Posts Tagged ‘Barbara Pym’

the sweet dove died(Thanks to Bellobooks – for  another  of their lovely editions)

“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.. ”
(John Keats)

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.”

thesweetdovediedLeonora 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.

Barbara Pym

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Quartet in Autumn

(This edition from Bello books)

When I first read Quartet in Autumn I think I found it a little sad – veering towards depressing. Maybe this is the kind of book that one needs to be in the right frame of mind for. This time I found I really loved it. Although this novel does seem to be a bit different from other Barbara Pym novels, there are still plenty of Pymisms to be found. This was the novel that was published in 1977 after Philip Larkin and Lord David Cecil had both separately and independently of each other, named Barbara Pym as the most under rated novelist. It was also the novel which found her nominated for the Booker Prize. There certainly is a more melancholic feeling to ‘Quartet in Autumn’ – focusing as it does, on four lonely people as they approach retirement from a dull unimportant office job.

“That day the four of them went to the library, though at different times. The library assistant, if he had noticed them at all, would have seen them as people who belonged together in some way”

Edwin, Marcia Norman and Letty – work together in an unspecified office. They have worked together for a number of years – and although they are a similar age – they don’t socialise out of work or have any kind of personal relationship. Letty and Norman each live in bedsits – while Marcia and Edwin each live alone in what were family homes, Edwin in the home he shared with his wife, Marcia in the house she lived in with her parents. Edwin likes to visit churches in his lunch hour; Letty sometimes goes to the library. Marcia remembers with fond nostalgia her time in hospital, where she under- went ‘major surgery’ under the auspices of Mr Strong for whom she nurses tender feelings. In the shed in her over grown garden Marcia hoards empty milk bottles, just as she hoards tinned food – although barely eats anything. When Letty finds the house she lives in is sold to a new landlord, a pastor of an obscure African church, she is nervous of the noisy lively family he brings with him and with Edwin’s help re-locates to a new room in the home of octogenarian Mrs Pole.
Marcia and Letty retire before Edwin and Norman (remember the days when women retired five years earlier than men?) – and while Marcia and Letty need to adjust and find ways of filling their days, Edwin and Norman occasionally wonder how “the girls” are getting on. Marcia is annoyed by a medical social worker who keeps trying to call, while Letty settles into a new routine with Mrs Pole.

“In Mrs Pole’s house the telephone rang just as she and Letty were settling down to watch television. They quite often did this now, and although it had started by Mrs Pope suggesting that Letty might like to watch the news or some improving programme of cultural or scientific interest there was now hardly an evening when Letty did not come down to watch whatever happened to be on the box, whether it was worthy of attention or not.”

The story of these quiet sad, lonely people is not entirely dispiriting though, while Marcia becomes more obsessive and secretive – Letty at least shows she is able to remain positive and move forward in her life, even beginning to reach out a little to the people around her by the end of the novel.

A novel of four ageing lonely people who have out lived their usefulness – whose jobs, when they retire will not be re-filled – is understandably poignant, but it is also shot through with Barbara Pym’s sharp humour. In ‘Quartet in Autumn’ Barbara Pym seems in part to have been examining the fate of single elderly people, who is it that will look out for them? Whose responsibility is it to see that someone is taking the necessary care of themselves? The system (as Pym must have seen existing in the 1970’s) is seen to fail Marcia – who seems to slip through the social care net.
These characters who I once found so sad, spoke to me in a completely different way this time. Barbara Pym’s minute observations of people, are quite brilliant, the humour and pathos are handled deftly and saved this from being overwhelmingly sorrowful.

Barbara Pym

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averyprivate eye

At the risk of repeating myself – I’m really rather bad at reading non-fiction. I have to admit that even when reading a non-fiction book I am really enjoying that there are moments I long for fiction. The fault is all mine, my mind wanders and I get, what I can only call the readers equivalent to the fidgets.

So bearing that in mind, I did enjoy this autobiography in diaries and letters, but there were moments when I enjoyed it more than at others. That is no criticism of the work – I must stress that – it’s my insatiable fiction brain; I do despair of my non-fiction attention span. I do think that reading about somebody through their own words – originally not written with publication in mind, is wonderfully illuminating. I read Hazel Holt’s biography of Barbara Pym a few years ago, and so there was a little bit of going over old ground I suppose – although I had forgotten a lot of it – but this was a richer reading experience because reading Barbara’s words was naturally much more intimate.

