About Simon Lavery

Author, blogger.

Volvelles revisited

Volvelle of sun and moon positions

‘Volvella’ of the moon, with moveable device for calculating the position of the sun and moon in the zodiac.
By Gutun Owain – National Library of Wales, CC0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=44768586

Back in July 2014 I posted about volvelles (LINK HERE)- manuscripts, and later printed books – which incorporated designs or texts over which moving dials or pointers were fixed, enabling the user to calculate or combine pieces of information in the text, for example for computing astronomical or astrological charts. Ramon Lull is usually credited with inventing this ‘ars combinatoria’.

My post went on to consider other kinds of combinatorial text, from Swift’s Lagado machine in Gulliver’s Travels, to Borges. I also linked to related posts about, among others, Calvino, OuLiPo, Permutational Poetry, and so on.

I’ve just come across a post from the iris website – the Art and Archives blog of the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles – by Rheagan Martin: ‘Decoding the Medieval Volvelle’, dated 23 July 2015.  This post, like mine, gives historical context to the phenomenon of volvelles, and includes some lovely images, with links to the exhibition which ran that year, and to zoomable illustrations from books that were in it. I recommend you take a look at it – and, I hope, back at my original volvelles piece.

 

A life of one’s own. Sylvia Townsend Warner: Lolly Willowes

I felt as though I had tried to make a sword only to be told what a pretty pattern there was on the blade. [STW in a letter to her friend, David Garnett, cited in the Introduction to the VMC edition by Sarah Waters]

How galling it must have been for Sylvia Townsend Warner to hear people like her mother praise this impassioned protofeminist novel Lolly Willowes for its whimsical depiction of spinstery witchcraft in the Chilterns.

Lolly WillowesSo much has been written about the plot, I won’t précis it here. There’s a succinct account and appraisal in Robert McCrum’s recent piece in the Guardian’s ‘100 Best Novels’ series (he places Lolly Willowes at no. 52), emphasising how it’s much more than a charming fantasy: it’s about a repressed, disregarded woman’s quest for personal freedom and for meaning in her life – without being beholden to any man, religion or social class or institution.

Sarah Waters’ introduction to the Virago Modern Classics edition – the one I’ve just finished – is found online, again at the Guardian website. It gives an excellent analysis of the novel’s impassioned themes of a woman’s struggle to be free in a patriarchal world soon after WWI, when the slaughter in the trenches was still a recent memory, and women’s new-found independence was being suppressed again, as it was in the Victorian and early Edwardian period.

Waters astutely positions the novel in a literary group containing both Lady Chatterley’s Lover and Virginia Woolf’s ‘A Room of One’s Own’.

The title of this post is from a quotation on p. 196, when Laura (the diminutive ‘Lolly’ – a name by which her family know her – sums up her lack of status or identity in the eyes of the world she inhabits) is conversing with her new master: Satan – the ‘Loving Huntsman’ as the novel’s subtitle calls him: a gentleman who once he’s netted his new witch’s soul, leaves her alone to revel in her liberated state [or is she in his thrall? Is she truly free even now?]:

One doesn’t become a witch to run around being harmful, or to run around being helpful either – a district visitor on a broomstick. It’s to escape all that – to have a life of one’s own, not an existence doled out to you by others, charitable refuse of their thoughts, so many ounces of stale bread of life a day…

Instead, she argues, women become witches ‘to show our scorn of pretending life’s a safe business, to satisfy our passion for adventure.’ This long section towards the end of the novel is one of the most powerful expressions of feminist polemic I’ve read in a work of prose fiction (Nora in A Doll’s House would understand Lolly implicitly).

Women, Lolly says to her satanic interlocutor (it’s an exchange reminiscent of Marlowe’s Dr Faustus when he first interrogates Mephistopheles), need to transcend the ‘dismal lives’ expected of them by society:

Women have such vivid imaginations, and lead such dull lives. Their pleasure in life is so soon over; they are so dependant on others, and their dependance so soon becomes a nuisance…And all the time being thrust further down into dullness when the one thing all women hate is to be thought dull…[On Sundays they are required to listen to church sermons on Sin, Grace:] All men’s things, like politics, or mathematics. Nothing for them except subjection and plaiting their hair.

What an act of wilful misreading by the author’s mother to see that as anything but a subversive call to feminist arms.

