Wendel Holmes, Professor of English Literature, bon vivant, raconteur, and all around confirmed bachelor was giving his Sunday afternoon impromptu session on the campus lawn near his office. The select few were the grad students who were vying for honors and the coveted MFA at the end of the term. All had published papers on their various specialities in Literature and all had written the required amount of poetry and fiction along with literary reviews, all under the watchful tutelage of Professor Holmes. And each had brought a contribution to the group encounter since the Professor made it abundantly clear that he could not accept gifts of wine and delicacies of food and other meaningful contributions. No, the gifts would be made to themselves as a group and should be appropriate in manner. No one graduate student would disavow a couple of glasses of chardonnay or merlot while bries and other European cheeses were food for the soul. And if some enterprising student baked a brioche, well her fellow students would find comfort in such offering. But woe to any student who failed to measure up to the professor’s standards in the culinary arts.
Professor tended to his flock which were seven in number. “Who brought this bottle of chardonnay? Was that you Dickerson? Very good bottle, a little like the Chablis I used to drink in France during my stay at the Sorbonne when I was a guest lecturer. I hope you brought two bottles for I think we shall quickly consume them.”
“Yes, Professor, I purchased three bottles for this afternoon’s soiree. The bottle shop had a special on them, said the wine was very good indeed.” Young Dickerson had actually bothered to research the white wines for purchase and had over spent his weekly allowance. A passerby could already detect an extra notch in his belt had been taken up. For the young man, as for the other six members of the group, the stakes were high. He would get the degree but the prize were the honors bestowed on only one of them and that meant the difference between being assured a teaching position at the university and having to find possible work as a reader for a publisher.
“Nancy, my dear, this pate’ is very good. Where did you obtain it? It’s very fresh with the right amount of seasoning and cognac.” The women were sometimes called by their Christian names, a fact the men did not overlook. Nor was it harmless flirtation on the professor’s part. But he took care never to be caught is a compromising situation with his students.
“I’m glad you like it Professor Holmes. It comes from Andre’s restaurant, VSOP. It’s near my mothers apartment on the avenues. Also the triple cream camembert came from the same place. Andre imports it directly from Brittany.” Nancy was smart enough to keep a more formal address lest the professor take too many liberties. This game of cat and mouse, where she was the mouse, demanded to be played most subtly. This was a private university and the cost to her mother was almost severe in nature. Still, sacrifices for the child so that she would rise in society and find a man of suitable wealth and culture was worth that sacrifice. It paid dividends in the future.
“As you know, the seventeenth century romanticism carried on into the eighteenth century with the invention of the novel as we have come to know it. Of course we find the idea of courtly love spread through the literature available to not only the royalty but the noble class. Gutenberg’s press kicked off an acquisition of libraries unparalleled even today. Books were no longer relegated to works of art but become the proper study of mankind.” This was one of the themes Professor Holmes would beat about the head and shoulders until unconscious. He had others to share with those sans academic degrees and the semester was still new. But never one to let a silence go to waste, he continued. “Ms Winslow, if you were a young English Baron and has a sister who believed she was the intellectual of any man, would you encourage her writings?”
“Ah, the illusion to Mary Shelly, Lord Bryon’s sister. It’s a bit poetic, don’t you think? Sorry for the pun, I could not resist. I suppose that if I had a younger sister and were a man I might take pride in my sister’s ability. After all, that was the age of family before society. And since the romanticism was aimed at recovering the Greek ideals or forms, may we say, then yes, we would definitely wish to see our sister elevated above the rabble of middle class morality, pardon my reference to GB Shaw. By the way, did you get enough escargot? I’ve another two dozen I can pop into the pan and cook.”
“Ms Winslow, you do raise an interesting point. Perhaps Mr Moyers has a counterpoint response. And yes, I would love a second portion of escargot, not that I wish to appear to be a pig about it.” Ms winslow started another portion of escargot in the pan using the camp burner. The aroma of garlic and butter permeated the air.
” I feel that Lord Byron was ambivalent towards his sister’s talent. Perhaps it was the homosexuality between he and Shelly that placed a barrier to the proper recognition of his sister’s talent. The world might wonder from what perspective Byron sought to reconcile this difference of opinion. By the way, Professor, did you get enough aged Edam and Emmental. I believe we have both the French and the Swiss versions of the latter.” “Moyers had a grave disadvantage. He was a minister’s son who actually had both morals and a set of ethics, neither of which would do him much good it the obtaining of his MFA with honors. Perhaps he should of followed his father’s advice and gone for the degree in divinity. His father being a very successful minister of the industrial church of salvation Ltd.” Kurt Moyers was the other male grad student in the program, a member of the ill treated minority in academia. Unlike William Dickerson, he harbored no illusions that he might win the honors for the MFA. Kurt would go back and work for his father’s church, perhaps taking a divinity degree and becoming what his father always wanted, a minister. Still, he would play the game if only to act the spoiler against Bill Dickerson, a man he considered an effete snob.
“Sharon, did you bake this delicious bread? It’s perfectly marvelous, lovely texture. I’m sure it adds to your skill set.” That was a deliberate dig at the poor girl. Sharon was a poor girl, came from a poverty stricken family and was here on a scholarship. But if she felt any rage sharon worked very hard to conceal it.
“Yes, a loaf of bread, a jug of wine, and thou; as we might say of our repast and discussion. Don’t you agree, Professor Holmes?” She asked the question is what appeared innocence but with just enough disguised suggestiveness to pique the Professor’s interest. She may not win any honors but she needed his recommendations to break into the literary world as a junior editor.
Now the impromptu lecture began in all its boring subtleties and nuances. Each student took notes according to their interests and abilities, the need to parrot such professorial wisdom would be needed to defend their oral thesis. The other two women felt the sting of having been left out of the conversation that their was status lowered. Each knew that to regain that higher status they would have to sleep with Professor Holmes. And each suspected that Nancy had and Elaine, Ms Winslow, was about to. But they also knew that the publishing world had changed from a patriarchy to a matriarchy with its own set of standards for advancement, some of which were of the same character as those of the patriarchy. Perhaps by the end of the semester each would learn that life was stranger than fiction.
Author’s note: Can’t say that I like the end. I feel the need to expand and lengthen this story and find a more complete ending. This is one variation on a common theme. There are others to explore.