Barbara Pym, Some Tame Gazelle

Barbara Pym, Some Tame Gazelle. Virago Modern Classics, 2012. First published 1950

Belinda Bede has loved the pompous, indolent Archdeacon of her local church, Henry Hoccleve, whom she first knew when they were undergraduates, for thirty years. But he married a bishop’s daughter, the spiky and rather scary Agatha. When a new young curate moves into the parish, Belinda’s sister Harriet adopts her customary mode of girlish devotion – ‘she was especially given to cherishing young clergymen’despite being, like Belinda, in her mid-fifties.

In ch. 6 Belinda calls on the Hoccleves in the vicarage, ostensibly to see Agatha, but of course this screens her sublimated passion for Henry.

Pym Gazelle coverA typical Pym scene has been set up: the good but dowdy woman’s unrequited love for a feckless, selfish man is only dimly perceived or appreciated by him. It’s a scene full of female poignant longing and male preening, treated with a delicious light comic touch by Pym – but there’s Pity and Fear present, ‘like Aristotle’s Poetics’, as Belinda thinks in a different context of a visit by a woman of dubious social status.

She finds Agatha ‘in the drawing-room, mending the Archdeacon’s socks’. It’s a novel in which one of women’s most successful romantic overtures involves making or darning socks – the most intimate scene between Belinda and Henry occurs when his wife is away and Belinda notices one of his socks has a hole; she promptly takes out her needle and darns it, his foot in her lap, her heart racing. He remains, of course, oblivious. Later she wonders if she might dare to up the stakes and knit him a pullover – but decides, like her timorous male counterpart Prufrock, that this would be ‘too dangerous’.

Their conversation turns to the new curate, Edgar Donne (most of the characters are named after the pre-modern English poets – more on that shortly). On hearing Agatha hint that Henry ‘was well, considering everything’, Belinda is bemused.

Considering what? Belinda wondered, and ventured to remark that men were really much more difficult to please than women, who bore their burdens without complaining.

I’ve written now about several of Barbara Pym’s novels (list of links at the end), so shan’t go into detail about this one. It has all her usual preoccupations: spinsters with hopeless passions for even more hopeless men, often ‘high’ clergymen, leading to flirtations and obsessions; sisters or female friends either supporting or undermining each other; village fêtes; references to English poets. (On this last topic I’d recommend the essay by Lotus Snow, ‘Literary Allusions in the Novels’ in Dale Salwak, ed., The Life and Work of BP (1987)).

The epigraph to this novel indicates its theme: it’s from a poem by a minor poet , Thomas Haynes Bayly (1797-1839), ‘Oh, something to love!’ – ‘some tame gazelle, or some gentle dove/Something to love, oh, something to love!’ That’s all that these sisters want – though they tend to ignore eligible men and set their hearts on the unattainable ones.

Some samples of Pym’s delightful comic style: here on p. 1 Belinda says to her sister, after one of Henry’s more portentous sermons, sprinkled with obscure poetic quotations – he’s addicted to showy references to Gray, Young, etc.:

‘If only we could get back some of the fervour and eloquence of the seventeenth century in the pulpit today’…

‘Oh, we don’t want that kind of thing here,’ Harriet had said in her downright way, for she had long ago given up all intellectual pursuits, while Belinda, who had been considered the clever one, still retained some smattering of the culture acquired in her college days.

 

So much is revealed about these two women here; their suppressed longings, discordant views on what would fulfil them; an oversensitive appreciation of what’s right. That emphatic ‘here’ is priceless. Unlike Henry, who parades his literary learning to show off, Belinda – like her counterparts in many other Pym novels – finds ‘solace in the love poems of lesser seventeenth century poets’. And here’s Belinda again:

Belinda, having loved the Archdeacon when she was twenty and not having found anyone to replace him since, had naturally got into the habit of loving him, though with the years her passion had mellowed into a comfortable feeling, more like the cosiness of a winter evening by the fire than the uncertain rapture of a spring morning (p. 11)

Later we’re told much the same about this ‘hopeless passion’; she felt that ‘no spinster of her age and respectability could possibly have such a thing for an archdeacon’:

The fierce flame had died down, but the fire was still glowing brightly [a quotation from Thomas Carew with a similar image follows] How much more one appreciated our great literature if one loved, thought Belinda, especially if the love were unrequited!

Pym has a lot of fun with clothes again, using them as an index of confidence, frivolity or staidness: flamboyant Harriet, for example, appears at one point

radiant in flowered voile. Tropical flowers rioted over her plump body.

