Monday 12 November 2012

Was Barbara Pym a Christian, or subversive of Christianity?


As I have mentioned before, I don't read many novels these days - but one author I return to with renewed delight is Barbara Pym (1913-1980).

I find her early books (those written up to the time of the posthumously published An Unsuitable Attachment) to be completely enjoyable: even after several readings.

The type is 'comedy of manners' - with a generally satirical edge.


I hesitate to 'recommend' Pym as her subject matter is so narrow: the doings of a thin social stratum of lower-Upper Class English people in the middle of the Twentieth Century - a world of librarians, minor academics, anthropologists and editors, spinsters and their paid companions, 'distressed gentlefolk'; and the High Anglo-Catholic church with its Archdeacons, vicars, and especially the young as-yet-unmarried curates - who are often the romantic interest. In sum, the the exact world of the author's own experience.


But after a few re-readings I became aware that the underlying motivation of the novels was almost the opposite of their surface.

Because Pym writes so much about church life - from its services to its fund-raising 'jumble sales' - that when I was an atheist I had assumed Pym was a Christian.

But I now perceive there is not the slightest molecule of faith in her books. So rather than being about the Christian life, they form a very detailed representation of an a-religious society built mostly around the church and its activities.


And, although Pym writes about 'romance' - in that (as with all classical comedies) the books tend to be about courtship leading towards marriage; they are anti-romantic, since there is a strong anti-man animus which arises from the fact that her heroines are only attracted by men they dislike.

Indeed, Pym's women seem to be motivated almost wholly by the looks of the men, almost without regard to their character or position; although there is also (and this is more usual) an attraction to high status.

So there is a sense of men as irresistibly attractive beings to whom a woman is drawn - and to whom she offers the sacrifice of her love, time, indeed her whole life - expressed in one novel in terms of a recurrent trope that 'men need meat' - giving the man the best meat and the largest share of meat, in a time of rations and shortages.

Men, on the other hand, are unaware of the fact that they are cosseted and privileged by women, simply take for granted that women are serving them left, right and centre.


This perspective on the relation between the sexes is peculiar and essentially false - and I think, almost unique to Barbara Pym. In a nutshell, it is inverted: that the average reality is one in which men are attracted to women for their looks (mostly) and good looking women are pursued and privileged and cosseted (even though they may be unaware of this, may take it for granted).

Pym's autobiography makes clear that this was, however, her own experience; and one which dominated - and in a sense ruined - her own life.

As so often with women geniuses there is, therefore, a strongly masculine aspect to Pym: as evidenced by her male-like sexual attraction for looks she herself felt and which she incorporated into her novels; and her inverted world in which the men were the courted sex.  


But it does make for good novels and much humour. (And bears similarity to the world of Bernard Shaw's plays and novels, where the same inversion is seen; but presumably for opposite reasons.)


It is possible that Pym's perspective was exacerbated by her own situation in the post Great War era where there was such a shortage of upper class men, that the few remaining were competed-over; and a high proportion of upper class women never married - against their own wishes.

Barbara Pym was not herself good looking; yet she was attracted mainly by looks - so (since she was not in any serious sense a Christian) she had a love life of hopeless passions for unattainable men, and intermittent affairs with handsome wastrels, and on the fringes of the homosexual subculture (which was very much a part of the Anglo-Catholic church by that time).

It was these bottled resentments and frustrations which - in her youth at any rate, when there was energy and freshness, and when she seemed uncannily to forsee her own likely future - led to the edge of the humour in her novels.


At any rate, she is one of the absolute favorite novelists I have discovered in later life, and one of the most wholly-enjoyable.

And perhaps it is this strange paradox - whereby the obvious surface level is so utterly contradicted by the implicit subtext - that makes her books endlessly re-readable.

If Pym had had the slightest glimmer of Christian belief, she might have made an excellent (Anglican) nun; but this was never on the cards, and she lived for her writing; which life was sadly cut-off by her inability to publish Unsuitable Attachment


Recommended books - any of the early work, none of the later work; but my favourites are Excellent Women, Less than Angels and No Fond Return of Love.



JP said...

"Men are cosseted and take it for granted" is not unique to Pym - this is a basic argument of feminism.

"Pym's perspective was exacerbated by her own situation in the post Great War era where there was such a shortage of upper class men, that the few remaining were competed-over"

I would expect to find the same number of men and women in her age cohort. That cohort did not fight in the war. Even the age cohort 5 to 10 years older than her did not fight in the war (so slightly older men should have been available). The group that got slaughtered was 20 years older than her. So it seems to me her hostility to men was the cause, not the consequence, of being unable to find a man.

Bruce Charlton said...

@JP - Well of course it isn't unique to Pym! But hardly anyone would - on the face of it - put Pym down as a feminist. She was in effect a feminist (in this respect) without realizing it.

What I meant about the shortage of eligible men was more general than specific; this was the *culture* she lived in. WWI really did (for England) represent a cull of a substantial proportion of the brightest, bravest and best.

One way to think about it is this class of women looked to marry ex-Public Schoolboys and Oxbridge graduates. The casualties from these instiutions were quite appalling, for example: