Small Pleasures by Clare Chambers – and in Cornwall

Clare Chambers, Small Pleasures. Weidenfeld & Nicholson, paperback, 2021. First published 2020

I bought this for Mrs TD, who so enjoyed it she urged me to read it when she’d finished. I was less enthusiastic.

Clare Chambers Small Pleasures cover I did enjoy the depiction of the central character, Jean, a middle-aged small-town newspaper journalist whose existence has shrunk to that of a Barbara Pym routine of longing for love and kindness while caring for an ungrateful, spiteful and embarrassingly rude old mother. When she does find a caring, sensitive man who returns her love, there’s a strong sense of fulfilment but also of foreboding.

This is the best element in the novel: a heartwarming and moving portrayal of the kind of woman not often given such scrupulous and sympathetic authorial attention.

The virgin birth plot is less satisfactory. Jean is investigating the extraordinary story of a woman who claimed she’d given birth to her daughter, now aged ten, without the intervention of a man. Chambers strings out this mystery for over 300 pages, and I felt she sort of lost interest in its outcome about a third of the way through.

There’s an early spoiler, too, which partly caused my lukewarm reaction to the central plot.

I’d recommend Small Pleasures, however, as a not too demanding and often very touching portrait of a woman who thought her chances of experiencing love and passion again had vanished. There’s always hope, even though life has ways of thwarting those chances.

Cove nr FalmouthI’ve been pretty busy with a work project lately, hence the silence of the blog. So I’ll finish with a few images of some recent small (summer) pleasures in Cornwall. Between work sessions I’ve been enjoying coastal walks with Mrs TD. This cove is near Pendennis Castle (built in Henry VIII’s reign) in Falmouth, where we went early this month. The footpath takes the walker past some smaller, less venerable and imposing military installations that would also have guarded the entrance to the Carrick Roads and Falmouth docks and harbour. Just before I took this picture of the pleasant cove a seal popped its head up and scrutinised us with what looked like a mix of interest and disappointment. He’d gone by the time I got my phone out, unfortunately.

Trevone The following week we went up the north coast beyond Padstow, now brimming with posh London tourists, to the less frequented and beautiful beach at Trevone. This picture shows the rocky foreshore nearby; the sandy beach is just to the right of it. We’d read about a rockpool a short walk along the coast. It turned out to be an ideal little natural swimming pool, without the currents and waves of the open sea. Three generations of families were enjoying it at the same time as us – there was a lovely sense of shared (small) pleasure.

Carbis Bay gull A few days later, during Britain’s week-long hot spell (aka summer), we returned to Carbis Bay with Mrs TD’s sister and brother-in-law. When I reported about this beach last month, just as the G7 conference was ending, it was closed to visitors; now it’s much busier – but still didn’t feel crowded. Here’s my usual picture of a truculent seagull, glaring at me for having the effrontery to take its picture without some sort of recompense. Godrevy lighthouse is just  visible in the background. This is the one that (partially) inspired Virginia Woolf’s novel To the Lighthouse; as is well known, she and her family used to holiday regularly at St Ives, just round the headland from Carbis Bay.

Now we’re back to cooler weather and showers. But there are occasional swooping, screeching groups of swifts over our house to brighten the days.

 

Dangerous charmers: Anita Brookner, Look At Me

Anita Brookner, Look At Me. Penguin paperback, 2016. First published 1983

Friendship is the antidote to loneliness. Reciprocated love is an even more effective one. Frances is lonely, and craves the friendship and love she feels she deserves. After a humiliating, debasing affair with a married man – she’s naïve in some ways, but not ‘innocent’ – she ‘wanted contentment…the chance to be simple again.’ She thinks she’s found the stimulating acceptance she longs for when she’s taken up by the superficially charming, glamorous Fraser couple.

Anita Brookner Look At Me coverNick Fraser is a doctor, ‘distinguished by that grace and confidence of manner that assures success’. He’s a specialist in depression, who frequents the medical reference library where Frances works. Oddly, this library specialises in the cataloguing of images and texts about the ‘problems of human behaviour’. Frances ponders the disturbing visual representations (Dürer’s seems to be one of them) of melancholy (a condition with which Frances is acquainted) and madness.

