The latest read in the Librarything Virago group Barbara Pym read-a-long is An Unsuitable attachment. Published in 1982 two years after her death, it was actually written in the early 1960’s – and was rejected by Cape in 1963, this was the beginning of the period when Barbara Pym was unable to get published. Inexplicably Barbara Pym found herself in the literary wilderness, having been widely popular for ten years – publishing seven novels – suddenly she was no longer wanted. Hurt and confused as she was, Pym never gave up writing. Thankfully in 1977 when both Philip Larkin and Lord David Cecil independently of each other named Barbara Pym as being one of the most underrated novelists almost overnight Barbara Pym found her work back in vogue. In his forward to my little Granada edition Philip Larkin maintains that due to its “undiminished high spirits” we should regard ‘An unsuitable Attachment’ as belonging to Pym’s “first and principal group of novels.” As always Barbara Pym is wonderful at highlighting those small everyday absurdities; such as buying fish and chips for one’s wife and her cat.
“FRING TONIGHT. ROCK SALMON – SKATE – PLAICE.’ Mark Ainger read from the roughly chalked – up notice in the steamy window. Which would Sophia prefer? he asked himself. And which would tempt Faustina’s delicate appetite? Rock salmon – that had a noble sound about it, though he believed it was actually inferior to real salmon. “
An unsuitable Attachment is recognisably Barbara Pym – clergymen, anthropologists, librarians and spinsters concern themselves with who may or may not fancy who and whether they are “suitable” all set against a backdrop of an Anglican Church year. Anthropologist Rupert Stonebird a single man in his mid-thirties moves to a house in a North London suburb, close to the church of St. Basil and close too, to the home of Vicar Mark Ainger, his wife Sophia and their cat Faustina – upon whom Sophia lavishes an increasingly ridiculous amount of attention. Sophia immediately considers Rupert as being a potentially suitable husband for her younger sister Penelope. However also new to the street is Ianthe Broome the daughter of a Canon and niece to an Archdeacon, a librarian, who is at the centre of the Unsuitable Attachment of the title. The young man for who Ianthe nurses an affection is John, who works with her at the library – he is five years younger than her, lives in a rented bedsit in the wrong part of London, isn’t even a fully qualified librarian and then borrows money from her. All this is supposed to demonstrate how very unsuitable John is – but somehow this unsuitable relationship never really feels unsuitable enough to justify the title. Philip Larkin wryly suggests that the true unsuitable attachment in the novel could be that of Sophia and her cat Faustina – I like that idea.
“Sophia realized that she was tired and closed her eyes, as if by so doing she could shut out further tortuous imaginings. She decided to meditate on Faustina, to try to picture what she would be doing at this moment. Various little scenes came into her mind – Faustina at her dish, her head on one side, vigorously chewing a piece of meat; sitting upright and thumping her tail, demanding for the door to be opened; reposing on a bed, curled up in a circle; sharpening her claws on the leg of an armchair – so many of these pictures brought the cat before her, so that she could almost smell her fresh furry smell and her warm sweet breath.”
Unusually for Barbara Pym, in this novel she takes her characters away to Rome – where the group run into a young clergyman who was once Ianthe’s father’s curate, who is accompanying two elderly sisters, named the Misses Bede (Some Tame Gazelle) on a tour of the city. The re-appearance of characters from previous books is certainly something Pym readers are used to – and there are plenty to spot in this one.
Although not Barbara Pym’s best novel – it is still an enjoyable read – you know where you are with Barbara Pym, and I really like that, there is something recognisably comforting and reassuring about Pym’s world, that I will probably never really tire of.