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Happy Birthday, Barbara Pym!

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As anyone who follows book events on LibraryThing or in the book blogosphere probably knows, today is the centenary of Barbara Pym’s birthday. The Virago Modern Classics group on LT have been having a monthly readalong of all her novels, and this month we will be reading two – “No Fond Return of Love” and “Quartet in Autumn”. The thread is here if anyone is interested.

Also, Barbara Pym Reading Week has commenced, hosted by Thomas at My Porch and Amanda at Fig and Thistle – please pop over and check out their posts and also links to others of interest.

I am currently about to embark on a chunkster so my June reading of Pym will probably not take place this week. However, I have decided to celebrate today by listening to the author pick her Desert Island Discs from 1978 – available on the BBC here, so do have a listen!

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Happy birthday, Barbara!

Virago Volumes: Less Than Angels by Barbara Pym

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(Firstly I should say SPOILER ALERT, as I will be discussing a major event in the plot here!)

It’s April (for anyone who hasn’t noticed!) and I’ve reached book 4 in my monthly read-along of the Barbara Pym novels (we LibraryThing members are celebrating her centenary, if anyone has missed this!) “Less Than Angels” is this month’s book, a tale of love and academia, set in the world of anthropology.

This science is, of course, not making its debut in Pym’s fiction here, as several anthropologists featured in her second novel, “Excellent Women” (and in fact some of Pym’s earlier characters re-appear here – a recurring trend in her work, I’m finding!) However, the focus is firmly on academia in LTA, with a large cast of professors, students, priests and excellent women. But Pym throws her net a little wider this time and we have stifling suburban families and willowy young women wishing to break out as well.

As for the plot – well, probably our main character is Catherine Oliphant, a writer of short stories and pieces for women’s magazines who lives with Tom Mallow, an anthropologist who is just returning from the field. Catherine and Tom’s relationship is a strange one – not seemingly founded on any great passion, but one which they have just slipped into. We are left wondering early on quite what they have in common as there does not seem to be much of a meeting of minds. There is a side plot of a number of the students applying for grants for fieldwork, and also the mystery of Alaric Lydgate, who has returned from the field but never done anything with his notes and lives as a recluse. Then Tom meets young student Deirdre Swan, who falls in love with him and becomes the catalyst for the breakup of his relationship with Catherine.

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I have to say that the break-up was very well depicted; not dramatic or spectacular, just sad, somewhat inevitable and coming across as almost happening without great provocation. Pym portrays the pain and confusion of the ending of a relationship well and I wonder again how autobiographical this particular book is, because this part of the story is very convincing. However, LTA didn’t entirely succeed for me as a novel for a number of reasons.

The plot goes in too many directions and the various strands do not really cohere. There are long sections on Tom, Catherine and their associates’ love lives which is then abruptly dropped when Tom goes off to Africa, and we then have chapters on the grant funding weekend where Mark and Digby, the two major student characters, compete for the chance of a grant. Tom’s death is almost thrown in as an afterthought, a plot device to get rid of him and allow the rest of the characters to move on to the next phase of events. Catherine’s attraction to, and involvement with, Alaric Lydgate is somehow unconvincing and I felt that he wasn’t really developed enough as a personality.

I also found myself wondering about Pym’s motivation with this novel. Her previous books have told a good tale, but I felt with an underlying commentary about the role of women, the kind of relationships they have with men and with each other, and a funny look at the worlds of churchgoers, anthropologists and excellent women. But I didn’t find these elements here at all, really – the book came across as a fairly broad sideswipe at academia and the science of anthropology itself (perhaps most obviously in the burning of Alaric’s notes at the end in an almost pagan ceremony!). Pym seems to be implying that it’s a fairly worthless pursuit, followed by those with no wish to engage in real life itself, but simply to observe it from outside – an accusation that could in fact be hurled at novelists, although Pym allows Catherine (her alter ego?) to experience love and loss and so involve herself in living.

“Your people wait for you,” said Catherine. “How soothing it will be to get away from all this complexity of personal relationships to the simplicity of a primitive tribe, whose only complications are in their kinship sructure and rules of land tenure, which you can observe with the anthropologist’s calm detachment.”