There’s a good account of the novel in Jacqui’s review and the Backlisted podcast (links at the end). Frances is another of Brookner’s quietly spirited but diffident, lonely spinsters (‘well behaved and rather observant – a bad combination’ she remarks about herself, with characteristically shrewd deprecation), whose hopes for fulfilment are raised by the opportunities life seems to offer, only to have them dashed.

Frances is a writer, and Look At Me is as much a novel about ‘the business of writing’ as it is about the frustrations and bitterness of the lonely. She confides that she writes stories based on the eccentric characters she observes fastidiously at her library in ‘an attempt to reach others and to make them love you’. Only when she writes does she feel she has a voice.

But does she write also as a consequence of all the solitary days and hours she has to fill somehow? Or does the occupation of a writer require solitude?

It’s a dilemma that reminds me of Tennyson’s Lady of Shalott. This poem can be interpreted as a representation of the writer’s dilemma. The Lady is cursed to live alone and remote in a tower, doomed never to be able even to look directly at the living world outside her window, which she longs to participate in. Instead she has to resort to gazing at the reflection of life in her mirror. When she defies the curse and looks lovingly on the dazzling knight Lancelot, she inevitably dies, unloved.

The writer, then, is condemned (cursed) to live in a solitary panopticon, observing and anatomising the teeming life outside, but doomed never to participate fully in it. She can’t have it both ways. ‘Claustration’ is a key word in Frances’ vocabulary about her life.

If Look At Me were a Barbara Pym novel – for it shares many of the features of Pym’s fictional world, including the beautifully written prose and the wit and humour – there wouldn’t be such dire consequences of the protagonist’s misreadings and misunderstandings of her experiences with other people.

Alix, Nick’s ‘equally dazzling’ wife, is the crueller and more selfish of the manipulative, parasitic Fraser couple. They use people to create an audience that envies and thus validates their ersatz lives. Alix engineers a relationship between Frances and another of the doctors from the library, mostly it seems to amuse herself in watching two eager to please people she’s pushed into a budding romance in ways they barely comprehend or have the emotional equipment to cope with. She then destroys what she created, like a wanton boy with a fly.

In a scene late in the novel, when Frances realises that this possibility of love has been ruined for her by Alix’s cruel intervention, she’s torn between despair at the bleak, lonely prospect of her future life, now made worse by the sense of what might have been, and the self-destructive, childish desire to get herself back into Alix’s favour. Her walk home from the climactic disaster across a menacing London at night is described with terrifying force.

It’s the narrative voice that’s the most compelling aspect of this fine novel. Frances is a perceptive, critical observer of other people’s foibles, and gifted in turning them into the kind of witty, diverting fiction that ‘donnish’ types would enjoy. She acknowledges more than once that she has a ‘sharp tongue’ and a ‘moral stuffiness’, and seems proud of being considered ‘famous for my control’ – hinting at passion beneath this prim, austere surface. ‘I am thought to be unfeeling,’ she admits at one point, indicating those depths of feeling she conceals so well. But she’s hopeless at analysing or acknowledging her own feelings, or those of people who have most influence over her.I found this novel disturbing. This is because I think it dramatizes something we’ve surely all experienced: the desire to be liked, to be taken seriously, noticed (that touch of arrogance often found in undemonstrative people), to be looked at. Attention must be paid to your father, says Willy Loman’s wife at the end of Death of a Salesman to his sons, who despise what they see as his futile, thwarted life). Ironically, we all feel we deserve such attention, but are acutely aware of our deficiencies or inadequacies when it comes to inspiring it in other people. Frances doesn’t like being invisible.

Frances is a cleverer, more arrogant version of Prufrock, full of romantic impulses and desires, but lacking the self-confidence and self-esteem to bring them to life – to make friends, find love and hold on to it.

To read her half-aware, half-denying examination of how the events in the novel develop, and of their impact on her, is an emotionally bruising experience. It’s brilliantly done by Anita Brookner.

I’ll finish with a final quotation that reminded me chillingly of Britain’s current PM and his strange influence on the electorate. This is Frances early in the novel on her first impressions of doctor Nick, one of those shallow, shameless, dangerous charmers who attracts self-effacing, observant types like her:

…one’s instinctive reaction is one of admiration, indulgence, and, no doubt, if one is not very careful indeed, of supplication.