Each section of the book contains some brief biographical contextualising by Hazel Holt and a short section recalling their early life by Barbara’s sister Hilary Pym.
Part 1 takes us back to Barbara Pym’s years in Oxford, her friendships and heartbreaks – especially her long almost obsessional love for Henry Harvey – are recounted mainly through the diary entries she kept at this time.

“13th March (1934) Oswestry. My photos of Lorenzo (HH) lying in the punt came and I am so pleased with them – they are awfully good and like him too. I felt quite happy in the evening – I wish I could be certain that it would last. What a perilous thing happiness is!”

There is plenty of evidence of Pym’s recognisable wit even in her own diary entries, she clearly loved her time at Oxford, and kept in touch with many of the friends she had then. It was around this time – just after leaving Oxford, of course that Barbara began writing. She began writing ‘Some Tame Gazelle’ about herself, her sister and some of their friends as they might be in thirty years. It was to be however a long time before the book was to be published – thankfully Barbara Pym never gave up.
The second section of the books recounts Barbara Pym’s war; she joined the Wrens and eventually ended up in Italy. She seemed to find the idea of herself as a wren a bit ludicrous and speaks of soon being found out as an imposter. This section of the book is told through diary entries and letters from Barbara to her friends Henry and Elsie Harvey and Bob Smith. These letters are often hilarious – and demonstrate her brilliant sense of humour and ability to poke gentle fun.
The third section – entitled the novelist celebrates the years in which Barbara Pym enjoyed her best success. After 1948 Barbara Pym kept notebooks – in which she recorded in surprising detail her observations, ideas for novels and other day to day things. She was also still writing letters. Barbara didn’t write full time however – she did in fact work for many years at the International African Institute in London, undertaking similar work as so many of her characters. However Barbara Pym’s publishing success came to an abrupt halt in 1963.

“24 March 1963 To receive a bitter blow on an early Spring evening (such as that Cape don’t want to publish An Unsuitable Attachment –but it might be that someone doesn’t love you anymore) – is it worse than on an Autumn or Winter evening? Smell of bonfire (the burning of rose prunings etc), a last hyacinth in the house, forsythia about to burst, a black and white cat on the sofa, a small fire burning in the grate, books and Sunday papers and the remains of tea.”

Barbara PymDuring these years Barbara kept writing – she sometimes lost heart – but she never gave up – there’s a message in that for us all I am sure. Also during these years she struck up a wonderful epistolary friendship with poet Philip Larkin. In January 1977 the Times Literary Supplement published a list of under-rated writers, chosen by other literary figures. Both Lord David Cecil and Philip Larkin named Barbara Pym (there was apparently no collusion) – almost overnight Barbara found her novels to be back in vogue. Thank goodness for Philip Larkin and Lord David Cecil – but so sad that this final recognition came so late in her life.

Reading this autobiography during Barbara Pym reading week seemed very fitting, and I am glad I did. I certainly feel as if I know Barbara Pym a little better, and I feel sure I would have liked her too. I thoroughly enjoyed the sections of the book that dealt with Barbara Pym at Oxford and her experiences during the war. However I did get a bit bogged down in some of the letters to her friends – despite they being so well written – there were maybe a few too many – all saying very similar things.

pym reading week

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“There are various ways of mending a broken heart, but perhaps going to a learned conference is one of the more unusual.”

How could a novel with such an opening sentence not be anything but wonderful? I already had an idea that No Fond Return of Love, (along with Jane and Prudence) – was my favourite Pym, I’m now convinced of it.

