Barbara Pym

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John Updike (essay date 26 February 1979)

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SOURCE: "Lem and Pym," in The New Yorker, February 26, 1979, pp. 115-21.

[In the following excerpt, Updike comments on Pym's writing career and offers a favorable assessment of Excellent Women and Quartet in Autumn.]

Atomic aloneness in a crowded world, where life is cheap and its accidents random, can be better felt in the wanly Christian world of Barbara Pym. This English novelist has had a disheartening career. After publishing six deceptively old-fashioned novels between 1950 and 1961, she was spurned by more than twenty publishers and understandably let her pen languish. From 1946 to 1974, she supported herself as an assistant editor for the quarterly Africa. As retirement approached, however, she began to write again, a novel "as churchy as I wished to make it," and in January of 1977 her name appeared in the Times Literary Supplement as the heroine of a poll taken to determine the most underrated British writer of the last seventy-five years. Her new novel, Quartet in Autumn, was accepted by Macmillan, and two of her old books were reissued by Jonathan Cape, with commercial and critical success. Now, in this country, a novel dating from 1952. Excellent Women, has been published for the first time, along with Quartet in Autumn, by Dutton. An unfortunate effect of such simultaneous exposure is to reveal, of two books written over twenty years apart, how alike they are, even to striking, on the last page, the identical muted chord. More fortunately, the reader who has consumed both novels in a few days can report that the older is very fine, and the newer even finer—stronger, sadder, funnier, bolder.

It would be hard to imagine a more timid world than that of Excellent Women , or a novel wherein closer to nothing happens. Miss Pym has been compared to Jane Austen, yet there is a virile country health in the Austen novels, and some vivid marital prospects for her blooming heroines. "Excellent women" is a phrase used by a parson of the drab little flock of spinsters who cling for company and amusement to the threadbare routines of his London church. An American who has never attended an Anglican church in London can scarcely conceive of the extreme of sad attenuation to which ecclesiastical institutions can be reduced while still holding open their doors; I can recall a noble structure on Albany Street in which one bright Sunday morning this lone overseas visitor composed a full third of the congregation. Father Julian Malory's St. Mary's Church, in a shabby district on "the 'wrong' side of Victoria Station," seems a shade more bustling than that, but only a shade. Our heroine, Mildred Lathbury, the unmarried daughter of a rural clergyman, comes to it because it is relatively "High" and burns incense, which her deceased parents would have deplored. "But perhaps it was only natural that I should want to rebel against my upbringing, even if only in such a harmless way." All her rebellions and outward motions are similarly circumspect, but within the limits of her quiet life as she firmly draws them minor excitements loom in scale, and excite us proportionally. Mildred Lathbury is one of the last (I would imagine) of the great narrating English virgins, and though she tells us she is "not at all like Jane Eyre," her tale has some of the power of, say, the portion of "Bleak House" narrated by Esther Summerson—the power, that is, of virtue, with its artistic complement of perfect moral pitch and crystalline discriminations. The postwar, protoconsumerist London that Mildred depicts,...

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wherein jam seems still to be rationed and rubble still lies in church aisles, yet wherein couples drink wine and separate with a certain liberated ease, is an awkward arena for her discriminations, perhaps. One of the funniest scenes, though brief, occurs when she attempts to buy a new lipstick and can scarcely bring herself to name the tint she wants: "'It's called Hawaiian Fire,' I mumbled, feeling rather foolish, for it had not occurred to me that I should have to say it out loud." The urban crush of modern London is, she reflects, in a phrase that echoes a T. S. Eliot echo of Dante, a hard place for the practice of Christian charity:

"One wouldn't believe there could be so many people," I said, "and one must love them all." These are our neighbours, I thought, looking round at the clerks and students and typists and elderly eccentrics, bent over their dishes and newspapers.

The plot's turns have to do with new neighbors. A young couple, Helena and Rockingham Napier, move into the flat below Mildred's, and conduct within earshot a typical but sufficiently unsettling modern marriage. And Father Malory and his unmarried sister Winifred take in a boarder, one Mrs. Gray, with romantic consequences that titillate every corner of the tiny parish, from jumble sale to Evensong. Mildred, at the nubile age of "just over thirty," seems remarkably spinsterish. Her sexual experiences have been of the daintiest sort, and she puzzles over the "race of men" and their differences from women with the polite quizzicalness of an anthropologist from the moon.

"I like food," I said, "but I suppose on the whole women don't make such a business of living as men do."

Men in bowler hats, with dispatch cases so flat and neat it seemed impossible that they could contain anything at all, and neatly rolled umbrellas, ran with undignified haste and jostled against me. Some carried little bundles or parcels, offerings to their wives perhaps or a surprise for supper. I imagined them piling into the green trains, opening their evening papers, doing the crossword, not speaking to each other …

"Of course, men don't tend to be alone, do they?"

It is fitting that an actual anthropologist, the humorless but upright (and Christian!) Everard Bone, adds himself to the exiguous list of Mildred Lathbury's male friends—her pastor, his curate, a few neighbors, and an old friend so set in his ways he complains, "They've moved me to a new office and I don't like it at all. Different pigeons come to the windows." At the book's romantic climax, Everard Bone invites her to be his indexer; but Americans, with their Freudian and Lawrentian prejudices, should not hasten to bid farewell to her chastity and hello to "what Helena called 'a full life.'" Mildred has involved herself with men enough to enhance her feeling of possibility, her sense of choice, but what she chooses, out of sight of the novel's conclusion, may well be more of the same. "As I moved about the kitchen getting out china and cutlery, I thought, not for the first time, how pleasant it was to be living alone." "Excellent women" need not think of themselves as "the rejected ones." When warned not to expect too much, Mildred thinks, "I forbore to remark that women like me really expected very little—nothing, almost." Excellent Women, arriving on these shores in a heyday of sexual hype, is a startling reminder that solitude may be chosen, and that a lively, full novel can be constructed entirely within the precincts of that regressive virtue, feminine patience.

By the time of Quartet in Autumn, the lonely women are ready for retirement. There are two of them: Marcia Ivory, in whom Mildred Lathbury's self-sufficient aspect has been carried to the point of loony reclusiveness, and Letty Crowe, in whom Mildred's amiable side has developed into a clothes-conscious, food-loving softness bordering upon the hedonistic. Marcia and Letty work in a nameless office in the same room with two single men—Norman, small and wiry and irritable, and Edwin, large and bald and churchgoing. Edwin is the only one of the quartet who has ever been married and who appears to be an active Christian; the churchly ambience of Excellent Women has shrunk to this one merry widower, who shops around from church to church for services as a species of entertainment. The shadow of religious shelter has been lifted from Miss Pym's world, and the comedy is harsher. Whereas Mildred Lathbury had merely to cope with new tenants in the flat below, Letty Crowe's entire building changes hands, and becomes the property of a Nigerian, Mr. Olatunde, who not only houses a large family but is "a priest of a religious sect." When Miss Crowe, disturbed by their "bursts of hymn-singing and joyful shouts," taps on their door and complains, Mr. Olatunde serenely tells her, "Christianity is disturbing."

It was difficult to know how to answer this. Indeed Letty found it impossible so Mr. Olatunde continued, smiling, "You are a Christian lady?"

Letty hesitated. Her first instinct had been to say "yes," for of course one was a Christian lady, even if one would not have put it quite like that.

In fleeing his landlordship, she becomes the tenant of the High Church, eighty-year-old Mrs. Pope, and finds herself participating in services:

On a bitter cold evening in March she joined a little group, hardly more than the two or three gathered together, shuffling round the Stations of the Cross. It was the third Wednesday in Lent and there had been snow, now hard and frozen on the ground. The church was icy. The knees of elderly women bent creakily at each Station, hands had to grasp the edge of a pew to pull the body up again. "From pain to pain, from woe to woe …" they recited, but Letty's thoughts had been on herself and how she should arrange the rest of her life.

Where Mildred Lathbury had consoled herself, and fortified her own life of unconsummated waiting, by thinking of herself and her fellow-worshippers "as being rather like the early Christians, surrounded not by lions, admittedly, but by all the traffic and bustle of a weekday lunch-hour," no such comparison lends rationale to the ascetic isolation of Miss Pym's later heroines. In place of the chaste infatuations with which the excellent women had amused themselves, Marcia Ivory has no affection but for the surgeon Dr. Strong, who has performed a mastectomy upon her and looms in her addled mind ("Marcia remembered what her mother used to say, how she would never let the surgeon's knife touch her body. How ridiculous that seemed when one considered Mr. Strong") as a masterful angel of death. When the two women simultaneously retire, the speaker at the office luncheon held in their honor does not know exactly what their jobs were, only that there is no need to replace them, and "it seemed to Letty that what cannot now be justified has perhaps never existed, and it gave her the feeling that she and Marcia had been swept away as if they had never been. With this sensation of nothingness she entered the library."

Quartet in Autumn reminds us of Muriel Spark's "Memento Mori" and of the geriatric missionaries in Rose Macaulay's "Towers of Trebizond," but the superannuated creations of these other "Christian lady" novelists have an energetic raffishness, a richness of past and a confidence of social class, denied Miss Pym's characters, who are clearly no match for their surround of anonymous office buildings and condescending young people. One of Miss Pym's enthusiastic English reviewers has been Philip Larkin, and perhaps it is to his world that the closer analogy can be drawn—the gray middle class of an empireless England, from whose halftones nevertheless the chords of a living poetry can be struck. Quartet in Autumn is a marvel of fictional harmonics, a beautifully calm and rounded passage in and out of four isolated individuals as they feebly, fitfully grope toward an ideal solidarity. Marcia, the most eccentric of the four, is the most pronouncedly private, and the most abruptly forthcoming.

"And what have you been doing with yourself?" Edwin turned to Marcia with an air of kindly enquiry which hardly deserved the fierceness of her reply.

"That's my business," she snapped.

What she has been doing, since retirement, is rearranging the junk she stores in her house, repelling a concerned social worker, letting her dyed hair grow out stark white, and sinking deeper into anorexia. Miss Pym's portrait, from within, of a "shopping-bag lady," showing the exact, plausible thought processes behind such mad actions as leaving trash in libraries and attempting to dig up a dead cat, is an achievement comparable to [Stanislaw] Lem's imagining of chemical-induced paranoia and frenzy. Both writers, in the books at hand, lead us to think about social contact, about society and sanity. Experiments in isolation rapidly induce sensations of insanity; we take our bearings, daily, from others. To be sane is, to a great extent, to be sociable. Those victims of random chemistry in "The Chain of Chance" who survive are those who are not travelling alone, and whose behavior receives prompt social check. In the extremely meagre social fabric Miss Pym weaves for her characters, the most tenuous and trifling contacts take on the import of massive events in more thickly woven novels—those of Tolstoy, say. One wonders, indeed, if Tolstoy ever knew aloneness; even his dying was a mob scene. Most human lives have been passed in a throng of tribal and village associations. Unsought loneliness is a by-product of the modern city, and fiction by its very nature is ill equipped to treat of it. Letty Crowe, "an unashamed reader of novels," has come to realize that "the position of an unmarried, unattached, ageing woman is of no interest whatever to the writer of modern fiction." In brilliantly, touchingly, frighteningly supplying that lack, and in presenting a parable of the hazards of our "atomic" condition, Barbara Pym … offer[s] us characters with strikingly modest sex drives. Whether in this they are old-fashioned or all too modern—whether under conditions of dense metropolitan crowding the primeval social glue will tactfully dry up—remains to be seen….


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Barbara Pym 1913–1980

British novelist, autobiographer, and short story writer.

The following entry presents an overview of Pym's career through 1993. For further information on her life and works, see CLC, Volumes 13, 19, and 37.

Relegated for most of her life to the position of minor literary figure, Pym is now regarded as one of the most accomplished British novelists of the twentieth century. Pym's fiction, rediscovered after more than a decade and a half of obscurity, centers on the frustrations and domestic solitude of women in middle-class British social circles. An astute observer of human relationships, Pym explores the insular world of eccentric Anglican clergymen, anthropologists, librarians, fringe academics, small office workers, and unmarried women whom she depicts with gentle irony, humor, and compassion. Pym's trademark spinster is a central figure in all of her novels, portrayed as a quiet, self-reliant middle-aged woman resigned to a life of compromise and small pleasures. Often compared to the work of Jane Austen, Pym's popular and critically acclaimed novels, particularly Excellent Women (1952) and Quartet in Autumn (1977), are well-wrought and deceptively understated comedies of manners that exhibit unpretentious tragic undertones and impressive psychological depth.

Biographical Information

Born Barbara Mary Crampton Pym in Oswestry, Shropshire, Pym was the eldest of two daughters raised in a comfortable middle-class English home near Wales. Pym's father was a successful solicitor and her mother an assistant organist at the local parish, whose curates and vicars were regular dinner guests. At age twelve Pym was sent to Huyton College, an Anglican boarding school in Liverpool, where she developed an interest in literature and contributed to the school magazine. Four years later she read Aldous Huxley's Chrome Yellow which confirmed her literary aspirations and inspired the composition of an unpublished first novel, "Young Men in Fancy Dress." At age eighteen Pym enrolled at St. Hilda's College, Oxford, where she studied English literature and graduated with second-class honors in 1934. While at Oxford, Pym experienced several frustrating romantic affairs that supplied material for her early writing. During the Second World War, Pym performed volunteer work in Oswestry and later found employment in the Censorship office in Bristol. She joined the Women's Royal Naval Service in 1943 and was stationed in Naples, Italy, until the end of the war. In 1945 Pym began work for the International African Institute, a non-profit organization in London, while continuing to work on her fiction. Her first novel, Some Tame Gazelle (1950), was accepted by publisher Jonathan Cape in 1949. Pym produced a steady output of modestly successful novels in the next decade with Excellent Women, Jane and Prudence (1953), Less Than Angels (1955), A Glass of Blessings (1958), and No Fond Return of Love (1961). In 1963 Pym's manuscript for An Unsuitable Attachment (1982) was summarily rejected by her publisher and numerous others on the grounds that it would not satisfy changing literary tastes of the 1960s. For the next sixteen years Pym published nothing. While working at the International African Institute as an editor for the journal Africa, however, she continued to write for her own amusement and completed The Sweet Dove Died (1978) and Quartet in Autumn, both of which were also initially turned down by publishers. During the 1970s Pym suffered serious health problems resulting in a mastectomy, several strokes, and a heart attack. Despite such setbacks, Pym experienced a remarkable reversal of fortune in 1977 when poet Philip Larkin and biographer Lord David Cecil named her one of the most underrated authors of the century in a Times Literary Supplement feature. Their adulation sparked a revival of interest in her work, prompting Macmillan to quickly accept and publish Quartet in Autumn and The Sweet Dove Died. Pym completed her final novel, A Few Green Leaves (1980), shortly before succumbing to ovarian cancer in 1980. This book and the remainder of her unpublished manuscripts appeared posthumously, including An Unsuitable Attachment, her previously rejected novel, Crampton Hodnet (1985), An Academic Question (1986), Civil to Strangers and Other Writings (1987), and A Very Private Eye (1984), a volume of Pym's diary entries and correspondence edited by her sister, Hilary, and longtime friend Hazel Holt.