Jacquiwine’s post – she’s the one who recommended this for me to buy for Mrs TD – HERE

Backlisted podcast of Sept. 2017 HERE

 

Barbara Pym’s letters, notebooks and diaries

A Very Private Eye: the diaries, letters and notebooks of Barbara Pym, edited by Hazel Holt and Hilary Pym. Panther paperback, 1985. First published 1984

I posted recently about friends who live nearby and have a lovely secret garden; one lent me some books on my last visit there with Mrs TD. Last month I posted about two of these: the twenty years spent at St Hilary church, Cornwall by the genial and charming Fr Bernard Walke (link HERE), and The Hare with Amber Eyes by Edmund de Waal (link HERE).

Barbara Pym A Very Private Eye coverIn the garden, presided over by the sphinx-like cats, we discussed the novels of Barbara Pym. My loan of Some Tame Gazelle (link to my post HERE) wasn’t entirely successful, but we all agreed we enjoyed her fiction. In return I was lent A Very Private Eye: the diaries, letters and notebooks of Barbara Pym, edited by Hazel Holt (a friend and long-time colleague of hers at the International African (anthropological) Institute, and BP’s younger sister, Hilary Pym.

It’s a highly entertaining, often very funny insight into the mind and thoughts of this novelist. It starts with her early life then Oxford, where she began her undergraduate  studies in 1932. She seems to have spent much of this university period in a spin of dizzy romances and social engagements, alternating with assiduous academic work. I admit I skimmed much of this.

Much more interesting are the later sections: her war years (she served as a Wren – the women’s royal naval service – with duties including postal censorship) in London and Naples, then her long career at the International African Institute, where she edited anthropological papers.

I was surprised by the number of times her heart was broken when love affairs ended badly. Less surprising was the originality, passion and grit she showed in her literary work – she began to write at the age of twenty-two.

After six fairly successful novels and minor celebrity as an author, she famously fell out of favour at the start of the swinging sixties. Publishers lost their nerve, and rejected everything she sent them, saying it wouldn’t sell. She was devastated.

A long, increasingly friendly and encouraging correspondence with Philip Larkin, who admired her work, boosted her confidence. Eventually they met in person and enjoyed some very Pym-esque teas together. In January 1977 the TLS published a list, chosen by eminent literary figures, of the most under-rated writers of the century. BP was the only living writer to be chosen by two contributors: Larkin and David Cecil – another long-time admirer of her novels. Because of this publicity, and the changing mood of the times, her fiction came into demand again.

She was rediscovered. She was delighted to find herself more famous and successful than she’d ever been. Especially when she discovered that her fiction was being taught in American universities.

It’s gratifying to see revealed so intimately in her letters, diaries and notebooks, the deep pleasure and spirited pride she felt in her final years when she finally received proper recognition of her literary merit, after those dismal years of disappointment and humiliation.

She lived from 1946 in affectionate harmony with her younger sister, Hilary, and some very dubious cats, at first in London, then in the countryside. They ended up in a village which she described in a letter as straight out of Some Tame Gazelle, published many years earlier. She was thrilled to find that village life hadn’t changed that much, even though London had.

The title of this anthology of her non-fiction reflects what a private person she was. It’s thanks to the judicious editing and selection of the two editors who knew her so well that we can dip into this charming book and enjoy seeing the vivacity, wit and humanity of this excellent woman from a slightly different perspective from the one gained from reading her novels.

Helford river shore

View of the shore from where we swam: those are our bags

I’ll append here some pictures taken on Saturday’s seven-mile walk around parts of Helford River and the fields above it. Our new walk app describes the route and places of note on the way. We stopped for a swim at the bottom of the hill, in the salty tidal river, in the refreshingly cool water. I thought the house martins had all migrated south, but there were still a few about that day.

Helford river from above

The river and open sea from further on in our walk.

Helford River

This is the view from that beach where our bags were, out over the tidal creek

 

 

Coffee in a Cornish secret garden

Mrs TD and I had planned a party last weekend to celebrate our twenty-fifth wedding anniversary. Friends and family were coming to us from as far away as Spain. It had to be cancelled, of course, because of the current restrictions – a big disappointment. We were able to see a couple of friends for a socially distanced mini-celebration, but it wasn’t what we’d been preparing for months.

This week I finished reading Stefan Zweig’s novel The Post Office Girl, but have yet to summon the energy to post about it. So today, the last day of July, scheduled to be the hottest day of the year in England, an aside about coffee with friends.

These old friends live in a lovely converted water mill just a few hundred metres along the country lane behind our house. They came for socially distanced coffee with us in our back garden a couple of weeks ago, on one of the rare days this month when the sun has shone in Cornwall, and it was our turn today to visit them.

Igor the Siamese cat

Igor the Siamese cat

We were greeted at their door by their imperious Siamese cat, Igor (named after Stravinsksy). In all the pictures I took of him he has his eyes tight shut – perhaps because of the bright sun, or maybe just out of feline disdain.

Our friends’ garden is a delight – a secret haven tucked out of sight down a private driveway, bordered on one side by a trilling river, and fringed on two sides by tall trees. There were butterflies – orange fritillaries and peacocks in particular –   attracted by the lilac and other flowering plants. A petrol blue-green dragonfly also perched briefly on a leaf near us, before zooming off like a psychedelic helicopter.

The old watermill wheel at the side of the house

The old watermill wheel at the side of the house

Over our coffees and biscuits we talked about the mill and lovely garden, the pandemic, inept politicians, local people, and books. When our friends  last visited us they recommended a book by a Cornish vicar of the pre-WWII era, Bernard Walke. I was able to pick up yesterday in our newly reopened city library (click and collect reservation service) a paperback reprint – post will follow when I finish it.

Igor sat contentedly on his own cushion beside the garden table, eyes still inscrutably closed. After a while he was joined by his dainty sister Phoebe, named after the Scots artist Phoebe Traquair (1852-1936).

Igor and Phoebe

Igor and Phoebe

 

 

Self portrait of Anna Traquair

Self portrait of Anna Traquair (By Stephencdickson – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=40949859)

I came away with a borrowed copy of Edmund de Waal’s The Hare with Amber Eyes, a work I’ve always intended reading, and a sumptuous book about the painted churches of Cyprus. We’d discussed my postgrad research into St Mary of Egypt, and there are a number of frescoes depicting her and the monk Zosimas, who disseminated her story, in Cypriot churches.

I’d lent our friends a copy of Barbara Pym’s novel

Phoebe Traquair's murals at the Catholic Apostolic Church, Edinburgh

Phoebe Traquair’s murals at the Catholic Apostolic Church, Edinburgh

Some Tame Gazelle (not a huge hit, sadly – though I understand why she might not be to everyone’s taste); in return I’ve been lent a copy of her autobiography. So: a fruitful literary exchange.

Around noon, in typical Cornish fashion, the scorching sun was lost behind a bank of thick, sea-misty cloud. The thickening air encouraged flying insects out, followed by swooping flocks of twittering martins, gleefully picking them out of the sky. Back home I witnessed the annual emergence of hordes of flying ants from the cracks in our driveway.

As I write this, it’s started raining. The Cornish heatwave was short-lived.

 

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

A woman of no interest: Barbara Pym, Quartet in Autumn

Rohan Maitzen, an academic at Dalhousie University, Halifax, Nova Scotia, who specialises in Victorian literature, wrote in her entertaining personal blog yesterday a piece about what she’s doing when ‘posting’ about rather than ‘reviewing’ books in her blog:

Here, in contrast, I can write whatever I want, no matter how inadequate my understanding might be. My blog posts are narratives of my own reading experience, and so I’m answerable only for being honest and thoughtful about that.

I feel much the same. Most of my posts about books are musings or personal responses rather than reviews.

Of late, when I’ve been obliged to spend quite a bit of time in bed trying to recover from a recurring heavy cold/cough, I’ve got through quite a few books, so today’s post will be a quick response to Barbara Pym’s 1977 novel Quartet in Autumn (links to my previous posts on BP at the end of this piece). A thoughtful introduction at the sadly now defunct Open Letters Monthly (one of Ms Maitzen’s former haunts) by Michael Adams in 2011 is a good place to start if you’re new to Pym’s quietly stated but profoundly moving fiction; he cites admirers such as those who rediscovered her in the 70s when she’d become neglected and unpublished, Larkin and Lord David Cecil, then slightly later advocates like John Updike and Shirley Hazard.

