Love & Virtue
by Diana Reid
Published October 2021
Diana Reid resists an easy delivery of certainties in her debut novel Love and Virtue. Tracking the fallout from an incident that may or may not have been sexual assault, Reid avoids didacticism as she examines power, agency and class privilege at a Sydney university and issues a provocation to the reader: discern for yourself, as narrator Michaela must, ‘the distinction between being hurt and being wronged’.
Michaela is failed by three people in her first year at university: a fellow student named Nick, Professor Paul Rosen, and most painfully, her best friend Eve, who takes and commodifies Michaela’s O-week experience of violation as her own, writing about it for the campus newspaper. Multiple forms of consent and appropriation are explored in Eve and Michaela’s lopsided, combative friendship and it’s the fracturing of this relationship that drives the real moral interest of the story.
In a genre dominated by US and UK authors, the addition of another Australian perspective to the campus novel conversation is welcome. While antipodean counterparts of the North American and British campus novel tradition are surprisingly few, Reid is not the first to attempt the genre here, nor the first to dissect misogyny and sexual misconduct at an Australian university. Rape is a campus novel staple. It would be unusual to find a student-centric campus novel that did not contain some form of sexual transgression. Published locally over the past decade, Brigid Delaney’s Wild Things (2014), Aoife Clifford’s All These Perfect Strangers (2016) and Emily Maguire’s Love Objects (2021) all scrutinise sexual assault and the contemporary student experience at Sydney and Melbourne institutions. Looking further back, Mary-Rose MacColl’s No Safe Space (1996) details the fallout and administrative arse-covering after an on-campus psychologist is accused of having a sexual relationship with a student who has suicided.
Dymphna Cusack’s Jungfrau (1936), Christina Stead’s For Love Alone (1945), Marion Halligan’s Self Possession (1987) and Maureen McCarthy’s beloved young adult novel Queen Kat, Carmel and St. Jude Get a Life (1995) focus on universities as sites in which young women come of age. The best of these Bildungsromans is Kerryn Higgs’ frank, funny and heartbreaking All That False Instruction (1975), whose narrator Maureen, like Love and Virtue’s Michaela, is a first-year scholarship student yearning for connection and acceptance at a residential college. That Maureen finds this in relationships with women is seen as scandalous in late-1960s Melbourne.
A number of satirical campus novels are also in the mix. Colin Symes suggests that these offer ‘a “reading” of sorts of Australian higher education, albeit one with more than a soupçon of sourgrapes, and show many academics, if not in a state of mutiny, then in high dudgeon’. They include Keith Leopold’s My Brow is Wet (1969), Robert Barnard’s Death of an Old Goat (1977), Ross Fitzgerald’s Pushed from the Wings (1986), John A. Scott’s Blair (1988) and Laurie Clancy’s The Wildlife Reserve (1994). Blair, with its light-hearted wit and playful absurdities is the standout, but otherwise there is little to differentiate them from each other. Most are preoccupied with hapless male protagonists who navigate brutal academic hierarchies, along the models provided in David Lodge’s campus trilogy and Kingsley Amis’ Lucky Jim (1954). Michael Wilding’s high farce Academia Nuts (2002), the last gasp of the satirical campus novel in Australia, is perhaps the most well-known. It succeeds only in replicating what it lampoons and attempts to critique: as Ffion Murphy points out, at times ‘the satirist’s scorn seems indiscriminate and his sympathies unclear’ and the ‘slippage in the novel between “equal opportunity” and “positive discrimination” is too easy; it seems calculated to provoke ambivalence, at the very least, about feminisation of the humanities’.
Over the last two decades it’s become customary for critics to variously announce the death of the campus novel or laud its staying power. Internationally, far from being an exhausted genre, the campus novel is thriving. A millennial resurgence of campus novels authored by women and minority writers has generated a series of prominent literary fictions that ditch satire and centre female, queer or minority perspectives of the university as a counterbalance to the legion of white male protagonists (and writers) that crowd the genre. Zadie Smith’s On Beauty (2005) focalises five members of the multi-racial Belsey family in the cosy New England college town of Wellington; Brandon Taylor’s Real Life (2020) and Filthy Animals (2021) feature queer Black subjectivities at US institutions; and Sarah Henstra’s The Red Word (2018) interrogates 1990s rape culture, frat houses and third-wave feminism at a prestigious US college. These authors owe a debt to Donna Tartt’s The Secret History (1992) and its reconfiguration of the campus novel, in particular its focus pull from the professoriate to the student body. Reid contributes to this developing dialogue with her articulation of a precise and complex Australian campus imaginary in Love and Virtue.
Love and Virtue illuminates the pleasures and pressures that come with the intense, precarious co-dependencies of early adulthood. Although Reid’s campus microcosm is never explicitly named, given it features a carillon, it’s fair to assume it’s a stand-in for the University of Sydney.
Michaela is a refreshingly atypical campus novel protagonist. Instead of an outsider who struggles on the periphery, she is fun and witty and makes friends easily at her all-female residential college, Fairfax. As a scholarship student from Canberra with working-class roots, she’s surprised to find that most residents are Sydney private school graduates whose harbour-side homes are only a short distance from the university. Riding with this moneyed crowd that includes boys from the neighbouring St Thomas’s, Michaela’s first weeks at university are a woozy mix of booze, drugs and parties that exhaust her:
The people – Eve, Emily, Claudia, Portia, Sackers, Nick, Balthazar – paraded through my mind like I was flicking through their Instagram Stories. The conversations we shared had no significance or resonance. We all overlapped without touching.