Major Works

Pym's first novel, Some Tame Gazelle, establishes many of the essential features of her subsequent work. Set in an English country village, the story centers on the uneventful lives of two unmarried sisters in their mid-fifties as they share the disappointments and small joys of selfless service and unrequited love. While one sister privately devotes herself to a married archdeacon who ignores her feelings for him, the other dotes on a young curate who eventually marries a younger woman. In the end, both sisters remain unattached though pleasantly satisfied in the company of each other and the security of their uncomplicated lives. As in many of Pym's novels, the male characters, usually clergymen, anthropologists, and academics, are depicted as self-centered, insensitive, and ineffectual recipients of adoration and deference from the female characters. Pym's erudite familiarity with English literature is also revealed in frequent literary allusions, present here in the title which is taken from a line by a minor Victorian poet. Such allusions are also prominent in Jane and Prudence, which contains significant references to Jane Austen, John Milton, Matthew Arnold, and John Keats. Excellent Women, Pym's most popular novel, features Mildred Lathbury, an unmarried woman in her thirties who represents the archetypal Pym spinster—educated, sharp witted, unsupported by family or husband, committed to community and church, modest and alone but single by choice. In this novel Mildred relates her involvement with an estranged married couple while residing in a London flat. Here, as in other novels, anthropologists and clergymen figure prominently. Mildred's role as arbiter among the uncomfortably situated characters underscores her tenuous position as a welcome participant and lonely observer on the verge of isolation. Typical of Pym's fiction, the plot revolves around detailed analysis of seemingly inconsequential incidents and encounters. Small gatherings and commonplace domestic activities, such as teas, dinners, and church attendance, take on the significance of major events. Pym's experience with anthropologists while working at the International Africa Institute is particularly evident in Less Than Angels. In this novel the female protagonist adopts anthropological research techniques to make shrewd observations about English social convention and to satirize anthropologists themselves. While most of Pym's novels feature unmarried women, the protagonist of A Glass of Blessings is the emotionally deprived wife of a prosperous civil servant. Failing to find love outside of the marriage, the disenchanted wife enters into a fulfilling friendship with a gay man. Like the spinsters of Pym's other novels, she finds herself content to accept companionship in place of romantic intimacy. In contrast to her earlier work, Pym's later novels, including Quartet in Autumn, The Sweet Dove Died, and A Few Green Leaves, exhibit a marked bitterness in their bleak tone and grim humor. Quartet in Autumn is a spare and unflinching examination of late-life loneliness in which Pym describes the experiences of four co-workers upon their retirement from a London office. Unprepared for the unpredictability and alienation of contemporary British life, the two women and two men struggle to find meaning in their lives without family, friends, or benevolent institutions to support them. In a contrapuntal pattern suggested by the title, Pym follows each as they face their separate solitude with reluctance and sadness. While focusing on the complex emotional impact of the aging process rather than courtships or romantic attachments, Quartet in Autumn nonetheless reveals Pym's central and recurring preoccupation with the individual's struggle to connect with others.

Critical Reception

Before 1977, Pym was considered a minor author of unassuming novels for a small, loyal readership. Since her literary rebirth and enthusiastic reevaluation, critics consistently praise her highly developed narrative abilities, remarkable social awareness, and striking modern sensibility. Pym's quiet domestic settings, unsensational plots, and earnest attention to the minutiae of social behavior are frequently associated with the work of Jane Austen and nineteenth-century realists. While such mundane subjects once rendered her work unpublishable, critics now acknowledge the surprising modernity of her fiction, particularly as found in her masterpieces Excellent Women and Quartet in Autumn. Pym's disarming, dry wit and conversational narrative voice convey strong feelings of loneliness and despair with unusual subtlety and poignancy. As many critics note, the veneer of conventionality and tradition that overlays Pym's fiction adds depth to her perceptive insights into human relationships, alienation in the modern world, and the changing role of women in contemporary society. Despite the Victorian propriety of Pym's spinsters, these sophisticated, self-aware, independent female protagonists bear resemblance to the modern liberated woman. Such sympathetic treatment of autonomous women who refuse to settle into complicated and unsatisfying relationships with weak or immature men has drawn the attention of feminist critics. Pym's critical reputation rests largely on her unique and highly refined tragicomic humor, emotional sensitivity, and narrative gifts.

Robert Phillips (review date 8 May 1981)

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SOURCE: "Narrow, Splendid Work," in Commonweal, May 8, 1981, pp. 284-5.

[In the following review, Phillips praises the posthumous publication of A Few Green Leaves.]

Barbara Pym died on January 11 of last year, in a small Oxfordshire village cottage which she had come to share with her sister. At the time of her death, her books were much in demand in her country, and were finding an audience in America. And therein lies a terrible irony.

Between 1950 and 1961, Miss Pym published six novels, including Excellent Women (1952), Less Than Angels (1955), A Glass of Blessings (1958), and No Fond Return of Love (1961). But when she presented her next manuscript, it was rejected by no less than twenty publishers. She was dropped, called "out of date." She retreated into silence, presumably not writing, and supporting herself as an assistant editor for the quarterly Africa. For sixteen years she published no fiction. Then, in 1977, both Philip Larkin and Lord David Cecil, responding to a poll conducted among literati by the London Times Literary Supplement, listed her as "the most underrated writer of this century." Publishers took note, and later that same year a new Pym novel, which she had begun when retirement from the quarterly loomed, appeared. It was titled Quartet in Autumn. Overnight she found herself a "fashionable" writer.

Since that time most of her earlier books have been reprinted. Quartet in Autumn was followed by another new novel, The Sweet Dove Died (1978), and now by A Few Green Leaves (1980)—a novel completed barely two months before her death. It is a book to be welcomed and savored, but perhaps not without prior acquisition of an appreciation for her other, more major, novels.

"Major" is a peculiar adjective to apply to Miss Pym's books, which are about storms in a teapot. The teapot is usually an Anglican parish, and the comparison to Jane Austen's work has been made often enough. Miss Pym wrote only short novels on narrow subjects: the comforts of religion, the poignancy of living alone, the perpetual quest for usefulness, the limitations of marriageability and marriage.

Yet for all their limitations, her novels are dense with psychological insight and larded with wit. Within the strict conventions of the British social novel she was also highly original. She is one of the few novelists to write of the continuing relationships between middle-aged protagonists and their elderly parents. And, unlike the self-pitying heroines of the novels of Jean Rhys (whose great "comeback" her own career resembles), Pym's spinsters and widows do not pine over their single state. They live alone because they choose to. Either they become "excellent women" like Mildred Lathbury, of the novel bearing that title—loving their neighbors with Christian charity; or they come to love only themselves, like Leonora Eyre of The Sweet Dove Died, who concludes,

when one came to think of it, the only flowers that were really perfect were those, like the peonies that went so well with one's charming room, that possessed the added grace of having been presented to oneself …

Mildred and Leonora and Wilmet Forsyth, of A Glass of Blessings, are fully-drawn characters whose desires and feelings are highly palpable. In Quartet in Autumn, however, Miss Pym began to widen her focus—exploring within approximately the same number of pages the lives of Edwin, Norman, Letty and Marcia, told from four points of view. The result necessarily was less intense. Now, in A Few Green Leaves, Miss Pym opens focus even wider. Her intent here is to capture a portrait of an entire English village and the enduring lives and customs there. The result is at once her narrowest and broadest work.

A Few Green Leaves is ambitious. Miss Pym is not concerned merely with contemporary time. The novel is buttressed by flying references to, and a subplot concerning, Druid ruins and an 18th century country manor. Particular care is taken to contrast life today with what existed on the manor:

"… all that patronage and paternalism or whatever you like to call it has been swept away, and good thing, too."

"Perhaps the people have been swept away too," said her mother.

"Yes—I certainly miss the manor and all it stood for—we haven't got any kind of centre to the village now," said Miss Lee.

"I suppose the clergy and the doctors have taken the place of the gentry," Emma said.

This is highly self-conscious writing. Yet the central heroine, Emma Howick, is an anthropologist, and her sociological concerns become Miss Pym's. Emma has the makings of a typical repressed Pym heroine, her very ordinariness made interesting by her awareness of it. Yet Miss Pym darts from Emma to the rector Tom Dagnall to Dr. Martin Shurbsole to Miss Olive Lee to Graham Pettifer to Dr. Gellibrand to Miss Lickerish to Mrs. Dyer to Adam Prince to Miss Vereker to Isobel Mound to Terry Skate to—well, you get the idea. There are too many tiny pieces shifting into place in this kaleidoscope. Miss Pym does not allow herself to fully realize any of her villagers in the leisurely manner of her earlier novels.

And yet, there is something ingratiating and admirable about this final attempt at the English novel. Miss Pym did not repeat herself. In pitting time present against time past, in parading history before us in the living flesh, the book approaches the daring and conceit of Virginia Woolf's final novel, Between the Acts, also set in an English village. There Woolf tried to depict England as it was then, but also to indicate that all Englishmen were members one of another, each a part of the whole, acting different parts but being of the same body. In this respect Barbara Pym's final vision compares with Virginia Woolf's; a striking vision, but an anomaly in the context of the body of her own narrow, splendid work.

Principal Works

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Some Tame Gazelle (novel) 1950Excellent Women (novel) 1952Jane and Prudence (novel) 1953Less Than Angels (novel) 1955A Glass of Blessings (novel) 1958No Fond Return of Love (novel) 1961Quartet in Autumn (novel) 1977The Sweet Dove Died (novel) 1978A Few Green Leaves (novel) 1980An Unsuitable Attachment (novel) 1982A Very Private Eye: An Autobiography in Diaries and Letters (autobiography) 1984Crampton Hodnet (novel) 1985An Academic Question (novel) 1986Civil to Strangers and Other Writings (novel and short stories) 1987

Isa Kapp (essay date Spring 1983)

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SOURCE: "Out of the Swim with Barbara Pym," in The American Scholar, Vol. 52, No. 2, Spring, 1983, pp. 237-42.

[In the following essay, Kapp provides an overview of the major themes and characters in Pym's novels, noting the "sheer spinal firmness and imperturbable detachment that puts her into the rank of first-rate novelists."]

In the canny, delectable novels of the British writer Barbara Pym, we can count on finding sanctuary from the enormous liberties and vast territory that have been gained by modern fiction. Miss Pym's unworldly cast—absentminded vicars beaming kindly over their spectacles, stilted anthropologists back from Africa with charts and kinship diagrams, accommodating clergymen's daughters snug in their modest legacies of Hepplewhite chairs and Victorian ornaments—preordains an absence of garish crime, sexual revelation, or hearts of darkness.

The setting, comfortably confining, is usually the parish church. "I sometimes thought how strange it was that I should have managed to make a life for myself in London so very much like the life I had lived in a country rectory when my parents were alive. But then so many parts of London have a peculiarly village or parochial atmosphere that perhaps it is only a question of choosing one's parish and fitting in to it," muses Mildred Lathbury, the narrator of Miss Pym's second and most benign novel, Excellent Women, preparing us for a tale of personal rather than cosmic crisis. In Mildred's style, serene and accepting, an elusive Pym seasoning—a compound of marinating self-deprecation and salty accuracy—is usually present to counteract her mild manners. Nevertheless, her genteel hesitations, her persistent decorum make it obvious that the novelist sees no excuse for turning the chaos within us into anarchy without. Unlike the star fiction writers of the last few decades, Barbara Pym is not much attracted to chaos, whether linguistic or emotional, and nurtures instead an implausible fascination for everything that is orderly and habitual. The lives of the Anglo-Catholic parishioners who are the main characters in several of her novels are punctuated by High Mass and Evensong and a generous calendar of holy days. In Quartet in Autumn, the remarkable, humorously somber novel about old age, published in 1977, three years before Miss Pym herself died, Edwin, wanting to make some provision of sociability for a retiring colleague, finds her a room in the vicinity of his church. "Now he could see the whole pattern emerging, with Letty's life governed by the soothing pattern of the church's year. All Saints' Day, then All Souls'. Then would come Advent…. After Christmas came Boxing Day, the Feast of St. Stephen…."

All this regularity is surprisingly infectious, even to readers who know very little about church dogma or custom. To the extent that we are unqualified appreciators of Anglo-Catholic observances, we are much in the position of the appealing vicar's wife in Jane and Prudence. Jane, who in her youth wrote a book on seventeenth-century poets, has borrowed her romantic notions of a country parish from Trollope's novels. Comically wardrobed in baggy tweeds and layers of cardigans, gorgeously inept in the vicarage graces—she cannot pour tea or open a sherry bottle successfully—Jane nevertheless falls enthusiastically for the poetry and busyness of clerical life. "I love Evensong," she confides to her friend Prudence, who works in a London office and is supercilious toward village church functions. "There's something sad and essentially English about it, especially in the country, and so many of the old people are there. I always like that poem with the lines about gloved the hands that hold the hymn-book that this morning milked the cow."

An early novel, written in 1953, Jane and Prudence is full of natural hilarity, toned up with that singularly British resistance to dolors and depressions. Jane drops lines from Donne and Marvell inappropriately into prosaic discussions. She receives a call from the sententious Mr. Mortlake and, discovering that he has come to tune the piano rather than reprimand her for an unseemly outburst at the Parochial Church Council, she pirouettes about in relief, wearing his bowler hat and singing an operatic ditty. She makes extravagant conversation with a dull bank clerk: "'I always think of the medieval banking houses in Florence; great times those must have been,' went on Jane rather wildly." Finally, there is an absurd scene of Jane lunching with her benevolent but distracted husband at "The Spinning Wheel," where the menu is a disconcerting choice between "toad in the hole" and curried beef. The proprietor relents sufficiently to bring them eggs and bacon, which they consume in grateful embarrassment, only to find that the bank clerk, one of the regulars, is being served a roast chicken with all the trimmings.

