Her Three Wise Men by Stanley Middleton

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Her Three Wise Men by Stanley Middleton

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Buy Her Three Wise Men by Stanley Middleton at Amazon.co.uk or Amazon.com

Category: Literary Fiction
Rating: 3/5
Reviewer: Andrew Lawston
Reviewed by Andrew Lawston
Summary: A gentle tale of love and university research in a small English village. Old fashioned, but highly crafted.
Buy? No Borrow? Yes
Pages: 240 Date: August 2008
Publisher: Hutchinson
ISBN: 978-0091925604

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In Her Three Wise Men, Alicia Smallwood writes her doctoral thesis, gets a lecturing job and finds love in a small village in the North Midlands. Stanley Middleton's latest novel follows her various trials and tribulations over the course of about a year.

The focus of the novel changes with the seasons – opening with some political back-stabbing in the local amateur dramatic society, Alicia's academic career quickly takes centre stage along with her relationships with Caldwell, the elderly actor, Raynor Wicks, a local teacher, and her tutor. She likes older men, which is just as well as she's the only character south of forty in the book. This is odd, as with her unswerving academic focus and solitary lifestyle she comes across as a fifty year old don trapped in a 25 year old's body.

When I reviewed Obedience, a novel that promised to expose 'the dark side of academia', I was forced to point out that the dark side of academia does not in fact exist. Her Three Wise Men goes some distance in the opposite direction, painting a hopelessly idealised view of post-graduate life and University politics. Everyone is incredibly dedicated to their field of research, undergraduates don't seem to exist in any meaningful fashion and everyone's incredibly upper middle class. Everyone is also white. There are porters who call everyone 'sir' and 'madam'. There are no doubt a lot of people who think universities still operate like this. There are even a few colleges in Cambridge that pretty much do. Times have moved on in Midlands former polytechnics though, and I say this as an alumnus of both Birmingham and Warwick Universities.

If the University sections reminded me of anything, it was bizarrely Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency by Douglas Adams, which dealt with a similarly refined scholarly set. The dotty professor in Douglas Adams book turns out to be over three hundred years old. Draw your own conclusions.

The simple truth is that Her Three Wise Men is a lovely novel full of well-drawn characters and acutely observed social situations – it's just taking place in an absolute fantasy world. Simply putting a 1950s date on the setting would have glossed over most of this, but horrific references to this strange thing called the Internet keep popping up and you suddenly realise that this novel, where people compare their neighbours' houses to Cezanne paintings without a hint of irony, is supposed to be taking place in our world.

Alicia's father has randomly bought her a house for her studies, we're told at the beginning of the novel. She also has a gardener and seems to be about the only character without a housekeeper. It's incredibly hard to sympathise with her occasional crises as you can fairly clearly see that she's set for life. Her father is a banker, and Middleton takes the odd step of dwelling on his career while keeping the details incredibly vague. I have little idea about what goes on in banking, but I recognise frantic fudging to cover a lack of research when I see it.

Caldwell is a retired classical actor who directs productions for the local amateur dramatic society. He also pops off to do cameos in one or two films whenever he feels like it during the book. The amateur dramatics element is easily the most interesting aspect of the novel, particularly with the early violent events that suggest some sort of Hot Fuzz style conspiracy from jealous committee members. It's a real shame there's not more of this in the book, to be honest. Actually, the Amazon entry could be described as a tad misleading – this is NOT Hot Fuzz, it's the Archers with postgraduates. The various 'emnities and feuds' promised never really materialise, and you'll only feel cheated if you're waiting for them.

Raynor Wicks is a widowed teacher who apparently has depression, but nothing is made of this beyond a single mention of him looking unshaven and a bit tired. Megan, Caldwell's maid and old flame, also clearly has some sort of story going on, alternating between personas as a grumpy crone and a fading beauty, but we never find out what it is.

In fact, a running theme of the book are these suggestions of more interesting stories that we never get to hear. The book that we do get is a gentle read, and I suppose that's no bad thing, but Middleton does seem to tease the reader a bit with these hints of occasional drama.

Although the characters are generally well-drawn, my back was also put up by the attitude to the working classes (such as they are). Alicia tends to celebrate minor victories in her life by finding a gardener to patronise. She tends to look at housewives cleaning their steps and to 'compare her life to theirs' before going about her studies with renewed vigour and drive. Even other academics draw fire for not being well enough read – a top physicist gets a snotty write-off after commenting that he was made to memorise a speech from Twelfth Night at school.

Her Three Wise Men is mostly a charming novel from a veteran author. Very little actually happens, which may deter some readers, but there's no denying the impact of these highly-crafted characters. In many respects though the book is an anachronism. Alicia may be working towards an independent career in the novel, but she lives off her father and grows more obsessed with marriage as the book progresses (and it is marriage she's after, in a thoroughly chaste Austenesque fashion which is utterly unbelievable for a non-religious 21st Century girl in her mid-twenties). Multi-cultural Britain is alluded to once, and alarmingly it's to observe that the worst comprehensive schools are to be found in cities where there's a lot of 'coloured children'.

Alicia's research topic is the comparatively obscure theatre of 18th Century Britain, and the point is constantly laboured that we can never tell what literature or art will endure from one generation to the next, and that giants of our age could be forgotten in the next century. Sadly, with Middleton approaching his 90s and having recently had his 1974 Booker-winning novel Holiday rejected by publishers as part of a newspaper stunt, these passages tend to have quite a sad ring to them. This is presumably one of the last books from a formerly great writer and rewards careful reading, but you do need to keep an incredibly open mind towards it.

I'd like to thank the publishers for sending a copy to the Bookbag.

If this book appeals to you then we think that you might also enjoy The Northern Clemency by Philip Hensher.

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Buy Her Three Wise Men by Stanley Middleton at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy Her Three Wise Men by Stanley Middleton at Amazon.co.uk Amazon currently charges £2.99 for standard delivery for orders under £20, over which delivery is free.
Buy Her Three Wise Men by Stanley Middleton at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy Her Three Wise Men by Stanley Middleton at Amazon.com.

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