I was reading Michael Wilding’s book Growing Wild, interested in him because of his excellent academic novel Academia Nuts (2004) and its followup, Superfluous Men (2009). In an interesting chapter called “Writing my Campus Novel,” Wilding recalled that he had been told his first attempt, a novella called “Campus Novel,” had “encouraged, if not incited, the pseudonymous Charles Cutting to write The Surleighwick Factor [sic], which also owes its origins to the University of Birmingham”—where Wilding used to teach.
Though a connoisseur of academic novels, I had never come across any reference whatever to The Surleighwick Effect and I decided to investigate. An Internet search produced almost no mentions of it, other than as a used book for sale through various websites. I eventually tracked down two more notices: one was in a 2001 review of a book called Perspectives on Industrial Archaeology, published in the Times Higher Education Supplement. The reviewer, explaining why Industrial Archaeology has made so little impact, mentions that the “villain of the 1993 novel The Surleighwick Effect (which gets more autobiographical every time I read it) was the mocked professor of industrial archaeology at Surleighwick (which university he went on to help close down . . .).”
And then there is a more substantial reference to the novel, once again from Michael Wilding, writing in the Sidney Review of Books:
In 1993, a small press in London called Zoilus published a novel, The Surleighwick Effect by Charles H. Cutting. The author’s name was a pseudonym, concealing the identity of a distinguished scholar who had been outraged by two library scandals in Britain. In order to fill the hole in its finances, the John Rylands library in Manchester had begun selling off very rare books, some of them overseas. It was a betrayal of the library’s function and attracted some press notice. Then the University of Birmingham closed down its Shakespeare Institute library, shifted some of the books to a smaller, Institute building in Stratford-upon-Avon, and disposed of the rest. These events form the basis of The Surleighwick Effect.
Wilding goes on to quote “Cutting’s” introduction of his university librarian, Dr Pratt, who “was a very modern librarian, so he was not interested in books . . . .“
Reading The Surleighwick Effect makes dramatically clear why the author felt the need to use a pseudonym. The book is scathing—about an imaginary university, it is true, but in a way that singes university professors and staff, and particularly English departments, painfully. I’ll return to this.
The stimulus for the novel, which Wilding identifies as reckless management of libraries, is not really its central subject; but what Hitchcock called the McGuffin is the mismanagement of valuable books. When the widow of a deceased professor offers the university his books, the three men who respond are disdainful; they are the Dean of Arts, Professor Toady (the Industrial Archeologist), Bodgering, a moribund Professor of English, and the librarian Pratt, already identified as an enemy of books (in favor of computer terminals). The widow offers a leather-bound volume entitled Exercitatio anatomica De Motu Cordis et sanguinis by Guglielmi Harvey Angli, Anna MDCXXVIII. The three men are unimpressed by their opportunity to acquire this valuable early scientific book, one of them noting that the Romans died out a good few centuries before printing was invented. Pointing out that Romanian words often end in “u”—one of them includes Malibu in the list—they sagely conclude that it is a Romanian novel, from 1885 (they cannot construe Roman numerals, either) by an author called Demotu Cordis, and of no interest. The librarian soon sells it for almost nothing to a used book shop. Even worse is the fate of a priceless first edition of Das Kapital once owned by Lenin: sent to be recycled into a cardboard yoghurt carton. No more is heard of the Marx book but Harvey’s volume has an afterlife; it is purchased at a used book shop by the university historian of science; soon afterwards, offers to buy it for a million pounds stir various university officials into a frantic effort to get it back.
This episode crystallizes the picture “Cutting” presents of a university and its staff most of whom are lazy, ignorant, dishonest, malevolent, devious, and often drunk. The star of the department is Professor Bodgering, one of those uninterested in the Harvey book. He is a dying man, in a wheelchair and an oxygen mask; he lives 45 miles away from the university and comes in for a couple of hours one day a week. His scholarship consists of a booklet-sized monograph on Marlowe’s Tamburlaine, published many years ago by his previous university. Moreover, he
had scarcely read a book for thirty years, since his appointment as Assistant Lecturer at the University of Righton in 1952. For since his tenure was confirmed, he had gradually narrowed his teaching down to just five works of English Literature—Wuthering Heights, Pride and Prejudice, Tamburlaine, Marvell’s To His Coy Mistress and Beckett’s Waiting for Godot. For the two first works, he relied on his memory of reading them as an undergraduate, and truth to tell, he knew them principally through the 1939 film of Wuthering Heights—(as a spotty adolescent he had fallen in love with the screen image of Merle Oberon as Cathy)—and the 1940 film of Pride and Prejudice starring Greer Garson and Laurence Olivier. For Tamburlaine . . . he relied on a pirated videotape stolen from the ante-room of a Haitian prostitute in New York, whose favors he had unsuccessfully attempted to purchase for a thousand dollars. . . . Waiting for Godot he knew chiefly from a student production at the University of Righton. . . . The range of authors . . . had gained him the reputation, at the University of Righton, of being a man of phenomenal range. . . . he was not interested in books, and knew nothing about them.