Jane is not a typical Pym heroine, having been saved by marriage from too much tidiness and self-absorption, and by poetry from parochialism. But she does embody, along with the others, the basic and altogether unfashionable (even in the 1950s) Pym philosophy that women are intended to serve and solace men. Her novels contain an endless repository of proprietary housekeepers, doting sisters, dutiful office employees, and affable parishioners who are on hand to brew tea, organize jumble sales, arrange flower displays, sort a deceased wife's clothing for a bereaved widower, and generally soften the edges of reality for helpless males.

"How convenient women were," thinks Rupert Stonebird, the prim anthropologist of An Unsuitable Attachment, "the way they were always 'just going' to make coffee or tea or perhaps had just roasted a joint in the oven or made a cheese souffle." Emma, the plain-faced anthropologist who has settled down to study the inhabitants of a village not far from London in A Few Green Leaves, meekly carries casseroles to a cottage in the woods rented by a fretful ex-lover. And it is only to be expected that Mildred in Excellent Women will worry about her new neighbor, a charming naval officer, when he comes home from duty in Italy to find his wife unsolicitous and his cupboard bare. Working part-time in an organization that helps impoverished gentle-women, hurrying into St. Mary's Church ("prickly, Victorian-Gothic, hideous … but dear to me"), Mildred is the epitome of those esteemed and respected excellent women who "are not for marrying," but for charitable causes and parish occasions, the backbone of clerical life. That is to say, she fits theoretically into the category, but Miss Pym, never literal, brightens her lot with more piquant assignments. Mildred is recruited as a go-between in the marital misunderstandings of the colorful couple in the flat below; she consoles the ingenuous vicar when a scheming widow with small pointed teeth and apricot skin breaks off her engagement with him; she is ready with Camembert cheese and a dish of greengage plums when the naval officer's impatient wife deserts him; and eventually she is selected by Miss Pym's most prepossessing anthropologist, Everard Bone, severe and long-nosed but not altogether objectionable, to help him with his proofreading and his index.

Women like Mildred, diffident, taking almost nothing for granted, ministering to ungrateful men without resentment, are the nucleus of a veritable counter-revolution of falling expectations—and one almost unimaginable in America. In an age that goads its women into competition and aggressiveness, they are dignified anachronisms, somehow thriving on the tea, care, and advice they dispense with no hope of return. If this sounds much too virtuous and martyr-like to be fun, the truth is that the women in Barbara Pym's novels are, on the contrary, very resourceful at eking out their pleasures. They know, unlike most liberated women, how to wrest a lot out of a little, are masters (or mistresses) at making do.

But the real upshot of the matter is that Barbara Pym sees woman's place from a very strange perspective: to her, this is really a woman's world, and men are the weaker sex. Jane, speculating on why her attractive friend Prudence has fallen in love with a colorless young man, thinks, "But of course … that was why women were so wonderful; it was their love and imagination that transformed these unremarkable beings…. Perhaps love affairs with handsome men tended to be less stable because so much less sympathy and imagination were needed on the women's part?" The quizzical message of many Pym novels is that women, like cats (both suavely portrayed in An Unsuitable Attachment), are self-contained and can manage competently and even satisfactorily by themselves. Inevitably an episode turns up in which a woman (Ianthe in An Unsuitable Attachment, Leonora in The Sweet Dove Died) returns to her solitary flat and likes it, or savors the room in which she is an unescorted visitor. "I was glad to be alone in my room," reports Wilmet in A Glass of Blessings, "with the view over the garden, the well-polished mahogany furniture, pink sheets and towels, and a tablet of rose-geranium soap in the washbasin. Rowena always remembered that it was my favorite. The room seemed so very comfortable, somehow even more than my room at home—perhaps because I could be alone in it."

Of course, some of these claims about the natural superiority of women are presented tongue in cheek—but not all of them, because Barbara Pym is, without being in any sense a conventional feminist, a great morale booster for women. She vouchsafes them their condescensions as well as their subserviences and permits them to be desirable though dowdy—indeed it sometimes looks as if dowdiness were more the mark of spirituality or an agreeable nature than an unlucky choice in dress. Ugly ducklings prosper and the conceited get their comeuppance, but in either case, Barbara Pym's women survive and remain admirably in character.

Whatever lack of importance Miss Pym attributes intellectually to women's clothing, it is certainly a subject that is much on her mind. She is an indisputable authority on its hierarchy of taste and temperament and makes the finest distinctions in defining the wardrobes of her female characters. When she assures you that a certain kind of woman is always to be found at social functions in a simple blue or green wool dress, you can believe it. Penelope, the "pre-Raphaelite beatnik" of An Unsuitable Attachment, makes her appearance in tartans or a black sack-like dress and a medallion on a silver chain; the elegant Wilmet in A Glass of Blessings announces complacently, "It's a sort of mole-colored velvet dress … and I shall wear my Victorian garnet necklace and earrings with it"; the incorrigible Jane goes everywhere in her ancient tweed coat; and the self-preening Leonora of The Sweet Dove Died fancies herself in cool amethyst or remote black lace. By their clothes shall ye know them!

It is high time to mention that, although the precision of Miss Pym's observation of speech, manner, and mentality is awesome, the radius of her novels is startlingly narrow. There is more not happening in them than happening. The best-willed matchmaking goes awry, and a good many of the characters of both genders manage to avoid getting married or even falling authentically in love. "Love was rather a terrible thing," decides Mildred Lathbury. "Not perhaps my cup of tea." And it is much the same with Leonora in The Sweet Dove Died and even comely Prudence, who hankers for the experience but never succumbs. In An Unsuitable Attachment Ianthe, fastidious and self-possessed and already in her thirties, befriends a slightly younger man and reaches, in the most shy and tentative way, the condition of the title. On a parish trip to Rome she finds herself acutely in need of comfort and "benison" because "she had admitted to herself that she loved him, had let her love sweep over her like a kind of illness, 'giving in' to the flu, conscious only of the present moment." For Barbara Pym, love is a vagrant impulse, evanescent and untrustworthy, quite unlike the desire for security and routine, for tea, and for a pleasant room. Ianthe is luckier than most of Miss Pym's women, for whom any kind of passion is simply unheard of.

Logically enough, children rarely poke their disrupting heads into the proceedings. In A Glass of Blessings Wilmet's friends Harry and Rowena (a rare parent couple, possibly the only one in Miss Pym's novels) assure her that breakfast will be brought to her in bed. "Ours is a terrible meal on Saturdays because we have the children with us. I shan't inflict that on you." Other oppressions that Miss Pym does not inflict upon her readers include argumentation, violence, intellectuality, politics, or even overly long, intense conversations. And despite the cozy familiarity with every aspect of the lives of the clergy, even a powerful emotional entanglement with either the theology or the spirituality of religion is noticeably absent.

To a considerable extent this deliberate avoidance of "action" is the result of Barbara Pym's unbudgeable honesty. Apart from her wartime service in the women's branch of the Royal Navy in Britain and Naples, she herself led a sedentary life, writing her novels and working from 1958 to 1974 as editorial secretary of the International African Institute and simultaneously as an editor of its anthropological journal, Africa. She never married and preferred—temperamentally, I surmise—to write about people and feelings that she knew. "Let other people get married," a friend of Mildred's tells her. "Let Dora get married if she likes. She hasn't your talent for observation."

Although Miss Pym does write mainly about male and female spinsters, about men and women who are timid, reserved, and unenterprising, who huddle into the church for safety and companionship, it would be a great mistake to confuse her restrictedness with triviality. She means us to sense that many of the predicaments and habits she describes are to be found everywhere: women without occupation, happenstance marriage, foolishly envisioned romance, and—always a major Pym theme—the need to adapt to one's limitations. These subjects are as alive among Scandinavian teak and glassy condominiums as they were among Victorian bric-a-brac.

Calm as the narrator's voice may be, a Pym novel is never lacking in suspense. Much more than a comedy of manners, it is a drama of disposition, willpower, and ethics, a closer relation of E. M. Forster and Henry James than of those busier and giddier novelists with whom this writer is usually linked: Angela Thirkell, Anthony Powell, and Iris Murdoch. Miss Pym does not sermonize us in quite the self-satisfied way that Jane Austen did. She does have a rather exacting glossary of vices and virtues, but it must be admitted that the vices are mild ones like vanity, irritability, indifference, and condescension, and her reproaches are equally mild. Partly this is just plain subtlety, a fictional trait going rapidly into disrepute. In A Glass of Blessings, we are nearly at the end of the book before the full realization comes over us that Wilmet is more than a little vain as well as unbelievably blind. This heroine-narrator pampers herself with an infatuation for a moody fellow who likes her well enough but is more patently enamored of the effeminate youth he lives with. She persuades herself that her husband is stodgy and dull, when he is in fact balanced, humorous, and affectionate. Barbara Pym arranges for us to see Wilmet's egocentricity and not like her less, but more, because we are privy to her weakness; and she arranges for her heroine to acknowledge it without becoming dismal. The book ends with husband and wife on the best of terms, moving into a new flat because Rodney's sprightly mother, pushing seventy, has married an archaeologist friend and put them out of the house. Events may have been dampening, but their good humor persists. They are conscious, as is the author, that

     When God at first made man,      Having a glasse of blessings standing by;      Let us (said he) poure on him all we can:      Let the world's riches, which dispersed lie,      Contract into a span.                         (George Herbert, "The Pulley")

One of the great joys of reading Barbara Pym is that she laces her prosaic situations irrepressibly with stanzas of wonderful poetry. Like the novels, the poems confirm her conviction that the lives we live can be frugal, circumscribed, sometimes ego dampening—but not without their pleasures—and that there is more to be salvaged in any predicament than we suspect. One of the very few writers who makes virtue seem genuinely appealing, she is able to persuade us that neatness, thrift, secondhand clothes, and meager meals are no obstacle to happiness, and that doing what we ought is itself a pleasure of high quality. As there is not very much doing at any particular moment, she and her characters have the leisure to pause and ask themselves whether they are, in fact, doing the right thing.

The incredibly angelic Mary Beamish of A Glass of Blessings is forever wondering if she has taken on enough good works; at the opposite extreme, the four elderly office colleagues from Quartet in Autumn grudgingly speculate whether some small fraternal gesture might not be in order. Of the four, Marcia and Norman are inveterate curmudgeons; the others, Letty and Edwin, have impulses to be congenial but are too passive and uncertain to put them into practice. When the women retire, the men carefully weigh the pros and cons of inviting them to lunch; and when Letty is forced out of her rooming house (taken over by a hymn-singing Nigerian landlord), the misanthropic Marcia feels a resentful obligation (which she squelches) to offer her lodging. Every so often, one or another member of the quartet takes a bus in the direction of one of the women, but never quite reaches his destination. If they do manage some token of sociability, they are inexplicably pleased with themselves.

Quartet in Autumn is the small masterpiece that came out in 1977 after sixteen years of the writer's silence. The five novels she published in the 1950s were well received, but a later one, An Unsuitable Attachment, was turned down in 1963, possibly because it seemed too slight and sheerly aesthetic in a decade girding itself for political anger. Miss Pym was disappointed enough to stop writing until David Cecil and Philip Larkin named her, in the Times Literary Supplement, the most underrated writer of the century. Published in her sixty-fourth year, Quartet in Autumn is about aging, isolation, and recalcitrance, all within the author's own experience; and we have to marvel at the skill with which she rescues them from grimness. It's true that she sometimes frightens us to the core by stepping resolutely onto ground—human intractability, the dominion of age—where even clerics fear to tread. But our apprehensions are countered by the expected Pym levity in the midst of gloom: Marcia waxing furious because one of the empty milk bottles she has collected does not match the others; Marcia appearing at a lunch reunion in a light summer coat, furlined sheepskin boots, and jaunty straw hat; the bouncy obtuse social worker trying to lure an adamant Marcia into activities for the "lonely ones"; and Pym's eerily exact rendition of the pat phrases her characters rely on—Norman's chirpy "That's the ticket," amiable Letty's "Oh, how lovely," and Marcia's "I was never a big eater." But what really thaws the autumnal chill is the writer's insistence on the grain of salvageability in the obdurate quartet, the calm assessment, conveyed by all her novels and voiced by Letty, that "It's up to oneself, to adapt to circumstances."

Miss Pym's next book, The Sweet Dove Died, concocts a more glamorous plot based, a shade more ruthlessly, on the identical philosophy. It is about a handsome, aging woman, Leonora, who loves only perfect objects and a perfect ambiance. She takes up with a susceptible young man who suits her requirements, and she assumes she will be granted the rights of possession; but he jilts her for an aggressive homosexual. There are two surprises for the reader here. The first, which should not in fact be surprising, is the dignity with which Leonora, accustomed only to gallantry from men, accepts her defeat. (We can't help thinking of the pathos Tennessee Williams laid on with a trowel in a similar situation in The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone.) The second is that in this late work, and in connection with so cool a heroine, Barbara Pym makes the first attempt in her fiction to bring her characters to the point of physical sex.

Though lightened by a mocking wit, The Sweet Dove Died hasn't the relaxed and artful waggery that slithers through the other novels. In those books where she deals with the mundane areas of life—seedy cafés, civil-service offices, parish functions—Miss Pym is irresistibly droll.

"Five-past eleven," said Miss Trapnell. "I hope they've put the kettle on."

"I thought I heard a sound," said Miss Clothier, opening her tin of biscuits.

"What kind of a sound?" asked Prudence idly.

"The sound of running water."

"Did you say rushing water?" asked Miss Trapnell seriously.

"No, no; running water," said Miss Clothier impatiently. "As if somebody was filling a kettle."

Miss Pym notices the wary eye that those who lunch in cafeterias cast upon their table mates, the disdain with which they watch someone "tucking into" a steamed pudding they have just rejected as fattening. She is not shocked when a vicar's wife confides that she has greater rapport with her cat than with her husband. She is ironic about marriage and friendship, and amused by the sinful curiosity of High Church Anglicans about "Romish" practices. And if you read enough of her books, you will run into a Peter De Vriesian streak of nomenclatural whimsy. Thus the heroine whose matchmaking is as inept as that of Austen's Emma, is named Jane; or, having told us in Excellent Women that her heroine is plain, but not at all like Jane Eyre, Pym proceeds to endow her most elegant heroine, Leonora, with the last name of Eyre.