Sadly, it’s a message still relevant today.

 

Husband as new daddy: Patrick McGrath, Constance

‘I have a husband now, I thought, a new daddy’.

This is Constance Schuyler (Dutch for ‘scholar’), now Klein (German for ‘small’ – an ominously symbolic start), on the first page of Patrick McGrath’s 2013 novel Constance. At no point is there any doubt that this is going to be a Freud-heavy account of a turbulent marriage of mismatched, needy people.

Both central characters, who take turns to narrate the story in their first-person voices, bring more baggage to the relationship than Antler. Constance (the ‘klein’ one, and not very constant in most respects) is haunted by the mysterious death of her beloved mother when she was a child, and the troubled (she sees it as cruel) upbringing by her controlling, unloving father – about as close to Big Daddy as a New England doctor can get.

So what should a young woman just turned 20 with ‘inner fragility’ and sense of self esteem do? Why, marry a man 20 years older who’s just like daddy, Sidney Klein (he’s the scholar; the reversal of the expected names serves no purpose, and if anything is just an ill-judged trick). This English expat literature professor is controlling, constrained. His patronising view of Constance from the outset is as ‘a work in progress’ which he’s confident he can complete, she’s ‘unformed and indistinct’, like his tedious academic study of the Romantics. It’s hardly surprising he’s blocked: he appears to be trying to analyse their poetry with the literary approach of a vivisectionist. It’s the only one he knows.

This novel is pretty good for about half its length. There are some well narrated set pieces, like the party at which Constance’s younger sister Iris meets Sidney for the first time, revealing herself to be wild, sexy and uninhibited – qualities Constance may well possess, but which she’s learned to suppress (along with most of her other impulses and memories). Descriptions of a decaying, dangerous New York City in 1963 are often vivid, especially the recurring scenes in Penn Station as it’s demolished and rebuilt, but soon become a tiresome metaphor for something, I’m not quite sure what: Constance’s marriage, maybe, or her psyche.

The alternating narrative voices overlap and repeat scenes with differently skewed perspectives. This technique is interesting at first, but then becomes another slightly irritating aspect of this ultimately disappointing novel.

Characters (and ghosts) come and go, but they fail to cohere with the events and lurid developments in the narrative. It all ended too pat for me, and too much resembled an early, minor Hitchcock film. The plot twists are melodramatic or soapy, the characterisation too contrived and clunky – though the Casaubon-like Sidney is oddly endearing (he drives a big Jag, like Inspector Morse, but with none of that detective’s gloomy charisma). The Schuylers’ ‘gothic horror house’ (yes, that’s what it’s described as at one point; there’s too much of that kind of narrative heavy-handedness) and Klein’s equally gloomy book-filled Manhattan apartment are too stagey, and the dialogue is largely stilted.

McGrath, ConstanceA pity – the only other McGrath novel I’ve read so far was Asylum (I wrote about it here last August), a much more satisfying gothic psychological thriller.

The edition I read was the Bloomsbury paperback. Not keen on that cover.

Berlin redux: Käthe Kollwitz

While in Berlin over the last week, visiting stepson and his family, we (Frau TD and I) took the grandchildren (19 months and nearly 3) to the park in Kollwitzplatz, in the Pankow district. Seriously cool Berliners stood around a drink stall in the street market, sipping white wine and looking achingly hip.

K KollwitzIn the park I took these pictures of a statue by Gustav Seitz,1958; bronze casting of it placed in the park in1960 (he also sculpted the brothers Mann and Bertolt Brecht). It’s of the artist after whom the square is named: Käthe Kollwitz (1867-1945).

A fervent pacifist and, later, communist (hence this statue’s presence in former East Berlin), she lost a son in WWI, and was threatened with deportation by the Gestapo during WWII. But by then her worldwide acclaim was such that they left her alone.

Woman with dead child etching 1903 By The original uploader was VeraHutchinson at English Wikipedia - Transferred from en.wikipedia to Commons., Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=46021223

Woman with dead child: etching 1903. The original uploader was VeraHutchinson at English Wikipedia – Transferred from en.wikipedia to Commons., Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=46021223

She worked as a painter, printmaker (including etchings, lithography and woodcuts) and sculptor. Her most famous works depict the sufferings of the working class inflicted by poverty, hunger and war.