I did wonder whether any of the happenings in LTA were based on Pym’s own life and experiences, and if the book was perhaps a kind of catharsis – no doubt I shall find out if I read a biography! Certainly, she is critical of anthropology, and when Tom visits his family in the country, his comparisons of the rituals and traditions there were the cultures in so-called primitive countries is very sharp (and the above quote is also relevant here too).

“A very curious sound, which it is impossible to reproduce here, then came from her. Has she been in the company of ordinary people, it might have been supposed that something had gone down the wrong way and that she was choking, but here nobody took any particular notice of her or Father Gemini when he cried excitedly, “No, no, it is this!” and proceeded to emit a sound which would have appeared to the initiated exactly the same as Miss Lydgate’s choking noise.”

There *is* something of a subtext in this book, which is that of the rejection of the traditional and the suburban way of life. Deirdre is desperate to break out of the confines of her family, and aspires to a lifestyle similar to that of Catherine. She finds the prospect of settling down with Bernard, a reliable young man with a steady income, terribly dull.

“There are few experiences more boring or painful for a woman than an evening spent in the company of one man when she is longing to be with another, and that evening Bernard’s dullness seemed to have a positive quality about it so that it was almost a physical agony, like the dentist’s drill pressing on a sensitive tooth.”

Conversely Catherine, who has lost out on family life through the death of her parents when she was young, finds considerable comfort staying with the Swans after Tom’s death, although she ultimately rejects this way of life as a long-term option, preferring to reclaim her independence. But Pym I think is a little ambiguous in her feelings here, unsure as to whether family life or the single life is best.

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This possibly all sounds a little negative, and I did enjoy LTA a lot – there are enough examples of Pym’s clever writing and dry wit to lift it – but I didn’t engage with the story or the characters in the same way as I have her other novels and ended up feeling slightly let down at the end. However, not -so-good Pym is still streets ahead of most modern novels I look at, and maybe I shall get on better with next month’s book!

Virago Volumes: Jane and Prudence by Barbara Pym

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In complete contrast to other recent reading – and I’m a great believer in contrast in reading to stop you getting bored – I have now finished March’s book in the LibraryThing Virago Group’s monthly readalong – “Jane and Prudence.”

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The book opens with the two heroines attending a university reunion. There is an age difference between these two as Jane actually taught Prudence having made a brief return to her career. Jane is comfortably married to Nicholas, a Vicar, and has a teenage daughter Flora. Prudence is single, with a stream of paramours behind her and currently enamoured of her boss, writer Arthur Grampian. Jane and her family are moving to a country parish and she hopes to find a suitable partner for Prudence, as she is determined to marry her off.

We are on familiar ground here with Pym – a parochial setting, a Vicar and his retinue of “excellent women”, the desperate decision to marry or stay single – and yet, the book is not dull or predictable and as always Pym’s characters sparkle. We are still in the 1950s, a time when girls were still expected to find a husband and be a good wife. I was, however, still a little shocked when, even though Flora is at University, Nicholas expresses the certainly that she will settle down and marry.

But Pym is very clever in the way that she uses Jane and Prudence to personify the opposing sides of the dilemma for women. They have differing expectations of life, perhaps owing to the age difference, and Jane on the surface seems sure that she has done the right thing; although the reader does find him or herself musing on her “unsuitability” as a Vicar’s wife and wondering how significant are her regrets about her literary ambitions. The difficult decision of whether to marry or not seems to have been one which preoccupied Pym, certainly in her early works. As one of their old university friends muses, “Prue could have this kind of life if she wanted it; one couldn’t go on having romantic love affairs indefinitely. One had to settle down sooner or later into the comfortable spinster or the contented or bored wife.”

There is an interesting side-plot with Fabian, the local good-looking widower who Jane has lined up for Prudence. Although they make a pretty couple on the surface, he actually has no depth at all despite his looks, and Prudence has glamour AND brains. Instead of taking a risk and marrying Prudence, he eventually goes for the safer option by replacing his late wife Constance with a younger version of herself, one of the neighbouring women, who will be comfortable rather than challenging.