There is no doubt that Barbara Pym is an extraordinarily forebearing and compassionate writer, but it is the layer beneath those warm qualities, a layer of sheer spinal firmness and imperturbable detachment that puts her into the rank of first-rate novelists. That detachment is what we meet in every successful comic with a straight face, and along with it goes a many-layered intelligence: the ability to see several things at the same time, not only the poignancy, the pity of it all (that most of us can see), but the risible oddness of our behavior and the miraculous resilience of our nature.

Further Reading

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Brothers, Barbara. "Love, Marriage, and Manners in the Novels of Barbara Pym." In Reading and Writing Women's Lives: A Study of the Novel of Manners, edited by Bege K. Bowers and Barbara Brothers, pp. 155-70. Ann Arbor, MI: UMI Research Press, 1990.

Examines the ironic and comic depiction of Victorian manners and romantic ideals in Pym's novels.

Burkhart, Charles. "Barbara Pym and the Africans." Twentieth Century Literature 29, No. 1, (Spring 1983): 45-53.

Discusses the significance of anthropology and references to Africa in Pym's novels.

Dobie, Ann B. "The World of Barbara Pym: Novelist as Anthropologist." Arizona Quarterly 44, No. 1 (Spring 1988): 5-18.

Examines the role of anthropologists and anthropological methodology in Pym's fiction.

Graham, Robert J. "Cumbered with Much Serving: Barbara Pym's 'Excellent Women.'" Mosaic 17, No. 2 (Spring 1984): 141-60.

Explores the significance of marriage, romantic relationships, spinsterhood, and domestic roles in Pym's novels.

Keener, Frederick M. "Barbara Pym Herself and Jane Austen." Twentieth Century Literature 31, No. 1 (Spring 1985): 98-110.

Examines the influence of Jane Austen in Pym's fiction and the many significant differences between their respective works.

Rossen, Janice, editor. Independent Women: The Function of Gender in the Novels of Barbara Pym. St. Martin's Press: New York, 1988, 172 p.

Discusses the marginalized depiction and role of the unmarried man in Pym's novels.

Michiko Kakutani (review date 5 August 1983)

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SOURCE: A review of Some Tame Gazelle, in The New York Times, August 5, 1983, p. 19.

[In the following review, Kakutani offers praise for Some Tame Gazelle.]

About a third of the way through this lovely, muted novel, Belinda turns to her sister and declares, "Today has been rather trying, hasn't it really—too much happening." What has happened, it turns out, is that the archdeacon's wife has left on holiday that morning; and the archdeacon himself has come to pay the Bede sisters, Harriet and Belinda, a tea-time visit. So circumscribed are the lives of the English spinsters and clergymen who populate Barbara Pym's novels that such events pass as high drama and yet Miss Pym's depiction of these timid lives is so skillful that the reader not only cares enormously about what happens but also experiences, along with the characters, the significance of these everyday events.

Originally published in 1950, Some Tame Gazelle was Miss Pym's first novel, though it does not read like an apprentice work. The author's voice is already steady and quietly assured, deft in its manipulation of irony and social detail. And the themes that would animate the author's later work—the perils of love and the tendency of "excellent women" to form "unsuitable attachments"—are also delineated in full. Indeed, Miss Pym's novels, which are being reissued by Dutton, seem, in retrospect, the work of one of those lucky writers who grasped their subject and their style from the very start. Though modest in scale and ambition, the novels are all perfectly tuned in timbre and pitch, and like a fine harpsichord, afford the reader delicate pleasures that resonate insidiously in the mind.

Taking its title from a poem by Thomas Haynes Bayly—

Some tame gazelle, or some gentle dove:Something to love, oh, something to love!

—this particular novel portrays the romantic aspirations of its two heroines with gentle good humor. The Bede sisters are both spinsters in their 50's or so, and both have found objects for their wayward affections: Harriet dotes on young curates—she makes them boiled chicken and apple jelly—while her elder sister, Belinda, pines after Henry, the archdeacon of their parish.

Belinda has loved Henry for 30 years, and even though he is married now she continues to hang on his every word. She wears a blue dress to church because she remembers his telling her once that he liked her in pale colors; and while she dreams of knitting him a sweater she decides that such an act is far "too fraught with dangers to be attempted." In the end, she says she realizes that a chaste evening spent with him once every 30 years or so is really all she "needed to be happy."

How restrained the emotions experienced by Belinda and Harriet seem when compared with the noisy passions and hectic demands of self-fulfillment that afflict so many characters in contemporary fiction! As portrayed by Miss Pym, however, those feelings are every bit as deeply and as keenly felt, for the fictional world in which her characters dwell is rendered, for the reader, completely palpable and real. It is a tidy, class conscious world in which Christian faith is accepted as a given, a world in which people neither expect too much out of life nor risk overstepping the brittle boundaries of propriety and good taste. It is also a world in which women are still divided into two groups—those who are married and those who aren't.

As in Miss Pym's other novels, the men in Some Tame Gazelle are quite unworthy of all the attention lavished on them: the young curate whom Harriet adores from afar is a dim, somewhat shallow young man; and Belinda's archdeacon is a pompous windbag, fond of striking melancholy poses and quoting obscure lines of verse. The other suitors in the book—a somewhat vulgar librarian named Mr. Mold and a condescending bishop, who is visiting from abroad—are equally unappealing.

Still, the fact that both Harriet and Belinda turn down assorted marriage proposals, that they tentatively affirm the virtues of spinsterhood—"who would change a comfortable life of spinsterhood in a country parish, which always had its pale curate to be cherished, for the unknown trials of matrimony?"—hardly indicates any feminist ideology on Miss Pym's part. She is, really, concerned with rather more old-fashioned matters. In her novels, romance and affairs of the heart are simply another means of illuminating the weaknesses and strengths of her characters—they are ways of portraying the difficulty people have in connecting, in forming lasting attachments of any sort.

Eleanor B. Wymard (essay date 13 January 1984)

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SOURCE: "Characters in Search of Order and Ceremony: Secular Faith of Barbara Pym," in Commonweal, January 13, 1984, pp. 19-21.

[In the following essay, Wymard considers commonplace gatherings and planned activities in Pym's novels as attempts to impose order on chaos and to alleviate loneliness of modern life.]

Most critics of Barbara Pym call attention to the fact that after having written six successful novels between 1950 and 1961, her seventh, An Unsuitable Attachment, was rejected by publishers in 1963. Pym was rescued from oblivion only when Philip Larkin and David Cecil named her, in a 1975 anniversary issue of the Times Literary Supplement, as the most underrated English novelist of the twentieth century. Before her death in 1980, Pym resumed her career with Quartet in Autumn (1977), The Sweet Dove Died (1978), and A Few Green Leaves (1980). But her ten novels, now available in England and the United States, are embraced, unfortunately, as well-crafted entertainments when, indeed, they share affinities with the existentialist mood of modern fiction.

At first, the world of Barbara Pym is strangely insular. The diminutive scale of English village life with the humdrum experiences of spinsters, rectors, and vicars' wives appears to camouflage any serious definition of the human condition. Pym's essential questions are further disguised by the tone of high comedy, for her characters are often ambivalent about learning the true meaning of their lives. In an early novel, Jane and Prudence (1953), Jane Cleveland, a vicar's wife, ruminates, for example, that "one's life followed a kind of pattern, with the same things cropping up again and again, but it seemed to [her], floundering among the books, that the question was not one that could be lightly dismissed now. 'No, thank you, I was just looking around,' was what one usually said. Just looking round the Anglican Church, from one extreme to the other, perhaps climbing higher and higher, peeping over the top to have a look at Rome on the other side, and then quickly drawing back."

Similar to Jane, Pym's characters consistently surprise themselves with questions from which they tentatively withdraw, as if to probe them would almost mean too much. Pym notes that Alaric Lydgate, one of the many anthropologists throughout her novels, "often avoided looking into peoples' eyes when he spoke to them, fearful of what he might see there, for life was very terrible whatever sort of front one might put on it."

But ultimately, the characters in the situational microcosm of Pym's country village neither escape nor endure their experience. Rather, they become more human by trying to live with it, affirming their lot in private ritualized gestures or formal ceremonies. Pym's essential subject is thus the incommunicable uniqueness of each ordinary person: "After all, life was like that … for most of us [life is] the small unpleasantness rather than the great tragedies, the little useless languages rather than the great renunciations and dramatic love affairs of history or fiction." From this perspective, stated by Catherine Oliphant in Less Than Angels (1955), Pym thus accentuates the commonplace, even the banal. While her characters do not confront irrevocable decisions, they do shape their lives through very personal choices. Moreover, they celebrate themselves in ceremonies which have private, sometimes communal, significance.

The act of writing is itself a ceremonial act for Pym. In No Fond Return of Love (1961), she acknowledged both the novelist and the sociologist for perceiving those moments which are "very near to the heart of reality." But Emma Howick, the social anthropologist in Pym's last novel, A Few Green Leaves, gradually forsakes accumulating data on the "Social Patterns of the West Oxfordshire Community" to write a novel using the same setting. According to Pym, the novelist who involves the emotions of readers in the rhythm of everyday living invites their participation in the very continuity of being. Since "we all came to the same thing in the end—dust and/or ashes, however you liked to think of it," it is the writer—neither the anthropologist nor the historian—who can preserve "a few green leaves" for future generations.

Tom Dagnall, the village vicar in A Few Green Leaves, is particularly aware of historic time. His goal is to discover the ruins of a deserted medieval village in the woods of Oxfordshire. On the first Sunday after Easter, he also rallies the villagers to participate in a walk in the park and the woods surrounding the ancient manor and mausoleum on the fringe of town, a variation on an annual rite dating from the seventeenth century. Preoccupied with local history, he keeps a record of his own daily life: "What was he to write about the events of the morning? 'My sister Daphne made a gooseling tart …?' Could that possibly be of interest to readers of the next century?" Life, for Pym, is a social enterprise. Natural ceremonies must be preserved if one is to live fully in the present. Funerals, marriages, christenings "gave a kind of continuity to village life, like the seasons—the cutting and harvesting of the crops, then the new sowing and the springing up again." Such affirmation risks sentimentality, for it may seem that Pym is yearning for more simple times. Her sense of ritual, the most important organizing principle of her fiction, reveals, in fact, the evolving complexity of her work and brings us closer to its significance.

The early novels, Some Tame Gazelle (1950), Excellent Women (1952), and Jane and Prudence (1953), are grounded in unquestioned values. Jane Cleveland, now forty-one and a former English tutor at Oxford, had once "taken great pleasure in imagining herself as a clergyman's wife … but she has been quickly disillusioned." Nonetheless, she grows in personal identity to the point of being able to confide in her husband: "We can only go blundering along in that state of life unto which it shall please God to call us … I was going to be such a splendid clergyman's wife when I married you, but somehow it hasn't turned out like The Daisy Chain or The Lost Chronicles of Barset." But by continuing to carry out the ritual duties expected of her role, she restores herself: "'I wanted some little books suitable for confirmation candidates,' said Jane in a surprisingly firm and thoughtful tone. 'Not too High, you know' … By now it was almost teatime, [but] she would go without [it] as a kind of penance for all the times she had failed as a vicar's wife."

In Excellent Women, Mildred Lathbury, the "just over thirty" unmarried daughter of a country clergyman, is drawn to worship at St. Mary's Church, "on the wrong side of Victoria Station," because it is relatively "High." This mild rebellion against the wishes of her dead parents involves Mildred in the lives of Father Julian Malory, his sister Winifred, and their boarder, Mrs. Allegra Gray, who has romantic designs on the unmarried rector. Mildred has more opportunities than most of the "excellent women" of the parish to involve herself with men and the possibility of marriage. But she exercises a firm sense of choice, clarified for her through simple domestic ritual: "As I moved about the kitchen getting china and cutlery, I thought, not for the first time, how pleasant it was to be living alone … I might be going to have a 'full life' after all."

Although Pym's early characters are not moved to profound meditation, they experience the joy of making quiet decisions about their own lives in the presence of ordinary human reality. A young anthropology student, Deidre Swan, in Less Than Angels (1956) draws insight for us: "Yes, I suppose it's comforting to see people going about their humdrum business … At home her mother would be laying the breakfast and later her aunt would creep down to see if she had done it correctly. And they would probably go on doing this all of their lives." Pym keeps faith with life itself, even its trivialities.

One never hears the actual sound of terror in Pym's early novels. Her first heroine, Belinda Bede in Some Tame Gazelle only suggests unspoken depths by ruminating, "If only one could clear out one's mind and heart as ruthlessly as one did one's wardrobe." But two later heroines, Letty Crowe in Quartet in Autumn and Leonora Eyre in The Sweet Dove Died do encounter "nothingness" and the "horror of being." The quartet in autumn are lonely government clerks—Letty, Marcia, Norman and Edwin—who have worked together many years in an airless London office, but have shared very little of themselves. When facing retirement, Letty awakens from a dream about her youth: "All gone, that time, those people … [she] lay for some time meditating on the strangeness of life slipping away like this." At the office retirement party for herself and Marcia Ivory, the host does not even know what their jobs were, only that he has no reason to replace them. At this point, Letty experiences utter helplessness: "It seemed to Letty that what cannot now be justified has perhaps never existed, and it gave her the feeling that she and Marcia had been swept away as if they had never been. With this sensation of nothingness she entered the library."

The quartet hesitantly tries to redefine itself when Norman and Edwin plan a reunion luncheon. Shortly after, when Marcia, the most eccentric of the group, dies, the three survivors follow her to the crematorium and afterward share their second meal. Returning that night to her eighty-one-year-old landlady, Letty is renewed with another cup of tea: "There was something to be said for tea and a comfortable chat about crematoria." At the end of the novel, she looks forward to a day in the country with Edwin, Norman, and Marjorie, her only sustaining friend. Planning such a day "made one realize that life still held infinite possibilities for change." To rescue herself from emotional deprivation, Letty must find significant forms and ceremonies. Pym insists that rituals preserve one from experiencing chaos, but such actions must spring from the ability of the character to assent to the realities of her own existence. Letty's picnic is thus an affirmation of life, a free act of faith.