To this damning portrait one can add the details that Bodgering seldom changes his clothes, and smells bad, that he relies entirely on his “research assistant” for menial tasks, and that he is a persistent and lecherous abuser of young women.
Cutting’s opening sentence announces has sardonic take on academia: “The death of any professor, particularly one who was also the head of a department, is invariably the occasion of great public sorrow and private joy.” Professor Houghton’s death not only launches the debacle of his collected books, but stirs the careerist maneuvers of the survivors. The Vice-Chancellor, another rogue whose main aims are getting himself an MBE and a private helicopter, muses on paper:
- Professor Toady. Typical Arts faculty nonentity. Pliable and ineffective Dean . . . Pompous. Lazy. A time-server. ? Consider for next Pro-Vice-Chancellorship?
- Professor Bodgering. Low profile invalid, little seen in the faculty. Bumbling, Inefficient. Unproductive. Essentially a deadbeat. Lecherous. ?Consider as next Dean of Arts?
The depressing landscape of Surleighwick has two forms of relief. One is that all these horrible academics are male. Cutting presents the women in his book, though barred from positions of any real power, as smarter, nicer, in every way superior to the men. The two women in the English department, Mrs. Quick and Dr. Crumpet, are efficient, even in finding ways (through magic) of tormenting Toady and Bodgering. Librarian Pratt’s secretary, who knows Latin and understands the value of books, tries to remedy his incompetence, and a woman on the cleaning staff even tries to set the men straight on what De Motu Cordis means. Two female doctors in the university health service correctly diagnose Toady but are ignored.
There is one male professor, Dr. Hanwell, a historian of science, who is what a university professor ought to be. He is also an outcast, not welcomed in any department and even prevented from giving lectures. The narrator sums him up: “Dr. Hanwell was one of the best read and most intellectually alert members of the University of Surleighwick. He was, as was only natural, also one of the least regarded.” He actually publishes scholarship, unlike the rest, and takes teaching seriously. He loves books—it is he who winds up with the Harvey volume—and delivers something like the theme of the novel: “That’s what university education is all about in the Arts, you know, isn’t it really—books? . . . After all, as Thomas Carlyle said in The Hero as Man of Letters, if I remember aright, ‘all that a university can do is to teach us to read. Once invent printing, you metamorphosed all Universities, or superseded them. The true University of these days is a collection of Books.’”
The dénouement nicely rewards Hanwell, with a much better position at an American university where real scholarship and teaching are practiced and the love of a beautiful and intellectual student. Some of the worst offenders die; one toadying member of the English department appears at last under a bridge, homeless; and Toady, promoted to Vice-Chancellor, through laziness, inattention, and drunkenness, adds his vote to a motion to put Surleighwick University out of business. He ends up in a padded cell as a demented pervert; Mrs. Quick and Dr. Crumpet have a nice business casting spells in Wales, the female doctors and Dean Toady’s secretary find better jobs.
The shortcomings of The Surleighwick Effect are two. The most serious is an almost sadistic relish in denigrating the worst offenders, The VC, Toady and Bodgering, and a rather heartless way of mocking Bodgering and the Vice-Chancellor (who walks with crutches) for their disabilities. The other is the execrable cover art, which illustrates a minor incident of Dr. Crumpet, naked, casting a spell on Professor Bodgering.
But these are acceptable flaws in what is otherwise a bracing, angry yet very funny exposé of an institution destroyed by the anti-intellectualism, childishness, narcissism, and dishonesty of the men who have forgotten, if they ever knew it, the purpose of a university.