One such cycle is The Weavers, a sequence of lithographs and etchings made in the 1890s, inspired by the play of that name by Gerhart Hauptmann. This was a dramatization of the oppression and subsequent (failed) revolt of Silesian weavers in 1844.

The Peasant War cycle was completed 1902-08. It was inspired by a peasant revolt of the early 1520s in southern Germany, and also perhaps by another work by Hauptmann.

KollwitzI thought at first, before spotting the name of the subject of the statue on the plinth, that it was of a monk: Kollwitz has the severe serenity of the cloister, and the fierce gaze of a hawk.

Interesting to see all the yummy mummies and bearded partners with their wine glasses in the street and park, watching over their privileged offspring. Would have to be plastic beakers in the UK. A little touch of civilisation in a world going increasingly crazy.

 

Hello to Berlin

Back in the first year of this blog one of my first posts was about a visit to Berlin, where my stepson and daughter-in-law live. Since that post they’ve had two boys. Mrs TD and I are just back from a week’s visit there.

Every time I return to Berlin I’m impressed by its atmosphere: strangely calm and peaceful for such a big city.

Carl Legien estateRound the corner from TD jnr’s house in Prenzlauerberg is this Weimar/Bauhaus housing development on Erich Weinertstrasse, which is on the UNESCO World Heritage list. Designed in 1929-30 by Bruno Taut (1880-1938), with the cooperation of Franz Hillinger, head of the Draft Office at GEHAG (a Berlin public housing cooperative), the Carl Legien estate is named after the first chairman of the Allgemeiner Deutscher Gewerkschaftsbund [German General Trade Unions Association] founded in 1919.

Here’s what the website Architects/Architecture/Architectuul says about it:

Carl Legien againThe brief of the Berlin senate had called for a high-density residential development with five-storey buildings owing to the high cost of land, the estate being located near the city centre. The site itself was framed by a gas container, small factories and a colony of garden allotments. As a model for his design, Taut chose the functional architecture of the Tusschendijken project built in 1919/20 by Jacobus Johannes Pieter Oud, a member of the De Stijl group, in Rotterdam. Taut’s scheme was innovative in that the u-shaped buildings enclosed the courtyards that were open toward the street, separated by a belt of green. The vertically stacked loggias facing the courtyard and the balconies which project beyond the building line into the street result in an interlocking of public and private spaces. As in most housing projects designed by Taut, the planning of green areas was entrusted to Leberecht Migge. Taut and Migge were striving for a consistent design for the entire project. They felt that workers’ quarters should be surrounded by lots of green, much like the villas of the upper class, and the green areas should be laid out in such a way as to provide an “outside living space”. If the design of a similar project designed by Taut, the Hufeisensiedlung was still influenced by the “garden city” concept, the Wohnstadt Legien had a distinctivly urban and integrative expression od contemporary industrialism society.

Taut was associated with the Deutscher Werkbund group of architects, which included Walter Gropius.

Being Jewish, he was obliged to flee Germany with the rise of Hitler and the fascists. He went first to Switzerland, then on to Japan and Turkey, where he died and is buried.

Here’s a detail that illustrates his use of colour and shape; stupidly I didn’t take more pictures of my own, so here’s one from the web:

Attribution: By Florianmk (Website: Clio Berlin Blog) (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)], via Wikimedia Commons page URL https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AClio-berlin-carl-legien-siedlung-1-4.jpg

Attribution: By Florianmk (Website: Clio Berlin Blog) (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
page URL https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AClio-berlin-carl-legien-siedlung-1-4.jpg

 At no. 101 in this street is our favourite café in the area – Eckstern. The proprietor, Riadh Gose, bought the site with his wife when it was a rundown baker’s, and refurbished it (taking six months, he told us) with his designer partner, Stefan.

He offers Eckstern signseveral types of beans for his excellent coffees – our favourite is the organic one. He makes a mean bircher muesli, and provides delicious filled bagels, breakfasts and cakes. A graphic designer, he and his partner Stefan painted all the murals inside, with themes from sites across the city, while his card and flyer, and my photo of his sign outside, are all in the spirit of the Bauhaus architecture all around.

 

 

Rebecca West, The Return of the Soldier

The Return of the Soldier was Rebecca West’s first novel, published in 1918 when she was 24. It’s very different from the Aubrey trilogy, which I’ve written about recently here.