One of Pym's most complex heroines, Leonora Eyre (A Sweet Dove Died) is unappealingly selfish and snobbish. A collector of Victoriana, she admits to insulating herself against disagreeable realities: "Life is only tolerable if one takes a romantic view of it … And yet it's wicked, really, when there's all this misery and that sort of thing, but one feels so helpless—I mean, what can one do?" Approaching fifty, Leonora rejects a wealthy antique dealer, Humphrey Boyce, in favor of his twenty-four-year-old bisexual nephew, James, whom she loses to a malicious homosexual. James feels that Leonora would have been able to deal with his relationship with Ned had she the ability to lose her perfect control and "been just a little angry." But unknown to James, Leonora does experience disintegration. She enters into a cycle of despair, suffering migraines and sleeping fitfully. Her first crisis occurs in a Knightsbridge tearoom where she is conscious of belonging "with the sad jewelry and the old woman and the air of things that had seen better days." Among the "cast off crusts, the ruined cream cakes and the cigarette ends," Leonora feels "debased, diminished, crushed and trodden into the ground, indeed brought to a certain point of dilapidation. I am utterly alone, she thought."

Later, she humiliates herself further by sobbing uncontrollably in front of Meg, a younger friend who has been tormented in her love for a homosexual man. Until now, Leonora has offered her little comfort. During these two crises, Leonora creates new meaning for herself, however, by relinquishing her false pride and dignity; shallow refinements, at the beginning of the novel, now deepen into a kind of courage. But, even though Leonora grows in sympathy and sensitivity, Pym still does not claim too much for her. After all, the mode of The Sweet Dove Died is essentially ironic. Yet, for Pym, style is a way of coping with modern pressures, even if it cannot resolve them.

Other characters, too, relieve their isolation by discovering their own private ceremonies, for contemporary life, according to Pym's later fiction, is very unfestive. Even in a world of structured social effort, the individual is more isolated than ever. For example, the social worker assigned to Marcia Ivory (Quartet in Autumn) has little insight into the old woman's profound loneliness, let alone her peculiar habit of collecting, washing, and stacking discarded milk bottles. The gerontologist's mother-in-law in A Few Green Leaves finds more comfort participating in parish coffees than by adhering to diet charts and exercise schedules. In comparison to the present, the past is rich with natural rituals which provide assurance and connection.

If Pym's characters are in search of order and ceremony, it is ironic, indeed, that the Anglican Church, so pervasive in her novels, is never the source of inspiration for renewing one's faith. Even though Catherine Oliphant in Less Than Angels (1955) and Rupert Stonebird in An Unsuitable Attachment (1963) want to return to church, it offers little for them except the comfort of nostalgia. After her retirement, Letty Crowe tries "to discover what church-going held for people, apart from habit and convention, wondering if it would hold anything for her and if so what form this would take." Attending Stations of the Cross, she hears the litany, "'From pain to pain, from woe to woe' … but Letty's thoughts had been on herself and how she should arrange the rest of her life." The remaining trio in Quartet in Autumn finds redemption in the hope of Letty's picnic, not the celebration of liturgical ritual. Even within the church, Pym's characters are left to discover their own rites of affirmation.

In Pym's view of the modern world, only the resiliency of human nature generates the rebirth of a dead soul. But celebration will, in fact, occur, if only with a cup of tea and a "comfortable chat about crematoria." Acknowledging that "life bruises one," Wilmet Forsyth, for example, elevates her own life "in a glass of blessings," (1958) and looks forward to dinner with "Sybil and Arnold, a happy and suitable ending to a good day."

Such ordinary characters are at home in the literary imagination of Barbara Pym. To minimize this tone of her high comedy would be to deny the core of Pym's vision. But one must also admit that Pym's fiction shares in the existential temper of the modern novel. Her canon evolves toward the certainty that an individual can rescue herself from chaos, can affirm herself in a leap of faith which springs from a willingness to confront the terms of her own life. That life which Catherine Oliphant describes as "comic and sad and indefinite—dull, sometimes, but seldom really tragic or deliriously happy, except when one's very young."

Robert Emmet Long (review date 24 November 1984)

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SOURCE: A review of A Very Private Eye: An Autobiography in Diaries and Letters, in America, November 24, 1984, p. 348.

[In the following review, Long praises the posthumous publication of A Very Private Eye. According to Long, the volume of autobiographic writings "testifies to Pym's modest yet potent spell."]

The quietest of English novelists, Barbara Pym makes an unlikely Cinderella, yet her literary success late in life does have, oddly, a Cinderella quality. Her career as a writer began slowly and hesitantly in the 1930's, was postponed by World War II and finally launched in 1950 with the publication of her first novel Some Tame Gazelle. Thereafter she published five other novels, including the wholly delightful Excellent Women, a tongue-in-cheek chronicle of an Anglican spinster in postwar London, which earned her a modest following and critical esteem. Yet in 1963 her seventh book, An Unsuitable Attachment, was rejected by her publisher Jonathan Cape, and then by a series of other publishers, who found her fiction too "mild" for the reading tastes of the manic 1960's. Pym continued to write but remained unpublished for the next 16 years, until she awoke one morning, like Lord Byron, to find herself famous. In an issue of the Times Literary Supplement in 1977, both Philip Larkin and Lord David Cecil cited her as one of the most underestimated writers of the century; and publishers who had previously shunned her suddenly sought her out. Jonathan Cape reprinted her earlier novels, and Macmillan brought out three new ones; a Pym revival swept both England and America. By the time of her death in 1980, Miss Pym came to seem like a transformed Cinderella, outshining her more forward cousins.

Now the story of Barbara Pym's life is told in A Very Private Eye, made up of her notebooks, diaries and letters and ably edited by her surviving sister, Hilary Pym, and her close friend and literary executor, Hazel Holt. A Very Private Eye, which reads like a novel of her own life, is one of Pym's best books, and one that everyone interested in Pym will certainly want to read. In the autobiography Pym's life and work reflect back on each other, shadows are rubbed away, sources in life for a number of her characters are disclosed, and Pym herself steps forward in a full-length portrait having the complicated tonal qualities of her fictional heroines. Although unassuming in many ways, Pym seemed to know at an early point that she was destined to be a writer, even a writer of note, and she was not without dogged ambition. The notebooks she kept from her student days at Oxford until the end of her life, which record her observations and reflections, as well as her personal experiences, seem intended to be read, at some later time, by readers of her books-to-be. They reveal her as a shy but accomplished observer, and not least of herself. Her vulnerabilities are brought out, especially her habit of falling in love with men whose fondness of her stopped short of marriage.

Prophetically, in an early draft of Some Tame Gazelle, written when she was not long out of Oxford, she envisions herself in middle life, unmarried and living with her sister—an eerily accurate prediction of her later years. Less clear, though, is what it was about her exactly that made her so unsuccessful matrimonially. It may be that she chose the wrong men to fall in love with—a small procession beginning with Henry Harvey, an Oxford undergraduate whom she considered much above her intellectually, and leading in middle age to Richard Roberts, a strikingly handsome younger man who appears to have regarded her, to her misery, as a confidante rather than as a lover. At one point she refers to herself as Henry Harvey's "doormat," and generally her infatuations, always ending in disappointment, suggest an element of masochism in her makeup. In her fiction, sexuality is a "problem," is kept at a distance, approached obliquely, and it would seem to have been a problem for Pym herself.

Pym found refuge in literature, ordering the world on her own terms. A highly civilized writer, she admired Jane Austen and Virginia Woolf, and in one of the many revealing comments in the book, she notes the restraint that she has attained in her writing. Armored with wit and irony, she accepted the world touchingly, tenderly, in all its commonplaceness and in doing so created an unexaggerated vision of modern-day England that compares with the wry vision of the hard factualness of life of the poet Philip Larkin. Indeed, she came to know Larkin personally in the latter part of her life, and many of her best letters are addressed to him. At one point they joke about a newspaper clipping he has sent to her about a Mr. Larkin who has announced his engagement to a Miss Pym. No romance here, rather a duet in autumn, a low-keyed "understanding" that informs all of Barbara Pym's work. A Very Private Eye makes clear that there were serious disappointments in Pym's life—romantic frustration, setbacks in her career, illnesses that beset her in the 1970's. Yet she never regarded herself as being tragic, she would never have "exaggerated" to such a degree. Terminally ill with cancer in a hospice in Oxfordshire, she accepted her death almost serenely as being, after all, in the nature of things. A Very Private Eye is splendid in evoking Pym's own personal qualities as a writer and as a woman, and invites reading more than once. It testifies to Pym's modest yet potent spell.

Diane Benet (essay date December 1984)

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SOURCE: "The Language of Christianity in Pym's Novels," in Thought: A Review of Culture and Idea, Vol. 59, No. 235, December, 1984, pp. 504-13.

[In the following essay, Benet examines Pym's treatment of the Christian church and religious sentiment in A Few Green Leaves and several earlier novels. As Benet notes, Pym's concern over "devitalized religious words, outmoded devotional forms, and a clergy whose ability to communicate the faith is almost entirely inadequate" are recurring themes in her fiction.]

When a group of women decorates St. Mary's for Whitsunday, Mildred Lathbury, the heroine of Barbara Pym's Excellent Women, remarks, "There was a good deal of chatter, and I was reminded of Trollope's description of Lily Dale and Grace Crawley, who were both accustomed to churches and 'almost as irreverent as though they were two curates.'" Pym herself is accustomed to churches, and writes her comic novels with an affectionate irreverence that is reminiscent of the Barchester novels at their best. Of her ten novels, only The Sweet Dove Died does not center on the Church and the Anglican clergy, or on people closely associated with them.

The novels of the English author, who died in 1980, have been reissued in this country and have received much favorable attention in the press. Pym is an incisive social observer whose frequent allusions to Trollope and Jane Austen invite the comparisons. Her satirical touch seems light, yet its exposure of the ridiculous posturings and laughable concerns that mark social intercourse at every level is merciless. It would be surprising if so keen an observer did not scrutinize the church she treats so frequently, with entertaining and illuminating results. Writing in 1971, when only six of Pym's ten novels had been published, Robert Smith remarked that "no hint of doctrinal or emotional problems is intruded upon the reader. Religion, for Miss Pym's characters, involves no anguish of conscience ('social' or personal), no dark night of the soul, but discussions about what vestments should be worn on Mid-Lent Sunday, what shall be served for luncheon on Fridays in the clergy-house," and like subjects.

Pym does not write, it is true, of doctrinal matters. But just as Trollope, amid the high comedy of Barchester Towers, calls our attention to some of the abuses within the Church (in the person of the Reverend Vesey Stanhope, for example), so Pym, in the context of her comic vision, calls our attention to the contemporary situation of the Church.

The detailed picture of modern-day Christianity that emerges from Pym's books suggests that religion was one of her most important artistic concerns. From Some Tame Gazelle (1950) to A Few Green Leaves (1980), several topics recur and coalesce to define the state of organized religion, as Pym saw it: the pious cliché, religious phrases, hymns, prayer, and the clerical voice (especially in sermons). These, together with the themes of the Church as social organization and of the embarrassment of religious commitment, outline a coherent vision. Pym presents a church hampered by three language-related problems: a stock of pious words that has been devitalized, outmoded devotional forms that often do not appeal to the modern sensibility, and a clergy that has difficulty communicating the ancient faith to its contemporary flock. Christianity in her novels is the vital faith of a relatively small number, a faith that the established Church cannot foster at large so long as its language is inadequate. Pym's manner of weaving, most unobtrusively, serious insights into the texture of comedy might be misleading, but her recurrence to the same themes, topics, and vision of the Church indicates her estimation of their significance. To demonstrate the consistency of perspective that I propose, I shall introduce the topics and themes with reference to the earlier novels before turning to A Few Green Leaves, Pym's last novel and most optimistic depiction of the Church.

"God moves in a mysterious way, His wonders to perform," says a sheep-like bishop when a middle-aged lady rejects his marriage proposal. She is annoyed that he quotes her favorite hymn, fearing, perhaps, that it will henceforth have unpleasant associations for her. "God does move in a mysterious way," insists a vicar whose hope that a housekeeper will materialize in answer to his prayers is temporarily frustrated. The pious cliché, like any other, retains little of its original impact. Any residual majesty that might cling to Cowper's words is undercut by our reflection that among God's wonders we are to number a bishop's marriage and a vicar's household arrangements.

The glib platitude is current in a pleasant little world in which religious words or phrases are felt to be inapplicable, or are thoroughly secularized and meaningless in their original sense. "We are supposed not to take heed of what we shall wear," Belinda Bede chides the Archdeacon with whom she has been in unrequited and irreproachable love for over thirty years. "My dear Belinda," he retorts, "we are not in the Garden of Eden. There is no solution to the problem. We may as well face the facts. Agatha ought not to have let the moth get into that suit." The faithful Belinda is reassured by her sister that her love for the Archdeacon, who is married to the careless Agatha, is quite right since "Clergymen are always saying that we should love one another." A lady in Excellent Women is shocked to think that the commandment to "love thy neighbor" should be taken literally, to include the people surrounding her in a cheap restaurant. The "precious blood" for whose lack "somebody might be dying" in Pym's world is R-Negative and salvation is a transfusion. Thus casually, Pym's characters frequently test pious language against the texture of reality only to misinterpret it or reject it as irrelevant. Altogether in these novels, the words of faith have either lost their vigor and spiritual significance, or they are not taken seriously as referring to daily life.

Just as the words with religious denotations and connotations that Pym's characters speak are often empty, the words of hymns are often meaningless or, worse, offensive to them. Dulcie, the appealing heroine of No Fond Return of Love, waits while singing a hymn for the following words: "The rich man in his castle, the poor man at his gate, / God made them high or lowly and ordered their estate." When they are omitted, she feels "cheated of her indignation." Hymns "are the great stumbling block" to faith, a man tells a group of friends; "the only thing is to abandon oneself to the words uncritically and let them flow over one." Ironically, the very forms meant to encourage and guide devotion have become positive impediments to it by being couched in language suited to a different era. Nor have other aspects of worship been updated to accommodate the modern tongue. A troubled young woman thinks that to learn to pray, perhaps she should return to the church she only visits. She sits alone "making up prayers in the rather stilted language she remembered from childhood. Was it necessary always to address God as 'Thou' and to use such archaic grammatical forms?" For Pym's characters, devotion is often vitiated by its lack of a comfortable and significant idiom. It is approached consistently with reservations and with a consciousness that it is, for some reason, not quite right.

