“I had a dove, and the sweet dove died;
And I have thought it died of grieving;
O, what could it grieve for? Its feet were tied
With a single thread of my own hand’s weaving.. ”
The Sweet Dove Died does feel quite different to other Pym novels I think; there are I felt, touches of Elizabeth Taylor at times. There is less cosiness and rather more sharpness to this novel -and although there is mention of a jumble sale there are not the usual collection of either clergymen or anthropologists.
At an antique fair the ageing elegantly dressed Leonora Eyre meets antique dealer Humphrey and his nephew James. Leonora is fragile and flirtatious with a love of Victoriana and beautiful things. Humphrey is instantly attracted to Leonora – while she is far more interested in James, despite the big age difference between them. Although Leonora’s intentions never progress beyond a small chaste kiss on the cheek – having done with “all that sort of thing” – she quickly places herself at the centre of James’s life.
“Leonora had had romantic experiences in practically all the famous gardens of Europe, beginning with the Grossner gardens in Dresden where, as a schoolgirl before the war, she had been picked up by a White Russian prince. And yet nothing had come of these pickings up; she had remained unmarried, one could almost say untouched. It was all a very far cry from the dusty little park where she and James now walked.”
Leonora takes it upon herself to help James manage the storing of his furniture, buys him expensive gifts – and contrives to evict her tenant so she can move James into the vacant flat above her, upon his return from Spain. However unknown to Leonora, just before James leaves on his Spanish trip, he meets the young and bookish Phoebe, young, badly dressed and sexually liberated, Phoebe is a very different kind of woman. When Leonora realises that in order to keep James under her spell she needs to dispense with young Phoebe, her critical eye appraises her as being no threat. However Leonora has not reckoned on wicked young American, Ned, who follows James back from Spain, and who is also quite adept at weaving a spell.
Leonora is a wonderfully dreadful character, self-absorbed and blind to her own faults, she judges all other women against herself and under her gaze they just don’t measure up. Leonora is unaware how really quite like her friend Meg she is, Meg nursing an impossible affection for her friend Colin – who is gay. Old fashioned, slightly fussy Humphrey’s romantic intentions continue, although he is not unaware of Leonora’s preference for his nephew – and Leonora is quite happy to use Humphrey for a pleasant evening out.
I really enjoyed my re-reading of this Barbara Pym novel – I actually fairly gulped it down this time. Leonora is not totally unsympathetic – although there were moments when I wanted to slap her slightly – she is hard to like. Many of the characters in this novel are manipulative or deluded, and it is in this that we see Pym’s superb sharpness. Those lines of Keats – quoted at the start of the book and even referred to by Ned, give the story real poignancy.