Pym Quartet cover

Cover of my Picador Classic edition (2015)

For several thoughtful, academic essays on this novel (and many other matters Pymian) I’d recommend the Barbara Pym Society website, which introduces Quartet as follows:

Quartet in Autumn, shortlisted for the Booker Prize when it was published in 1977, is one of Barbara Pym’s most unsentimental books, about four English office workers who face aging in different ways. Edwin, Letty, Marcia and Norman have little in common except that they have worked in the same office for many years.  They are each eccentric and difficult in their own way, and resist connections with each other. Letty is a spinster who doesn’t know why life seems to have passed her by. Marcia is an anti-social eccentric, whose quirks and paranoia are becoming more pronounced since her mastectomy. Edwin is a widower obsessed with church-going. And Norman is a ‘strange little man’ with a sarcastic sense of humor and more than a touch of misanthropy.
   In typical Pym fashion, these four characters dance around each other, unable to commit to truly knowing one another. They know each other’s habits and eccentricities, but they don’t really know each other. And when one of them goes into a decline, the other three notice, and try to move into action, but ultimately can do little to help.  This may not be an uplifting book, but it is certainly sharply funny, observant, sad and true. I always enjoy Pym’s clear-eyed observations about her fellow humans – while she shows her characters with warts and all, she does not judge them. They are real people, worthy of her respect. [Link here]

The link to the Society’s conference monograph papers includes several fascinating pieces on Quartet – and on her other novels and related topics. Well worth exploring. I’d recommend this essay by Tim Burnett on the social background to the novel: it very much reflects the dying world of shabby genteel gentlewomen about which Pym had previously written, but which by 1977 was changing rapidly – there are timely references to the welfare state, particularly the NHS (Marcia’s mastectomy – an operation that Pym herself underwent, would have been free at the point of service, the basic principle of Britain’s health service – but then, as even more so now, under severe financial strain), immigration (some slightly uncomplimentary references to a Nigerian landlord, racist anti-Asian graffiti, etc.) and other signs that the post-war world in which she’d grown up was transforming out of recognition. Even the ‘churchy’ elements that dominated her previous novels is much reduced; only Edwin, with his mania for attending obscure saints’ day ceremonies at a range of his favourite churches, and tendency to look up new priests’ details in Crockford’s directory in the public library (another aspect of the welfare state that’s so prominent in the novel), maintains that tradition.

Burnett also considers the theme of nutrition in this novel: Marcia hoards tinned food (among other things – milk bottles, plastic bags), and we are often told what the office quartet are having for lunch or supper – usually as an index of their social status and mental state (Marcia slips quietly into a kind of anorexia, subsisting largely on tea and the occasional biscuit).

The other Pym Society essay I found informative is this one by Raina Lipsitz on the characters’ varying degrees of ‘failure to connect’. Poor Letty, for example, perhaps the most sympathetically portrayed, and who we see most of, is shown resisting the overtures of a fellow diner at the cheap restaurant she lunches at – yet there’s a part of her that yearns for the human contact she instinctively, paradoxically, shies away from.

The writing shows Pym’s superb ability to convey depth and nuance in apparently effortless, transparent prose. Here she is early on, describing the quartet’s (separate, not collective) visits to the local library:

Of the four only Letty used the library for her own pleasure and possible edification. She had always been an unashamed reader of novels, but if she hoped to find one which reflected her own sort of life she had come to realize that the position of an unmarried, unattached, ageing woman is of no interest whatever to the writer of modern fiction.

This is a deeply felt, poignant novel about that process of nearing and reaching retirement age in a world where you’re not noticed; when Marcia and Letty are given a low-key retirement send-off at their office, it’s done at lunchtime to keep the costs down, and no one in charge is clear exactly what any of these four colleagues actually do. They won’t be replaced – for they have no value to the organisation (which significantly is never identified, neither is the work they do: filing and clerical, it’s hinted, but they don’t often seem to do much work) – or, by implication, to society.

Pym’s is the voice of the vulnerable, marginalised, atrophied remnants of a bygone, dying era. As with Willie Loman, attention should be paid to them, no matter how unattractive or superficially flawed or redundant they seem.