The clerical voice the characters hear frequently fails to strike the right note. Sometimes it is garbled: a parishioner observes that Father Thames's letter in the parish magazine was, "as so often, troubled and confused. Spiritual and material matters jostled each other in a most inartistic manner, so that the effect was almost comic." Sometimes sermons are too "intelligent" for their auditors, other times too "literary." For sermons, Archdeacon Hoccleve often reads to his parishioners long excerpts of seventeenth-century authors which they do not understand. When he abandons this comfortable habit, striving to preach a lucid sermon, his congregation suspects he is deteriorating into second childhood. In one of the funniest episodes in Pym, he preaches on the Dies Irae to a congregation at first uneasy, then disbelieving and, finally, angry at his zestful references to their sinfulness. Even Belinda, his greatest admirer, is shocked and insulted, though she does not retaliate, as others do, by withholding her offering. Whether Pym's clerics are incoherent, incomprehensible because they ignore their auditors' limitations or take refuge in the past, or simply tactless, they consistently fail to communicate the faith to the people they serve.

Pym's novels suggest that the Church has become a primarily social institution to most of its members. Examples of this abound in An Unsuitable Attachment. Mark, the vicar, comes "of a good clerical family" though he is "without private means." Edwin Pettigrew "was not a believer, though he sometimes went to church out of politeness to Mark and Sophia," as if the service were a dull party hosted by dull but nice people. Ianthe's mother "had been deeply conscious of her position as a canon's widow," and a match between Rupert and Ianthe would be proper: "Archdeacon's son and canon's daughter—what could be more suitable when one came to think of it." Membership in the Church or close association with the clergy is a convenient and reliable way of "placing" people socially. A church affiliation is akin to belonging to a club; it is a guarantee of a certain social standard and common background that is reassuring to everyone concerned. The French anthropologist who visits English churches to observe the rituals that include "afterwards … the traditional English Sunday dinner with joint" knows this.

Given the uncomplicatedly social implications of church membership that all assume, religious fervor or a noticeable commitment are an embarrassment to Pym's characters. In Excellent Women, Everard Bone's conversion seems "rather an awkward thing" to his acquaintances. Father Greatorex's middle-aged decision to take Orders cannot be accepted at face value, or he as a "saintly" man—a parishioner snorts at the thought, guessing that "He was no good in business so he went into the Church." When Mary Beamish goes to test her vocation, her brother is ashamed "about this nunnery business." A man who regains his childhood faith is uncomfortable when he is asked about it. Disturbed by noise coming from a neighboring flat, a lady is mortified to learn that its source is the singing of some Nigerian Christians. "Christianity is disturbing," she is told when she complains. "How was she to explain to this vital, ebullient black man her own blend of Christianity: a grey, formal, respectable thing of measured observances and mild general undemanding kindness to all?"

As reference to these embarrassing and sometimes noisy converts indicates, Christianity in Pym's world is not dead, not by any means. The Church Pym depicts may not flourish, but it is kept alive by those new believers, and by a small group of women whose unobtrusive acts of charity and hours of service are an impressive testimony—that goes unnoticed. Two novels particularly focus on "churchwomen," Excellent Women and A Glass of Blessings. Though they are not primarily about the women's faith or their spiritual lives, these books give us an indication of what devotion and the Church can mean to the faithful. Because Pym writes about what life is "like … 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"—the novels do not present the upheavals or ecstasies of spiritual struggle. Instead, they show the small daily efforts that it takes to live as a Christian and, especially, to love one another. Seeing a roomful of strangers, Mildred Lathbury remarks, "One wouldn't believe there are so many people … and one must love them all," but her faith is expressed concretely by inviting people to church, helping her friends in need, trying not to judge them, and seeking "an infinitesimal amount of virtue" in overcoming her initial dislike of someone. Wilmet, the heroine of A Glass of Blessings, is a likeable snob who feels that many of the people in her church do not belong to her own world. But, learning from the example of a devout friend, she also tries to assist and accept others in a Christian spirit. Small, unspectacular efforts mark Wilmet's development, and she eventually comes to feel that "the Church should be the place where all worlds could meet, and looking around me I saw that in a sense this was so. If people remained outside it was our—even my—duty to try to bring them in."

However, these characters and others like them act not from any impetus originating in the Church, but in accordance with their own needs to worship, to live purposefully, to do good, to find solace when it's needed, and—above all—to love: "Some tame gazelle or some gentle dove or even a poodle dog: something to love, that was the point." Since even the small body of the faithful is not especially inspired by the traditional devotional forms or the clergy, it is no wonder that only a few unbelievers are drawn to discover or recover the faith. Lacking a vital language and voice to disseminate the faith, the Church in Pym's novels fails to influence most of its members or to attract a substantial number of new believers.

A Few Green Leaves repeats the topics found in the earlier novels, but is different chiefly as Pym's most detailed and optimistic view of the Church. Unusual, also, is her inclusion of two related spiritual crises. Tom, the widowed rector and one of the novel's central characters, is plagued by a sense of failure through a large part of the novel. Thinking that he is of no use to anyone, he even avoids visiting his parishioners. Here, as in the rest of Pym's novels, there are doubts that the language of Christianity applies to everyday, practical life and evidence of its secularization. When Tom preaches a sermon on helping one's neighbor, a woman wonders if he would "really" help: "Would he, for example, be capable of cleaning her top windows, which was what she really needed?" After a power failure, "'The light has been restored, thank God!' said Father Byrne in his rich Abbey Theatre tones, giving the announcement an almost religious significance." Hymns fare no better here than elsewhere. Tom rejects one as "morbid"; another is offensive: "'Choose Thou for me my friends'—the very idea of it!"

Tom's church is primarily a social institution whose most important event is its flower festival. Two anthropologists and a sociologist discuss the meaning of the festival. It never occurs to them that worship or thanksgiving might be its point, which is understandable, since it never occurs to any of the parishioners involved. The lady who arranges the altar flowers every third Sunday never attends church, and a bereaved family attends only on the Sunday following their relative's funeral because that is the local custom. This, then, is Pym's typical Christian world, with one important exception. There is no convert or fervent believer to embarrass anyone. The only source of mild uneasiness to the characters on religious grounds is Adam Prince, ex-Anglican priest and convert to Roman Catholicism turned restaurant-critic: does he expect his Friday evening hostess to serve fish? Prince continually offers Tom unsolicited advice about the management of his parish, but never discusses religion.

Tom's sense of uselessness is one of the main concerns of the novel because he is not alone in perceiving that a shift in values has taken place. Pym presents a Church surrounded by the "helping professions," which have taken over some of its functions. The focal point of village life has changed:

Monday was always a busy day at the surgery, a rather stark new building next to the village hall. "They"—the patients—had not on the whole been to church the previous day, but they atoned for this by a devout attendance at the place where they expected not so much to worship, though this did come into it for a few, as to receive advice and consolation. You might talk to the rector, some would admit doubtfully, but he couldn't give you a prescription. There was nothing in churchgoing to equal that triumphant moment when you came out of the surgery clutching the ritual scrap of paper.

Although the doctors tend to bodies rather than souls, the villagers see them for "advice and consolation." Unlike Tom, they have the authority to prescribe, and the efficacy of their tangible remedies is seen as far more certain then anything he might offer. No wonder, then, that people in the waiting room maintain a respectful quiet. Even Daphne, Tom's sister, refuses to divulge her conversation with Dr. Shrubsole: "Consultation between doctor and patient is a confidential matter. Like the confessional." Daphne's remark is intended to annoy Tom "who had wanted to introduce that kind of thing—most unsuitably—into the village." People who bare their souls happily in the examining room are offended at the suggestions of a similar exposure in the confessional. As confidence and devotion have been largely displaced from one profession and location to another, Shrubsole and Avice, his social-worker wife, want literally to supplant Tom in the spacious rectory they covet for their large family.

The loss of some of his duties to the doctors and social workers contributes to Tom's feeling of uselessness. Because his role and the role of the Church are unclear to him, he spends a good deal of time trying to find something to do with himself. Given the circumstances, it is not surprising that much of his attention is focused on the mausoleum standing by the church, or that his great passion is local history, especially the deserted medieval village that he longs to find. Like Archdeacon Hoccleve in Some Tame Gazelle, Tom takes refuge in the past. Even as he puts his volunteers to work reading inscriptions on old tombstones, he looks back to a time that he believes was more receptive to the faith—to a time when the scope and the appreciation of his work were broader. His personal hero is Anthony à Wood, the seventeenth-century diarist, antiquarian, biographer, and recluse who made detached observation his lifetime work. Tom's helpless idea of his diminished role makes him use the pious cliché to reassure himself: suspecting that his whole day has been wasted, he "was prepared to believe that it might not have been. God did still move in a mysterious way, even in this day and age or at this 'moment in time,' as some of his parishioners might have said."

Typically, Pym keeps a reserved distance from her clergymen. The quality or even existence of their faith is most frequently, and ominously, not remarked. The reader is left to draw his own conclusions; but, whatever those are, the men share a common problem which makes them practically useless as spiritual guides: along with the rest, Tom finds it difficult to verbalize his devotion and faith. One of his prayers is inarticulate, a matter of thinking of certain people while he walks about the church. Several of his sermons are unsatisfactory. The topic of one is heaven, "a bold and imaginative, perhaps even appropriate, subject" but, finally, it misses the mark since no one thinks "about heaven all that much now"; another is judged as "an unsuccessful mingling of past and present." Later, when he considers a sermon on the loaves and the fishes, the reader understands that his task necessarily involves the significant relation of the past to this "moment in time": what can he say about the miracle of feeding the multitude in a society where such a problem is the mundane province of government and social workers like Avice?

As the representative of the Church, Tom's problem is to translate the faith into terms comprehensible and relevant to the present day; before he can do this, however, he must himself acknowledge the present and stop focusing so exclusively on local history. Though he doubts it throughout the greater part of the novel, his ministrations are needed, and his interest in the purely historical past interferes with them. When two of his congregation see him driving by, one of them remarks that he is probably visiting parishioners, but the other disagrees: "'All this history he's always going on about' said Mrs. Furst with unexpected bitterness. 'That's more likely what he's doing.'" His backward-looking inclinations keep him from seeing the situation and the people around him clearly. There are indications, too, of the awareness that medicine cannot address spiritual needs. When Shrubsole tells an elderly patient that she is close to death, she responds by asking if he believes in life after death. The young doctor is "stunned into silence, indignant at such a question. Then of course he realized that he couldn't be expected to answer things like that—it was the rector's business." Though times have changed, Tom's diffidence about his function is unjustified. There are some needs, after all, that only a clergyman can address. With the actual death of a parishioner, Tom realizes this and feels that he comes "into his own." But the event only confirms the quiet upswing of all his affairs, which points to his greater involvement in the present.

The change in Tom's perspective follows the first spiritual crisis in the novel. Though "crisis" seems heavy-handed for a situation that unfolds in Pym's typically comical manner, crisis it is. Terry Skate is the florist who tends the mausoleum by the church. One day he tells the rector that, having lost his faith (by watching a television talk-show), he can no longer do this job. Tom reminds Terry that "much greater men" than they have doubted and eventually overcome their spiritual difficulties. "'Oh, but that was in the old days, wasn't it? Darwin and those old Victorians.' Terry laughed, dismissing them." Thus carelessly the young man implies that faith is expendable in the modern world, indicating the apprehension underlying Tom's diffidence and informing his timorous attitude toward his parishioners. Tom cannot help because Terry does not really wish it, but he feels more than usually dispirited and ineffectual.

His dejection leads to a quiet spiritual crisis of his own as he thinks how much of his life as a rector is "wasted in profitless discussion" and wonders if Miss Lee, a staunch parishioner polishing the eagle lectern, has ever doubted Christianity as "an elaborate fiction." The doubts are, of course, Tom's own, and only in part the product of his encounter with Terry Skate. The church brasses gleam with proof of Miss Lee's hard-rubbing industry everywhere he looks, but as he stands before her, Tom realizes that the familiar bird on the lectern is wood and not brass: "He must have been remembering some other lectern, probably the one in the church of his childhood. How could he have been so forgetful and unobservant!" When he asks if she would prefer a brass lectern, Miss Lee answers, "I love that old wooden bird, and I love polishing it. A brass one may look more brilliant, but wood can be very rewarding…." Tom's awareness of his failure to live in the present is promising; even more important is his attention to Miss Lee's work and to the bird, which traditionally symbolizes John, but here Tom's own church. Seen with eyes clear of habit and preconception, it reveals its undeniable difference from the Church of the past, but it is not the less beautiful, rewarding, or responsive to effort. Noting Miss Lee's statement as an idea for a sermon, Tom indicates that he understands its significance.

Moments later, he is given yet more help in his quiet crisis by another insight from Miss Grundy while she arranges some flowers at the altar. They are not fresh roses, having served during the past week, but they are still lovely. Their usefulness can be extended, Miss Grundy tells him, by adding "a few more leaves. A few green leaves can make such a difference." Her words clearly suggest that the revitalization of the Church (which is traditionally the Rose of Sharon) depends upon the infusion of a fresh faith in its beauty and capacity to serve. These ordinary remarks and Miss Lee's are typical of Pym's unobtrusive, almost sly way of embedding major insights in seemingly inconsequential exchanges. The reader might miss the importance of Miss Grundy's statements but for Tom's comical but suggestive reaction to them. He retreats, finding it "somehow depressing the way these elderly women kept giving him ideas for sermons." Though he decides not to use the ideas, they have already reached their best audience: in small ways, Tom begins to focus on improving his church and becomes less preoccupied with the past. He gives his organist a Christmas present of apricot brandy which might "perhaps even induce him to play at Evensong in the winter months" and is rewarded a few days later with an "unusually splendid sound." When Dr. Gellibrand stubbornly sticks to the present in his remarks to the history group, Tom is not particularly concerned: "I think people enjoyed it and I suppose that's the main thing." Such gestures may seem small indeed, hardly worth noticing, but in Pym's temperate world, they are large and promising actions.

Like the rest of Pym's novels, A Few Green Leaves is about love. Along with Tom's point of view, it focuses especially on Emma Howick's. She is a thirtyish anthropologist, modern in every respect, inept at handling her love life. She is not one of Pym's "excellent women," as that quiet breed was defined by Robert Smith: "good aunt, good Churchwoman, informed spinster, conscientious social worker, meticulous housekeeper…. Miss Pym's heroines are redeemed by their modesty and sensitive wit." The amusing Emma sees everything as material for her study. A bring-and-buy-sale, the flower festival, and even some cars abandoned next to the church are potential material: "was there not something significant and appropriate about this particular graveyard being opposite the church—a kind of mingling of two religious faiths, the ancient and the modern? 'A Note on the Significance of the Abandoned Motor-Car in a West Oxfordshire Village' might pin it down, she felt." Emma, no less than the other characters, assumes a largely secularized world, but she has no doubt about Tom's role and status: "If there was no active Lord of the Manor, surely the rector was the most important person rather than the doctor?" During the course of the novel, almost imperceptibly, her interest in Tom (and his in her) grows, assisted by her scheming mother. And Pym indicates, in her characteristically subdued manner, that Emma will help the rector reorient himself. A Few Green Leaves ends with the New Year and Tom's proposal that she give his history society a lecture: "You could relate your talk to things that happened in the past … or even speculate on the future—what might happen in the years to come."