Belinda tends to favour unflattering green (which makes her complexion look yellow), or for gardening, galoshes and a raincoat, or sensible shoes, ‘a crêpe de Chine dress and coatee.’ I have no idea what a coatee is, but know for sure that it’s exactly what Belinda would wear. Henry’s chic wife Agatha, on the other hand, looks ‘very elegant in dark red, with a fur coat and wide-brimmed hat’ at a wedding near the end; she’s ‘poised and well-dressed’ – ‘It was Belinda Bede who was the pathetic one’.

If you’ve not read Barbara Pym before I’d suggest this is a good place to start, being her first novel. It’s not as sharp or as tightly written as the later ones, but still highly entertaining. A good companion for the Trollope ‘Chronicles of Barsetshire’ I’m working through; he deals with many of the same themes, but far less succinctly.

‘We really ought to love one another’, thinks Belinda at one point; ‘it was a pity it was often so difficult.’

Other Pym posts:

Quartet in Autumn

Excellent Women

No Fond Return of Love

Crampton Hodnett

Jane and Prudence

A Glass of Blessings

 

 

 

 

 

 

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21 thoughts on “Barbara Pym, Some Tame Gazelle

  1. “On this last topic I’d recommend the essay by Lotus Snow, ‘Literary Allusions in the Novels’ in Dale Salawak, ed., The Life and Work of BP (1987)).”

    Thanks for above, Simon. Love to learn more about “BP”! Like to pace my reading of her novels, but she is so perceptive, so FINE a novelist, and I think her reputation will only grow.

    “[R]adiant in flowered voile. Tropical flowers rioted over her plump body”

    TOO funny! As a plump 50-something woman myself, that resonates, and she reminds me of my own “Downton Crazed,” matrons, impassioned summer students at Cambridge in my “Americans Abroad” series. If I may indulge, quick excerpt as they terrorize the poor old Don assigned to babysit them, tipping from their boat into The Cam, then being fished out by the poor constable and a few random strollers:

    “Just as inevitably, one of the overturned would begin giggling uncontrollably, her plump and slippery body an open invitation to sciatica and disc problems long after she had flown west to her native climes.”

  2. I loved this one too. As you bring out in your review, Belinda Bede seems to be the quintessential Pym character – a put-upon spinster with a hopeless passion for an even more hopeless man is a great way of expressing it. Pym is so good when it comes to capturing those petty little put-downs between women. There’s a little incident at the garden party where Agatha criticises the way another lady’s marrows have been wrapped, effectively slighting Belinda in the process. It may seem like a small thing, but details like this make all the difference.

    • Jacqui: all of her novels are full of such telling details – so easy to pass over them without grasping their rich significance. In fact BP was passed over entirely, as you know, for years before her late resurgence as she came back into fashion. Perhaps what V. Woolf wrote in A Room of One’s Own explains the reason for this myopic lack of literary taste: “This is an important book, the critic assumes, because it deals with war. This is an insignificant book because it deals with the feelings of women in the drawing room.” Interestingly there’s a moment in Ch. 1 when Harriet suggests ‘rather grandly’ that they have coffee in the ‘drawing room’; ‘At one time she had wanted to call it the lounge, but Belinda would not hear of it. She had finally won her point by reminding Harriet of how much their dear mother would have disliked it.’ There’s a whole short story distilled into those three sentences…

  3. Lovely review, Simon. I’ve only read three of her novels so far (CH, EW and QIA), so I have a lot of future treats in store.
    I particularly enjoyed the role reversal: the gentleman with his foot in the lady’s lap, and her going all weak in the knees…
    I looked up Dale Salawak’s book online but it costs a minimum of 52 € ! I wonder if university teachers expect their students to spend such fortunes on their books 🙂

    • Shame about the price of that book; I suppose students, like me, have to use the univ library copy. You have plenty of treats in store as you read the rest of BP’s oeuvre. She’s so clear-eyed and…i don’t know…sane. I’d like to have said more about the lit allusions in the novel, but the Snow essay is pretty comprehensive. I’ve not checked it all, so I’d just add that there’s an interesting raciness about some of the references. In Ch. 17 when Belinda is unwell there’s a discussion of her reading matter: the Oxford Book of Victorian Verse. Harriet, her sister, suggests the Fourth Book of Virgil – ‘I know you like the part about Dido and Aeneas.’ Sounds so innocuous, but suggests much about their romantic aspirations. When Harriet goes out and bumps into the Archdeacon, she tells him that Belinda had ‘weak tea and dry toast for breakfast…and then she asked for the OBoVV’. Henry replies, with another of his usual ostentatious quotations, ‘She called for madder music and for stronger wine.’ Harriet isn’t familiar with ‘our great Victorian poets’ so this ‘passed over her head.’ Again, this is so wittily done. Pym is inviting us to share the joke: it’s not a particularly sensitive poem to cite in this context. I confess I had to look it up; it’s from Ernest Dowson (hardly the greatest of poets, imo), ‘Non sum qualis eram’ – a poem about long lost love (it has the line ‘gone with the wind’ in it – i.e. that lost love from long ago). If he’s unaware of its significance (Belinda’s 30-year unrequited love for him) then he’s an ignorant brute; if he IS aware, he’s an ignorant callous brute – he enjoys Belinda’s hopeless adulation without having to stir himself to reciprocate. Pym is never as superficial or trivial as she might at first sight appear.

