feeling for herself. He’s still there at the end of the novel, but he’s much smaller. It would be illogical to think that Vinnie will never feel self-pity again, but she’s not as consumed by it as she was at the beginning of the book.
Q: You have taught children’s literature and Vinnie is an expert on children’s literature. Why did you choose the same profession for your character?
AL: I’ve taught folklore and children’s literature, so I didn’t have to do a lot of research to show Vinnie as an expert in this field. Also it suited her as I imagined her: someone who had a happy early childhood and then a miserable adolescence. I have a theory that people who teach children’s literature tend to have enjoyed being children and want to continue being children. When Vinnie was little, it didn’t matter that she was small and plain, because little children don’t care about that.
Q: When did you start going to England every summer?
AL: In 1970, my first husband had a sabbatical, so we were in England from January to June of that year, and that’s when I really started to get to know the place.
Q: And are you as much of an Anglophile as Vinnie?
AL: Almost as much. Although, like her, I sometimes get disillusioned.
Q: What is it that you like about the British?
AL: They read more. They’re better educated. They don’t apologize for talking about books and art and ideas. Of course, in England I’ve mostly met literary people, whereas in America I know all kinds of people, so I may think the English are more educated and intelligent than they really are. But I do believe they’re more verbal. Their ads, for example, depend on verbal cleverness and literary reference more than ours do. They may not be intrinsically kinder or gentler in England, but they’re more aware of the rules and more apt to follow them. People say the English are getting ruder, and they talk about soccer hooligans. But I haven’t seen that. Not only do people still queue, but if someone tries to jump the queue everyone else will protest. Americans, on the other hand, may be more spontaneously helpful than the English. The English are taught not to get involved with strangers or invade other people’s privacy. In America, we aren’t al- ways taught to mind our own business, so people are more likely to step forward and help.
Q: To me, a central theme of your story has to do with Vinnie becoming more American.
AL: Yes. She begins by rejecting America. When she gets on the plane to Britain, she dislikes America. But by the end, she’s fallen in love with someone who stands for everything she didn’t like about America. The big moment for her is when she does something frightening and uncomfortable because she wants to do what Chuck would have expected of her. His view of her is that she’s an absolutely wonderful person. She knows she’s not, but she wants to live up to that view of herself. And by doing this thing, which she doesn’t think of as very important, she has a tremendous effect on the lives of other people.
Q: Was Henry James consciously on your mind when you were writing Foreign Affairs? You cover some of the same territory, such as the differences between Europeans and Americans.
AL: Oh, certainly. I don’t think you can write a novel like mine without thinking about James. Of course, James was more concerned about American innocence and European sophistication. I don’t think that difference is so great any more. In fact, it may be reversed in some cases: Some British people come to New York now and feel like innocents.
Q: Which characters in the book are the most Jamesian?
AL: What’s Jamesian are the situations more than the characters— the situation with Fred Turner, for example: a very good-looking young man who comes to London and falls in love with an older woman. You can’t help but think of The Ambassadors and Chad Newsome, who goes to Paris and gets involved with Mme de Vionnet, who likes him for the same reason that my character Rosemary Radley likes Fred: because he’s young and good-looking and inexpe- rienced. My character, Chuck Mumpson, is a little bit like Caspar Goodwood, the noble Midwestern barbarian of The Portrait of a Lady. Isabel would have been much better off marrying him instead of Gilbert Osmond.
Q: Is there any other writer whose influence was important to Foreign Affairs? To me, the book is very Austenlike in its texture.
AL: Yes, everybody says that, but I don’t think there’s anyone in it that is like an Austen character.
Q: Well I can see a remote similarity between Vinnie and Emma, in that they’re both a little self-satisfied.
AL: Oh, but Vinnie is so unhappy. She is one down at the beginning, whereas Emma, as we are told in the first sentence, is handsome and clever and rich. Vinnie is clever, but she’s never been handsome or rich. She is someone whose personal life has been a failure, and she’s resigned to putting up with that. The only Austen heroine I can think of who is disappointed and has given up is Anne Elliot of Persuasion. But she’s not really like Vinnie, either.
Q: No, I don’t think there is anyone quite like Vinnie. I wasn’t thinking of Austenlike characters so much as a texture of observation and wit.
AL: Every writer who aspires to write about society and small worlds wants to be compared to Jane Austen.
Q: Do you believe, as Vinnie does, that English literature is a good guide to life?
AL: Some books are better guides than others. Jane Austen or even Anthony Trollope is better as a guide to life than Henry James, for example, because James suggests that things are not going to work out and that you almost can’t trust anyone. I’m more optimistic than that. In James, people don’t usually get a second chance after they mess up. He is essentially tragic. To me, comedy is essential. If you took all the comedy out of my books, there wouldn’t be much left. I’m happy to be called a comic novelist, although it’s perfectly true that if you’re a tragic novelist, you get more respect and more awards.
Q: Vinnie is fifty-three in the novel. Is this important?
AL: It is important, because it’s an age that women are taught means their emotional lives are over, and she accepts that. When she gets on the plane, she’s given up. And there’s that mean review of her work by L . D. Zimmern, who appears in many of my books, always causing trouble.
