Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2207
Like most novelists, Barbara Pym was interested above all in human nature, and for most of her life she trained both eye and ear upon the exploration of that subject in its many fascinating dimensions. Her first published novel, Some Tame Gazelle , sets the tone and subject for what...
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- Critical Essays
Like most novelists, Barbara Pym was interested above all in human nature, and for most of her life she trained both eye and ear upon the exploration of that subject in its many fascinating dimensions. Her first published novel, Some Tame Gazelle, sets the tone and subject for what is to come as she casts her specialist’s eye on British lower-class and lower-middle-class life and focuses on the quiet domestic lives of a few people. At the center are two unmarried women who have decided that, rather than seeking marriage, they will be happier living alone together. An all-pervasive influence of the Anglican Church, numerous references to anthropology and English literature, the weakness of men, realism, and a sometimes devastatingly comic tone are among the many distinctive features of not only this early novel but the later ones as well. Much the same judgment may be made for two posthumously published novels: Crampton Hodnet, which she had written in the 1930’s but never intended to publish, and An Academic Question, for which she had written two drafts (one in first person, another in third person) but abandoned to write Quartet in Autumn. In 1986, Hazel Holt published an amalgamation of the two drafts. In spite of their thin plots and shallow characterization, both novels contain Pym’s characteristically sharp observations and lively dialogue among the minor characters, as well as her concern with the elderly. Considered together, in all twelve of her novels Pym communicates her vision in an engaging, entertaining, and readable way. Her wit, her sense of style, her devotion to language and its revelation of character, and the richness of her invention all compel respect and critical attention.
“In all of her writing,” Philip Larkin has written of Pym, “I find a continual perceptive attention to detail which is a joy, and a steady background of rueful yet courageous acceptance of things.” In this statement, Larkin points to perhaps the single most important technique—and theme—in Pym’s work. Excellent Women, A Glass of Blessings, and Quartet in Autumn develop their effects, as indeed do all of Pym’s twelve novels, by exploiting the comedy of contemporary manners. Like her anthropologists, whom she quietly mocks for their esoteric detachment, Pym scrupulously notes and records the frustrations, unfulfilled desires, boredom, and loneliness of “ordinary people, people who have no claim to fame whatsoever.” The usual pattern for the heroine is either retrenchment into her own world or, as a result of interaction with others, self-realization. By representing intensively the small world most individuals inhabit, it is Pym’s method to suggest the world as a whole as well.
Usually Pym appoints a heroine to comment on the intimate details of social behavior. In Excellent Women, the assignment falls to Mildred Lathbury, who, as an observer of life, expects “very little—nothing, almost.” Typical of Pym’s “excellent women,” Mildred is preoccupied with order, stability, and routine, but her special interest centers on the lives and crises of those around her—including her new neighbors, Rockingham and Helena Napier; the vicar, Julian Malory; and the anthropologist, Everard Bone. Faced with Mildred’s honesty, diffidence, and unpretentiousness, the crises are resolved happily.
In Pym’s fifth novel, A Glass of Blessings, the heroine is Wilmet Forsyth, a young and leisured woman bored with her excessively sober civil-servant husband. Her near romances with a priest, her best friend’s husband, and Piers Longridge (in whose friend Keith she discovers a rival) are only some of the pairings in this intricate drama of romantic errors. When the possibility of a love affair fails to materialize, Wilmet finds a different kind of consolation in religion.
Finally, Pym’s antiheroic view of life is particularly obvious in her most somber work, Quartet in Autumn, the first of her novels to be published after fifteen years of silence. Whereas her earlier work was a small protest against everyday life, Quartet in Autumn offered a formal protest against the conditions both of life itself and of certain sad civilities. The comedy is cold and the outlook is austere in this story of four people in late middle age who suffer from the same problem: loneliness. In its manipulation of thenarrative among Edwin, Norman, Letty, and Marcia, the novel also represents Pym’s greatest technical achievement.
Excellent Women, described by one critic as the most “felicitous” of all of Pym’s novels, explores the complications of being a spinster (and a religious one, at that) in the England of the 1950’s. The setting is a run-down part of London near Victoria Station, but the very high Anglican Church of St. Mary’s also provides the background for some of the events described. In the quiet comfort of this world, where everything is within walking distance and a new face is an occasion for speculation, the pleasantness and security of everyday life dominate. Only small crises—such as an argument between Winifred and Alegra over how to decorate the church altar—form the counterpoint to comfort. As the narrator says, “Life was like that for most of us—the small unpleasantnesses rather than the great tragedies; the little useless longings rather than the great renunciations and dramatic love affairs of history or fiction.”
Mildred Lathbury, the narrator, is representative of one of Pym’s favorite character types: the “excellent woman.” She lives very much as she did growing up in a country rectory, working part time for the aid of impoverished gentlewomen and devoting herself to the work of the parish. As one who tends to get involved in other people’s lives, she knows herself, she says, “capable of dealing with most of the stock situations or even the great moments of life—birth, marriage, death, the successful jumble sale, the garden fête spoilt by bad weather.”
In all of Pym’s novels, says Philip Larkin, “a small incident serves to set off a chain of modest happenings among interrelated groups of characters.” In this instance, it is the entry into Mildred’s life of Rockingham Napier. A flag lieutenant to an admiral, Rockingham has just returned from Italy, where he served his country by being charming to dull Wren officers. His wife Helena, an anthropologist, does not welcome his return. Scornful of his easy charm and lack of serious purpose, she has become infatuated with another anthropologist, Everard Bone, her coworker in Africa. As Helena pursues, however, Everard flees.
