Alison Lurie was a Pulitzer-winning novelist and academic who was best known for her comedies of manners about well-educated women who have plunged into a marriage or career that fails to live up to expectations. She was able to blend mordant wit and boundless empathy to chronicle the lives of women searching for self-knowledge and self-fulfilment while going about the business of everyday life.
In addition to writing 11 works of fiction, Lurie was an essayist and a scholar of children’s literature who taught at Cornell University in the state of New York for years. But she was best known for her comedies of manners – many of them set at the fictional Corinth University – about well-educated women who have plunged into a marriage or career that fails, sometimes woefully, to live up to expectations.
Lurie mastered the brisk and wry detachment often associated with Jane Austen, whose books were similarly concerned with social mores and relationships between men and women. In her books, Lurie skewered outwardly utopian campus life and seemingly orderly marriages.
“She’s satirical, but she’s got compassion,” said Judith Newman, emeritus professor of American studies at the University of Nottingham and author of a critical study of Lurie’s work. “You like her characters, and you watch them and think, oh, don’t do that, you silly fool.”
Lurie, who has died aged 94 in December 2020, won the Pulitzer Prize in 1985 for her novel Foreign Affairs, which follows a 54-year-old scholar of children’s literature and a younger male colleague, two Americans on sabbatical in London, who undergo separate, sometimes intersecting, romantic escapades.
Lurie wrote of her main character, Virginia “Vinnie” Miner, who fears that she is calcifying into a “Spinster Professor”: “In most novels it is taken for granted that people over 50 are as set in their ways as elderly apple trees, and as permanently shaped and scarred by the years they have weathered. The literary convention is that nothing major can happen to them except through subtraction. They may be struck by lightning or pruned by the hand of man; they may grow weak or hollow; their sparse fruit may become misshapen, spotted, or sourly crabbed. They may endure these changes nobly or meanly. But, they cannot, even under the best of conditions, put out new growth or burst into lush and unexpected bloom.”
“Why, after all, should Vinnie become a minor character in her own life?” Lurie concludes. “Why shouldn’t she imagine herself as an explorer standing on the edge of some landscape as yet unmapped by literature: interested, even excited – ready to be surprised?”
Foreign Affairs, a rare comic work of fiction to win the Pulitzer, does not sacrifice emotional depth in its exploration of a clever, decidedly flawed character who must navigate the consequences of her mistakes.
“The novel calls attention to what it is up to – for indeed the book is unusual in the way it focuses on a person ‘over 50’ without patronizing or pitying her,” critic Christopher Lehmann-Haupt wrote in The New York Times, commending Lurie’s “dazzling artistry”.
Lurie’s breakout novel was The War Between the Tates (1974), about an academic couple whose marriage crumbles against the backdrop of campus Vietnam War protests and the rise of the women’s movement. The war becomes an extended metaphor for the marriage and the battle between the sexes – a literary high-wire act that critic Sara Sanborn called “stingingly successful”.
Lurie’s other novels included Only Children (1979), The Truth About Lorin Jones (1988) and The Last Resort (1998). The last was about a celebrated nature writer – in his seventies and certain of his imminent death – who travels with his much younger wife to Key West, Florida, and encounters a pageant of eccentrics, each facing a life-altering crisis.
“If this were Tolstoy or Mann, we would be pretty sure of the outcome: the doomed hero, after much private suffering, would walk into the sea and drown,” novelist Amanda Craig wrote in the New Statesman. “That, in the male canon, is what literature is supposed to be about. This, however, is Alison Lurie, who never confuses the serious with the solemn. In the past she has written about love, friendship and the relationship between art and life; now, she has written about what age, sickness and the intimations of mortality do to human beings. In doing so, she has produced a masterpiece.”
Alison Lurie was born in Chicago on 3 September 1926, and she grew up in White Plains, New York. Her father was a sociologist and a founder of the Council of Jewish Federations and Welfare Funds. Her mother edited the book and magazine sections of the Detroit Free Press before her marriage.
In a New York Times essay on becoming a writer, Lurie described herself as a “skinny, plain, off-looking little girl”; misplaced forceps during her birth had left her deaf in one ear and damaged her facial muscles.
Calling herself “the card in the pack that everyone tried to get rid of”, she wrote that “nobody ever told me that I was perfectly lovely … as they did other little girls”. The only praise received from her teachers or parents was for her classroom compositions and stories. “Very well, then,” she concluded. “Perfection of the work.”
Her parents, both socialists, sent her to a progressive boarding school, the Cherry Lawn School in Darien, Connecticut, from which she graduated in 1943. She received a bachelor’s degree four years later from Radcliffe College, the women’s college that was the sister school to Harvard.
She published a few short stories and poems and was an editorial assistant for Oxford University Press in Manhattan before her marriage, in 1948, to Jonathan Bishop, who became a literary scholar.
As she raised their children and accompanied her husband to his academic posts, her writing slowed, and two novels she produced were rejected by publishers. “Alison,” she recalled her husband saying over breakfast one day, “nobody is asking you to write a novel.”
To keep busy outside the home, she helped found the Poets’ Theatre, an experimental arts troupe based in Cambridge, Massachusetts. When a theatre colleague, VR “Bunny” Lang, died of cancer at 32, Lurie wrote a remembrance that was printed privately by friends in 1959. A copy made its way to an editor at Macmillan, which in 1962 published Lurie’s satirical novel Love and Friendship, a story of adultery set on a college campus.
Over the next 12 years, she received three Yaddo Foundation fellowships and published four more novels. She also followed her husband to Cornell, in Ithaca, New York, and began teaching children’s literature in the English department in 1969. “It took me four novels to get a job teaching one course at the lowest possible level,” she told The Guardian. “That’s how it was for women back then.”
Lurie’s academic focus was children’s literature – particularly fairytales. She edited The Oxford Book of Modern Fairy Tales (1993) and three collections of retold children’s stories. As her seniority and literary reputation grew, she also taught classes in creative writing and literary humour.
She separated from Bishop in 1975, but he refused a divorce on the grounds of his deepening Catholic faith. It took about a decade to persuade him to sign the papers, she said. In 1995, she married novelist Edward Hower, her longtime companion. They divided their time among homes in Key West, London and Ithaca.
In addition to her husband, survivors include three sons from her first marriage; two stepchildren; a sister; and three grandchildren.
A few years into her first marriage, Lurie recalled in her Times essay, her writing had stalled, and she felt “false and empty” as a wife and mother. She was “restless, impatient, ambitious” but had no clear path forward.
Then her friend Bunny Lang died. On impulse, she spent frenzied weeks recording everything she could remember about the poet and playwright. The story of a woman morphed into a meditation about art, love and power – some of the defining themes of her work.
“I began to see that the point of Bunny’s life was that she had done what she wanted to, not what was expected of her,” Lurie wrote in her essay. “She knew perfectly well that most people thought her difficult, immature, selfish, neurotic – yes, sometimes even wicked or crazy. As far as I could tell, it had never occurred to her to arrange her behaviour so as to be approved of or suit the current idea of what a woman should be.”
She added: “I realized that I too was not immortal. What I wanted to do was write. Very well then, that was what I would do, even if – as then seemed probable – I would never again be published.”
Alison Lurie, novelist, born 03rd September 1926, died 03rd December 2020.
(Article extracted from The Independent with minor alterations to the title)
Categories: Lit News