After last year’s successful centenary celebrations for author Elizabeth Taylor, some members of the LibraryThing Virago Modern Classics group – motivated mainly by HeavenAli! – have embarked on a year of reading the works of Barbara Pym. I confess that until joining the group I hadn’t come across her work, and so the group read (plus a fortuitous purchase of a set of novels from The Book People!) was good motivation to get started on this writer.
“Some Tame Gazelle” is Pym’s first novel, and it was published in 1950. The book tells the story of two unmarried sisters of vague and unspecified age, Harriet and Belinda Bede, who live together in a small English village. I guessed them to be in their early 50s but it’s not essential – basically they are older ladies but not without charms! Belinda is our main guide through the story, and she is the perhaps slightly frumpier of the two, prone to tweed coats and sensible shoes. Harriet, however, likes to be turned out in more glamorous clothing and is quite humorously concerned with her appearance at points in the book. As the tale begins, we find the Bede sisters contemplating the church fair and the arrival of a new curate. This latter event is of huge importance to Harriet, who seems to cultivate each one that arrives in the village, plying them with knitted items, jams and foodstuffs, as well as having them to dinner regularly. Harriet is worshipped from afar by the very unlikely Count Ricardo Bianco, a local resident who regularly proposes marriage to her – which she equally regularly declines!
Belinda, however, has no admirers but is carrying a torch for the local Archdeacon, Henry Hoccleve, whom she has known since they were young. The Archdeacon is married to the slightly fierce Agatha, who is something of a bluestocking, although the marriage does not seem entirely harmonious.
Added in to this are a lovely array of supporting characters, from the Bedes’ maid Emily, to local ladies Miss Liversedge and Miss Aspinall, plus schoolteachers, seamstress etc. The regular routine of the sisters’ existence is disrupted, however, by the visit of one of Harriet’s ex-curates, Bishop Grote, who has been working in native climes, plus an old colleague of Belinda’s who brings with him a rather rough and ready librarian, Mr. Mold. Several undercurrents develop and events take an unexpected turn when proposals of marriage are made to unlikely people, Agatha goes on a solo and the sisters’ calm life enters a tumultuous stage.
This is a lovely book – witty, humourous and playful, beautifully written and with a set of characters I quickly grew to love.The Bede sisters are wonderfully drawn and alive, and I was sad to leave them at the end of the book. The Archdeacon, with his moody grumpiness, is a positive delight and although he is selfish and manipulative, you can’t help liking him. This passage beautifully illustrates his character and also Pym’s witty writing:
“The Archdeacon had been visiting a rich parishioner, who was thought to be dying. The poor were much too frightened of their vicar to regard him as being of any possible comfort to the sick, but the Archdeacon liked to think of himself as fulfilling some of the duties of a parish priest and there was something about a deathbed that appealed his sense of the dramatic. He had also taken the opportunity of visiting the workhouse that afternoon and was altogether in a pleasant state of melancholy.”
However, although on the surface this is a sparkling little comedy of manners, I did sense some subtle, darker undercurrents. The is a subtext of loneliness in the book – all the characters are suffering from it in one way or another. The Bedes have decided to make their life together and when this is threatened by marriage proposals, Belinda in particular is distressed. This book is set in a world where the single unmarried woman was still an isolated figure (some of Elizabeth Taylor’s characters come to mind here) – and the thought of making their way on their own is daunting. Count Bianco and Bishop Grote are also lonely, and the many marriage proposals which abound in the book stem not from passion but from loneliness and the need for companionship. Even Henry and Agatha seem distant within their marriage.
“When one reached middle age it was even more true that all change is of itself an evil and ought not to be hazarded but for evident advantage.”
In many ways, the sisters have chosen the easier and more comfortable path of loving from a distance. There is a poignancy to be found in a lost love, a road not travelled, which in some ways is more comforting than actually taking the plunge into something and being disappointed. Belinda reflects often in the book upon Henry and his attractions and speculates on what might have been. But she is not a forceful enough character to have achieved an actual relationship and it is something of a revelation when we find out that in fact Agatha proposed to Henry and not the other way round. Many of the characters seem to yearn for what might have been. And the world in this book is a strange, childless one – the only youngsters are the ones referred to as misbehaving in church and being looked after by the teachers. Henry and Agatha have a sterile marriage in both senses, and the coddling of curates undertaken by Harriet could be seen as a kind of substitute motherhood. As the epigrammatic quote at the start of the book hints, we all need someone or something to love – whether close up or from afar.
At the end of the book, the status quo has, needless to say, been restored. Another new curate is due and as Harriet thinks “who would change a comfortable life of spinsterhood in a country parish, which always had its pale curate to be cherished, for the unknown trials of marriage?”
The world of STG has probably pretty much disappeared – roll-on girdles, jam making, church fairs and unmarried ladies knitting for curates are very much a thing of the past. Nowadays it is not assumed that women will automatically marry, and there are many more opportunities for careers and lives outside of the traditional. But it is a gentle, humorous world beautifully portrayed by Pym and this book makes me look forward very much to reading more of her work!