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Archive for the ‘Barbara Pym’ Category

Quartet in Autumn Cover by Pat Fogarty

Barbara Pym Reading Week begins today and, though I doubt I’ll manage to read and review one of her books this week (though I will try), I did want to do something to celebrate Pym.  This week’s image comes from the cover of a 1990s edition of Quartet in Autumn, described as:

…the story of four people in late middle-age – Edwin, Norman, Letty and Marcia – whose chief point of contact is that they work in the same office and they suffer the same problem – loneliness. Lovingly, poignantly, satirically and with much humour, Pym conducts us through their small lives and the façade they erect to defend themselves against the outside world. There is nevertheless an obstinate optimism in her characters, allowing them in their different ways to win through to a kind of hope.

As for the library in the picture itself, I am deeply impressed by the shininess of the floors.

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When Rachel reviewed Excellent Women by Barbara Pym earlier this month, I knew it was time for me to finally read it for myself.  I have tried a few of Pym’s books over the years but I have never come away particularly impressed by any of them.  I liked her writing style and generally finished each book because I found her amusing but her stories and characters, though promising, never quite lived up to expectation.  And yet I’d been told time and time again by other readers that I would love Pym.  Finally, with this book, I’ve seen what there is to love.

Mildred Lathbury is a spinster in her early thirties, residing in an unimpressive neighbourhood of London, alone in a flat that shares a bathroom with the downstairs neighbour.  She is one of those excellent women whom everyone else relies upon, all of them assuming that in her respectable spinsterhood she can have no major concerns of her own and so can give herself over to the concerns of others.   It is a fate she views, half amused, as inevitable:

I suppose an unmarried woman just over thirty, who lives alone and has no apparent ties, must expect to find herself involved or interested in other people’s business, and if she is also a clergyman’s daughter then one might really say that there is no hope for her.

Mildred certainly finds much to keep her busy, especially once Rocky and Helena Napier move into the flat beneath hers.  The Napier’s strained relationship provides a seemingly endless demand for Mildred’s well-honed skills as an excellent woman.  She is always standing by, ready to provide a bit of distraction, an evening of unthreatening conversation or simply a cup of tea depending on the circumstances.  And there are also Father Malory and his sister Winifred, great friends of Mildred’s, needing her calming presence themselves when Julian Malory unexpectedly becomes entangled with the beautiful widow Allegra Gray.

Mildred is fascinated by the messy emotional entanglements of others but just isn’t the kind of person to have them herself.  She is intrigued by romance and marriage but is not someone given to recklessly falling in love at the drop of a hat.  She is young enough that people around her still assume she will get married but she does not seem at all certain that that is what she wants.  Mildred enjoys male company, yes, is flattered any time the handsome ex-serviceman Rocky seeks her out and enjoys his well-practiced charm, and she does like taking care of Father Malory, but she is conscious that she is generally the one doing all of the work in these relationships.  She gets a bit of attention, a lengthy to-do list and effusive thanks.  It all makes for a busy life.  But, crucially, she still has some control and independence.  Mildred has the ability to take on as little or as much work as she wants for whoever she likes.  She is not bound in the way a wife would be and is not at all certain that excellent women should marry:

 ‘You could consider marrying an excellent woman?’ I asked in amazement.  ‘But they are not for marrying.’

‘You’re surely not suggesting that they are for the other things?’ he said, smiling.

That had certainly not occurred to me and I was annoyed to find myself embarrassed.

‘They are for being unmarried,’ I said, ‘and by that I mean a positive rather than a negative state.’

‘Poor things, aren’t they allow to have the normal feelings then?’

‘Oh, yes, but nothing can be done about them.’

Mildred is surrounded by dull males who all her acquaintances seem to think she would be terribly lucky to marry.  There is the fussy William Caldicott, more interested in the food than her when they meet for their annual lunch.  There is Everard Bone, Helena Napier’s colleague who Mildred is at least marginally intrigued by but who seems to be mostly mindful of her use as an excellent woman who could help index and correct the proofs for his book.  And then there is Julian Malory, who everyone seems to consider Mildred’s rightful property but who she can’t work up any romantic enthusiasm for.

It all makes for a fantastic book.  Pym’s style of comedy – dry and unrelenting – has always appealed to me but here she finally supplies characters that I can really enjoy.  I am not sure I would particularly like any of them if we met in real life (well, probably Father Malory, though his meekness would drive me mad quite quickly) but they are certainly entertaining.  There is, however, something particularly harrowing about reading Barbara Pym at the age of twenty-six.  I am not quite young enough to be entirely confident of a future with a husband and children nor am I old enough that that path has been clearly closed off.  How much less terrifying Pym must be to read once that particular question has been settled, when you can settle down to enjoy her great skill rather than viewing all of her spinsters as the shape of things to come.

