Gerald Middleton is a sixty year old medieval history professor who is respected by his peers, but has never really set the academic world on fire. He has a steady income from his family's business and prefers instead to focus on his hobby of acquiring beautiful art prints. In particular, he is trying to dodge becoming the editor of a history journal despite repeated entreaties from his colleagues (it's just too much work). He's also trying to avoid getting entangled in the endlessly tedious dramas of his family's personal lives.
His estranged and melodramatic wife Inge is still resentful of a long affair in Gerald's past that was conducted openly when his children were still quite young. His conservative son Robin is having an affair with his brother John's voluptuous secretary - and running into problems that strangely mimic his father's experience. It doesn't help that Gerald also finds himself attracted to his son's mistress. His daughter Kay has an annoying husband - also an academic but very bad at job interviews - who can't find a job. And finally there's outspoken John, a journalist trying to expose government corruption who is also romantically involved with a manipulative Irish crook named Larrie. Throw in a slew of comic supporting roles - a former charwoman with some definitely negative (but very funny) views on poinsettias, a crass novelist wanting to branch out into historical fiction, and a dotty female professor of paganism - and you have a wonderful cast of characters that you'll actually want to spend a lot of time with.
Perhaps the most sensible of the bunch is the elderly and eminent Sir Edgar Iffley, head of the Historical Association. He sums up the role of an historian, and simultaneously nails the crux of the plot's ongoing dilemma quite succinctly:
As historians we've got to tell the truth about the past as far as we know it, but that's quite a different thing from searching into the truth of people's lives here and now. All this prying and poking about into what other people prefer to keep hidden seems to me a very presumptuous and dangerous fashion.
But poor Gerald - throughout the novel he will be forced to do both. Though he really doesn't like his wretched family, his shame at being a bad husband and father motivates him to try and make amends - or at least take an interest. He really doesn't want to get involved in editing the history journal, but his decades-long guilt over concealing some evidence about a major historical discovery entangles him into a series of encounters with people from his past, including his old mistress. It all makes for some very funny predicaments; I have to say I grew quite fond of the old codger by the end.
This is a marvellously entertaining and perceptive novel that is definitely for readers of David Lodge, Malcolm Bradbury or Kingsley Amis's Lucky Jim, but also for those who have enjoyed more recent novels of spatting family sagas such as Jonathan Franzen's The Corrections or Zoe Heller's The Believers. In its portrayal of homosexual relationships (the novel was first published in 1956), it anticipates Alan Hollinghurst's A Line of Beauty. It's also a great novel to recommend to history buffs for its comic skewering and yet astute questioning of the discipline.
All in all, if you make it through the Christmas pudding, I'd say this is the perfect book to escape with on Boxing Day.