Q: Oh, does he always appear as a troublemaker?
AL:Well, in the beginning he was a troublemaker. In Foreign Affairs, he’s just very cynical. His attitude toward life is sour. He’s that way because he was the hero of my first unpublished novel.
Q: So he’s bitter because he never got published?
AL: Right. He never got published, never went before the public as he hoped. Of course, in my unpublished novel he’s just a young teacher in a boarding school. But in Foreign Affairs, he’s become a well-known literary critic and professor. He’s had worldly success but it’s only softened him a little. When he appears in The Last Resort, a recent book of mine, he’s retired and famous and has softened quite a bit.
Q: That must be fun, to invent a character and continue to flesh him out in subsequent novels.
AL: Absolutely. I only wish I’d put him in sooner. He’s not in Love and Friendship or The Nowhere City, but after those he appears in every book.
Q: Roo, Fred Turner’s wife, is Zimmern’s daughter.
AL: Yes; she appears in The War Between the Tates as a child. Fred appears in Love and Friendship as a child of four. He’s the son of the heroine of that book, Emily Turner, and his function is to prevent Emily from getting together with this man she is interested in. It’s fun to let characters turn up again, and it saves time too, because even with a minor character or secondary character, you’ve got to know a lot about them. You have to figure out where they came from, even if these details don’t show up on the finished page. There are lots of recycled characters in my work. Chuck’s daughter Barbie turns up later in The Last Resort, and so does her awful mother.
Q: Which scenes of this novel did you most like to write?
AL: It was all fun. I enjoyed writing the scene where Vinnie is collecting folk rhymes in the school yard, and she’s so shocked by what she collects. That’s an issue in the field of children’s literature: Children’s songs and stories aren’t always as sweet and innocent as some scholars would like them or expect them to be. And the scene where Rosemary pretends to be her own cleaning lady—that was fun.
Q: Was there a Chuck Mumpson in your life?
AL: Well, at some very distant remove, Chuck has something to do with Edward [Alison’s husband]. Not because of his character, but because in Vinnie’s view, he’s an inappropriate partner. He’s not the sort of man she can seriously imagine for herself. I name the men she does sometimes have fantasies about. I made a list of real professors and writers I knew. They all just loved that. Dan Aaron, Mike Abrams, Alfred Kazin, Arthur Mizener—they’re the sort of men Vinnie would have liked to be involved with: older, intellectual, sophisticated. Not a sanitary engineer from Tulsa in a string tie.
Q: How was Edward inappropriate?
AL: He’s fourteen years younger than me.
Q: Why did Chuck have to die?
AL: Chuck had to die for several reasons. One is that if he hadn’t known he was seriously ill, he would have gone home, where he had obligations. A man like Chuck would not hang around England looking for his ancestors if he were well. But I also think that, even though they loved each other, it would have been difficult for Chuck and Vinnie to be together over the long run. What would Chuck do in a university town?
Q: They probably need sanitary engineers there, too.
AL: They probably do.
Q: We haven’t talked about Rosemary Radley. Do you know any English actresses?
AL: I’ve met several English actresses. I never got to know any of them well, but I have met them, and I think there’s a kind of actress—or actor—who doesn’t have much of a self. They have a wonderful act, which is maybe bigger than life. They come into a room and everyone notices them, but they have this emptiness inside. Some people believe that you need that emptiness in order to be a great actor. That’s what was said about Laurence Olivier—that there was nobody there.
Q: Rosemary is really the only English person in the book except Edwin Francis.
AL: True, there are not many. It would be hard for me to write a novel with an English hero or heroine. It’s hard to write about people from another culture unless you’ve spent a lot of time there.
Q: I was thinking of Matchpoint, the Woody Allen movie. The cast has many English characters and they’re very believable.
AL: But maybe it’s easier in a film where you have English actors. In fiction, even a really brilliant writer may have trouble with foreigners. Tony Powell created an American character at the end of A Dance to the Music of Time and he sometimes would ask me, or other Americans, What would he do? What would he wear? And even with our help, the character wasn’t quite believable, and I can’t say exactly why. Somehow, he’s not as real as the English characters.
Q: Maybe it’s more difficult when there’s only one and he or she has to bear the weight of the culture they represent.
AL: That may be true. I think Rosemary and Edwin are believable, but I don’t go into their minds. I wouldn’t want to try. That’s a difference between me and Diane Johnson. She lives in France most of the time, and her daughter has married into a French family. She feels comfortable writing about French characters in depth.
Q: Did you feel a need to increase the intensity at the end of the novel?
AL: Well, I like a little melodrama if there’s room for it. I thought, if Vinnie is going to have an intense experience, Fred should, too. I didn’t want him to go back to America still in love with Rosemary, because it would have been hard on his marriage. Luckily, with people in a book, you can arrange their lives in a way you can’t in reality. I think to write fiction you have to have a love of making up stories and maybe even have an impulse to interfere in people’s lives. You don’t want to interfere in the lives of your family and friends, because that’s not right, so you interfere in the lives of imaginary people.