52 Guitars: Week 30
"Flossie hates peace"

Muriel Spark: Doctors of Philosophy

I bought this book, a discard from the local public library, for a dollar a year or so ago. I don't know how long it might have been before I read it had I not left it in my office and turned to it one day a couple of months ago when I needed to go out for lunch and didn't have anything else handy to read. At page two I laughed out loud, and continued to do so now and then as I ate lunch, and whenever I picked up the book thereafter.

It's a play, the only one Spark ever wrote for the stage (she also wrote several radio plays). While I take it to be a very sharp satire of women in and around academia, the first commentary I found when I searched the web for it calls it "a fascinating article of early second-wave feminism." I'm not sufficiently informed about the history of feminism to know exactly what the early second wave was all about, but between that view and my own, I'll stick with my own.  

The plot revolves around a married couple, Charlie and Catherine, and Catherine's cousin, Leonora, who lives with them, or at least is staying with them at the time in which the action of the play occurs. All three are Ph.Ds. Catherine has given up her university career for marriage and motherhood (one daughter, Daphne), while Leonora is single and teaching at a university (which I don't recall being named). To say, as the site I linked to above does, that "the two [female] scholars debate the choices they have made with their lives" is not exactly untrue, but is like saying that Macbeth and the witches discuss political strategy: it hardly gives the real flavor of the thing. 

Catherine and Leonora are in fact envious of each other--Catherine of Leonora's career, and Leonora of Catherine's family--and it comes out in ways which I'll forebear describing because doing so would spoil some of the fun. Charlie, an economist by profession, and obsessed with the way the women in his life are constantly putting him "out of pocket," is determinedly unimaginative and might remain oblivious to the female tensions swirling around him, if he weren't forced to pay attention by developments which make that impossible.

There is a housekeeper, Mrs. S., who is the voice sometimes of down-to-earth dullness, sometimes of common sense, and sometimes of actual philosophy; there is more than a hint that she's the only one who knows what's really going on ("S" for "Spark"?). There are two more Charlies: Young Charlie, who is Daphne's boyfriend, and Charlie Brown, usually referred to as Charlie B., who is introduced in this way:

CATHERINE: I'll tell you where I made the mistake. Marriage--yes. But I shouldn't have married into the academic world. Can you imagine what it has felt like, as a scholar, to be the mere chattel of another scholar for all these years?

LEONORA: You exaggerate. Charlie doesn't treat you like a chattel. You've had a very pleasant life.

CATHERINE: I shouldn't have married Charlie. In some ways it was unfair to Charlie. I should have married a stockbroker. I should have married a bank manager, or a butcher or a baker. I had to have my sex, and my child, but I should have married someone who wouldn't eat up my brain, my mind. I should have married an electrician, a plumber. I should have married a hulking great LORRY DRIVER.

Enter DAPHNE followed by CHARLIE BROWN, hulking great lorry driver.

It's true that the dilemma of the woman who wants both a career and marriage and family (and it is a genuine dilemma), and for that matter the situation of woman in general, especially the intellectual woman, is the central device of the play, but to see it as a treatise on that subject is to miss the point, or most of it. I'm not sure what the point is, exactly, if there is a single one to be isolated, but there is a great deal more here than gender studies. Call it human studies, maybe. But definitely call it funny. Here's Mrs. S., asked if Charlie and Catherine know of an incident soon to embarrass them:

MRS. S:  Certainly not. They are deep thinkers, my dear, not common detectives. Doctors of philosophy, not medicine. Must a happened at Oxford.



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Oh! I have this on my Kindle. One day I got a notice on Facebook that there was a sale of ebooks by W. Percy for $2 each, so I went and got them, and I also found that they had quite a few by Spark at that price. Since many of her books are difficult to find, I bought all they had.

Since it's short, I think I'll read it before I read your post.


The post doesn't have any real spoilers, but it does have an opinion, and you might want to avoid contamination. I often do that when it's possible.

Yes,that's it. Going to finish it now.


I laughed out loud!! What a great read!

"It's true that the dilemma of the woman who wants both a career and marriage and family (and it is a genuine dilemma), and for that matter the situation of woman in general, especially the intellectual woman.."

I appreciate that.

My first reaction to the play was that I'd love to watch this in a theatre where all the women academics I worked with were in the audience, and I was hidden behind the curtain watching them. I'm pretty sure they would be disgusted, and one of them would have been heckling the actors. Maybe one of them would have thought it was funny, but then she played Charity in Sweet Charity once, and she had been married and had children, although she was a lawyer at the time. In 5 years, I never once heard her mention her children.

I don't, however, judge all female academics by them. I have a friend who I'm pretty sure would think this is screamingly funny.

I think it would be great to watch this in conjunction with Gaudy Night somehow.

All during the first act, I kept thinking that it sounded more like Noel Coward than Spark, then in Act II, Scene 2, when Leonora comes in with the tape recorder and we realize that there are observers, I thought, "Ah, there she is."

It’s more comedic than anything that I’ve read by MS except for maybe “The Ballad of Peckham Rye,” and that is so simultaneously sinister that it has a completely different fell. But I don’t want to say too much about her work until Sally has written about it.

I think you might be right about Mrs. S. I loved Mrs. S. She had a lot of the great lines like, “They don’t use [books] for reading, they are educated people, they refer to them.”

“the situation of woman in general, especially the intellectual woman,”

You know, I’ve often wondered I would have been miserable if I’d been 30 years older. I have a feeling that I wouldn’t have had much access to the kind of conversation I like. As much as I dislike the goals and results of the Feminist movement, in a lot of ways they've done me a favor.


"...more like Noel Coward than Spark..." Sounds right, although I don't actually know that much of either's work.

It really needn't have been about academics--it could have been about any career-minded women. But making them academics lent itself to a lot of humor of the kind you quote from Mrs. S.

"...if I'd been 30 years older..." Well, that's a big topic. I originally had "(and it is a genuine situation)" in the sentence after "the situation of woman in general", but I wasn't sure if my meaning would be clear and I didn't want to go off on that tangent. But my wife once, long ago, referred to "this situation of being a woman." I don't know if women of say 500 years ago would have gotten that idea, but I suspect they would have.

I think they might have used "condition" rather than "situation".

They who?



Maybe it's a condition that produces a situation.:-)

Or maybe he means women of 500 years ago. That makes sense.

Is it a conditional situation? or a situational condition?


Sorry, yes, I meant women of 500 years ago. It's just a guess though (based on the language used by men 400 years ago).

Just ordered this from the library. I'll start it as soon as I finish my current read, After Me Comes the Flood by Sarah Perry. More on that one later.

Paul, Have you read this play?


I think "condition" is certainly more the kind of word that would have been used 500 or perhaps even 200 years ago. "Situation" carries a suggestion that something can be done about it, while "condition" seems more fixed.

One of the worthwhile things that's come from feminism, or just women, in academia is the effort to figure out what life was actually like for women in the less-than-recent past, in times when they had very little voice that made it into the records. Though that was pretty true for non-wealthy, non-educated men as well.

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