Barbara Pym World Literature Analysis

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3773

In several interviews and in her private journals, Pym often said, “The Anglican Church and English Literature—these are the two important things in my life.” A reader of Pym’s novels can certainly see these attachments reflected in her work. Most of her books depict a single woman of middle years...

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In several interviews and in her private journals, Pym often said, “The Anglican Church and English Literature—these are the two important things in my life.” A reader of Pym’s novels can certainly see these attachments reflected in her work. Most of her books depict a single woman of middle years who involves herself in the Anglican Church and often loves literature.

In her first novel, Some Tame Gazelle, two spinster sisters, Belinda and Harriet Bede, whom Pym based on Hilary and herself, live in a small village and are involved in all aspects of village life. Belinda has a twenty-year crush on Archdeacon Hoccleve, pastor of the local Anglican church, who is married to a bossy, efficient wife. Belinda recognizes the many (and humorous) faults of the archdeacon but is involved in all aspects of church life, as are most of the characters in the book. This first novel is more humorous than some of Pym’s later work, but like all of her novels of manners, it examines small-town concerns, both religious and temporal.

Belinda and Harriet Bede are the prototypes of a long line of “excellent women” whom Pym examines in her later novels. In her second book, Excellent Women, Pym defines the type: “[Excellent women] are not for marrying. . . . They are for being unmarried and by that I mean a positive rather than a negative state.” Men accord these women esteem and respect but do not generally become involved with them romantically. The women may make a show of kowtowing to the men around them, but they will not relinquish the core of their personalities to a masculine view of the world; Pym’s women are self-defined even though their world may be a small one.

As a counterpoint to her excellent women, Pym depicts a series of feckless men who depend on the women. Archdeacon Hoccleve of Some Tame Gazelle is the first of a line of ineffectual clergy sprinkled throughout the rest of Pym’s novels. Pym’s clergy display a number of differences, but they are all remade by her excellent women. Beginning with her third novel, Jane and Prudence, Pym draws a connection between her fictional clergy and the anthropologists whom she begins to introduce into her work. Like the clergy, Pym’s anthropologists are involved in the study of esoteric rituals and are dependent upon capable women to perform tedious tasks, such as typing and indexing, often gratis. Pym depicts both the clergy and the anthropologists being disconnected from the vital concerns of everyday life.

Closely allied to Pym’s study of the Anglican clergy is her depiction of the Anglican Church itself. Through the course of her novels, the church and the clergy recede in importance to the larger community: The church is central to Some Tame Gazelle but is barely visible in Quartet in Autumn, published twenty-seven years later. The real Anglican Church actually suffered such a descent in the mid-twentieth century. By highlighting the decline of the church, Pym examines the question, “What constitutes community in the late twentieth century?” For an answer, she looks to other entities, such as the world of work and civic groups. In her last novel, A Few Green Leaves, she depicts physicians and socialized medicine as attempting to assume the work of the clergy and the church. In truth, neither entity provides the social cohesion formerly found in the nineteenth century Anglican Church.

Pym has often been called “a modern Jane Austen” by reviewers. While this is a compliment to Pym, it is more of a comment on the novel of manners than a critical assessment of her work. Like Jane Austen, Pym depicts everyday life with an ironic and witty touch. One major difference between Austen and Pym, however, is that Austen’s heroines always marry, presumably to live happily ever after at the end of her books, while Pym’s women usually end up alone. In the few books, such as Jane and Prudence, A Glass of Blessings, and An Unsuitable Attachment, in which Pym’s heroines do marry, their husbands are depicted as understated, even drab, and are certainly not the heroes of romance.

Another nineteenth century British novelist to whom Pym has been compared is Anthony Trollope, the author of the six Barsetshire novels. Like Trollope, Pym writes about the Anglican clergy, but both the Anglican Church and clergy were more central to community life in Trollope’s era, and Pym faithfully records the diminished role of the church in the twentieth century. Certainly, Pym was a great admirer of Austen, Trollope, and other British writers who wrote about the church and clergy.

In her twelve novels, Pym depicts a world of diminished expectations for women, the church, and English society as a whole, a depiction that reflects the actual state of affairs in mid-twentieth century Britain. In other hands, such a picture might appear drab and unpromising, but while some of Pym’s books contain sad elements, she is often very funny and always ironic, witty, and astute. Pym’s characters seem to have adopted the motto of the writer V. S. Pritchett, whom Pym often quoted: “The secret of happiness is to find a congenial monotony.” Pym’s women are caught in a very trivial round, but one that affords them quiet satisfactions. In Pym’s books, such mundane occurrences as afternoon tea, the church rummage sale, and flower arranging are invested with meaning and significance and afford the author great opportunities to show her human nature at its most venal and humorous. All of her books show life as sometimes absurd but always worth attention and a good laugh.

