I remember two revelations dawning on me in my early school years – the first was that girls don’t all like each other. Goodness knows why I’d think they would, but up until the age of 8 or 9 I’d naively and contentedly been under the impression that all girls were friends. Perhaps females thought the same of boys, at that age? When I discovered that Amy and Emma and Felicity and Faith were not all amicable, my life changed a little bit… but the next revelation did not come until I was 11 or so. Guess what – teachers don’t all like each other either! Who’d have thought?
After these learning curves, it came as no surprise that tutors might no like each other in Rosy Thornton’s Hearts and Minds. Though it’s set in The Other Place (Cambridge) Rosy T is a Fellow there, and we can’t hold it against her. Something of my naivety has remained unsullied throughout the battlefield of life, and I tend not to notice the animosities that whirl around me – I remember being asked by my tutor if the “situation” in my English group had settled down, and had to confess ignorance as to its existence. Seems I was blessed by not giving or receiving any of it. And thus it may be that Magdalen was a hotbed of back-stabbing and internal politics, but it all just passed me by.
Similarly, I’ve not met this sort of thing in fiction. When Rosy offered me a review copy of Hearts and Minds, I had to confess to not having read any campus novels. Ever. Apparently they are a male-dominated beast – so setting one in an all-female college is doubtless an intriguing twist to the genre, but I’m afraid it’s the only part of the genre that I’ve read.
I say all-female. Hearts and Minds opens with the controversial arriving of James Rycarte as Head of House at St. Radegund’s College. He’s the first non-female (or ‘male’, if you will) Head of House they’ve ever had, and is even known as Mistress for a while. From Oxford I am familiar with the vague nomenclature for this position – Magdalen has a President, but other colleges opted for Master, Rector, Provost, Principal, Dean, Warden or Regent. Rycarte, as well as being a man, comes from the world of media – perhaps the flipside of the coin from academia.
Joining James on centre stage is loveable Dr. Martha Pearce, the Senior Tutor whose administrative tasks have meant her academic pursuits have slipped, and who struggles to motivate a high-school dropout daughter and inactive husand who writes occasional poetry in Italian. There are a host of others, most notably Rycarte’s nemesis, the cunning uber-feminist Ros Clarke, who bitterly opposes the appointment of a Master rather than a Mistress. What drives the novel forward is the announcement that an old media friend of Rycarte’s, Luigi Alvau, wants to make a donation of £1,000,000 to St. Radegund’s. Oh, and his daughter is applying as well, just thought he’d mention it.
Is it ethical to accept a donation, even if the daughter will be interviewed on her own merits? Must one be seen to do right, as well as actually doing it? At one point the Admissions Tutor is asked what the kids from comprehensives (oo, like me) would say –
“I think they would laugh at us, to be honest – laugh at this whole discussion. It would never cross their minds for a moment that anyone would turn down the offer of a million pounds.”
It is to Thornton’s credit that the reader doesn’t dismiss the dilemma as silly – nobody works harder than Oxbridge to encourage admissions from all sectors and conduct admission honourably, yet nobody is more speedily censured. (Just Google ‘Laura Spence’ for the most ridiculous example).
I was keen throughout to find how Rycarte et al would solve the predicament – but the personal levels were as gripping as the professional. Martha’s attempts to organise and understand her family, without nagging, is depicted honestly and movingly. To be honest, the cover and title of Thornton’s novel don’t do her any favours – it looks and sounds like ‘chick lit’ (for want of a better term) whereas Hearts and Minds is a witty, well-thought-out and excellently structured novel. A perfect glimpse not only into Oxbridge university life, but into the minds of humans doing the best they can in tricky situations.