Shortly after her engagement is broken off, Dulcie Mainwaring attends a conference at a girl’s boarding school in Derbyshire. Clustered together are a strange group of scholars, indexers and proof readers. Dulcie is given a room next to Viola Dace, who has been holding a bit of a torch for Aylwin Forbes, who will speaking during the weekend, and for whom she has previously done some indexing work. Aylwin becomes something of a fascinating figure for both women, but increasingly for Dulcie. Once the conference is over, and everyone back home, Aylwin a handsome scholar separated from his wife becomes the focus for Dulcie’s fantasies and fairly thorough investigations. Dulcie is living alone in a large house she once shared with her parents, she is soon joined by her eighteen year old niece Laurel, and not long after that, Viola Dace – in need of a temporary home also moves in. Dulcie begins to indulge in what today we would not hesitate to call fairly intensive stalking. With the help of various directories and who’s who – Dulcie tracks down, Aylwin’s mother-in-law, and Anglican priest brother. Viola rather aids and abets Dulcie – the two of them discussing the Forbes family at length, neither of them thinking it in the least odd for Dulcie to visit her Aunt and Uncle so that she has an excuse to go home via Aylwin’s brother’s church.
Meanwhile Dulcie’s niece Laurel has started a tentative relationship with the boy next door – while longing to move out of Dulcie’s house and into a bedsitter – where she can lead a bachelor girl kind of life and eat in coffee bars. It is while she is in the midst of this transition that she first comes to the notice of Aylwin Forbes himself, despite his being older than her father. Thus the scene is set for a fabulous comedy of manners, and unrequited love.
Part of Barbara Pym’s genius lays in the minutely observed everyday situations of her upper middle class characters, we may never have lived their lives, yet somehow they are peculiarly recognisable. There is a delicious dry humour to Pym’s writing that is comforting and subtly profound. Her dialogue and interactions between characters is, as ever spot on, some of the scene just brilliantly acute. The awkwardness of a hotel dining room, the worry of whether a cauliflower cheese will stretch, avoiding someone at a station, Barbara Pym portrays all these curious little things with absolute perfection.

“Sitting aimlessly in bedrooms- often on the bed itself- is another characteristic feature of the English holidays. The meal was over and it was only twenty five past seven. ‘The evening stretches before us,’ Viola said gloomily.”

I love the way Pym manages to expose those wicked little thoughts we all have from time to time. I think many readers have found that there is very much more to Miss Pym than meets the eye.
Of course one of the things regular readers of Pym’s novel adore – is how she drops characters from other novels into the story, here we glimpse characters from A Glass of Blessings.

Barbara Pym

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pym reading week

There has been as many of you already know, an on-going celebration of Barbara Pym’s centenary this year: a read-a-long of her novels by members of the Librarything Virago group. Now though with her actual birthday approaching on June 2nd – we are being treated to a Pym reading week hosted by My Porch and Fig and Thistle. Please pop over to their blogs and join in. There is a lot of Pym talk going on, on twitter and it’s all getting very exciting for fans of Pym.

IMAG0238I have created a Facebook group – the Barbara Pym virtual tea party – so that we can all get together on the day, wherever we happen to be, to share a cup of tea, a plate of cakes etc and chat about our Pym activities. It’s open for anyone to join, so please do, and then share your pictures on Sunday, even if it’s just your favourite tea in your favourite mug. I am actually having a real life tea party on Sunday –with several friends – there will be things to eat, lashings of tea and a Pym themed pass the parcel game. I will be taking pictures! I have also been alerted to some programmes on BBC radio 4 extra – a repeat of Barbara Pym’s 1978 desert island discs appearance, on Sunday morning – and a dramatisation of Jane and Prudence that starts Monday.

For the Pym reading week I am planning to read ‘A very Private Eye; An autobiography in letters and diaries, and No Fond Return of Love – which I remember very fondly from my first reading of it. I will move on to ‘Quartet in Autumn’ later in the month, as the Librarything Virago group will be reading two Pym books this month.

I am reminded that my thanks to the lovely Bello books is very overdue. They sent me three of the Pym novels they publish to complete my collection. They are lovely editions too.IMAG0204(1)
If you are joining in the Pym centenary celebrations I do hope you have a lovely time. I am hoping to covert some friends to Barbara Pym with my pass the parcel game, and have been threatening my mother with some too-as she has shockingly never read Pym, that will have to be remedied.

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A Glass of Blessings is the May read for members of the Librarything Virago group who are taking part in the Barbara Pym centenary read-a-long – due to my birthday reading project in May I decided to read it early. A Glass of Blessings is one of the ten Pym novels I had read before – but I have to say I hadn’t remembered much about it. I have heard a few people say that it is their favourite Pym novel, and although it isn’t my favourite, I enjoyed it enormously. It feels very much like a quintessential Pym novel – so therefore for a Pym fan – what’s not to like?