As always, this book is full of lovely, sharp dialogue – this about Fabian Driver:

“You see, her husband was more interested in other women than he was in her. I believe that does sometimes happen. Her death came as a great shock to him – he had almost forgotten her existence.”

Pym shows her female characters observing men through the rose-tinted glasses of love – Prudence’s Arthur Grampian, when seen by Jane, is actually old and ordinary; Fabian is good-looking but shallow; Mr. Oliver, whom Flora adores when she sees him in church surroundings, is very disappointing when out of them; Mr. Manifold is an “ordinary young man”; even Nicholas, though criticised affectionately by Jane, is only a man. I’m not sure if Pym is a bit of a man-hater but she definitely thinks we deceive ourselves into love!

“Oh, but it was splendid the things women were doing for men all the time, thought Jane. Making them feel, perhaps sometimes by no more than a casual glance, that they were loved and admired and desired when they were worthy of none of these things – enabling them to preen themselves and puff out their plumage like birds and bask in the sunshine of love, real or imagined, it didn’t matter which.”

With the rather grumpy character of Geoffrey Manifold, I think Pym is throwing a little something extra into the mix and hinting that it will do Prudence good to be involved with an ordinary young man rather than daydreaming unsuitably about Arthur Grampian. I confess I saw this development coming, and I wonder if anything long-term might come of it, or if Jane’s emerging plan at the end of the book, to pair Prudence off with the local MP, might be Pym’s intention?

Jane, it must be said, is a wonderful creation of a character – scatty, untidy, apt to quote poetry at the most unsuitable moments, you can’t help but love her. Everything about her is well-meaning and despite her rather feeble grasp on the reality around her, she’s great fun!

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As an aside, I was tickled pink that Pym resolved the end of “Excellent Women” by dropping into a conversation the news that Mildred Lathbury had married Everard Bone! I kind of expected that was what Pym was hinting at, and I do wonder if this will be a tendency in her books, as she’s carried forward characters from STG to EW, and then EW to J&P – I rather like this and I hope it will carry on.

In the end, I enjoyed this book very much and it had a lot more to it than might initially appear. Although on the surface light and frothy (and alas, this is what I think the cover and Jilly Cooper foreword are trying to project), it is in fact a quietly subversive little book with plenty to say about men and women. Pym obviously takes seriously the issue of what women should do with their lives – whether they should compromise and sacrifice individuality in a marriage, or stick to the single life and have the freedom without the comfort of companionship. It’s a big topic and one which is still relevant today, and Pym’s quiet but pithy novels adds a lot to the debate.

Virago Volumes: Excellent Women by Barbara Pym

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OK, I’m cheating a little here, as my copy of this book is *not* the Virago edition, but a nice, pre-loved old hardback kindly passed on to me by Simon at Stuck-in-a-Book! However, I’m still counting it for the LibraryThing Virago Group’s centenary read-along – so there!

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I sailed through Pym’s first book, “Some Tame Gazelle” and liked it very much, but for some reason it took me a little while to get going with EM. We are in similar territory to STG, in that our narrator is Mildred Lathbury, a 30-something, single, churchgoing excellent woman of independent means, who spends much of her time doing good works and sorting out other people’s lives and problems. Her part-time job is helping distressed gentlefolk (not a job title that would be around much nowadays!) and her spare time is devoted to her friends Fr. Julian Malory and his sister Winifred. Mildred also has an old school friend/ex flatmate Dodie, whose brother William was once a possible suitor. But Mildred seems set in her ways and resigned to a life of solitude and good works, until a new couple move into the flat below. Rockingham and Helena Napier are people out of Mildred’s usual sphere and cause instant disruption. Add into this Helena’s anthropologist colleague Everard Bone, and the new lodger at the Rectory, widow Allegra Gray – well, you end up with poor Mildred being taken very much out of her comfort zone!

“Love was rather a terrible thing, I decided next morning, remembering the undercurrents of the evening before. Not perhaps my cup of tea.”

Pym’s writing here is just as sparkling as in her first novel. Her dry wit is lovely, and she has plenty of sly digs at all of the religions and types that Mildred comes across. The setting is different from STG – instead of a rural parish, we are in a city parish, albeit a small local one. The fact that this is post-WW2 is clear from the references to bomb-damaged churches etc, and Rocky Napier has just returned from service in Italy. Rationing is still going on and there is a sense of a world that has been very disrupted and is still not back to normal. There is a lovely array of characters, beautifully drawn, but this novel is somehow a little more melancholy than STG. In the first novel, despite the upheavals that take place, the characters are not too troubled by doubts and all settles back down to normal. But in EM, there seems to be much more questioning of women’s roles and lot in life. Mildred is clear-headed enough to know that she does not love either Rocky or Julian (whom she entertains slight fancies about, then rejects). She is still young enough for many of the characters to assume that she will marry and settle down, but she values her independence and solitude and does not seem to want to make such a sacrifice. One of the characters comments that it is not natural for women to live on their own, and Allegra Grey speculates about what happens to women if they don’t marry:

“Oh, they stay at home with an aged parent and do the flowers, or they used to, but now perhaps they have jobs and careers and live in bed-sitting-rooms or hostels. And then of course they become indispensable in the parish and some of them even go into religious communities.”

There were so many lovely touches – I was particularly fond of the jumble sale chapter which brought back many memories! In the 1980s I haunted many such gatherings as they were a source of all things vintage and individual and quirky, and I well remember the aggression of some of the attendees as we struggled for the best bargain… Pym’s characters are very pragmatic and down to earth – Mildred seems realistic about what she expects from life, and after going through the emotional wringer over love when she was younger, does not seem to want to go through it again. It was lovely to see Archdeacon Hoccleve make a cameo and I wondered if when Pym said this about another character, she was thinking of him:

“I realised that one might love him secretly with no hope of encouragement, which can be very enjoyable for the young or inexperienced”

And yet – I found more ambiguities in EW, besides just the ironic use of the phrase. Pym doesn’t seem to be quite decided as to whether it is a good thing that these women are unattached and with a certain purposelessness. It isn’t just the women, either – William, with his fussiness and his pigeons and his greyness in his grey office with grey colleagues, is ultimately a sad figure and I ended up a little unclear as to whether Pym thought everyone should pair off or not. Certainly any marriage between William and Mildred would have been dreadful, but Pym doesn’t seem to be offering much of an alternative. Things are no clearer with the arrival of Mildred’s new neighbours, another pair but this time two ageing ex-governesses. They are very “jolly hockey sticks” and hearty and one wonders whether Pym was hinting at another solution to female solitude here.

Another aspect I noticed more in EW was the fact that Pym and her characters seemed less satisfied with the usual assumptions of the period i.e that the women would cook and make the tea etc while the men sat around and talked and made decisions. This was only an undercurrent, but in some ways I rather wanted Pym to develop this a little more – maybe she will in future books!

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But the biggest ambiguity for me was the ending. Mildred is single – Julian Malory has been deserted by Allegra Gray and Everard Bone has escaped from the clutches of Helena. While dining with Everard and considering his suggestion she works on his book, Mildred also considers that she may have to defend Julian from future bands of excellent women. Is she actually considering taking either of them on full-time, because she thinks of herself in comparison to the late President of the Anthropological Society’s wife, which could mean she might actually marry Everard (she certainly finds him attractive!) I’m not sure this lack of clarity actually worked for me, as I would have preferred to know if Mildred was going to resist all attempts to pair her off, or give in to matrimony.

If this sounds too critical, it isn’t meant to be – I enjoyed EW very, very much and I love Pym’s wit and way of writing. I just would have preferred her to take a little more of a definite line on things, but this is maybe a trait that will develop in her writing as I read through her books – looking forward to next month’s volume!

Recent Reads: Some Tame Gazelle by Barbara Pym

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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?”

Barbara Pym

Barbara Pym

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!

There are other positive reviews from Laura’s Musings here and HeavenAli here.

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