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Dr. Edith Vane and the Hares of Crawley Hall

February 26, 2021

Suzette Mayr’s academic satire Dr. Edith Vane and the Hares of Crawley Hall starts out in the tradition of David Lodge, but from a woman’s point of view. Edith is a Professor of English at the fictional western Canadian University of Inivea.

I heard about this book from a Canadian book blogger friend, and it came to my attention at just the right time; I read Dr. Edith Vane and the Hares of Crowley Hall, published in 2017, while I was also reading the more-recently-published (2020) Writers and Lovers. I found that the wide-eyed idealism of the former was pleasantly diluted by the cynical attitudes of the latter while my cynicism was kept at a non-suicide-inducing level by the juxtaposition.

Dr. Edith Vane starts with the good intentions of a semester, in August, and we follow her all the way through to the haggard finish line of December. Edith shows her resolve to start the semester right by going out and buying herself some of the clothing she has seen worn by female academics, including a kind of fictional shoe named after a Japanese female samurai warrior, the hangaku. She has a book coming out, a scholarly work based on her dissertation, and I couldn’t help picturing her author photo in her new blouse and cardigan with “a big apologetic smile on her face” as the protagonist of Writers and Lovers describes every female author photo.

As every academic will, I found some of the details of this novel eerily familiar, like the way Crawley Hall is falling apart. At one point, Edith is sitting at her desk and maggots are dropping on it from the ceiling above, which reminds me of Taliaferro Hall at the University of Maryland in the spring of 1984, when swarms of termites made their way through the basement where the teaching assistants had their (shared) desks.

The way a person who worked at the University is erased when they can no longer come to work is also depressingly familiar. One character “didn’t even have a retirement reception. His office nameplate has vapourized, his face and faculty profile have been stripped from the department website. Even though he’d been working at the university for forty-two years.” I’ve seen that kind of thing happen over the years at Kenyon, in the aptly-named Sunset Cottage. It seems so real when another character, older than Edith, tells her that “the University of Inivea is just a machine that eats people….They want you to give until they’ve sucked you into a husk. They want you to splatter your brains like that bird on your window.“ That’s one of the reasons I’ve stayed “part-time” for so many years, so that I don’t have to sell my soul to the college entirely.

The joke with the hares is on absent-minded professors. There are many in Crawley Hall; they are all literally “hare-brained….easy prey” for a building that is a cog in the people-eating machine of the university.

Like Casey in Writers and Lovers—and like so many of us who have dedicated our lives to reading and writing–Edith used to have ideals: “All she has ever wanted to do is read books. Write books. Talk about, sleep with, breathe, shit, and eat books. Maybe find true love with someone like her who understands the crucial, necessary, life-giving essence of books. That’s why she thought she’d chosen the right job, because understanding books is what professors do.” The satire, however, makes it clear that what professors actually do is steal ideas and lovers from each other, fill out forms, and compete for grants and trips to conferences.

Even the teaching, which attracts young writers like Casey and Edith (and maybe you or me) turns out to be illusory. When the building actually destroys a pile of essays Edith was supposed to grade, an older professor tells her not to worry, that “the students don’t care about the essays. They just care about the grades.”

Dr. Edith Vane’s story is a fine one to read in December or May, when the romance has gone out of the relationship between a professor and her profession.

6 Comments leave one →
  1. buriedinprint permalink
    February 26, 2021 10:42 am

    I thought this was smart and bizarrely fun too and living in the same city changed the way I felt passing various university and college campuses here on my walks. If you’re new to Mayr, I recommend Monocerous, which is a real favourite of mine (with a similar push-pull of emotions as in this one, so you might most enjoy it with another lighter book like Lily King’s in this scenario, if that worked for balance).

    • February 27, 2021 8:04 am

      This was my introduction to Mayr, so I might have to try Monocerous after May (before May I don’t think I can handle any more cynicism about my profession, no matter how smart and fun it is).

  2. Rohan Maitzen permalink
    February 27, 2021 10:17 am

    Your comment about the cynicism on display here reminds me why I had put it aside; I’m not sure now is the right time for me to try it again, but I will get back to it eventually. It sounds clever and also unhappily relevant. For instance, I’ve been brooding about an early retirement incentive that seems too early to consider (the very latest option for it would have me wrapping things up before I turn 60!) and yet is good enough not to dismiss it out of hand – but that sense that I’d kind of vaporize is such a disincentive! I think I would be able to keep my library card, but not my office, and it is (or was!) my second home, etc.

    • February 27, 2021 10:24 am

      It is clever but I think you’re absolutely right to wait, at least until after the end of your semester.
      I’m also facing early retirement (how early, next week will determine, but probably at 62).
      There’s a good scene in the Josh Radnor movie Liberal Arts (which was filmed at Kenyon and I’m an extra in it) where a professor who has retired regrets it and asks his department head if he can come back. But no, he has vaporized; he doesn’t matter anymore.

  3. March 1, 2021 7:58 am

    Whoa, synergy! I just read this book too — I had to interlibrary borrow it and all! — and when I finished it, I thought “Jeanne would love this book more than I did.” The stuff about academia was superb, but as usual I have a hard time reading whole satirical novels. It definitely made me interested in the author though!

    • March 1, 2021 8:04 am

      Whoa! It is good satire and so deeply depressing to those of us who have only ever wanted to read and write about books.
      And yes, this is an interesting author. I loved the detail about the right shoes for a female academic.

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