Working consistently under the mask of comedy, Pym achieves a serious analysis of the contemporary English Church which suggests that it was a matter of some importance to her. In nine of her ten novels, she recurs to the same themes and topics to point to the three language-related problems that impede the effectiveness of the modern Church: devitalized religious words, outmoded devotional forms, and a clergy whose ability to communicate the faith is almost entirely inadequate. The terrible irony is that, finally, it makes no practical difference whatever whether or not her clergymen believe: believers or presumed unbelievers alike, none of her chief clerical characters offers articulate guidance to his flock.

Although they are woven into a richly comic texture, her personal analysis and vision of the Church are the serious appraisal of an author who was "accustomed to churches" and concerned with the state of organized religion. While her novels reflect the changing world, Pym emphasizes that there is still a need for the Church to do its unique work. Especially in A Few Green Leaves, she suggests that doctors, social workers, and others in the "helping professions" cannot fulfill the clergy's spiritual task. Through Tom, she asserts her faith in the capacity of the Church to revitalize itself from within, to come into the present day to reclaim its authority and influential voice.

Lynn Veach Sadler (essay date Spring 1985)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 6071

SOURCE: "Spinsters, Non-Spinsters, and Men in the World of Barbara Pym," in Critique: Studies in Modern Fiction, Vol. XXVI, No. 3, Spring, 1985, pp. 141-54.

[In the following essay, Sadler considers Pym's depiction of unmarried women and male characters in her novels. "In the Pym world," Sadler concludes, "bores and boors can be male and female, and men can out-spinster spinsters."]

At age fifty, Barbara (Mary Crampton) Pym, having published six novels appreciated by a small but faithful audience, suddenly found her seventh work refused by her publisher. She wrote nothing else for some sixteen years until she was "discovered" in a March 11, 1977, Times Literary Supplement feature on underrated and overrated writers of the past seventy-five years as evaluated by a symposium of literary critics. Lauded by Lord David Cecil and Philip Larkin, she was the only writer to be twice praised. Subsequently, she re-emerged with Quartet in Autumn (1977), saw all of her books reissued, enjoyed success in America—including the admiration of Newsweek (October 23, 1978), a short story in The New Yorker (July 16, 1979), and publication by Vanguard, Dutton, Harper and Row, and Macmillan, and became "the in-thing to read" in Britain. Miss Pym died on January 11, 1980, and her final two novels, The Sweet Dove Died (1978) and A Few Green Leaves (1980), were published posthumously. Recently (1982), the rejected book, An Unsuitable Attachment, discovered among her papers, has been published to bring her canon to ten novels.

The predominant critical assessment finds Pym a "domesticated" Jane Austen, and reviewers make much of her diminished scale and wry sense of humor in novels of manners. They also promote her as the depictor of English spinsterhood and as something of a man-hater. In the latter regard, for example, Karl Miller suggests that her work is "grist to the feminist mill." However, her attitudes toward spinsters and men, as well as toward non-spinsters, need reassessment. She is keenly aware, in each of her novels, of the drab, pathetic-seeming lives of her contemporary middle-class Englishmen, men and women. The same nonjudging, reporting eye lays all of them before us in detailed portraiture. The ironic comment falls where it may, and the most telling evidence of her own spinsterhood resides in a general tendency to avoid depicting motherhood in her novels. Even so, she can be mildly censorious of the childless; in An Unsuitable Attachment, Sophia Ainger, who is married but has no offspring, is fixated, humorously, on her cat, Faustina. If Pym's fictional world teems with spinsters, she makes us believe, without suspicion of her miscalculation, that the reason is simple: here is England as it really is.

There are spinsters in Pym's world—and then there are spinsters. Her heroines are seldom old maids because they have no other choice. In her first novel, Some Tame Gazelle, Harriet Bede receives constant proposals from Count Bianco and is wooed by the librarian, Mr. Mold. The elder and more spinsterish Belinda Bede is proposed to by Bishop Grote. Both women, who are in their sixties, decline. By An Unsuitable Attachment, they have fulfilled their richest dream and have removed to a villa in Italy with a sickly clergyman under their protection. In Excellent Women, whose title refers to the church-fixated "elderly ladies and dim spinsters" throughout England, Mildred Lathbury, just over thirty, is attracted to the already married Rockingham Napier, might "after a decent interval" finally marry Father Julian Malory, and at the end seems sure to get anthropologist Everard Bone. In Jane and Prudence, the first title character is already married to a clergyman; and the second, who is twenty-nine, has had a constant march of admirers. Although she loses Fabian Driver to the much older spinster, Jessie Morrow, she is at the last "overwhelmed by the richness of her life"—Manifold, Dr. Grampian, and even Edward Lyall, "M.P." In Less Than Angels, Catherine Oliphant, who is thirty-one, loses Tom Mallow to Deirdre Swan as perhaps Elaine, the first love, who raises golden retrievers, has lost him to her. In turn, Catherine enlivens the dull life of another would-be anthropologist, Alaric Lydgate, whom she will most likely marry. Deirdre gets Digby Fox, and Elaine gets to keep her memories intact and to know that Tom was writing her just before he died. In A Glass of Blessings, Wilmet, who is already married, is forced to reappraise her seemingly routine life and dull husband after her abortive flings with the spouse of her best friend and with Rowena's homosexual brother, Piers Longridge, after her husband Rodney admits his own misconduct, and after dowdy spinster Mary Beamish manages to pull off the feat of marrying handsome Father Ransome. In No Fond Return of Love, Dulcie Mainwaring, in her early thirties, is rejected by her fiancé because of her "simple goodness," which is too hard to live with, but, at the end, it is obvious that she will get the much more desirable Aylwin Forbes. In An Unsuitable Attachment, one of the liaisons referred to by the title is the eventual marriage of spinster Ianthe Broome and the younger John Challow; and the satire is directed toward those who find the attachment unsuitable. The same novel leaves us anticipating a wedding between Rupert Stonebird and Penelope Grandison. In A Few Green Leaves, career woman Emma Howick never gets Graham Pettifer, though they have some kind of a relationship, but she is on her way to getting Tom Dagnall, the rector of the Oxfordshire village where she goes to write.

The two women in Quartet in Autumn are the only true spinsters among the main characters in the entire Pym canon, and Letty is one of her most delightful creations. Even Marcia might have had a relationship with Norman. As it is, her senility and eccentricity show the dangers of walling oneself off from other humans rather than spinsterism per se. The two men in the book, Edwin and Norman, suffer nearly as much from their willful isolationism. Always, life in the Pym world, whether she is depicting male or female, is largely what one makes it. Its "greyness," the predominant color reference in the novels, particularly Quartet in Autumn, can be interpreted and lived out either positively or negatively. For example, in A Few Green Leaves, Emma, pondering the meaning of a letter from Graham and life's "few twists to the man-woman story," is drawn to consider the telephone as a means of clarifying their relationship: "Its fashionable shade of grey suggested peace and repose, (unless one thought of grey as the colour of desolation, which it might also be)."

Perhaps Pym's least sympathetic character is Leonora Eyre of The Sweet Dove Died. Now approaching fifty, she could have made "brilliant marriages" but has chosen instead a life of culture aloof from common people, and she tends to recreate those around her in her own image. James, over twenty years her junior, is the "sweet dove" of the title. He escapes her briefly in a liaison with Ned, an American his own age, but is finally recaptured "like an animal being enticed back into its cage." Clearly, some of Pym's spinsters not only willfully choose their spinsterhood but use it deliberately to set their lives and the lives of others as they wish them to be.

Prior to their emergence from the role of spinster, Pym's heroines are as closely involved as are their sisters, the countless number of British women who do not marry in the novels, in the world of the clergy. This association may well be one cause for the criticism that Pym is unsympathetic to men, for her clergymen are, by and large, rather despicable. What is overlooked, however, is the fact that the relationship is symbiotic. The men of the cloth are perceived as being comfortable with spinsters and widows, feel that gifts of knitted socks and various delicacies are their just due, and, like Archbishop Hoccleve in Some Tame Gazelle, are hurt when they are not forthcoming. Even a man, Aylwin Forbes in No Fond Return of Love, recognizes that "all men connected with the Church … would be at ease with ladies." On the other hand, as Viola Dace points out, they are rather at the mercy of the female sex. For their part, the women, with some exceptions, find fulfillment in doing church work and catering to the needs of the clergy, whom they prefer to be unmarried. It is in fact a woman, Jane of Jane and Prudence, who wonders that the village women did not tear the assistant vicar to pieces when they discovered that he came to them already engaged. Harriet Bede's life in Some Tame Gazelle is measured out in terms of the arrival of the next young clergyman, and her whole sense of the fitness of things has been predetermined by a girlish vision of the tall, pale man who would be her husband and who is best exemplified by clergymen.

Middle-aged spinsters are the backbone of the English parish. They do get used, but most of them believe that women need to feel needed, a theme that is as true of Pym's last books as it is of the early ones (e.g., No Fond Return of Love and A Glass of Blessings). Moreover, Pym's men need to feel needed, too. If Tom Dagnall, the rector in A Few Green Leaves, appropriates all of the women at his disposal, including his sister, Daphne, his selfishness is unpremeditated. They are simply there to be used, not only to decorate for the various church festivals and polish the brass to a high luster but to further his true passion, local history. In truth, Tom is no more selfish in sending Magdalen Raven among the gravestones and through the church register to check dates for the custom of burying in wool than is her son-in-law, Martin Shrubsole, who finds her an interesting case study for his specialty of geriatrics, as well as a live-in baby-sitter. Tom automatically adds the new arrival, Emma Howick, to his group of workers—doubtless she can type and perhaps even decipher Elizabethan handwriting—just as he hopes to pick the brains of Miss Vereker about life at the manor house and of Miss Lickerish about the ancient customs of the village. What is often overlooked is the fact that Emma uses in her turn. Having come here to write up her research on one of the new English towns, she finds herself taking notes on the villagers with an eye toward a publication about them; in this respect, she is much akin to Jean-Pierre le Rossignol of Less Than Angels, who goes about minutely observing the habits of the English. Clearly, in Pym's novels, using and being used are not confined to a particular sex.

Barbara Pym is atypical in her treatment of spinsters and of women in general. Most of her major female characters are employed: Emma Howick (A Few Green Leaves) and Helena Napier (Excellent Women) are anthropologists; Prudence Bates (Jane and Prudence) works for some kind of cultural organization; Catherine Oliphant (Less Than Angels) is a writer; Marcia and Letty (Quartet in Autumn) work in an office; Dulcie Mainwaring and Viola Dace (No Fond Return of Love) and Penelope Grandison (An Unsuitable Attachment) have vague connections with the publishing world; Mildred Lathbury (Excellent Women) works part-time to help impoverished gentlewomen; Leonora Eyre (The Sweet Dove Died) has done "secret work" in the south of England prior to the invasion of Normandy; and Ianthe Broome (An Unsuitable Attachment) is a librarian. Only Jane (Jane and Prudence), Sophia (An Unsuitable Attachment), and Wilmet (A Glass of Blessings) are married and do not work, although Jane's and Sophia's roles as clergymen's wives, properly executed, would constitute careers. The fact that they do not successfully carry out their duties is evidence of Pym's objectivity. Their husbands are equally limited. Similarly, Wilmet's idleness produces feelings of guilt and uselessness and leads her to largely imagined betrayals of her husband, who is also flawed. Ultimately, we begin to suspect that Pym's assessments of her characters are most influenced by the work ethic of England under attack and by her own intense involvement with the Women's Royal Naval Service (1943–46) and sense of vocation as Assistant Editor of Africa, the journal of the International African Institute, also a probable source for her novels' interest in anthropology. Hers is a general human as opposed to a chauvinistic stance for male or female.

Though she is largely a pre-Feminist Movement author who finds fault on both sides of the battle between the sexes, Pym is aware of the traditional limitations society imposes on women. Thus Mildred Lathbury is delighted at the success of Ethel Victoria Thorneycroft Nollard in 1907—"a woman then!" Prudence wonders if Miss Birkinshaw has had a splendid tragic romance in the past or is a "new woman" rejecting marriage for Donne, Marvell, and Carew. At any rate, her "great work" on the Metaphysicals remains unfinished, and Pym suggests that the fault is his own. Women's careers, nonetheless, do seem to get in the way of relationships as Tom, of Less Than Angels, seeks solace with Deirdre (a budding anthropologist—a "new" profession) because Catherine is writing a story and has no time for him. At Graham's for a drink, Emma, who thinks up "The Role of Women in a West Oxfordshire Community" as a book title, becomes bored and wishes she were alone doing her own work. When she decides to go and do just that, Graham feels that she must be accompanied home, for women are "not yet as equal as all that." In Less Than Angels, contrastingly, when Digby worries that he and Mark should have seen Deirdre home, the latter tells him that "women consider themselves our equals now"; in No Fond Return of Love, Sedge makes Viola feel like a woman even in the days of so-called equality. Pym's books present a time when "women were more likely to go off to Africa to shoot lions as a cure for unrequited love …[,] in the old days … a man's privilege." Still, according to Jane and Prudence, the only place where women take full precedence is in the announcement of their marriages in their school chronicles, and Mary Beamish, of A Glass of Blessings, is strongly opposed to the notion that women might sometime be admitted to Holy Orders. On the other hand, shy and quiet Belinda, of Pym's first novel, Some Tame Gazelle (1950), wishes that she could be "Deaconess Bede" and straighten out the church life of the village. Similarly, in The Sweet Dove Died, Leonora Eyre's entire character is set forth when she becomes piqued that events are taken out of her hands by having Humphrey invite her to lunch before she can "drop in" on his shop. The very feminine Dulcie Mainwaring is wise enough to want her niece to become interested in a subject like computer science rather than English or history or at the least not to become a secretary to a publisher (No Fond Return of Love, published in 1961).