The reader depends on Mildred for ironic commentary. Helena leaves her husband, who then departs for a cottage in the country. Excellent woman that she is, Mildred is invited by Rockingham to send him the Napier furniture, by Helena to get it back, by both to effect their reconciliation, and by Everard to read proof and make the index for his forthcoming book. Because the vicar, Julian Malory, needs to be protected from designing women and Everard needs her help with the book, it seems to Mildred that she may look forward to a “full life.” Then she remembers Rockingham’s smile and reads from Christina Rossetti: “Better by far you should forget and smile,/ Than that you should remember and be sad.” “It was easy enough to read those lines and be glad at his smiling,” she acknowledges, “but harder to tell myself there would never be any question of anything else.” Still, Everard’s affection is genuine, if undemonstrative—and not unmixed with a pragmatic desire to find a suitable typist, indexer, and all-around “helpmate”—and the reader is happy to learn, in a subsequent novel, that Mildred and Everard do indeed go on to wed.
Again set in the 1950’s, town and country are contrasted in A Glass of Blessings, which Larkin regarded as the “subtlest” of Pym’s books. The novel opens in St. Luke’s Church on the feast of its patron, the “beloved physician,” as St. Paul called him. Celebrating the feast and her thirty-third birthday, Wilmet Forsyth, the narrator and heroine, is the well-to-do but aimless wife (subject to “useless little longings”) of a typical Pym husband—hopelessly imperceptive, though well-intentioned and reliable. Like Jane Austen’s Emma, whom Pym has in mind throughout the novel, Wilmet is unused and spoiled. A beautiful woman, always exquisitely dressed, Wilmet is childless, idle, and snobbish. She is also utterly unknown to herself, unable to imagine another life, and afraid to risk herself, even on the London buses, certain that any disturbance will be disillusioning. Bored, without training for a career, despising routine, she plans “to take more part in the life of St. Luke’s, to try to befriend Piers Longridge and perhaps even go to his classes.”
Piers Longridge is a sour, moody gay man, a fact Wilmet never quite seems to grasp until well into the novel. He has taken a seemingly useless degree and now teaches Portuguese in adult education classes. Believing that she might relieve his unhappiness, she forces herself on him, hoping for the grand passion of her life, another fact that she never really admits. Finally, in a scene of high comedy and bitter pain, exasperated by Wilmet’s attentions and her naïveté, Piers confronts her with his secret lover, Keith, a model, and accuses Wilmet of being incapable of affection. It is the first time anyone has told her anything near the truth, and in response, she says to Mary Beamish, “sometimes you discover that you aren’t as nice as you thought you were—that you’re in fact rather a horrid person, and that’s humiliating somehow.”
When she witnesses the courtship and marriage of Mary Beamish, an orphan and ex-Anglican nun, and Father Marius Lovejoy Ransome, Wilmet begins to perceive the possibilities of being useful in the parish and even of passion. After she finds out that Rodney has had an innocent flirtation with his secretary, Wilmet sees him differently, thinking, “I had always regarded Rodney as the kind of man who would never look at another woman. The fact that he could—and indeed had done so—ought to teach me something about myself, even if I was not quite sure what it was.” The truth of it is that Wilmet has failed to recognize her society, including the parish of St. Luke’s, for what it is—an erotic conclave of beauty and variety, both dangerous and enlivening. It is like George Herbert’s “glass of blessings,” full of the “world’s riches”—“beautiewisdome, honour, pleasure.”
Quartet in Autumn
In her first six novels, Pym treats her characters with warm compassion and gentle irony. With Quartet in Autumn, however, her tone becomes harsher, more bitter, as she examines with bleak detachment the lonely rejection of the retired. Letty Crowe, another of Pym’s excellent women, is sixty-five and faces retirement from the unspecified office job she has shared for many years with her colleagues, Marcia, Norman, and Edwin. For Letty, life in a rooming house is “a little sterile, perhaps even deprived.” Retirement gives her a feeling of nothingness, as if she had never existed. During sleepless nights, her life unrolls before her, like that of a person drowning: forty years wasted looking for love. Images of dead leaves drifting to the pavement in autumn and being swept away recur throughout the novel. Indeed, Letty tries not to dwell on the image of herself lying among the autumnal leaves “to prepare for death when life became too much to be endured.”
Her former colleagues are of no help to Letty. Norman is a scrawny, sardonic bachelor. Edwin is a widower preoccupied with “the soothing rhythms of the church’s year.” Marcia is gravely ill and at least slightly mad—collecting tins of food she never opens and milk bottles that she hoards in a shed. The only pleasures she knows are visits to the clinic for checkups and bus trips to look at the mansion of her adored surgeon. Incapable of thought, she is far more pathetic than Letty.
Unlike her colleagues, Letty does try to act bravely, reading books on sociology, participating in church activities, still taking caring with her hair and her clothes. “She told herself, dutifully assuming the suggested attitude toward retirement, that life was still full of possibilities.” At the close of the novel, she is, like Mildred and Wilmet, where she was at the beginning. Yet, at the slightest change in the routine of her eventless days, she courageously assures herself, “At least it made one realize that life still held infinite possibilities for change.”
In Excellent Women, A Glass of Blessings, and Quartet in Autumn, Pym relies neither on violence nor on the bizarre. Nothing outwardly momentous happens, but the frustrations of a half dozen or more characters emerge clearly and poignantly. Some critics have felt that the narrowness of her life inevitably imposed limitations on her work. Beneath the calm surface of her novels, however, the events of the day do make an imprint—to a degree appropriate to the lives of ordinary middle-class people. Each novel is a miniature work of art, distinguished by an air of assurance, an easy but firm control of the material, and the economy of means to achieve it.