Excellent Women

First published: 1952

Type of work: Novel

Mildred Lathbury, a thirtyish office worker in London, is attracted to the Reverend Julian Malory but decides that her single lifestyle suits her well.

Excellent Women, Pym’s second published novel, is often cited as typical of her mature style. Mildred Lathbury, the first-person narrator, is the daughter of a deceased cleric. She works part-time for an organization that aids impoverished gentlewomen, lives in a tiny flat, and spends much of her time on church work. Father Julian Malory, the rector of the church, refers to his flock of doting spinsters, including Mildred, as “excellent women.” A good-looking, ascetic man of forty, Malory tends to his ritualistic duties in a kindly, vague way, hardly noticing Mildred or the other excellent women who harbor wild romantic notions about him while his unmarried sister Winifred makes a home for him.

Mildred is also involved in the domestic squabbles of her neighbors, Rocky and Helena Napier. The plot becomes complicated when Allegra Gray, an attractive cleric’s widow, moves into the parish and becomes interested in Malory. Malory and Gray become engaged, but the latter immediately starts scheming to turn Winifred out of the house. Mildred, who has felt some attraction to Malory herself, is also a friend of Winifred and must assist her when she turns to Mildred for help. Mildred comes to realize that Malory is an ineffectual, naïve person who does not recognize the scheming of Gray and is unable to deal with either Gray or his sister. He breaks his engagement and is living with his sister at the end of the novel. The reader concludes that he will probably never marry.

Another important secondary character in Excellent Women is the anthropologist Everard Bone, whom Mildred meets through Helena Napier. Pym draws a connection between anthropologists, represented by Bone, and the clergy, represented by Malory; both groups of men work at a distance from the everyday concerns of life and often take advantage of excellent women. Throughout the novel, Mildred is pulled between helping Malory with church work and indexing and proofreading for Bone. Malory clearly leaves most of the real work of the church to the women, while Bone leaves all the tedious, boring work of anthropology to Mildred.

By using Mildred as the narrator, Pym is able to show her main character’s attitude toward the people around her, especially Malory, Gray, Bone, and the Napiers. Mildred lets Malory, Bone, and, briefly, Rocky Napier take advantage of her and induce her to perform tiresome tasks on their behalf, but she maintains an ironic detachment from her own life, which enables her to criticize and laugh at them. Pym’s depiction of the interior life of Mildred is one of the strong points of Excellent Women. By the end of the novel, Mildred has exemplified the ideal traits of one of Pym’s excellent women. She has tactfully reconciled a small breach between the Napiers; she has reconciled Malory and his sister while allowing the insensitive cleric to maintain the illusion that she had been so deeply in love with him that his engagement was a severe blow; and she has transferred her own romantic interests from Malory to Bone, knowing full well that Bone is taking advantage of her as much as Malory ever did.

Mildred Lathbury is a type of woman whom Pym created in Some Tame Gazelle in the characters of Harriet and Belinda Bede; Pym continues to develop and change the excellent woman model in all of her novels, except for The Sweet Dove Died, An Academic Question, and Quartet in Autumn. Through Mildred and her other “excellent women” characters, Pym asserts that women will often accede to the preferences and desires of men but keep their own counsel and harbor their own views of the men whom they serve. Pym implies that the interior lives of women and their relationships to other women follow female rules and help them to remain self-defined actors on a male stage. Excellent Women and its main character, Mildred Lathbury, convey Pym’s ironic depictions of women’s lives with great aplomb.

Less than Angels

First published: 1955

Type of work: Novel

A group of anthropologists, based in London, vie for position in the academic community and are shaken by the death of one of their number in Africa.

Less than Angels revolves around the world of anthropology more than that of the church, but occasionally the two intersect as they do in Excellent Women. Catherine Oliphant, a writer of romantic fiction, is the sometime mistress of Tom Mallow, an anthropologist who spends much of his time on research trips to Africa. Mallow is angling to add the other principal character of the book, Deirdre Swan, a young anthropology student, to his list of romantic conquests. Deirdre’s mother and her aunt, Mabel Swan and Rhoda Wellcome, respectively, live together and form a bridge between the world of anthropology and that of the church, since they function as excellent women to the clergy in their parish.

Less than Angels depicts the rivalries among anthropologists, which are usually trivial and often humorous in the same way that Pym’s squabbles among the clergy amuse by their pettiness. The roles of cleric and anthropologist merge in the figure of Father Gemini, a Roman Catholic missionary and linguist of bushy beard and peculiar temperament. Also important to the world of anthropology is Gemini’s assistant, Miss Gertrude Lydgate, with whom he practices the guttural sounds of lost African languages spoken by only a handful of people. Professor Felix Mainwaring, a retired anthropology professor, and his assistant, Miss Esther Clovis, compete with Gemini for research grants. Miss Lydgate and Miss Clovis function as helpmates and overworked assistants to the anthropologists in the same manner as some of Pym’s other female characters serve the Anglican clergy.

