Tuesday, 26 August 2014

The novels of Barbara Pym - an overview

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I do not read many novels these day; but I do read and re-read the 'comic' novels of Barbara Pym (1913-1980).

She is a discovery of the past fifteen or so years, and an absolute delight to me. I would not say that the books are in any way 'essential reading' or an exceptional source of human wisdom - but they are worthwhile stuff; and people who like this sort of thing will find them the sort of thing they like.

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In an obvious sense, Barbara Pym writes about the world she knows, and the people she knows, a world which is now gone - but is English, upper middle class, genteel and based-around the Church of England (although aware of the decline in that institution, so that it is inhabited mainly by spinsters and elderly women, and celibate clergy).

So it is a world of vicars and curates, Parish meetings and jumble sales and church festivals, discussions of High Church ritual (incense, robes and the like) - a world firmly based on church life but yet a world with very little real Christianity anywhere (I get no sense at all that Barbara Pym was a 'genuinely religious' person)^.

It is also a world of scholarly activity - on the fringes of academia: journals, editors and their assistants, typing, proof reading, index-making - and especially of anthropology (Barbara Pym was assistant editor of an anthropology journal).

Also a world where people have learned and quote poetry, English lyrical poetry, and use this to express their deepest emotions.

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So far this sound terribly staid and conventional, and it is; but what is very unusual is Barbara Pym's built-in assumptions about men and women. She was unmarried, but apparently had several sexual 'affairs' as an undergraduate in Oxford and at other points in her life. She also moved on the fringes of a homosexual subculture which intersected with High Church Anglicanism.

In particular, Pym seems to assume that women are mostly attracted to men's looks (in the same way that men obviously are usually mostly attracted to women's looks). So her books always have a handsome but vacuous - often charmless and inept - man around whom various women are buzzing.

The heroines generally despise these handsome men, but seem helplessly attracted - and often marry them, or seem just about to marry them, as the book ends - providing the semi-romantic structure of the basic comedy plot.

Also, there are no children in her novels, and indeed a positive hostility towards the idea of children.

All this is very a-typical for women - and particularly of women of Pym's station and era.

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Strangely, this oddness about men and children was a factor from the very early novels, written in her early twenties. Some Strange Gazelle has as the central character a (very nice) middle aged spinster who has spent her whole life helplessly in love with a handsome senior clergyman that she met while an undergraduate at Oxford University (he is now her neighbour, and married to someone else). This 'Archdeacon' has no attractive qualities, except his looks and good education; he is dull, selfish, unromatic - but she wants merely to serve him in little things.

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Anyway, the best of Pym's novels are those she wrote before 1970; the later ones I find unreadable.

The early ones are fresh, lively, and somewhat broad in their comedy - with the characters being somewhat caricatured; but very well worth reading nonetheless. They are Some Tame Gazelle, and the posthumously published Crampton Hodnet and Civil to Strangers.

The very best are Excellent Women, Less than Angels, No Fond Return of Love and (posthumously published) An Unsuitable Attachment.

These all have really likable heroines (those of EW, NFRL and AUA being strikingly similar - rather 'plain' but pleasant-looking, dowdily dressed, socially anxious and over-sensitive to suffering; compulsively helpful and full of good works); with eccentric (but realistically so) casts of characters, great genial good humour, and close observations of the minutiae of life.

Jane and Prudence is a bit below this level, with rather annoying eponymous central female protagonists, and a rather intrusive and jarring 'anti-men' undercurrent. And the least good of these novels is A Glass of Blessings which is written in the first person by a vacuous and un-Pym-like 'glamorous' heroine.

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I could not honestly recommend Barbara Pym to many people, she must surely be a minority taste - and I realize how unappealing these novels sound in summary! Nonetheless I personally find them a sheer pleasure to read; and as soon as I have finished going through them, I look forward to the next re-reading.

As a measure of how much I like them, I have read all the novels twice to my wife at bedtime (so clearly she loves them too) - in addition to several private (silent) readings and listening to a few as audio-books.

In fact, it was an audio-book of No Fond Return of Love, borrowed from the library, which began the whole thing...

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^See also: http://charltonteaching.blogspot.co.uk/2012/11/was-barbara-pym-christian-or-subversive.html
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