The plot of the novel is simple: Chris returns from the trenches suffering from shell-shock. Its main effect is that he has forgotten everything that happened for the past 15 years – which includes getting married to Kitty, and losing their baby son.

He does remember his youthful love for a lower-class publican’s daughter, Margaret. It’s to her that he writes when he recovers physical health, and he turns to her for comfort and healing when he’s back in his former home – to the grief and consternation of Kitty and his cousin, Jenny.

It’s a short novel – just 140 pages – but carries enormous emotional weight. The tension that builds towards the terrible conclusion is almost unbearable.

It’s not as polished in style as the later novels by Rebecca West, and in places it’s overwritten and cumbersome; but it’s still a poised and subtle work of fiction.

I’ll have to be brief, as I’m going elsewhere soon, so I’ll focus on just one scene. It’s the moment when Margaret arrives at Kitty and Jenny’s beautiful country house to tell the women that Chris has been wounded in action. The gulf in class difference is palpable, and here it’s through clothes that the narrator (the voice is Jenny’s, who is surely in love with Chris herself, hence her animosity towards this woman) conveys her sense of social superiority and disdain:

Just beneath us, in one of Kitty’s prettiest chintz arm-chairs, sat a middle-aged woman. She wore a yellowish raincoat and a black hat with plumes whose sticky straw had but lately been renovated by something out of a little bottle bought at the chemist’s. [How could Jenny possibly know that?!] She had rolled her black thread gloves into a ball on her lap, so that she could turn her grey alpaca skirt well above her muddy boots and adjust its brush braid with a seamed red hand which looked even more horrible when she raised it to touch the glistening flowers of the pink azalea that stood on a table beside her. Kitty shivered and muttered, ‘Let’s get this over,’ and ran down the stairs.

The Return of the Soldier: Virago Modern Classics. Afterword by Sadie Jones

Mary of Egypt’s Day

Russian icon Mary of Egypt

17C Russian icon with sequence of scenes from her life. Image from WikiMedia commons By Anonymous – Beliy Gorod, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=2772328

Once again it’s the feast day of St Mary of Egypt – subject of my postgrad research.

Mary of Egypt

Sforza Book of Hours, 1490. Assumption of Mary Magdalene, supported by angels; I couldn’t find an image of a similar scene with Mary of Egypt in Cambridge, Fitzwilliam MS 19, a Book of Hours from Chartres

I’ve written about her here before – links at the end – and about the events in her life. She was one of a popular medieval hagiographical type: the penitent sinner. Her legend has much in common with that of Mary Magdalene, with whom she’s easily confused in iconographical representations. Both tend to be depicted in the Western tradition naked or half-clothed, with long flowing hair. Eastern images (usually Greek or Russian) are more faithful to the way she’s described in the original Greek Life by Sophronius: when she’s first encountered in the desert by Zosimus, she’s said to look old and haggard, with short white hair. Interesting that in the West the image is more glamorous and erotically charged.

Auxerre Mary

Statue in the porch of Auxerre Cathedral, France. It’s a typical Western representation of an attractive young woman with flowing hair, holding her loaves. She seems to be partly draped with the cloak Zosimus throws to her so that she can cover her nakedness.

Egyptian Mary’s distinctive attribute is the three loaves she holds, bought (according to the legend) as she left Jerusalem after her epiphany and repentance at the porch of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, prior to her entering the desert. There she wandered for 47 years, eating nothing else, until she was discovered by the monk Zosimus.

Caxton's Mary

Woodcut from Caxton’s ‘Vitas Patrum’, printed by Wynkyn de Worde, Westminster, 1495. Here she’s modestly and fully clothed, but still youthful in appearance. Zosimus appears not to have passed her his cloak, as the original legend relates

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

He returned at her request the following year to administer communion. When he returned the year after, he found her dead body. He buried her with the help of a passing lion.

In most calendars her festival is recorded as 2 April, but in some it’s the 1st or 9th.

Links to previous posts on Mary:

19 Feb. this year: stained glass image in the V&A Museum

7 March, 2016: Summary of her Life, with various images. Here I promised to write a post some time about the various English versions of her life; maybe I will…some time.