Previous posts on Barbara Pym novels:

Excellent Women

No Fond Return of Love

Crampton Hodnett

Jane and Prudence

A Glass of Blessings

Rather a horrid person: Barbara Pym, A Glass of Blessings

Barbara Pym, A Glass of Blessings. First published 1958. Virago Modern Classics paperback, 2011

Despite the surface triviality, there’s something else in Barbara Pym’s novels (links to my other posts at the end), a darker seriousness, a moral frailty or ambiguity. OK, on class and social convention she can be pretty starchy – but even then she’s often surprisingly barbed and acerbic. The parish hall teas, clerical gossip and frettings about high-church rituals and practices are the froth at the top of a bracingly bitter cappuccino.

Pym Glass of Blessings cover A Glass of Blessings is narrated in the first person by the protagonist, Wilmet Forsyth – an indolent, self-absorbed, attractive thirty-three-year-old who’s become bored with her comfortable bourgeois life of leisure. When she allows herself to examine this life, she admits to feeling ‘guilty’ about her ‘long idle days’ – but is disinclined to do much about it. Her existence revolves around eating and drinking with her female (and sometimes, male) friends, and shopping for expensive fripperies or clothes; she’s a little too proud of her looks, as she reveals in her interior monologue on p. 5 when the handsome young Piers Longridge has told her she looks ‘particularly charming’:

I was pleased at his compliment for I always take trouble with my clothes, and being tall and dark I usually manage to achieve some kind of distinction. Today I was in pale coffee brown with touches of black and coral jewellery. Rodney seldom commented on my appearance now and Piers had that engaging air of making me feel that he meant what he said. I was sorry when we came to a crossroads and he said he must leave me.

This revealing passage is typical of Pym’s mastery of that narrative voice that hints more about what Wilmet fails to note than what she does. It shows she’s vain and bored enough to feel flattered here, assuming that any man who’s complimented her must have taste – and there’s that indication that her civil servant husband Rodney, who’s becoming bald and stout, fails to show the romance and attentive spontaneity Wilmet craves. It will come as no surprise, if I can avoid spoilers, that her views about such admirers are badly misjudged. Not for nothing does the dashing Rocky Napier, who featured in Excellent Women, represent in Wilmet’s nostalgic recollections of her more exciting past as a Wren in wartime Italy the kind of dashing, dastardly and good-looking type that she likes to fall for – only later to be disappointed.

The title of A Glass of Blessings, as revealed near the end, comes from one of those poems Pym’s women characters are fond of quoting, in this case ‘The Pulley’ by George Herbert. Wilmet has sought diversion from her idle routine by attending the local Anglo-Catholic church, and much of the novel involves her discovering the secrets and foibles of its clergy and congregation. It’s this aspect that provides most of the novel’s delightfully skewed humour, from the kleptomaniac, camp Bason, the housekeeper/cook for the celibate priests, to Mr Coleman, too fond of the tailor-made silk cassock he affects when serving in church ceremonies, and of his Husky (a make of car, not, as Wilmet vaguely assumes, a ‘large polar dog’). These beautifully sketched characters are deployed with poised, spiky skill by Pym; the plot is secondary to this parade of minor egotists and misfits.

In Herbert’s poem God generously bestows all those ‘blessings’ from his glass, with only ‘rest’ left in the bottom. This he withholds, realising that if he gives humanity this, they will tend to become complacent, and both will ‘lose’. This is the lesson Wilmet learns: to be content with what she has, and appreciate her ‘repining restlessness’ for what it teaches: be more aware of her weaknesses, and more attentive in her relations with other people. She’s far too quick to judge others by their appearance, and complacent about her own moral rectitude because she looks good.

There’s a surprising amount of flirting and erotic dalliance, even among the married characters. Near the end, when Wilmet discovers that dull Rodney has, like her, had his head turned by someone else, she muses this ‘ought to teach me something about myself, even if I was not yet quite sure what it was.’

Her name is taken from the massive family saga The Pillars of the House by now-neglected Victorian novelist Charlotte M. Yonge, who was, like Pym, high church by inclination, and surprisingly frank about all varieties of sexual inclination – as indeed Pym is in this novel.

Another interesting factor in a Pym novel: literary allusions, like clothes, reveal a great deal about character (apart from Herbert, Woolf, Ivy Compton-Burnett, Donne and Marvell, for example, are alluded to in this way in the narrative).

Wilmet indulges a suspicion that another handsome young man – the new assistant priest – fancies her; another harsh lesson in self-knowledge is administered when she learns with astonishment that ‘dim and mousy’ (as Wilmet sees her) Mary Beamish has become engaged to him. It’s to Wilmet’s credit that she quickly reproaches herself for such an ‘unworthy thought’. Every time she shows herself as snobbish, she redeems herself with her immediate sense of shame.