“Oh Wilmet, life is perfect now! I’ve got everything that I could possibly want. I keep thinking that it’s like a glass of blessings – life, I mean…”
“That comes from a poem by George Herbert, doesn’t it?” I said. ‘When God at first made man, Having a glass of blessings standing by …”
“But don’t forget that other line … how when all the other blessing had been bestowed, rest lay in the bottom of the glass…

In ‘A Glass of Blessings’ we are back in the familiar parochial territory that we first encountered in Some Tame Gazelle, Jane and Prudence and Excellent Women. Wilmet Forsyth is our narrator, in her early thirties; she is a nicely mannered well-dressed attender of high Anglican services. She lives in her mother-in-law’s house with her husband Rodney in a respectable suburb of London. Not having really very much to do, Wilmet likes to believe she is able to do good to others, accompanying her mother-in-law to The Settlement – an institution of some unspecified charitable kind – where the exceptionally good, but rather drab Mary Beamish is often to be found. However Wilmet is bored, her husband is slipping into comfortable middle-age – a little fatter and balder than when she had first met him, with his job in The Ministry that he disappears to each day. Wilmet contents herself with the company of three local unmarried priests – helping with the search of a new housekeeper for the clergy house, introducing them to Bason who had previously worked at The Ministry with her husband – a job Bason had proved unsuited for.

“Now’ said Mr Bason moving us on like a guide. ‘I think we might take the merest peep in Father Thames’s study. I expect you would like to see that.’
He had already opened the door before we could express any opinion and I crept forward rather guiltily as if expecting some kind of retribution to fall on me.
The first impression was of a rather crowded museum, for there seemed to be a great many objects arranged in glass-fronted cabinets and on the mantelpiece. The room was dominated by an enormous desk of some rich-looking wood. This rather surprised me, for I had not hitherto had the impression that Father Thames was the scholarly type of clergyman; though, on thinking it over, I supposed that every parish priest must have a large desk, if only to answer his correspondence and prepare his sermons.”

Also providing a welcome distraction – which starts to almost become a rather unsuitable infatuation – is Piers Longridge – the rather unsuccessful brother of Wilmet’s best friend Rowena. Piers works as a proof reader – and teaches Portuguese at night classes that Wilmet and Sybil –her mother-in-law decides to attend.
Wilmet is a likeable character although she seems quite vain, constantly examining herself and her motivations, she often sees herself as not being quite as good as she might be. Wilmet often fails to understand the people around her including her husband and especially Piers, her imagination really running away with itself at times. As the novel progresses Wilmet begins to learn something about love and her relationships with the people in her life, beginning to appreciate the friendship of Mary Beamish rather more than she had done previously. Sybil provides a lively contrast to her daughter-in-law – living life to the full, springing a surprise of her own in the end and proving that she at least has a positive attitude to life and the living of it.
Readers of previous Pym novels will be delighted with the references to characters from Excellent Women and Jane and Prudence – there is even a passing mention of Archbishop Hoccleve from Some Tame Gazelle. I was rather delighted that Wilmet and her friend Rowena had once nursed tender feelings for Rocky Napier. Pym’s wonderfully dry humour and keen observation help to recreate this world that must now surely be gone forever – if it ever really existed, yet it is a world I feel perfectly happy in.

Barbara Pym

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less than angels

Read for our on-going centenary celebration of Barbara Pym’s novels. I had read this one before – there are only three I have not read and they will be coming along later in the year – but I am beginning to think that Pym (already fabulous) improves with re-reading.
Less than Angels follows the lives, loves and fortunes of a group of young and not so young anthropologists. This is very familiar territory for Barbara Pym, she herself worked in The African Institute in London, and at the centre of this novel is an anthropological research centre.
One of the darlings of the centre is Tom Mallow –“out in the field” as the novel opens, who lives with Catherine Oliphant a writer when he returns. Deirdre Swann is just nineteen, starting out on her anthropological studies, she meets Tom the days he returns – and is instantly infatuated. Deirdre lives in comfortable but stereotypical suburbia with her mother, aunt and brother, next door to another anthropologist Alaric Lydgate – occasionally to be seen wearing African masks around his home. Esther Clovis who we first met in Excellent Women, is now working with her friend Miss Lydgate (sister to Alaric) at the research centre. Two middle aged spinster academics in tweed with penetrating voices, can’t you just picture them? Through them we catch a tantalising glimpse of Everard Bone and Mildred Lathbury also from Excellent Women.

“Esther Clovis had formerly been secretary of Learned Society, which post she had recently left because of some disagreement with the President. It is often supposed that those who live and work in academic or intellectual circles are above the petty disputes that vex the rest of us, but it does sometimes seem as if the exalted nature of their work makes is necessary for them to descend occasionally and to refresh themselves, as it were by squabbling about trivialities. The subject of Miss Clovis’s quarrel with the President was known only to a privileged few and even those knew no more than that it had something to do with the making of tea”

The ageing Professor Mainwaring is in hopes of acquiring research money from Minnie Foresight, money which will awarded in grants to a couple of lucky young anthropologists. Two of the students competing for the grants are Digby and Mark, two of young Deirdre Swann’s friends. When Tom leaves Catherine Oliphant, she turns her romantic writer’s eye on Alaric Lydgate, who she continually describes as having a face like Easter Island. There is something deliciously incestuous about these academics and their interactions that reminded me ever so slightly of Iris Murdoch. Other Pym novels revolve around the people and traditions of the Church of England, and although there are a couple of clergymen in the background, the church is not as prominent in this novel. Some of the characters muse about religion and attend services – and Deirdre’s aunt in particular likes to entertain the local clergy, even going as far as washing surplices.
Pym’s wry humour is at its best in Less than Angels – she was definitely poking some very gentle fun at the academics she must have rubbed shoulders with during her career. Seasoned academics ruminate about their days “in the field” jealously guarding their notes, the young untested scholars vie for grants and wonder at how they themselves will cope with the rigours of being “out in the field”. Barbara Pym was a wonderfully sharp observer of human life and its traditions and absurdities – and there was a lot in ‘Less than Angels’ for me to chuckle over. Deirdre’s Aunt Rhoda was possibly my favourite comic character – she did get some of the best lines.

I don’t want to say too much more about this one – I know lots of people are still reading it – but there may be some surprise in the ending for some – for me it was very unexpected when I read it the first time.

Barbara Pym

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jane and prudence

This is the latest read in the Libraything Barbara Pym centenary read-a-long – another re-read for me, but no less of a pleasure for that. Back in familiar territory with clergymen, spinsters and academics, there is also plenty of Pym’s wonderful wry observances and sharp humour. Pym’s world is very English, wonderfully nostalgic, even for those of us born long after such a world ended.

“I love Evensong. There’s something sad and essentially English about it.”

Jane Cleveland and Prudence Bates first knew one another at Oxford, Jane some years older than Prudence had once been her tutor. Now Jane is married to Nicholas an Anglian clergyman and has a daughter also bound for Oxford. Prudence, however an attractive twenty nine year old is still a spinster. Jane and her family move to a new country parish, where Jane with her odd clothes and her wry view of life has to play a part she feels vaguely unequal to. Her husband’s predecessor and his wife were revered and respected, and Nicholas putting his funny little animal shaped soaps in the downstairs cloakroom feels himself to be viewed as a lesser cleric. Jane sees local widower Fabian Driver as a possible romantic interest for her friend Prudence.
Prudence living alone in London, and working as an assistant to Dr Grampian, for whom she has nursed secret tender feelings, is invited to stay in the new vicarage – a whist drive a somewhat dubious incentive. However Prudence does harbour secret hopes of the eligible widower who she realises Jane is planning to introduce her to.

“For although she had been, and still was, very much admired, she had got into the way of preferring unsatisfactory love affairs to any others, so that it was becoming almost a bad habit.”

The community, into which the Clevelands have moved, is that of a typical English village in the years after the Second World War, the concerns of the villagers mainly parochial. There is more than one church – Nicholas is in completion with the high Anglicans the Roman Catholics and the Methodists.

“He walked slowly down the main street, past the collection of old and new buildings that lined it. The Parish Church and the vicarage were at the other end of the village. Here he came to the large Methodist Chapel, but of course one couldn’t go there; none of the people one knew went to chapel, unless out of a kind of amused curiosity. Even if truth were to be found there. A little further on, though, as was fitting, on the opposite side of the road, was the little tin hut which served as a place of worship for the Roman Catholics. Fabian knew Father Kinsella, a good-looking Irishman, who often came into the bar of the Golden Lion for a drink. He had even though of going to his church once or twice, but somehow it had never come to anything. The makeshift character of the building, the certain discomfort that he would find within, the plaster images in execrable taste, the simplicity of Father Kinsella’s sermons intended only for a congregation of Irish labourers and servant-girls–all these kept him away. The glamour of Rome was obviously not there.”

Also resident in the village is Miss Doggett and her companion the sharp tonged Miss Jessie Morrow, who has also turned her spinster’s eye upon the handsome face of womaniser Fabian. Jane Cleveland finds herself thrust into a small world of petty squabbles and small domestic affairs. The villagers particularly revere Edward Lyall – rather hilariously described as “the beloved Member”, who has perfected the art of making an entrance. Meanwhile back in London Prudence shares an office with Miss Clothier and Miss Trapnell, who discuss at length the time they arrived for work, and the state of the morning tea. Prudence finds herself irritated by her colleague Mr Manifold who keeps a tin of Nescafe locked in his desk drawer – and sometimes rather rudely calls her Prudence! It is these wonderfully sharp vignettes of English 1950’s life that Barbara Pym is so wonderful at.
Incidentally there is a tantalising glimpse from afar of Mildred Lathbury and Everard Bone – from ‘Excellent Women’ – all of which only helps somehow, to make Pym’s world seem all the more real.
My edition of Jane and Prudence is the very attractive Moyer Bell edition. I have a couple of other Pym novels in this edition, and will look out for more as I think they are lovely, but are now quite hard to get cheaply. As much as I love Virago – I have to admit to not much liking the latest covers – they make the novels look frothy and frivolous and I think take something away from the brilliance of the writing.

Barbara Pym

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This is the second book in the Barbara Pym centenary readalong. I started it a few days early – I’m rebellious like that, and finished yesterday after work, with a smile on my face.

This was the first Barbara Pym novel that I ever read, and I so enjoyed it, that I was really looking forward to re-reading it. I wasn’t at all disappointed, in fact I may have loved it even more this time around.
This was Barbara Pym’s second novel to be published in 1952. Like Some Tame Gazelle much of the novel centres around the high Anglican Church community and people associated with it. The first person narrator is Mildred Lathbury, the daughter of a clergyman, brought up in a country vicarage she is unmarried in her thirties (this is the 1950’s so that’s fairly definitely spinsterish) she lives in a small flat with a shared bathroom close to the Anglican church that she regularly attends.

“Let me hasten to add that I am not at all like Jane Eyre, who must have given hope to so many plain women who tell their stories in the first person, nor have I ever thought of myself as being like her.”

Also living close by are Father Malory a high Anglican priest who it would appear doesn’t believe in clergy marrying, which many people think a pity – that Mildred would have done very well for him. With Julian Mallory lives his sister Winifred. Julian and Winifred are Mildred’s closest friends. Mildred is apparently one of those “excellent women” who are always available to do good works, help at jumble sales, offer advice, and never marry.

When new neighbours move into the flat below Mildred it opens new horizons for her. The Napiers are rather different; Rockingham Napier has just come out of the Navy and is on his way home from Italy, while his wife Helena, an anthropologist gets the flat ready. Helena is happy to announce that she doesn’t go to church, and talks to Mildred in a way Mildred is unused to. At first Mildred is rather unsure of Helena, not sure she likes her, while she seems to get on well with practised charmer Rockingham. Through Helena Napier Mildred comes to meet Everard Bone, another anthropologist who spends quite a bit of time at the Napier’s flat.
The arrival of these people in Mildred’s life heralds further changes. The attractive widow of a clergyman moves into the flat at the top of the Mallory’s house. With the alarmingly named Allegra Grey come speculation and just a little gossip – among the good women of St. Mary’s. Mildred meanwhile has entered into a slightly peculiar friendship with the Napiers and eventually Everard Bone, as they let her in on their problems, ask her advice and come running up and down to Mildred’s flat with surprising frequency. I am not going to say any more about the plot of this lovely novel – as I know there are a lot of people reading Barbara Pym this year for the centenary – and I don’t want to inadvertently give spoilers.

Barbara Pym’s writing is brilliant, and this is a wonderfully funny and touching story. I must admit to having been brought up in a vicarage – a Methodist one – I don’t practise any religion now – but being brought up with church, jumble sales and morning services are part of my background so I loved the details of jumble sales and endless cups of tea.

“Perhaps there can be too much making of cups of tea, I thought, as I watched Miss Statham filling the heavy teapot. Did we really need a cup of tea? I even said as much to Miss Statham and she looked at me with a hurt, almost angry look, ‘Do we need tea? she echoed. ‘But Miss Lathbury…’ She sounded puzzled and distressed and I began to realise that my question had struck at something deep and fundamental. It was the kind of question that starts a landslide in the mind. I mumbled something about making a joke and that of course one needed tea always, at every hour of the day or night.”

It made me a little nostalgic, I laughed at the thought of Father Julian using an old cassock to help do some decorating in. My father would never have done that – I seem to remember they are quite expensive and so I’m fairly sure he never had more than one – and that was only ever worn on Sunday morning. If my father had got involved with decorating – he would have worn an old Harris check shirt and brown cords – rather baggy in the bum. Yet I loved the images of those middle aged ladies and the jumble sales, the flowers and who was to do what “Oh how true, how true” I cried – and actually not so very different to the English Methodist church in the 1970’s and 80’s when I was growing up. This is a delightful novel, witty and actually quite hard to put down. I found it an utter joy, and look forward to hearing what other Pym readers think of this one, whether it’s their first reading of it – or their umpteenth. Let me know if you’ll be reading Excellent Women for our February read a long and if you do – stop by and let me know what you think.

Barbara Pym

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Some Tame Gazelle, or some gentle dove:
Something to love, oh something to love!
(Thomas Haynes Bayly)

My first read of 2013, and the first read of two reading challenges. Some Tame Gazelle fitted into my month of re-reading, and the Barbara Pym centenary readalong with members of the Libraryuthing Virago group and other Pym fans.
Some Tame Gazelle was Barbara Pym’s first published novel; published in 1950 it was in fact written much earlier. Pym was writing the novel while she herself was still a very young woman, she wrote about herself her sister and their circle of friends as she imagined they might be in another thirty years.
Belinda and Harriet Bede are spinster sisters in late middle age, living together in a tiny English village sometime during the first half of the twentieth century. Each of the sisters is preoccupied by local clergy, Harriet by ministering to a series of pale young curates who live in lodgings nearby and for whom she knits socks and makes apple jelly, and Belinda for the pompous self-important Archdeacon Henry Hoccleve who she first knew thirty years earlier.

Belinda, having loved the Archdeacon when she was twenty and not having found anyone to replace him since, had naturally got into the habit of loving him, though with the years her passion had mellowed into a comfortable feeling, more like the cosiness of a winter evening by the fire than the uncertain rapture of a spring morning.

Belinda’s rapturous loyalty to Henry and her dislike of his wife Agatha is a full time occupation. Harriet’s time meanwhile is taken up with wondering whether it is too soon to invite the curate to supper again, and gently fending off marriage proposals from Count Ricardo Bianco – a regular event she has come to depend upon. When Henry’s wife Agatha goes on holiday for a month without her husband it heralds small changes in their community.

“When the day came for Agatha to go away, Belinda and Harriet watched her departure out of Belinda’s bedroom window. From here there was an excellent view of the vicarage drive and gate. Belinda had brought some brass with her to clean and in the intervals when she stopped her vigorous rubbing to look out of the window, was careful to display the duster in her hand. Harriet stared out quite unashamedly, with nothing in her hand to excuse her presence there. She even had a pair of binoculars, which she was now trying to focus.”

Soon after Agatha leaves, a visiting librarian and later a Bishop arrive in the village bringing unsettling feelings with them. Each of these two men is quickly woven into the small group of people who surround the sisters, each of them threatening in their way to upset the comfortable way of life the sister lead.
some tame Gazelle Barbara Pym’s novels are generally described as social comedies, like Jane Austen and Elizabeth Taylor her canvases are small. Here we have a small English community of middle and upper middle class people, their small traditions and absurdities laid bare. Her humour is gentle, clever and beautifully observed. Barbara Pym’s world is not a world I see around me – even in English villages I don’t think it exists anymore – if it ever did, and yet, it is a world which is peculiarly recognisable.

Barbara Pym

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