Craving someone she can really talk to and spar with, Michaela and her dorm neighbour Eve soon become confidantes. Despite their mutual friend Balthazar’s warning that he’s never known Eve ‘to sustain very functional friendships’, Michaela is transfixed.
Eve Shaw is a thoroughly impressive creation, a woman so dazzling she seems to ‘emit sparks’. Aggressively articulate and possessed of a magnificent superiority complex, she is a campus novel antagonist as memorable as the charismatic, quixotic Sebastian Flyte of Brideshead Revisited (1945) and the formidably intelligent Henry Winter, leader of the murderous maenads in The Secret History. At twenty, Eve is two years older than Michaela and appears ‘fully formed, like the final draft of herself’. That this exhilarating, toxic friendship riven with envy and competition will curdle is presaged in the first chapter. We know Eve is a rubbish friend and the betrayal, when it comes, is spectacular.
For all her cool cleverness, Michaela is often tentative and paralysed by indecision, given to postponing judgements for fear of making the wrong one. Eve, by contrast is always resolute. The narrative hinge of the novel – the sexual encounter that occurs in O-week – highlights this divergence in their natures to devastating effect. Shown in the prologue as an evening ‘suspended in a giddy, consequenceless haze’ shared between two anonymised characters, the boy and the girl, ‘limbs loose with alcohol’ the hookup appears, at least at the beginning, to be driven by consensual desire. Once in bed together the girl loses her hold on the situation, vomits mid-coitus, and with assistance from another girl in the corridor is shepherded from the boy’s room, naked but for his academic gown. ‘The girl’ is revealed to be Michaela, who can barely remember the evening and is unable to form a clear interpretation of how she feels against her friends’ contradictory takes on the subject. Eve is demonstrably shocked and insists it is rape. Their friendship mutates quickly, and Eve, angling for personal notoriety and keen to establish victim bona fides to agitate for social change, co-opts Michaela’s story as her own, writing it up as a first-person testimonial for the student newspaper.
This deceit elevates Eve to a #MeToo media darling. Eve’s campaign against sexual violence brings about immense social good and her political agenda is easily characterised as virtuous, yet its core houses something punitive. Locked out of her ascent, Michaela wonders if Eve ‘chose my story to hurt me because, in whatever way, I had hurt her. Perhaps because I’d lied to her about Paul’. And as Balthazar counsels, it is only a veneer of goodness where ‘she gets to be the martyr, but you had to do all the suffering. Even if there is some broader social benefit, she’s still wronged you’. In this dissolution of a friendship Reid offers a disquieting, pitch-perfect depiction of how women are socialised to accept female competition: no rising tides lift all boats here – for one to triumph, the other(s) must fail.
The novel’s otherwise propulsive narrative falters in the sections that detail Michaela’s semi-clandestine relationship with her philosophy professor, Paul. This kind of pairing is a staple of campus drama. Meg Wolitzer’s The Wife (2003) expresses its allure for the participants perfectly: ‘He pursued me and I responded, just the way other students and their professors were doing all around the country, engaging in steamy little couplings that were pleasurable and infuriating and grossly imbalanced’. That this relationship is unethical is foregrounded and understood – Paul fears for his job – yet he pursues it. Michaela understands it as a love-relationship, though a romantic attachment can still be consensual and loving and hold an alarming power differential. The young women of Love and Virtue find that their lived experience lags behind public discourse; post-#MeToo gestural wokeness does not readily equate to genuine attitudinal or behavioural change.
Paul is a well-drawn character, but of such a recognisable typology that as soon as we meet him we know exactly what he will be to Michaela. (Though in terms of verisimilitude, I do question whether there would be any contemporary full professors of philosophy in Australia at only 36 years of age – he’d have to be an absolute superstar to have landed a level E promotion by his mid-thirties.) There is an unfortunate predictability of outcome here as well, so much so that I wondered if the storyline was all in service to the choice line delivered late in the novel: ‘I never understood the expression: those who can’t do, teach. Until Paul the professor of ethics.’
It’s difficult to generate interest in the worn trope of lecturer-student union unless it takes the reader somewhere new or unexpected. Other campus novels have examined this power dynamic in more appealing ways: Smith in On Beauty fashions a desultory, comic and unsatisfying tryst between an art history professor and his nemesis’ daughter; and Susan Choi in My Education (2013) and Michelle Hart in We Do What We Do in the Dark (2022) both upend and energise the trope of aging male professor ensnaring female ingenue by depicting lesbian professor-student liaisons that rework the power asymmetry.
But Love and Virtue does show something very few campus novels do well – teaching – and Paul’s character is central to this success. It is surprisingly rare to see the classroom experience in campus novels as many authors elide teaching or contrive it as a punishment. Here, it’s a plot cornerstone and the lessons permeate and enlighten the text’s narrative arc. Structurally, the novel replicates the thought experiments of Paul’s Morals and Mores philosophy class, where Michaela enters the lecture theatre certain of one understanding, emerging at the end of an enervating hour convinced that an alternate viewpoint is wholly correct. Love and Virtue is a generous, clever novel that expertly lays out a sophisticated dialogue on ethics, consent and appropriation, welcoming possibilities of interpretation rather than foreclosing them.
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