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.

 

 

A quietly heroic woman: Barbara Pym, ‘No Fond Return of Love’

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.

My Virago Modern Classics copy

My Virago Modern Classics copy

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.

 

 

‘Among gentlewomen’: Barbara Pym, ‘Excellent Women’

Excellent Women was Barbara Pym’s second novel, published in 1952, but set, as a note on the MS indicates, in the year immediately after the end of WWII: London is a city still gripped by economic austerity, rationing is still in force, meat and other commodities are in short supply, there are still bomb-ruined churches (though the services still go on), and the men are still coming home from military service to find their homes much changed. The women they left behind have learned to become more independent, and unsure whether they want to return to the old, pre-war culture of subservience to the men.

My Virago Modern Classics copy

My Virago Modern Classics copy

The novel has been much written about by other bloggers (links at end), who all give admirable summaries of plot and themes, so as with some of my recent posts I’ll give just a sketchy outline of plot here, then focus on those aspects of the novel that I found most interesting.

The protagonist is a 31-year-old spinster, Mildred Lathbury (a dowdy name, resonant perhaps of ‘mildewed’ or ‘mouldered’? buried?), who lives alone in a flat in an unfashionable part of London, on ‘the “wrong” side of Victoria station’. She’s a pillar of the local Anglo-Catholic church, and much of her life is devoted to its fund-raising and parochial matters. She’s a close friend of its priest, Julian Malory (he’s ‘about 40’), and his slightly older career-spinster sister, Winifred. The two women have vague notions that he and Mildred might one day marry; he insists he’ll remain celibate, until he meets his glamorous new lodger, Allegra (more on her shortly). Despite her relative youth, Mildred comes across as lonely, middle-aged and frustrated, for she is imaginative and spirited, not entirely convinced that she’s cut out for the life of submissive service to others – of taking on their ‘burden’ (a key word in the narrative) — that she’s assumed, and which others assume, is her lot.

Mildred’s life, and those of the Malorys, are changed irrevocably by the arrival of two sets of new neighbours. This plot device causes all three of them to reassess their relationships, their feelings and their destinies.

The central theme is the desirability of or necessity for a woman to marry. Is there a possibility of fulfilment in any other kind of relation in this world, as there is for men? Pym is too subtle an artist to give a clear answer; her delightful skill lies in her subtle and deceptively witty way of posing such questions.

As others have written so fully about all of this, I’ll simply look at a few passages and comment on what I enjoyed so much about this novel.

First, it isn’t as cosy or twee as it might seem on the surface. As with Jane Austen’s heroines and fictional worlds, with which Pym’s have often been compared, there is a steely, deeply serious quality beneath the humorous, parochial triviality of Mildred’s daily routine.

Another revealing literary parallel drawn explicitly in the narrative; Mildred says early on that she is not Jane Eyre,

Who must have given hope to so many plain women who tell their stories in the first person, nor have I ever thought of myself as being like her.

This merits close attention. There is no further explanation or justification of this remark, and one’s initial reaction is to think: Really? What makes you think that? Isn’t Mildred deceiving herself, or failing to face up to her own shortcomings and weaknesses? By the time I’d finished the novel, however, I revisited this statement, and have come to agree that indeed she isn’t a Jane Eyre. Charlotte Brontë’s heroine is always going to find her Byronic, broodingly handsome and wealthy hero, despite her self-deprecating, humble doubts that such is the fate for the likes of her.

Mildred, the novel shows, is far from certain that her ‘Mr Right’ exists in her circle of acquaintance; more important, she has serious doubts whether she wants or needs a man to complete her. Yes, she presents herself as ‘mousy and rather plain’, with the drab dress sense of a much older woman. But after meeting her glamorous new neighbour, Helena Napier, and the splendidly and deliciously inappropriately named Allegra, a predatory merry widow who turns the head of Julian when she ingratiates herself into his life as his lodger, Mildred smartens herself up and even buys some uncharacteristically sexy ‘Hawaiian Fire’ lipstick and swaps her usual dowdy brown skirts for a chic Dior-esque black dress. She is not prepared to become the kind of ‘excellent woman’ Jane Eyre was, and did not want to conform to that romantic formula – even though like Jane she craves love and companionship. In that sense this can be seen as a proto-feminist novel in its questioning of that kind of fairytale plot outcome.

How does Pym negotiate all this without descending into banality? Here’s a random passage I’d marked early in ch.1:

I don’t know whether spinsters are really more inquisitive than married women, though I believe they are thought to be because of the emptiness of their lives…

 Her language here, as in the previous passage about Jane Eyre, is suggestively ambiguous. Mildred habitually expresses such bleak thoughts in an unassertive way, often as negatives (she is not Jane Eyre, she does not know about married women compared with her own spinster state), with frequent hedges – all that use of adverbial markers of doubt or uncertainty, like ‘really’, ‘rather plain’ and so on. And the more she protests her unworthiness with such unassuming, self-deprecating timidity, the less I believe her. This is the persona she has been ‘trained’ for – as she often suggests about her upbringing as a ‘clergyman’s daughter’. For although it’s her natural inclination to assume her role in life is to be a mouse, as it was Jane Eyre’s, like Jane she has suppressed fire in her. In that sense she IS Jane Eyre – but Jane’s Rochester is definitely not matched by Mildred’s handsome new neighbour Rocky Napier (the similarity of name is surely deliberate).

Photo from the Barbara Pym Society website

Photo from the Barbara Pym Society website

Mildred is sexually attracted to Rocky, with his ‘charming smile’, but realises he’s a shallow, philandering flirt. Part of her would love to throw herself at his feet – but this is not 1847, and Rocky isn’t going to be symbolically castrated, as Rochester is when he’s blinded in the fire at the end of Jane Eyre. On the contrary, Rocky never really looks at Mildred, preferring to gaze at his own reflection in her adoring eyes. And deep down she knows it.

Mildred had worked ‘in the Censorship’ during the war, and later at a ‘Learned Society’ of anthropologists – as Pym herself did. As a consequence she isn’t as unworldly or naïve as she chooses to suggest – though she certainly deceives those who know her into assuming that she is, and it’s easy for a modern reader to fall into the same misconception. Despite her frequent references then to her gradual drift into becoming ‘fussy and spinsterish if I wanted to’, ‘set in my ways’, ‘spinsterish and useless’, one of the shabby-genteel ‘impoverished gentlewomen’ whom she helps out in her voluntary work, the language clearly hints that she doesn’t ‘really’ want this fate:

I forebore to remark that women like me really expected very little – nothing, almost.

 She says this to the other potential romantic partner in her life, the attractive but desiccated Everard Bone (Pym’s good on names). As ever the apparent nullity of her expectations is counterpointed by those qualifications: ‘really’ (yet again), ‘almost’. And of course, she ‘forebore to remark’ the words anyway. She might have thought them, but she sure as hell wasn’t going to say them to the pompous, treacherous Everard.

It’s this plucky refusal ultimately to accept the Trollopian fate that all around her – and those who shaped her – take for granted will be hers that makes Mildred such an engaging heroine, given her apparently self-effacing character. In another of her little remarks in which as usual she appears to present herself as nugatory, there’s the equally usual ambiguity; she’s being teased by Father Julian about her crush on the desirable sailor home from the war, Rocky; Mildred would never ‘do anything foolish’, says his sister Winifred, springing to her defence. Mildred reflects on this ‘a little sadly’ (note the usual hedge) as being ‘only too true’, but

…hoped I did not appear too much that kind of person to others. Virtue is an excellent thing and we should all strive after it, but it can sometimes be a little depressing.

 

Exactly. She may be a female Prufrock, but like Eliot’s wistfully cautious and obtuse ‘Fool’, who is ‘not Prince Hamlet nor was meant to be’, Mildred has heard the male equivalent of ‘mermaids singing’. And she’s less inclined than Prufrock to believe finally that they won’t sing to her – or that if they do, she’ll be taken in by their siren calls.

Other reviews

 Most recent is the excellent post at Jacqui Wine’s Journal. Jacqui closes with links to several other bloggers’ reviews. I’d also recommend to anyone interested in further researching the work of this once neglected author’s work the site of the Barbara Pym Society, which has links to a huge range of web resources, including scholarly conference papers of that Society.