I do wonder how male readers relate to Excellent Women.  I know they enjoy it but can they understand the particular blend of loneliness and freedom that characterizes Mildred’s life?  Understand her frustration over everyone else thinking they know what she wants, trying to order her life for her, when she is deeply conflicted about her own desires?  It seems to be such a typically female position.  What single woman hasn’t sat horrified at the dinner table while friends or relations probe into her personal life, plotting how they can ‘fix’ it?:

‘What will you do after we’ve gone?’ Helena asked.

‘Well, she had a life before we came,’ Rocky reminded her.  ‘Very much so – what is known as a full life, with clergymen and jumble sales and church services and good works.’

‘I thought that was the kind of life led by women who didn’t have a full life in the accepted sense,’ said Helena.

‘Oh, she’ll marry,’ said Rocky confidently.  They were talking about me as if I wasn’t there.

‘Everard might take her to hear a paper at the Learned Society,’ suggested Helena. ‘That would widen her outlook.’

‘Yes, it might,’ I said humbly from my narrowness.

‘But then she would get interested in some little tribe somewhere and her life might become even more narrow,’ said Rocky.

We discussed my future until a late hour, but it was hardly to be expected that we should come to any practical conclusions.

People may have ideas on bachelors and how they should live their lives but how rarely they seem to voice them, at least as publically as they do with unmarried women!  But, at least in my experience, such interventions are always done out of an honest desire to save the desperate spinster from a life of pathetic loneliness.  Whether it is true or not, there is definitely still the idea that a man, single though he may be, need never really be lonely, not so long as there are excellent women about to pet and care for him, making it their business to organize his work, his home, and his self, if given the chance.

My earlier encounters with Pym may have left me indifferent but I adored this.  The other books were funny and stylish but I had no emotional reaction to them whatsoever.  That was certainly not the case here.  It is easy to see why so many readers consider it her best work.

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I have a confession to make: until this week, the only Barbara Pym I had read was Less Than Angels.  I enjoyed it but it did not convert me into a Pym fanatic and I have always been a little confused by the gushing over her work.  Determined to try again, I picked up No Fond Return of Love from the library with the hope that it would reveal Pym’s genius to me.

The book begins with Dulcie Mainwaring, “a rather tall woman in her early thirties, with a pleasant face and fair hair” (p.12), attending a conference peopled by the “seedier fringes of the academic world” (p.209).  Dulcie is a good, useful sort of woman who, like so many attendees at the conference, spends her life devoted to the thankless task of researching and proofing the work of male academics, ensuring indexes and bibliographies are flawless.  Over the course of the conference she becomes captivated by the handsome Aylwin Forbes who is there to deliver a talk on “some problems of an editor.” 

This fascination with Forbes provides the central plot of the novel, which is I think my main problem with it.  Essentially, she stalks him, albeit in a humourous way.  Alright, yes, she’s a researcher so it’s only natural that her first instinct is to learn more about him.  Her friendship with Viola Dace, who has worked with Forbes before and has her own odd personal relationship with him, provides many leads.  Dulcie is able to wander through his neighbourhood, visit his mother-in-law’s house (where his wife has retreated after leaving him), attend the church his brother presides over and even visit the hotel his mother runs in the country, the place where he grew up.  Forbes, in the meantime, has become enraptured by Dulcie’s young niece, who views the forty-something Forbes as sad rather than dashing.  Yes, inappropriate obsessions abound.

Barbara Pym is often compared to Jane Austen.  Both wrote novels concerned with domestic dramas, however small, and both did so with great wit and humour.  However, Pym’s novels lack the sympathetic hero or heroine of Austen’s.  It’s like reading several hundred pages devoted to Miss Bates.  I appreciated Pym’s ability to gently mock her characters but I had no real sympathy for or emotional investment in the characters themselves.  Even if I hate a character, that makes for a more interesting read than here where I didn’t care enough either way for any of them.

Pym-lovers, can someone please tell me what to read?  Please?  You all seem to enjoy her so much and I’m terribly lost.  Have I just been picking the wrong books or I am just blind to her charms?  I love her amusing asides, the ponderings that all of her characters seem to wander into at one point or another, but the characters themselves do nothing to capture my interest.

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