Rhoda Wellcome and Mabel Swan are at the beck and call of Father Tulliver, the rector of their Anglican church, just as Gertrude and Esther are to their anthropology researchers. Tulliver becomes a major comic character as he attempts to bully the women into helping him.

Tom Mallow, the attractive anthropologist, is a typical Pym male character as he takes advantage of Catherine Oliphant, who sincerely loves him, while flirting with Deirdre, who is only mildly interested in him. Two male anthropology students, Mark Penfold and Digby Fox, complete the Mallow circle as they admire his work and are willing to assist Catherine and Deirdre; ironically, Mallow’s death devastates Catherine but hardly moves Deirdre, who has gone on to a new anthropologist.

By the end of Less than Angels, Gemini has inveigled a large grant, which others were promised, from a rich old lady and happily trots off to Africa while the other anthropologists denounce him out of envy. Rhoda and Mabel, ever the excellent women, invite Catherine to stay with them while she is recuperating from Mallow’s death. Deirdre teams up with Fox; the two of them, along with the other young anthropologist, Mark Penfold, pursue youthful pleasures, little noting the pain of others. In Less than Angels, Pym renders the world of anthropology as quite humorous but also sadly sterile and devoid of true human emotions. The study of remote cultures, tribal customs, and almost-extinct languages absorbs all the energies of the anthropologists, leaving them little time or energy to concern themselves with the people around them. Like Charles Dickens’s Mrs. Jellyby in Bleak House (1852-1853), Pym’s anthropologists cannot see anything closer than Africa, least of all their own families and friends.

The warmest characters in the book, Catherine, Mabel, and Rhoda, are not connected to anthropology. Catherine, the writer of romances, meets Alaric Lydgate, the brother of Gertrude Lydgate, at the end of the novel and encourages him to burn the anthropology notes that he took years before when he hoped to write a book. His sister is distraught at the burning, but Pym makes clear that this is a healthy step for him. It appears that Catherine will draw him away from anthropology and into the real world of emotions. Pym’s career at the International Africa Institute in London introduced her to many anthropologists, a group that never held much appeal for her. In Less than Angels, Pym has pointed out the besetting sins of the profession in a manner both humorous and, at times, poignant.

A Glass of Blessings

First published: 1958

Type of work: Novel

Wilmet Forsyth flirts with two men in her circle, toys with doing church work for Father Thames, but decides to devote herself to her husband.

A Glass of Blessings takes place in a small Anglo-Catholic parish, St. Luke’s, in London. The first-person narrator is Wilmet Forsyth, an attractive young matron with time on her hands. The novel traces her attempt to fill her time and find meaning in her life.

Through her friend, Rowena Talbot, Wilmet meets Rowena’s brother, Piers Longridge; like Wilmet, he is underemployed and works part-time as a teacher of Portuguese. Wilmet begins the study of the language and engages in a mild flirtation with Piers before learning that he is homosexual. Harry Talbot, Rowena’s husband, is romantically interested in Wilmet, who is initially pleased by his attention but becomes skittish and nervous when he gives her an expensive enamel box. Wilmet is not seriously interested in either Piers or Harry but flirts with them to pass the time.

More assiduous than either Harry or Piers in annexing Wilmet to his circle is Father Thames, the rector of St. Luke’s Church. Thames lives in the rectory with his assistant, “mild, dumpy Father Bode,” and their housekeeper, Wilf Bason. A worldly minister, Thames collects expensive curios such as Fabergé eggs and attempts to enlist women to do all the work of the parish not performed by Bode. Complications arise when a new curate, Father Ransome, is sent to be the third minister of the parish. Thames is so selfish that he will not give Ransome a room in the large rectory; consequently, the newcomer must take a room with an unmarried friend of Wilmet, Mary Bearish. She is the typical Pym excellent woman. She works very hard for the church, lets the clergy order her around, and finally marries Ransome at the end of the book. The reader feels sure that Ransome will never do another day’s work with Mary toiling away at his side.

Thames attempts to induce Wilmet to perform good works at St. Luke’s, but it soon becomes clear that Thames’s idea of good works consists of rendering services to himself such as ironing clothes and cooking meals. Wilmet wonders to herself “whether many men, perhaps the clergy especially, went about cajoling or bullying women into being the answer to prayer.” Observing the activities of Wilmet from the sidelines with a bemused tolerance is her mother-in-law, Sybil Forsyth, who remarries at the end of the novel. Her son Rodney, a civil servant and Wilmet’s husband, has been engaging in a modest flirtation in his office in London but returns to his wife. Rodney and Wilmet realize that they suit each other very well.

A Glass of Blessings depicts what happens to people with too much time on their hands. In the end, Wilmet and Rodney decide to occupy their time together, Father Thames retires to the Villa Cinerentola (Cinderella) in Siena, Italy, and Harry and Rowena Talbot draw closer together. Wilmet has a midlife crisis, Pym style, which does not include flaming affairs or rushing off to become a missionary in Africa but merely a few lunches and Portuguese classes with other men and collecting clothes for the rummage sale at St. Luke’s Church. The preciousness of Thames and Ransome, as well as Bason and Longridge, is contrasted with the steadier virtues of Sybil and Mary, which Wilmet comes to appreciate. In the end, she develops her own brand of steady virtue, which differs from that of both Sybil and Mary. In A Glass of Blessings, Wilmet finds herself amid the distractions of the church and romance, distractions that Pym depicts with great wit and charm.

Quartet in Autumn

First published: 1977

Type of work: Novel

The failure of four elderly London office workers to connect with one another when two of their number retire leads to the death of one of them.

Quartet in Autumn studies the lives of four office workers, two men and two women, and discovers the fates of the two women when they retire. The quartet functions as a team at work, but their private lives are detached from one another’s and from those of other people; in fact, they are such faceless people that none of them is replaced when he or she retires because no one is sure exactly what work any of them does.

The first member of the quartet, Letty, lives in a rented room and shares the kitchen and bathroom with the owner of the house. In retirement, she plans to live with an old school friend, Marjorie, an arrangement that is upset when Marjorie becomes engaged to a much younger man, cleric David Lyell. Letty moves to new quarters and is welcomed by the neighbors, including the priest of an African sect, but is put off by their exuberance and retreats to her solitary life. Also living alone is the bachelor, Norman, whose only human contact is his deceased sister’s husband, Ken, who tries to include Norman in his life but is rebuffed. Norman is a thoroughgoing misanthrope. The other male member of the quartet is Edwin, a widower, who owns a home and is active in the Anglican Church. Edwin is the most outgoing of that group and ultimately takes Marcia to the hospital and stands in as her next of kin.

Marcia, the catalyst for most of the action in the novel, is unmarried like Letty but has the good fortune to own a nice house, which she has allowed to deteriorate. Always peculiar and isolated from other people, Marcia completely withdraws from humanity after her retirement. She obsessively saves hundreds of milk bottles in her garden shed, remembering wartime shortage when the rule was “no bottle, no milk.” Marcia also hoards canned food but eats very little, usually only her deceased cat’s leftover food, preferring to save her own tins against a future shortage such as her envisioned milk-bottle dearth. Pym depicts a woman seriously out of touch with reality who is slowly starving herself to death; Pym also takes the reader inside Marcia’s mind to show her confused motivations and her indignation at offers of help.

Pym examines the offers of help that Marcia does receive and tones the roles of the other members of the quartet, the British welfare state, and the Anglican Church. Edwin engineers a lunch get-together four months after Marcia’s retirement and is shocked by her thinness and weak appetite but presumes the welfare state is taking care of her via social workers. Letty makes a few gestures toward Marcia, which the latter rebuffs. Norman and Marcia are said to have felt a brief attraction in earlier years, which was never acted upon; however, Norman does nothing for Marcia except to walk by her house one day, then hurry away when she sees him. Ironically, in her will, Marcia leaves Norman her house, but the book closes with his preparing to sell it and stay in his old rented room.

Marcia’s coworkers fail to help her, and she has no friends, but the state does try to assist her. A perky young social worker, Janice Brabner, keeps trying to visit Marcia, who resents her visits. Marcia’s neighbors, Priscilla and Nigel, also volunteer to help repeatedly but are rebuffed. When Janice Brabner and Norman find Marcia collapsed in her house, Brabner correctly observes that it is very hard for a safety net to save someone such as Marcia, who is determined to isolate herself and who dies as a by-product of her isolation and delusion. The Anglican Church and clergy are largely absent during Marcia’s illness and death. She has never been active in the church, and the one cleric depicted, Father Gellibrand, who is Edwin’s good friend, is busily involved in a world of ritual and ceremony and has very little outreach toward others.

In Quartet in Autumn, Pym has faithfully re-created the sterile modern urban world where people are isolated and elderly pensioners fall through the safety net of social services. Pym’s quartet has forgotten the motto of the British novelist E. M. Forster, “Only connect.” The lack of connection that Pym depicts has fatal consequences for Marcia and lonely ones for the other members of the quartet; indeed, the description of the group as a quartet is ironic, as they are solo players from start to finish.

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