Her most painful lesson comes when Piers suggests that Wilmet is too circumscribed by her own ‘narrow select little circle’ and is one of those who are ‘less capable of loving their fellow human beings.’ She’s devastated, and feels close to tears:

Perhaps I had never really known him, or – what was worse – myself. That anyone could doubt my capacity to love!

That ‘perhaps’ is brilliant, and so is the exclamation mark. She goes on to concede that perhaps she’s not as ‘nice’ as she’d thought, and might really be ‘rather a horrid person’ – and this is ‘humiliating’. It’s her Emma and Miss Bates moment.

Despite such defects in her personality, Wilmet engages one’s interest and sympathy. Pym never judges her characters, and she leaves us with the sense that we are all of us as flawed and ‘restless’ as Wilmet.

I had hoped to write about the importance of clothes and appearance, but I’ve been forestalled by this excellent, detailed essay by Sandra Goldstein; I recommend it.

There’s a lot of interesting, sharp observation about the self-centred pomposity of men and their selfish way of taking their long suffering womenfolk for granted. When she’s being clear-eyed Wilmet sees them at a cocktail party as they mostly are: ‘sheepish’, then more like ‘bears’ or snuffling badgers. Unfortunately she loses perspective when they flatter her vanity.

A whole different post could be written about the wonderfully dry, shrewd Sybil (aptly named), Wilmet’s mother-in-law (she announces at the end of a dinner party, as the women are about to leave the men to drink their port: ‘Women are supposed not to like port except in a rather vulgar way’); maybe she’s meant to represent what Wilmet might grow up to be like when she reaches her late sixties and has learnt more about herself, men and life.

My previous Pym posts:

Excellent Women

No Fond Return of Love

Crampton Hodnet

Jane and Prudence

Heaven Ali blog post 2013: https://heavenali.wordpress.com/2013/04/28/a-glass-of-blessings-barbara-pym-1958/

 

 

Men are boring and irritating: Barbara Pym, Jane and Prudence

Barbara Pym, Jane and Prudence. Virago Modern Classics, 2007. 19531

There’s a particularly English kind of novel in which quietly ironic humour is the dominant tone. The irony in Jane and Prudence serves to create a critical view of a certain kind of middle class set of people, mostly in the country, but some in the city of London, whose idiosyncracies, defects and obsessions act as an index of a whole swathe of middle England in the post-war period in which the novel is set.

The Jane of the title is the 41-year-old wife of a vicar. As the novel opens she is attending a reunion of the alumnae of the Oxford college at which she had been a tutor to Prudence Bates, 29, an age when spinsterhood is considered in danger of shifting into old maidishness.

This is a novel of contrasts which are mostly shown up by a close attention to appearances and personal traits, and in the fact that neither woman feels she has fulfilled her potential as an Oxford graduate in a world where such accomplishment is not considered a useful asset in a woman.

Jane is dowdily dressed, showing little care for how she looks – her ‘old tweed coat’, we learn, looks like the kind ‘one might have used for feeding the chickens in’, and the country vicarage she and her husband Nicholas move to at the start of the novel is furnished frugally and shabbily. The curtains don’t quite meet in the middle. She’s a ‘great novel reader, perhaps too much for a vicar’s wife’, and her academic interest in the poetry of the 17C raises little interest in her new environment. She hardly knows where the kitchen is, and is ‘indifferent…to domestic arrangements’.

B Pym, Jane and Prudence Prudence wears elegant, sophisticated clothes, and furnishes her fashionable London flat in a chic Regency style. She’s usually involved in short-lived love affairs, mostly with totally unsuitable men. As with Jane Austen, there’s an assumption that a single woman must be in search of a suitable husband as the only possible goal in life in this skewed, patriarchal society.

Jane’s marriage has lost its original romance, and is summed up in her mind by her husband’s ‘mild, kindly looks and spectacles’. Both women are, in their own ways, lost and unfulfilled, and it’s this edge of frustration and disappointment that prevents the novel from descending into twee rom-com. There’s a bleakness about Pym’s portrayal of mid-20C middle class England.

