Set in a small English village this later Pym novel, published in the year of her death – has something of the feel of one of her much earlier novels, although it lacks a little of the sharpness of those earlier perfections. Emma Horwick is an anthropologist in her mid-thirties, she moves to the village to write up her notes, and is immediately drawn into observing her neighbours. These of course are wonderful Pymish creations, clergymen, doctors, spinsters, academics and housewives. Tom is a slightly ineffectual widowed rector living with his sister in a large barn of a rectory that is coveted by the young doctor and his wife, while the old doctor also fairly ineffectual contents himself with prescribing hot milky drinks and placebos for insomnia. Elderly spinster Miss Lee reminisces about the days when the last governess of the de Tankerville family Miss Vereker and the “the girls” were still to be seen around the village. Tom concerns himself with local history particularly the de Tankerville mausoleum and the peculiar local ancient rite of burial in wool. Pym and her characters contemplate the village inhabitants of the recent and distant past – giving the village a timeless feel.
“August 1678, Tom Dagnall read in the diaries of Anthony a Wood ‘The act of buring in woollen commences the first of this month,’
While the idea of being buried in woollen in August seemed decidedly stuffy, it gave one a more comfortable feeling on this uncertain spring morning in the chilly study, looking out on to the tumbled gravestones. Daphne had placed a paraffin heater at his side but it gave out smell rather than warmth. How many of his parishioners, Tom wondered, had been buried in woollen?”
A former Anglican clergyman turned restaurant critic Adam Prince is especially proud of his wine cellar. Daphne – the rector’s sister – yearns for Greece – where she holidays each year leaving Tom to his own devices, and suddenly reveals she has always wanted a dog. The young doctor Martin Shrubsole finds the home he shares with his wife Avice, three children and mother in law just a bit too small – and casts his eyes towards the rectory, thinking a smaller house would be more suited to Tom’s needs. Newly installed in the Shrubsole home, Martin’s mother in law, finds herself no longer allowed to eat butter or sugar, and is required to take a walk from time to time.
Comfortably ensconced in her academic mother’s cottage, Emma is surprised to see her former lover Graham Pettifer on a late night discussion programme, and impulsively writes to him, inviting him to lunch. Emma imagines Graham will bring his wife Claudia with him – however when Graham does arrive he is alone, apparently estranged from his wife. Emma and Graham strike up a somewhat half-hearted relationship, Graham is frankly a bit dull, but when he decides to take up residence in a deserted woodland cottage on the edge of the village to finish his work, he and Emma are thrown together. Emma seems rather more interested in observing her village neighbours from a sociological point of view than she is in Graham however. Meanwhile, Tom, whose sister has moved to Birmingham, also starts to cast on eye in Emma’s direction.
A Few Green Leaves won’t be a favourite Pym novel for me, but it is gentle and engaging and very readable, there is a lovely mix of Pymish eccentrics and some amusing scenes of village life. It is interesting to note how Pym has updated her village to the modern (1970’s) world, the garden party has been replaced by a hunger lunch, and I was delighted to see patterned toilet roll holders at the bring buy sale. I had somehow forgotten about bring and buy sales. Overall A Few Green Leaves is simply charming, and that after all is no bad thing.