27 Feb, 2016: stained glass window at Bredon church

Unless otherwise stated, images are my own photos of plates in my 1993 thesis

French Life Mary

From a French translation of the ‘Legenda Aurea’, a famous medieval Latin collection of saints’ legends by Voragine; this edition was printed by Jean du Pré, Paris, 1489

ROH Madama Butterfly live stream

Today is my wife’s birthday. To celebrate we went to our local cinema in Cornwall last night to watch the live stream of the Royal Opera House production of Madama Butterfly. Here’s the notice on their website:

Antonio Pappano and Renato Balsadonna conduct two great casts led by Ermonela Jaho and Ana María Martínez in Moshe Leiser and Patrice Caurier’s production of Puccini’s deeply poignant opera.

Madama Butterfly ROHErmonela Jaho was breathtaking in the title role. Her singing was sublime, as was her acting. As the interviews before the show and during the interval showed, she managed to convey through her voice as well as her acting the growth and developing maturity in her character.

I’d forgotten that Cio-Cio San (Butterfly) is only 15 when she’s married to the caddish Benjamin Franklin Pinkerton as part of the deal to buy a 999-year lease on a house in Nagasaki. He seems to do this on a whim, as he passes through the port on his navy battleship. What a selfish swine he is! His remorse at the end is dastardly.

Elizabeth DeShong as Butterfly’s maid, Suzuki, was particularly touching in portraying her devotion to her young mistress.

He’s captivated by the girl’s radiant beauty and trusting innocence. There’s a slightly creepy edge to his character, given how young the girl is, and the wedding night scene is slightly unsettling as Butterfly lies passively on the floor at his feet as he salaciously unbuttons his tunic. This production never lapses into sentimentality: it’s hard-hitting and honest.

Some of his words take on a chilling significance in this new era of American politics when he brags about Americans’ view of themselves as having a god-given right to do what they like where they like with whom they like.

The story is simple and heartbreaking, and I’d defy anyone to sit through this magnificent production dry-eyed. The set is beautiful, the musicians, direction and singing spine-tingling. Even the lighting and costumes play an important part in the experience. Although the immediacy of a live performance is diminished by watching it on a screen, there’s a benefit derived from the clever film director’s use of well-prepared close-ups or choice of frame to enhance the story-telling and spectacle.

Butterfly’s big arias in the final third are particularly thrilling, and Ms Jaho sings and acts them with total conviction and passion. This is by far the best production of the opera I’ve seen – better even than the excellent Berlin Deutsche Oper performance we saw one Christmas a few years ago (when the Humming Song became my wife’s favourite part of the piece – maybe mine, too.)

If you get a chance to see one of these ROH live stream performances – they play all over the world – I’d urge you to do so. There’s a link HERE to their searchable schedule.

Living in the far SW of England as I do, it’s not often I get  the chance to go to London for a theatrical performance of this calibre. This is definitely almost as good. Here’s the schedule of future productions, taken from the ROH website (like the lovely poster image; hope I”m not breaking copyright by reproducing it here.)

Curious creatures. Cyril Connolly, The Rock Pool

Cyril Connolly, The Rock Pool. Penguin Modern Classics, 1963; first published 1936

Cyril Connolly, The Rock Pool This early PMC edition has one of those lovely two-tone covers (this one drawn by R.A. Glendening) and the number on the spine (1891), with the distinctive grey bands of the early Modern Classics series.

Unfortunately the novel (the only one Connolly wrote; he produced a large body of journalism, literary reviews, memoirs, etc.) doesn’t live up to the design. It has some pleasing linguistic flourishes, but ultimately it disappoints.

As Connolly says in a letter/foreword addressed to Peter Quennell (a contemporary at Balliol),

I have been asked why I chose such unpleasant, unimportant and hopeless people to write about…I don’t know.

He thinks he has created ‘a young man as futile as any’ (this is true – but it isn’t as interesting as that sounds), who represents ‘a certain set of English qualities, the last gasp, perhaps, of rentier exhaustion.’

Edgar Naylor is spending the summer on the south coast of France, taking a sabbatical from his jobs – one as ‘a kind of apprentice-partner in a firm of stockbrokers’, the other ‘as self-appointed biographer of Samuel Rogers, the banker-bard of St James’s Place.’

He doesn’t have a great deal of money, the narrator blandly insists, ‘just under a thousand pounds a year over which a trustee mounted guard like a dragon’. Poor chap – almost destitute. Later he’s said to have ‘enough money to avoid the general discipline of the professions, and not enough to buy more than indifferent consideration.’ How vulgar, to work for a living.

