Back in February I wrote about Barbara Pym’s second novel, published in 1952: Excellent Women. No Fond Return of Love came four novels later in 1961. This was to be her final publication before the long hiatus caused largely by her work coming to seem old fashioned, with its casts of characters drawn from the class of repressed and obscure ‘distressed gentlewomen’, fastidious academics, librarians, anthropologists and clergymen, and settings in the non-U suburbs of London and the provinces. The Angry Young Men and new realists had taken over.
Her popularity revived after an issue of the TLS invited prominent literary figures to nominate those writers they considered the most underrated of the century; David Cecil and Philip Larkin chose Barbara Pym. From that point publishers vied with each other to secure her work. Her back catalogue was reissued, and new works started appearing, culminating in the shortlisting of Quartet in Autumn for the 1977 Booker Prize.
No Fond Return of Love deals with similar characters and issues – the trials and heartaches of a lonely spinster entering her middle years. Dulcie Mainwaring, another of Pym’s characters who likes to feel she’s ‘needed, and doing good’, has recently been dumped by her pompous fiancé– a pretentious intellectual art gallery assistant – leaving her confidence in tatters and her heart broken; she feels ‘relegated to the shelf’. She maintains the curiosity in other people, however, which her self-confessedly dull career as an indexer and researcher for more able, notable literary figures’ books has fine-tuned.
At an indexers’ conference (a typical set-piece portrayed with Pym’s wonderful ear for dialogue and absurd characters behaving ridiculously) she meets Viola Dace (her characters’ names are just right; this one’s is occasionally likened by unkind observers as the name of a fish), who had recently indexed a book by the academic Dr Aylwin Forbes, a handsome but selfish man. Both ladies find him alluring. The scene is set for a romantic plot similar to that in Excellent Women: the central female character is self-effacing and dowdy, but attracted to a dashingly inaccessible and not entirely sympathetic man (he indulges in a caddish flirtation with Dulcie’s new lodger, her 18-year-old niece).
The plots are not particularly where the pleasure resides for me in reading Pym’s work: it’s in the scrupulous examination of relationships, not just of burgeoning romances but also of the setbacks and personal mortifications we all experience in the real world, but which tend to be overlooked in fiction. It’s easy therefore to dismiss Pym’s novels as lightweight or prissy; this is a mistake. She has the psychological insight and ironic technique that’s reminiscent not just of Jane Austen, with whom she’s often compared, but also of that great anatomist of the female psyche, Flaubert.
Her style and tone are quite different, of course, and her novels can be categorised as light comedies of manners. But this is to overlook the subtlety of her characterisation and the richness of her portrayal of the unsung heroines of suburbia.
Let me try to give a brief indication of her qualities.
Dulcie has become intrigued by Aylwin Forbes, and turns sleuth in finding out about him and his family, including his equally attractive clergyman brother, Neville, over whom, as Dulcie blithely points out, women are always likely to ‘make scenes’ over (ie fall in love with them). Viola, who has come to live as a lodger with Dulcie – a comically mismatched pair like Mildred and Helena in Excellent Women – is discussing Dulcie’s quest with her:
‘”I can’t think why you’re so inquisitive. It isn’t as if you’d even met Neville Forbes.”
“No, but it’s like a kind of game,” said Dulcie. It seemed – though she did not say this to Viola – so much safer and more comfortable to live in the lives of other people – to observe their joys and sorrows with detachment as if one were watching a film or a play.’
Dulcie is one of Pym’s onlookers in life, too emotionally bruised to participate actively, conscious that her chances of finding romantic fulfilment are rapidly waning, and that most of the men she meets are selfish and shallow. As the novel develops, however, so does her self-esteem and courage. In her own way Dulcie is quietly heroic.