  4. Well, I’ve put the book on my wishlist anyway, in case of a windfall :-).
    “Sane” is a very appropriate word. She must have been a “no nonsense” woman, like Miss Morrow in CH.

    • Izzy: good luck with the book search. I’m sure BP was indeed no nonsense; I can imagine her, like Belinda, putting her knitting in her cretonne bag at the evening’s end and taking the parish magazine to bed with her along with a cup of Ovaltine. These concrete details remind me of the acute observational humour of the English comedian Victoria Wood, and of some of the work of Alan Bennett.

    • Izzy: PS to my previous comment. I just looked online and found a second hand copy of the Salwak book (now corrected the spelling in there post) for £15 on Amazon – a bit less than your quote. Do you have inter-library loans where you are? Here they’re free. Meanwhile I’d recommend looking at the Conference Monographs section on the B. Pym Society homepage; there are several papers on STGazelle, including this one by Adam Shoemaker on ‘obscure research’ in the novel: http://www.barbara-pym.org/Shoemaker_NA16.pdf

  5. I’ve no idea whether inter-library loans exist where I live, and even so, books in English ? Fat chance ! I have been able to consult a few excerpts of Salwak’s book online (Joyce Carol Oates’s essay, for example) and have decided that it would definitely make the perfect Christmas present *from* my often unimaginative husband :-). Anyway, I’ve started reading Shoemaker’s essay and I’m hugely enjoying it.

    • Izzy: Glad you were able to sample the Salwak. Let’s hope your OH is more imaginative than Archdeacon Henry! The Shoemaker essay was interesting in presenting academic research as a viable alternative for Belinda’s questing spirit – maybe fixing itself on a feckless man was partly a consequence of a desire for ‘something to love’ – perhaps the love of literature would suffice…but it didn’t altogether for BP, whose own Oxford experiences were embedded in the novel: she too had a ‘hopeless passion’ for a man named Henry. There’s another paper at the BP Soc site by Isabel Stanley, ‘What Barbara Read’, that looks at her reading more generally as it features in the novels, not just STG.

  6. Lovely review as always, Simon. I read this one back in 2013 and remember noticing strongly the strand of loneliness that runs through it. There was very much the sense that this was perhaps a less risky option than taking a chance on real love. One of Pym’s best, I think.

    • Thanks, Karen. Yes, I agree about the loneliness. I recall Prudence at the end of Jane and P saying she liked a novel that was ‘well written…with a good dash of culture and the inevitable unhappy or indefinite ending which was so like life’. There’s a similar loneliness pervading much of Elizabeth Taylor’s fiction. Something to do perhaps with our society’s fixation on the notion that a woman can only find fulfilment with a man – preferably the right one, but still, a man. Pym shows there are alternatives, and they’re not necessarily tragic. Sad, maybe. Resigned to ‘drudgery divine’, in the words of G. Herbert, pedantically and insensitively quoted at Belinda by the literary snob Henry, when his wife’s putative superior scholarship in Middle English is under discussion.

  7. Asian and Chinese men would tell you that it’s not only women who can’t find fulfillment without a man. There is such a shortage of brides in these countries, due to decades of forced abortions of female fetuses and sterilizations, that in north India a fifth of men will be single by 2020. It is even feared that this will lead to raised levels of crime and violence…It’s not everyone who can face life without another half to help them fight the fear of death…See Plato’s Symposium 🙂

  8. I’ve added the Salwak to my wishlist – not sure how I’ve not been aware of it before. I love this book and you’ve brought out what’s wonderful about it very well. I need to re-read Pym again; it’s been too long.

  9. Belinda Bede. Henry Hoccleve. Marvellous.

    I’ve bought Pym on kindle so far, but looking at that glorious cover I do wonder if that’s been an error.

    Where does this rank for you in the Pym canon?

    Oh, re clothes, I have a link to an article about Pym’s use of clothing in her fiction. Did I get that from you? If not, would you like a link to it?

    • Max: I don’t get on well with e-books, except for convenience when on holiday. I’m not too keen on those garish covers, but they are at least bright and cheerful. This is not her finest work, but it’s still great fun. A little more waspishness appears in the later portrayals of central characters, or the vulnerability of Belinda is less starkly done in later lonely spinsters. I’ve a feeling that clothing ref might well have been mine, or maybe Moira’s at Clothes in Books; by all means post it here to be on the safe side – it’d be good to see if it wasn’t mine!

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