Inklings (book review)
I picked this book up in the library because I was attracted by the title. I’m a fan of the Inklings, so I was curious about the book. The blurb said it was set in C.S. Lewis’s and Tolkien’s Oxford. But it turns out to be a trashy romance, and reads like fan fiction, a fan of the Inklings trying to write a romantic novel like Jane Austen, only without the humour.
I very nearly stopped reading after the prologue.
The stilted dialogue, the preachiness, put me off. It was so twee. A student with a crush on her tutor in 1960s Oxford. Even if it did refer to the Inklings, and was set in places familiar to them, it was badly written, at times even embarrassingly so. But I read on, and discovered that though it may be inauthentic and phony, it is as inauthentic and phony as real life.
It is set in Oxford in 1964, a year after the death of C.S. Lewis. If he had read it, perhaps he would have cringed as much as I did. But then I thought back, because at that time I was a student, and recalled the kinds of conversations that we had, the kinds of concerns that we had, and realised that it was true to life. We had crushes and unrequited love like the characters in the book. Our minds wandered in lectures and tutorials with thoughts of “She loves me/she loves me not”. And we did it all without the wit of Jane Austen or the depth of thought of the Inklings, much as we admired them.
Well, in 1964 I had not heard of the Inklings, nor of J.R.R. Tolkien, but I had read, and liked, the novels of C.S. Lewis and Charles Williams, though, unlike the characters in this story, our English lecturers despised them, and would rather we turned our attention to writers like D.H. Lawrence and H.W.D. Manson.
But even when cringing at the stilted conversation in the prologue, I had to recall that I admired their project for a latter-day Inklings, and indeed even tried to form such a thing myself, if only on the Internet. So for many of the objectiosn to the book, I could find an excuse. There was a sense in which it was realistic and true to life. Real life conversations and situations are often as banal and stilted and silly as this.
But the excuses could not quite cover the bad writing, and the book did not live up to the title, which was what had attracted me to it in the first place.
It is an American author writing about English universities, and so she provides a glossary of English terms for American readers, But “cheerio” sounds more like 1940s slang than that of the 1960s, and the author does not seem to be aware that an academic gown is a gown and not a “robe”. English people are more likely to say “I’d like you to” do something than “I’d like for you to” do something. In England a “vest” is an undergarment, and so on.
As a romance novel it was not up to the standard of Jane Austen or Georgette Heyer. It was more in the Barbara Cartland or Mills & Boon class. I could just make it to the end of the first part, which covered the heroine’s first term at Oxford. The next part was much too boring, and I began skipping pages, and then whole chapters and finally reading the first couple of sentences of each chapter to see if there was anything new.
Fan fiction can sometimes be worth reading, I’ve sometimes urged people to write something in the same genre as one or other of the Inklings. But I don’t recall any of them writing in the Mills & Boon genre like this.