Medievalists rarely get a good press in fiction: witness the emotionally-repressed Paul Greenfield in Iris Murdoch’s The Bell, or the melancholy Tom Birkin in J.L. Carr’s A Month in the Country. However, it is Kingsley Amis’s Jim Dixon whose story I find myself returning to again and again. Like many of the books I have most enjoyed, Lucky Jim vividly evokes a particular time and place – in this case a provincial university in 1950s Britain, where Dixon is working as a temporary lecturer in medieval history. I first encountered the book as a somewhat burnt-out medieval history postgraduate, where Dixon’s cynicism, combined with his often-farcical attempts to fit into a world where he feels he does not belong (navigating the social minefields of Professor Welch’s enthusiasm for recorder-playing and madrigal-singing) proved a welcome tonic at a rather difficult time of my life.
The beauty of the book is that every time I return to it I take away a different experience. Initially I enjoyed it purely for its comedy (and I still laugh out loud when I read it now), but on subsequent readings I was struck more by what the story had to say about class. A chippy northerner, Jim is dissatisfied with his precarious financial situation during the years of post-war austerity, and resentful of the comfortable life enjoyed by Welch’s son:
Why hadn’t he himself had parents whose money so far exceeded their sense as to install their son in London? The very thought was a torment. If he’d had that chance, things would be very different for him now.
My return to academic life (and the medieval) has brought a different set of experiences to bear on the novel: judging by Jim’s ill-fated attempts at public engagement (his lecture on ‘Merrie England’) and his anxieties about the renewal of his employment contract and the publication of his article, some things in academia don’t change. At other times it has been the plight of Jim’s colleague Margaret, neurotic and manipulative, yet at the same time deeply vulnerable, that has struck me. A post-Brexit reading reveals several funny yet bittersweet moments:
This Michel, as indefatigably Gallic as his mother, had been cooking for himself in his small London flat, and had in the last few days made himself ill by stuffing himself with filthy foreign food of his own preparation, in particular, Dixon gathered, spaghetti and dishes cooked in olive oil.
Anyone who has worked on medieval material will know how absorbing, fascinating, yet frustrating the period can be. It has a habit of taking us over. A trip to the annual International Medieval Congress in Leeds will reveal that medievalists are still secretly susceptible to medieval music concerts, combat demonstrations of fifteenth-century armour, and craft fairs selling vegetable-dyed wool. However, I will leave the last word on the subject to Dixon himself:
As he approached the Common Room he thought briefly about the Middle Ages. Those who professed themselves unable to believe in the reality of progress ought to cheer themselves up, as the students under examination had conceivably been cheered up, by a short study of the Middle Ages. The hydrogen bomb, the South African Government, Chiang Kaishek, Senator McCarthy himself, would then seem a light price to pay for no longer being in the Middle Ages. Had people ever been as nasty, as self-indulgent, as dull, as miserable, as cocksure, as bad at art, as dismally ludicrous, or as wrong as they’d been in the Middle Age?
— Christine Wallis