Although not published until 1985, five years after her death, Crampton Hodnet was one of Barbara Pym’s earliest completed novels, written in about 1939. During the war, when Barbara Pym was involved in war work like so many other people, the novel already finished, was laid aside. After the war she concentrated on novels like Some Tame Gazelle. I think it is because of it having been written during this period, that Crampton Hodnet felt so much like vintage Pym territory. It doesn’t have quite the perfection of some of her other novels, but there is so much that is recognisably familiar in the world of Crampton Hodnet (which confusingly not a real place – but more of an idea, a joke between Miss Morrow and Stephen Latimer) that it could only have been written by Barbara Pym. This was yet another re-read for me, but I hadn’t remembered it all that well.
“There are no sick people in North Oxford. They are either dead or alive. It’s sometimes difficult to tell the difference, that’s all.”
Crampton Hodnet is a marvellously comic period piece set in the genteel academic community of North Oxford in the 1930’s. Here we are reunited with Miss Jesse Morrow and Miss Dogget from (possibly my favourite Pym) Jane and Prudence. Companion to elderly Miss Doggett, Jessie Morrow content to think of herself as “unworldly” is briefly pursued by clergyman Stephen Latimer, who upon establishing himself in Miss Doggett’s house, thinks he really could “do worse than” Jesse Morrow. Meanwhile naive student Barbara Bird begins a highly idealistic entanglement with her tutor – Oxford don – Francis Cleveland a middle aged married man, whose daughter Anthea is having a slightly unsatisfactory romance of her own. Utterly charming, this is a sharp, bright novel; chock full of shuffling academics, clergymen, gossipy old spinsters, gay men and unsuitable attachments.
Francis Cleveland, a middle-aged, dull academic is rather surprised to find himself the focus of an attractive young woman’s affections, although poor little Barbara Bird’s ideas of romance appear to be a mixture of eighteenth century poetry and platonic love. Francis is bored, often feeling excluded from the world his wife Margaret and daughter Anthea inhabits.
“Margaret Cleveland, who had at one time helped and encouraged her husband with his work, had now left him to do it alone, because she feared that with her help it might easily be finished before one of them died, and then where would they be?”
Neither of these two unlikely romantics have any idea of how to conduct a romantic intrigue – the odd chaste kiss, a bottle of wine but no corkscrew, a hastily abandoned trip away together – they are each in their different ways innocents. Anthea Cleveland’s infatuation for the insufferable ambitious Simon Beddoes – is just as unsuitable as her father’s ridiculous attachment to one of his students, while handsome Stephen Latimer is rejected by the sensible Miss Morrow, and goes off to Paris with a friend. Miss Doggett who considers herself at the centre of this community watches all the goings on in North Oxford with concern. Much to Jesse Morrow’s dismay Miss Doggett insists on involving herself in the situation with Francis Cleveland (her nephew) and Barbara Bird – which has given rise to a lot of unfortunate gossip.
Written with Barbara Pym’s wonderful wit and superb eye for the ridiculous, it is a joy of a read. There is something truly comforting about the world of Barbara Pym, which I can’t ever tire of. I am sure that there is quite a lot of the real Barbara Pym in the young bookish Barbara Bird, and maybe a little of her in the older sensible Jesse Morrow too – though one could never call Barbara Pym “unworldly” she was far too switched on for that.