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The older British universities are well-represented in literature, whether that’s the draughty colleges and bicycle lanes of Cambridge University in Sebastian Faulks’ Engleby or the rich libraries and feisty student political societies of Oxford in Philip Larkin’s Jill. Yet the University of York, despite having produced talented and successful literary figures such as the novelist Graham Swift and the playwright Lizzie Dijeh, is only just beginning to establish its presence in literature. While the cultural and historical wealth of York the city has been frequently chronicled by contemporary authors, such as the York-born novelist Kate Atkinson, the university itself has gone rather overlooked. Nonetheless, Linda Grant’s sixth novel Upstairs at the Party, which is heavily based on her own experience as an undergraduate student at York, is a refreshing exception to this trend.
Upstairs at the Party’s protagonist, Adele, herself epitomises the University of York’s revolutionary beginnings, after its establishment in 1963. Female, Jewish and from a Liverpudlian immigrant family of modest means devastated by her father’s suicide when she was a young teenager, she would not have been thought a likely candidate for further education at blue-blooded institutions which still preferred to admit students based not on what they knew, but who they knew. Yet, having messed up her A-Levels out of a sense of misplaced rebellion, Adele is still accepted into York’s budding English department by an interviewer interested in her ideas, rather than merely her grades. Safely ensconced in her first year there, and enjoying “a way of life suited to the Renaissance philosophy kings”, she feels like “a lab rat” in the “giant social experiment” that is the University of York: to offer an elite education without elitism.
Interestingly, whilst the descriptions of hedonistic early 70s student life at times feel dated, particularly when Grant goes into exhaustive detail about fashion or music, in some ways it is striking how little the university has changed. There are quips about the university’s brutalist, futuristic architecture and the aggressiveness and volubility of the geese. Most importantly, human beings, in this case students, rarely change significantly throughout the course of history, and here they are rendered in all their glory. At the same time privileged and marginalised, cynical and naïve, they do pretty much the same things done by students worldwide since the dawn of time: protest earnestly in support of obscure political causes, conduct disastrous romantic relationships and, with differing levels of success, attempt extreme self-reinvention. Grant’s belief in the universality of the human condition is so strong that, despite her novel’s setting being undeniably York, she very rarely explicitly refers to it as so.
In fact, in some ways the novel’s concerns appear to be strikingly modern. The central eponymous event which takes place upstairs during a house party in Adele’s second year, the death of her troubled friend Evie, speaks of the crisis in student mental health although, as Adele later reflects, at the time they did not have the language to describe such matters. The university’s lacklustre response to Evie’s death and the subsequent trauma of the friends that find her body (“Of course you can handle it – you’re adults”, their favourite lecturer dismisses them) is certainly a problem that has not gone away. Indeed, the adult character’s entire manner of relating to the students foreshadows alarmingly that, as The Guardian put it in its review of Grant’s work, they are “not in safe hands”. It starts to feel like the purpose of their government-funded university education is not after all to prepare them for the outside world, but to keep them safely detached from it, so that their earnest idealism cannot cause problems.
One of the few criticisms that can be made of the novel is that in its middle, after Adele graduates, and spends several years travelling through North America in search of the “wide open spaces” York’s claustrophobia denied her, it rather seems to lose its focus, drifting through listless prose just as its protagonist does through dull jobs. Nonetheless, Grant regains her control of the story with some biting social criticism when Adele, now middle-aged and with a small son of her own, is invited back to the university for an alumni event. There, she is dismayed to find out how the necessity of getting 3 As at A-Level and the introduction of extortionate university fees has destroyed the student culture of her days. Adele, in turn, must also disappoint her alma mater by revealing that she has not become rich or successful enough to be any use to their alumni donation scheme. Meanwhile, the youthful ambitions of her friends have also been thwarted: a former Trotskyite is now “a life-peer in the House of Lords”, for example.
At the very end of the novel, Adele is confronted with a haunting vision of the younger selves of her and her friends, as she observes the current-day students milling across the campus. In particular, she harkens back to her memory of Evie, with her blonde hair in a long plait, being dragged out of the car on her first day by her parents. This underlines Grant’s wistful conclusion that university is a place where innocence is inevitably lost, in a cycle that must continue, and will eventually leave all of us behind. We Had It So Good is the title of another of Grant’s novels, and it is on this sort of note that she ends her love letter to her former university, and a time where everything seemed possible.
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