He decides to become ‘an observer, a naturalist’, an ‘entomologist’, his subject the teeming rock-pool life of the bohemian expats who haunted ‘Trou-sur-Mer’ – Hole on the Sea. Not patronising, then. The first pen portrait of him doesn’t enhance this unbecoming impression:

Naylor was neither very intelligent nor especially likeable, and certainly not very successful, and from the image of looking down knowingly into his Rock Pool, poking it and observing the curious creatures he might stir up, he would derive a pleasant sense of power.

It comes as no surprise that every soi-disant ‘artist’ or eccentric he meets fleeces him or cheats him barefacedly, cutting him dead as soon as they lose interest in him or his money runs out. He finds his money can’t even buy him love or friends.

The outcome is inevitable: from this starting point as ‘specimen’ collector and observer, he falls into the pool he intended anatomising, like Hylas with the Hamadryads (mentioned in the epigraph and foreword) and is doomed.

Hylas and the Naiads, by John William Waterhouse, 1896

Hylas and the Naiads, by John William Waterhouse, 1896

 

Unfortunately I didn’t care what happened to him, and cared even less about the cast of scoundrels and drifters he felt he could lord it over. He’s naive enough to find them initially exciting and attractive, then as they reveal themselves to be even more shallow and morally deficient than he is, his disillusionment intensifies his predilection for self-pity.

As I said there are touches of fine, often amusing prose. Here’s the description early on of his first encounter with Varna, the English co-owner of the Bastion bar, which becomes his drinking den:

She had something expectant and glistening about her, like a penguin waiting for a fish.

Initially finding her stimulating, Naylor came to realise ‘she was middle-class and, worse, was assuming that he was.’

He decided that she was profoundly antipathetic – that voice like a medium’s, those clairvoyant eyes, and that sturdy little body in inappropriate sailor trousers!

His inability to read people’s true characters is meant, perhaps, to be endearing; instead it’s simply another aspect of his irritating self-absorption and emotional sterility. And he’s a terrible snob, as that last extract indicates.

I raced through the final third of this mercifully short novel for all the wrong reasons: I couldn’t wait for it to end.

There’s some interest in the decadence of this seedy set Naylor falsely believes he’s accepted into: the bacchanalian evenings he participates in are attended by a range of sexually ambivalent types. These scenes caused Connolly to find it difficult to find a publisher initially on the grounds that the book was indecent. One of the first such gatherings led Naylor to conclude it ‘didn’t provide much evidence of human progress’, and reminded him he ‘was on the wrong side of Eden.’  It isn’t indecent. It’s just rather flashily tedious.

Blaise Cendrars does this kind of thing with much more panache, wit and weird charm.

Clergymen, spinsters and gossip: Barbara Pym, Crampton Hodnet.

Clergymen, spinsters and gossip: Barbara Pym, Crampton Hodnet. Virago Modern Classics, 2013. First published (posthumously) 1985

Miss Doggett is one of literature’s great bullies. Here’s how she’s first described –

She was a large, formidable woman of seventy with thick grey hair. She wore a purple woollen dress and many gold chains round her neck. Her chief work in life was interfering in other people’s business and imposing her strong personality upon those who were weaker than herself.

Barbara Pym is good at using clothes (and hats) as an index of character. That purple dress and bling is a clear sign that Maude Doggett is another, rather stupider, Lady Catherine de Bourgh.

Barbara Pym, Crampton Hodnet She is vicious and domineering to everyone she considers her inferior (she’s obsequious with those few she considers her social superiors). She’s especially nasty to her hapless ‘paid companion’ of the last five years, Miss Jessie Morrow, ‘a thin, used-up-looking woman in her middle thirties.’ In spite of her ‘misleading appearance’, however, Miss Morrow is ‘a woman of definite personality, who was able to look on herself and her surroundings with detachment.’

Clearly Miss Morrow is a sort of surrogate novelist, Barbara Pym’s voice, eyes and ears. She finds life ‘so much funnier than any book.’ She has no illusions about her status, as she cheerful discloses:

A companion is looked upon as a piece of furniture. She is hardly a person at all.