This is seen most poignantly in the depiction of Jessie Morrow, a ‘little brown woman’ and paid companion and distant relative to an elderly battleaxe, Miss Doggett. These two also feature in Crampton Hodnett, which I wrote about recently HERE. Jessie, even more frumpishly dressed than Jane, is treated like a servant by her condescending employer – she is more of a ‘sparring partner’ than companion, as Jessie shrewdly points out. Although she has learned to remain invisible, she has hidden depths of intelligence and cunning. These emerge when she succeeds in snaring the local lothario, a preening, self-obsessed and louche widower called Fabian Driver, who lives next door, and snatching him out of the elegant arms of Prudence. To do so she wears one of his late wife’s dresses, which she had pilfered, and in so doing turns his fickle head.

It’s difficult to convey the pleasures of this novel in just a short space. Every page has little moments of delightful humour laced with that bleakness I mentioned earlier. Here’s a random example from early on: Jane has entered her husband’s new church for the first time and sees it being prepared by the fussy church ladies for Harvest Thanksgiving (not ‘Festival’, she’s sniffily informed by one of them, Miss Doggett, in her default tyrant mode; ‘festival’ sounds much too pagan for her) . Jane knows she’s going to seem inadequate and inferior to them in comparison with her more socially skilled and compliant predecessor.

She ill-advisedly expresses a wish to them that they will sing ‘Let us with a gladsome mind’ during the service:

‘It is such a fine hymn. In many ways one dislikes Milton, of course; his treatment of women was not all that it should have been.’

‘Well, they did not have quite the same standards in the old days,’ said Miss Doggett, frowning. ‘Of course we shall have the usual harvest hymns, I imagine. We plough the fields and scatter,’ she declared in a firm tone, almost challenging anyone to deny her.

This is typical of the way in which Pym narrates. Jane, an admirer of the Metaphysicals, would find Milton too sober and misogynistic; Miss Doggett, as her name implies, holds unbending, unreconstructed views about the place of women in society, and her dogmatic stance reveals her as representative of a view widely held at the time, and unfortunately still found today. The clash is silent but telling.

For all her scattiness and eccentricity, Jane holds views more consistent with Pym’s own, the reader is led to believe in such scenes, than those of the superficially more worldly Prudence, whose disastrous romances are a symptom of her incapacity for judgement when it comes to men, as a consequence of a lack of strength of character – her attractive looks and dress simply mask her weaknesses.

Some aspects of the novel are perhaps outmoded: there’s a great deal of knowing witticism about the various modes of religious faith, from High Church and Catholicism to chapel, for example. But these are offset by the barbed ironies throughout, especially those to do with marriage and sex.

This is Jane reflecting on Fabian’s dumping of her friend Prudence in favour of the less glamorous, ‘mousy’ Jessie – whom Pym has repeatedly shown to be a far more interesting character, a contrast to which Jane remains oblivious, being more inclined to interpret poetry than the human heart.

Feeling guilty at the part she’d played, like Austen’s Emma, in bringing her friend together with treacherous, shallow, handsome Fabian, she consoles herself with the thoughts that, first, at least Prudence hadn’t got pregnant, and second, that ‘it was obvious that at times [Prudence] found him both boring and irritating’. The internal monologue that follows is characteristic of Pym’s narrative poise, as Jane begins to perceive home truths about herself and marriage reflected in Fabian’s rejection of fashionable, headstrong Prudence and preference for ostensibly dreary Jessie as a wife:

But wasn’t that what so many marriages were – finding a person boring and irritating and yet loving him? Who could imagine a man who was never boring or irritating? …Perhaps this [i.e. Jessie] was after all what men liked to come home to, someone restful and neutral, who had no thought of changing the curtains or wallpapers? Jessie, who, for all her dim appearance, was very shrewd, had no doubt realised this. A beautiful wife would have been too much for Fabian, for one handsome person is enough in a marriage, if there is to be any beauty at all. And so often there isn’t… [Ellipses mine]

I hope I haven’t spoilt your potential enjoyment of this novel by revealing such aspects of the novel; I don’t think it’s really the denouement of the plot that is the most satisfying part of a Barbara Pym novel: it’s the journey there, and the epiphanies that ensue for her delicately delineated characters.

I”ve written about Pym’s novel Excellent Women HERE and No Fond Return of Love HERE

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.