Alison Lurie’s Foreign Affairs is one of the great works of comic fiction; it is also a profound meditation on being plain. This might seem a large claim to make given that no less a novelist than George Eliot addressed it in Daniel Deronda, which opens with the line, ‘Was she beautiful or not beautiful?’. Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre, whose heartfelt cry about being ‘poor, obscure, plain and little’, is another heroine not blessed with good looks, and so is Jane Austen’s Anne Eliot in Persuasion.

We are, however, used to fictional heroines being attractive. If they are ugly then their ugliness is of the fairy-tale kind that must be lifted by love: this is what Lurie’s mousy heroine Vinnie Miner, is miserably conscious of never, at fifty-three, being likely to experience. That she does have the experience of falling in love, and being loved in turn herself, is part of the magic of a novel as brilliant as it is witty; but Foreign Affairs is so much more.

Vinnie and Fred, both American academics on sabbatical in London, are each on a journey of discovery. Having started from entirely different attitudes to their temporary home, they meet and cross trajectories at exactly half-way through the story once each falls unexpectedly in love. Yet this is so much more than a romantic comedy. As the title suggests, it’s about a clash of cultures – and for a British reader, the fascination of seeing a slice of London life through American eyes. Fred, who initially hates London because he is cold, lonely and miserably angry with his wife Roo, finds that ‘a rich, complex, intense life goes on…behind its shuttered and curtained windows’ once he tumbles into bed with Rosemary, an aristocratic English actress. Vinnie, who has felt that ‘both psychologically and intellectually she is essentially English’ has further to fall. The meticulous way that the plot of Foreign Affairs is worked out is a rare delight, replete with ironies and revelations. Fred, the handsome, entitled, foolish young colleague is a charming creation, but it is Vinnie – maddeningly prissy, selfish, mildly dishonest, yet ultimately kind – who makes the novel exceptional. Her ‘invisible white dog’ or daemon that swells or shrinks according to self-pity is a sublime invention (and one that I suspect may have inspired that of Philip Pullman’s Lyra in His Dark Materials.)

Indeed, one word stands out in the novel, and that is ‘imagination’. Lurie repeats it in every chapter, and its double-edged nature is part of why her heroine is both so sympathetic and so misguided. Vinnie’s Fido is a running joke that, by the end, brings tears to the eyes. A Professor of Children’s Literature, a field that these days, thanks to the global phenomenon of Harry Potter, is more respected than it was, our heroine is disappointed in love and her own life. She has given English literature ‘her deepest trust’ and retreated to the happy prelapsarian age in which imagination rather than sex is paramount. It is her imagination that, even when employed in hilariously vengeful fantasies, makes her so sympathetic to us] as she snubs her unwelcome companion, the balding sanitation engineer Chuck Mumpson.

Lurie teases the Anglophile American – especially the kind who would one day watch Downton Abbey, of which Rosemary’s TV serial is clearly a prototype – while refusing to side with the fellow countryman who sees Britain as ‘not much of a country…small and kinda worn-out looking’. (This was, actually, how London looked before the Big Bang of 1986, when the financial markets were deregulated and a vast swell of credit rushed through the British economy, to visible effect.) As a riff on the fiction of Henry James whose transatlantic novels are themselves meditations on the interplay between love, marriage, beauty and money, you may quarrel with its depiction of the clash between ‘Perfidious Albion’ and naive American honesty; in the era of Trump the latter seems questionable. She is certainly merciless to her fellow-tourists, whose irony-deficient cloddishness is satirised – but it takes a generous American to give Vinnie the one beautiful garment she owns.

You might expect the author of The Language of Clothes, to write fiction swirling with the semiotics of dress, and she does. Vinnie’s sSpinster pProfessor outfits of prim, soft, brown (that an English character says makes her look like Mrs Tiggy-Winkle), Lady Rosemary’s cocoon of chiffons, Chuck’s fake cowboy outfits and the ‘soiled flowered wrapper’ of the cockney cleaning lady Mrs Harris all give us clues. (The name, shared with Paul Gallico’s famous cleaner who goes to Paris for a Dior dress, should alert us that Mrs Harris is not what she seems.) Above all, Vinnie vehemently dislikes Chuck’s transparent plastic raincoat, calls it a ‘prophylactic’ and throws it in the bin. He looks like what he is, an American tourist; she wants to pass for a native. Both these attitudes have unexpected results.

Fred’s parallel journey of self-discovery is perhaps more amusing if less profound. His male vanity has been outraged by his naive young wife Roo’s photograph of his erect penis for an exhibition. Convinced she has been unfaithful, he embarks on an affair of his own that allows him to penetrate further into the London elite and is queasy mixture of the aristocratic and Bohemian. Fred congratulates himself on being an insider (just as Vinnie does), not understanding its codes and cruelties. If his weekend in the country is appallingly funny, his eventual realisation as to the real nature of his new lover is a scene less of farce than nightmare. It is a particularly delicious twist when we learn that Frank’s wife Roo, still in love with love her husband, is the daughter of the Professor Zimmern who in the start of the novel has given Vinnie’s latest book such a mortifying review. Her future happiness lies in the hands of someone who could easily decide to be vengeful. That Vinnie rises above this temptation is the moment when she becomes a true heroine.

In many ways, Foreign Affairs is a campus novel, its two principal characters being academics at Lurie’s favourite fictional Ivy League university, Corinth (widely held to be modelled on Cornell, where she was a Professor for many years). Both teach English literature, and their perceptions of England and the English are informed and distorted by this; Vinnie’s especially. She specialises in children’s literature, which may remind us that Lurie went on to write Don’t Tell The Grown-Ups (1990), but which also leads her to see London and England through the highly prettified prism of Edwardian fiction. Neither she nor her protagonist harbour many illusions about the nature of real children, however. In one of the funniest chapters in the book, Vinnie’s encounter with a foul-mouthed specimen horrifies and frightens her; Vinnie’s own interest in children’s literature has its origin in her consciousness of herself as a person for whom adulthood had brought only pain.

Unlike the many other practitioners of the campus novel on both sides of the Atlantic, Lurie’s themes are not, therefore, the usual ones. The battle here is not between the rational and irrational or between the body and the mind, but between two nations – at least as conceived by her the ‘blindly Anglophile’ academic, and her naive young colleague. Written in the mid-1980s, when our so-called Special Relationship between America and Britain was, thanks to the politics and economics of that time, at a post-war peak, it presents a portrait that is both flattering to and critical of both England and America. To which should her characters, and by our extension ourselves, owe allegiance? Vinnie’s view of England as an extension of its literature is so tempting – but is is truthful?

Vinnie’s self-delusion goes deeper than Fred’s, as the product of a lifelong obsession rather than a temporary passion. ‘She wants to be, believes she has been considered up to now, one of them’, (i.e., English), rather than the loud, vulgar Americans she so deplores, but Vinnie’s obsession with the way people and things look rather than feel very nearly causes her to miss the one love of her life in the shape of the balding, unsophisticated and good-hearted Chuck. It is this love, from the very last person she would formerly have countenanced that redeems her as someone who has finally ‘loved and been loved’ and leads to its heart-breaking end.

When I first read this novel, I was a few years younger than Fred; re-reading it now, I am a few years older than Vinnie. At that time, partly because of the era, I remember that I myself was over-preoccupied by the way people looked, rather than what they were really like. I even had my own Vinnie moment of throwing away a particularly precious pair of orange and mauve school socks belonging to my future husband that I considered ridiculous. Vinnie’s faults are easy to fall into for anyone whose critical faculties have been pronounced by education – and they need to be corrected because they do not, as Lurie shows, lead to happiness. To be a full human being, (and a novelist yourself) you need to look beyond the packaging, just as Vinnie eventually and reluctantly, comes to see Chuck for the lovely man he is.

I wondered whether age would modify my response, but what she has to say about youth and age, passion, marriage, work and class remains as poignant and striking as ever. Lurie is, I believe, the novelist of her generation who will endure – far more so than her fellow Pulitzer Prize-winners, Updike, Roth and Bellow. Yes, the tone is (as Jane Austen said of her own Pride and Prejudice), light and bright and sparkling; but its subjects include age, loneliness, delusion and death. Among Lurie’s ten excellent (and partly interconnected) novels, which include The War Between the Tates and The Truth About Lorin Jones, Foreign Affairs remains outstanding.

Nabokov said in his Lectures on Literature that ‘all great novels are also great fairy-tales’ and Foreign Affairs is just that, and as wise as it is joyous, and as joyous as it is melancholy. What really matters in life, it tells us, is not beauty or money or privilege – nice though all those may be – but love; and that the thing that above all defines, shapes and consoles us, is imagination.

Written for the Vintage Books reissue of ‘Foreign Affairs’.