She says to the self-confessed ‘feeble, inefficient’ curate, Mr Latimer, clearly alluding to Miss Doggett’s spitefulness and the world’s unfairness:

‘[Men] are feeble, inefficient sorts of creatures…Women are used to bearing burdens and taking blame. I have been blamed for everything for the last five years…even for King Edward VII’s abdication.’

Shortly before that opening description, Miss Doggett had barked at Miss Morrow about the whereabouts of the buns for the imminent (and excruciating) teaparty she regularly held for sycophantic or long-suffering undergraduates (the novel is set in genteel North Oxford) and occasional Anglican clerics.

She follows up with a complacently miserly reference to the ‘struggling fire’ that fails to warm the musty drawing-room overfull of dreary Victorian mahogany furniture, for it’s a cold, wet October day. She’d once reprimanded Miss Morrow for wearing a cotton vest:

“There is no warmth in cotton,’ continued Miss Doggett. ‘We could hardly expect to find warmth in cotton.’

Miss Morrow felt the reassuring tickle of her woollen underwear and turned away to hide a smile.

That’s the nature of the low-key humour in this flawed but entertaining novel. Through the tyrannical Miss Doggett, Pym is able to show Jessie Morrow as quietly rebellious; her small victories are achieved in various, often sartorial ways. At one point she decides against ‘her brown marocain with the beige collar’, among the ‘drab folds’ of her wardrobe, and puts on instead the richly gleaming blue velvet, bought to attend a wedding (‘Miss Doggett had thought it an extravagance’), confident that Mr Latimer, like all men, won’t notice such a frivolously colourful garment. She’s wrong.

On another occasion she ‘impulsively’ buys herself a spring dress ‘of tender leaf green’, which she hides in her wardrobe ‘among her old, drab things’, knowing it will inspire ‘damping remarks and disapproving raised eyebrows’, Miss Doggett’s especially.

When she finds the courage to wear it for the first time, Miss Doggett’s predictable wrath is palpable in its venomous inarticulacy:

‘Really, Miss Morrow,’ she began, ‘really…’ and then muttered a word that sounded like ‘popinjay’.

Here Pym artfully conveys the spiteful nature of this monster. When Mr Latimer exacerbates the situation by praising Miss Morrow’s verdant appearance, what follows is priceless:

Miss Doggett said nothing. Perhaps in her opinion Miss Morrow hardly counted as a woman, certainly not the kind to be associated with spring and new dresses.

The ‘strained’ dinner the three of them take soon after is one of several such set pieces in the novel, delicately nuanced, its seemingly innocuous humour spikily barbed. And it’s noteworthy that it’s through her choices of dress that Miss Morrow precipitates Mr Latimer’s unflattering proposal.

Others have written well about the plot (concerning multiple doomed romances and individuals trapped by social circumstance), which is perhaps the weakest aspect of this comedy of thwarted passions and ill-fated, farcical liaisons (and there are some awkward repetitions, like that overused ‘drab’ I’ve quoted already), so I’ll give some links at the end. All I’ll say is that Miss Morrow’s archly amused refusal of Mr Latimer’s proposal (straight out of the Mr Elton book of romantic declarations) is representative of her view that her life is as fulfilled and content as it’s ever likely to be, and that ‘worms’ of curates like Mr Latimer don’t make good husband material.

Resignation and occasional rebellion are preferable to revolution, and being risk-averse is sensible: those are some of the ironically ambivalent moral lessons learned in the narrative – and Miss Morrow’s stoicism often looks like a sardonic pose, put on to disguise her true, vibrant, indomitable nature.

Her low-level rebellions serve to indicate that not all irrational impulses are doomed in Banbury Road, and that tender green leaves can flourish in the dogged Miss Doggett’s ghastly drawing-room, stuffed full of faded sepia photographs and dreary prints, intended to display her good taste, but which serve instead to confirm her narrow-mindedness.

Other (rather better) Pym novels I’ve written about:

No Fond Return of Love

Excellent Women

Thoughtful 2013 review by blogger Heavenali.

Interesting 2015 essay by Rose Little (on the B. Pym Society’s website) on her long friendship with near-contemporary Elizabeth Taylor, based on the archive of their surviving correspondence held at the Bodleian. Little shows how both writers were interested in the themes of loneliness and the ways that individuals can become isolated from others. I discussed this, among other topics, in my recent pieces on Taylor’s short stories, and her novel Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont.