The novel revolves around a set of nicely etched characters. Miss Doggett, the staunch dowager of Leamington Lodge, fills her life by giving tea parties and watchdogging the morals of North Oxford. Her paid companion, Jessie Morrow, observes the goings-on with a neatly concealed sense of humor. Francis Cleveland, a middle-aged don and Miss Doggett’s nephew, sees himself tiring of married life. His beautiful daughter, Anthea, waits breathlessly to give herself to romance, whenever it should come along.
Enter into these lives three significant individuals: Mr. Latimer, a handsome young curate who accepts board at Leamington Lodge and begins an oddly uncertain pursuit of the plain Miss Morrow; Barbara Bird, an idealistic undergraduate who develops a crush on Mr. Cleveland and is perplexed to find it reciprocated; and Simon Beddoes, the dapper son of a diplomat, who starts courting Anthea and finds the Clevelands--and all of North Oxford--ready to welcome him with open arms. The rest of the novel traces the development of these various relationships.
Written in 1939-1940, when Barbara Pym was twenty-six years old, CRAMPTON HODNET had to wait forty-five years to be published; yet the novel already has the confidence of her maturer work, and the ironic, playful tone that is distinctly hers. The sense of fun derives, as usual, from the puncturing of overblown, romantic expectations. Here, fully sketched, are prototype of the befuddled clergymen and knowing spinsters who will populate her later novels.
There is also a complacency that is somewhat disconcerting. When all is tallied up, the author seems to imply that passion is a bother and romance fatuity, that the most life has to offer is a full pot of tea and a nice hot dinner. Given the author’s age, this attitude seems oddly thin-blooded. The remarkable thing is that in later books such as A GLASS OF BLESSINGS and THE SWEET DOVE DIED Pym managed to add depth to her vision without ever losing her delightful sense of the absurd. CRAMPTON HODNET is an entertaining, if somewhat slight, indication of better books to come.