Pym liked to upend sexual stereotypes before such a method was fashionable. Her women, accordingly, are likely to be complete domestic failures as are Jane (Jane and Prudence) and Winifred and Helena (Excellent Women). Jane and Daphne (A Few Green Leaves) also hate flower-arranging. Adam Prince would be horrified, for he is sure that all ladies can arrange flowers. When he was a priest, watching them do so was one of the activities he enjoyed most. Catherine Oliphant, of Less Than Angels, is an excellent cook and loves doing housework but primarily because she often gets her ideas for her writing while doing it. Dulcie feels that people are "nearer to the heart of things doing menial tasks" (No Fond Return of Love). Rocky Napier is the cook in his family, as well as the one who is fixated on collecting Victorian (Excellent Women); Wilf Bason discourses on the achievements of men as cooks (A Glass of Blessings); and Adam Prince is an inspector for a gourmet food magazine and frequently invades the woman's world of jumble sales (A Few Green Leaves). Yet in The Sweet Dove Died, Humphrey admonishes Leonora that book auctions are no place for a woman. Later, she slips away to sales without letting him know. When Mildred is with William Caldicote, who takes a "spiteful old-maidish delight in gossip" (Excellent Women), she has to buy her own mimosa and then share it with Rocky.

While there is much talk of the meticulosity of women's memories, it is they who sometimes forget important details of former love affairs in Pym's works. In A Few Green Leaves, Graham Pettifer sends Emma a postcard with a Corot painting that she used to like; she does not remember it at all. Pym's short story, "Across a Crowded Room," itself a reversal of the song from which it takes its title, turns upon the revelation that the college mate whom the protagonist sees at Oxford for the first time in forty years has never been married, contrary to her memory of him. Further, as Aylwin Forbes tries to avoid Viola Dace in No Fond Return of Love, Miss Randall avoids him, stating that men do not realize "that they are not the only ones to be practising the avoidance." Dulcie herself believes that even if she were married, her character probably would not change very much, a view shared by Jessica Foy, who knows perfectly well that she and Dulcie would not allow a man to "mold" them. In some cases, quite the reverse is true, for Jessie Morrow in Jane and Prudence literally scares the very experienced Fabian Driver into marriage with such pronouncements as that women are very powerful and perhaps always triumph in the end. So persuasive is she that, though he feels the net closing around him, he is unable to escape it. Some men may be afflicted by female "maladies" as Driver and Lyall try to outdo each other in their verbalizations of their weariness. It is also the men who are most routine-driven; for example, William in Excellent Women can not survive a day without feeding the pigeons from his office window at precisely the same time.

The men in Pym's novels do tend to operate from a set of stereotypes about women. They plead that they can not understand females (e.g., Dr. Parnell in Some Tame Gazelle; Mary's brother in A Glass of Blessings; and Bone in Excellent Women). At the same time, they know that all women enjoy missing meals and becoming martyrs, as Archbishop Hoccleve says in Some Tame Gazelle. They believe that their "good ladies" should leave the talking to them and vote their way (Harry in A Glass of Blessings). They do not want their wives to work except for financial exigency lest they become the kind of women who step from trains carrying initialed briefcases and who prepare their brussel sprouts behind the filing cabinet. Nevertheless, they rely on the comfortable assumption that so much can be left to women, despite how ineffectual they are when a "simple tin" must be opened. Many men feel that women should not drink before a meal (e.g., Cash in A Glass of Blessings), and practically all of them are convinced that women cannot appreciate wine. Pym's exception is Catherine Oliphant, of Less Than Angels, who is a veritable oenologist and is always going into wine shops for the new lists, an activity that she shares with Alaric, who is her new interest. The other women do appear ignorant of the subject, to the extent that Adams advises Tom to slip in better wine for the church—the female treasurer would not know the difference.

According to Pym's men, women do not make as much of living and take their pleasures "very, very sadly." They get "sudden irrational passions," such as Helena's for Bone in Excellent Women and "women's disorders" that not even a brother dare ask about (Tom on Daphne in A Few Green Leaves). Keeping busy is the panacea for their problems, and Nicholas, the curate—the reader is ever mindful that the clergy know all there is to know about women—thinks that Prudence, in addition to her job, should take up social work (Jane and Prudence). According to Neville, another clergyman, and Aylwin Forbes, women should not allow themselves to be seen very much (No Fond Return of Love), and the latter believes that they smoke more than men because of the emptiness of their lives. Men are, at the same time, disappointed if they do not have a profound effect on women; in Less Than Angels, not knowing how Elaine has labored to train herself to be restrained, Tom is hurt by her calmness at his kiss, and when he sees Prudence's tears, Arthur Grampian of Jane and Prudence is pleased that he still has his power over women. Piers Longridge, who is, one must admit, gay, finds women "so terrifying these days" and "expecting so much" (A Glass of Blessings); and Tom Mallow "marvels at the sharpness of even the nicest woman" (Less Than Angels). James feels "shut out" from the "feminine coziness" of Liz and Leonora (The Sweet Dove Died), while Rocky is opposed to the kind of women who "bring dry twigs and expect leaves to grow" (Excellent Women). Ultimately, however, where would we men be without "you ladies" to keep an eye on us?

Pym's women seem not only to perpetuate these stereotypes but to fuel them, aiding and abetting with great zest. They may display a certain cynicism about the view that "every woman is supposed to be able to turn her hand to an omelette" (A Few Green Leaves) but, deep down, they believe it. There is, especially, a certain animus between married and unmarried women that has its effect in turn on the stereotype of the spinster. It pervades the media as Mildred Lathbury (Excellent Women) listens to a program on the wireless that pits the two groups of women against each other. She does not know whether spinsters are really more inquisitive than married women, but she feels keenly her inadequacy and inexperience in a discussion with Helena, who is married. She thinks that surely wives, particularly Helena, the wife of Rockingham Napier, should not be too busy to cook and should be waiting at home when their husbands return from wars; certainly, if she were Rocky's wife …, the implication is. On the other hand, when Viola Dace proclaims that Marjorie Forbes has failed as a wife because she could not share Aylwin's work, Dulcie poses the possibility that the men could be at fault in such cases for choosing unsuitable wives (No Fond Return of Love). But in Less Than Angels, Catherine ponders the "general uselessness of women if they can't understand or reverence a man's work or even if they can," while Rhoda knows that Alaric and Catherine's cutting of rhubarb from his garden contain's a "subtlety" that only an unmarried woman can fully appreciate.

Allegra Gray, who is a widow, a category of women for which Mildred Lathbury has an inexplicable distrust, asks, "What do women do if they don't marry?" (Excellent Women), and Helena Napier wounds Mildred with her claim that the spinster's is "not a full life in the accepted sense." Mrs. Morris lacerates further with her proclamation that it is "not natural" for a woman to live alone without a husband. Though Mildred points out that women often have no choice, she knows that it is never the "excellent women" who marry but the Allegras and Helenas of the world. She and Dora try to believe that marriage is not everything, but they confess that they live by the fiction that they do not know anyone at the moment whom they want to marry. Mildred also muses about the new-found freedom of the wife of the president of the Learned Society, whose death has suddenly removed her from the burden of sleeping through its boring meetings. Unfortunately, Mildred realizes, he has left her nothing to occupy her old age, not even an understanding of his career of anthropology. Worse, perhaps, is the plight of the women who help their husbands through school only to be thrown out one day and to accept their banishment as fate (Less Than Angels). Nonetheless, her husband's key in the lock is the sound every wife loves most (A Glass of Blessings). But if Mildred ever writes a novel, it will be in the stream of consciousness mode and about an hour in the life of a woman at the sink (Excellent Women). The unmarried women stand judged of not "making the most of themselves" (No Fond Return of Love). They expect very little (almost nothing) and are not really first in anyone's life, easily becoming unwanted. Everything becomes their business, for they have none of their own. Probably their greatest problem is that they come to distrust their own instincts and intelligence and fall into accord with their stereotypes. Thus when Belinda thinks that Bishop Grote's hand lingers over hers, she dismisses her observation as the kind imagined by middle-aged spinsters (Some Tame Gazelle).

Pym women will let themselves endure "a real woman's evening" such as a silly play (A Glass of Blessings), eat "women's meals"—a scrap of cheese and some wilted lettuce in contrast to the "small plover" (Excellent Women) a man would cook for himself, and take trouble with such "a woman's fruit" as gooseberries or rhubarb, "sour and difficult things" (A Glass of Blessings). Through it all, their great strength is the ability to assume a "Patience-on-a-monument" attitude (Excellent Women). Everyone knows, after all, that men are more difficult to please, while women bear their burdens without complaining and accept blame, the "better and easier part" (Some Tame Gazelle). In A Few Green Leaves, Emma points out that an old woman would be too considerate to die on an outing. Minor rebellions against their lot only seem to cause more damage, as when Deirdre tells Tom that she loves him, despite the fact that women should never take the initiative (Less Than Angels). Yet the consequences of not acting may be worse. Thirty years too late, Belinda of Some Tame Gazelle discovers that Agatha married Hoccleve away from her by doing the asking. She now pushes her niece to get Reverend Donne by the same method.

As one of the older women observes in Less Than Angels, however much progress is made in the education of women, love cannot be kept out of their lives. Whether love or no, one can not say for sure, but something enables women to do "strange and wonderful and splendid" things for men, and their "love and imagination" do transform those otherwise "unremarkable beings" (Jane and Prudence). Why, then, Pym seems to ask, if women are so often able to "arrange things that men would have thought impossible" (No Fond Return of Love), do they suddenly become Wilmets and turn away from the sight of meat with "womanly delicacy" (A Glass of Blessings)?

Men also come in for their share of Pym's genial ridicule and humor. Victoria Glendinning speaks of her method, in Excellent Women, as "not the steel jab of feminism, merely a mild, fine irony toward the ways of the world." Yet she feels that the men are generally sticks and that it is Pym's women, not them, who matter. Philip Larkin finds the men often "insensitive," "automatically stingy," or "simply selfish" and concludes: "Miss Pym's novels may look like 'women's books,' but no man can read them and be quite the same again." The point is, however, that Pym's men are as trapped in their stereotypes as are the spinsters who outnumber them. She seems almost to excuse them as products of women's systematizing and stereotyping; for example, James feels "created" by Leonora at times in The Sweet Dove Died. Pym women proclaim men too weak to endure loneliness although they are less gregarious than women; they do not tend to be alone and usually do marry. Many of them habitually choose the wrong wife because they subconsciously do not want what is good for them (No Fond Return of Love). It is much more painful to see them in tears, as it would be far worse to think that a man, rather than Miss Limpsett, brought a vase of pussy willows into the office (A Glass of Blessings). They have little concentration and will-power and can not "get on" without the help of a strong woman (Less Than Angels). Perhaps this flaw accounts for Wilmet's being more at ease interrupting the conversations of men rather than women (A Glass of Blessings). The salient stereotype, however, is that men are like children. Also, they do not usually do things unless they like doing them, and they leave difficulties to be solved by other people or to solve themselves. Lacking subtlety and daintiness, they can not see the "dog beneath the skin," the "terrible depths," and thus are often taken in by a pretty face. They are "all alike" (Excellent Women) and "only want one thing" (Jane and Prudence), but, perhaps because Pym's characters are not the kind to talk about sex, men's desires are more often treated in terms of food. Graham Pettifer's utter selfishness can best be shown in A Few Green Leaves by his taking away all of the tomatoes, including the green ones; Emma is left to imagine his wife preparing them and to think of the small bit of fondling she and Graham once did on the grass.

Pym's men do not think about time—they simply expect their meals to appear and look upon them as their due. They must have meat, need eggs, a cooked breakfast and lots of food at all times, and could hardly be served tinned salmon. After dinner, they must be left to port and "manly conversation," and it is perfectly all right for them to talk shop while the women talk about domestic matters and babies. They even do "more manly shopping" (e.g., for paraffin and garden supplies) than women. They are "tweedy" and "pipe-smoking" and do carpentry on weekends. Landladies object to them on principle (No Fond Return of Love), and many of Pym's women dislike their pipes (Prudence in Jane and Prudence and Wilmet in A Glass of Blessings). Not "going in" for poetry much themselves, they do not like women who read. They also can not deal with women's effusiveness about their emotions. Tom, for example, of Less Than Angels, is very embarrassed when Catherine sings about the lotus and about finding Nirvana in his arms. If the question of blame is a real chicken-and-egg conundrum, one infers that Pym's women could not be in their present plights without large doses of their own conniving.

Occasionally, even the most accepting Pym woman gets a little huffy about men's insensitivity. Mildred refuses Bone's invitation to dinner because she knows that he could expect her to cook the meat, and she is sure that men are not so helpless and pathetic as women believe and that, on the whole, they run their lives better than women. Rowena, of A Glass of Blessings, wants to cook exotic dishes but is prevented from doing so by the "tyranny" and plebian tastes of her husband and children. At least her Harry is one of the nonintelligent men whom women find so much more comfortable than "tortured intellectuals." Then there are the quite reasonable questions of why they are so good at cooking but can not ever clean up behind themselves, and why men, especially those connected with the church, never seem to help women. Husbands take women's friends away and change them, often beyond recognition. Young Deirdre Swan is now clever and moody as her mother was before marriage to a "good dull man" and life in a suburb "steadied" her (Less Than Angels).

Worse, men remain enigmatical and unpredictable. Women never know what they are feeling and "can't hope to know all that goes on in a man's life or follow him with their loving thoughts." According to Rose Culver, a very minor character in The Sweet Dove Died and one who obviously has an ax to grind, the odd thing about men is that one never really knows them; just when women think true closeness has been achieved, they suddenly take flight. Even Mildred Lathbury wonders if any man is really worth such a burden after she offers to do Bone's index and proofs. Her answer is "probably not." Once in a while, a Pym woman will decide that a man should not expect her to do quite everything for him, and the Allegra Grays of the world—who do not belong to the category of "excellent women"—will give men the opportunity for self-sacrifice, their natures being so much less noble than those of women (Excellent Women). They are not supposed to notice what women wear, but Driver gives Jessie quite a start in Jane and Prudence when he recalls that his wife Constance had a dress very like the one she is wearing—it is Constance's dress. Once again, men display their penchant for being contrary.

The most obtuse man will sometimes let out that he knows women's tyranny; Archbishop Hoccleve, for example, offers the opinion that it is wiser for a man to stay single, for it then would not matter if he is late to lunch (Some Tame Gazelle). Men and women appear to muddle on, with people in general not seeming any happier or the relations between the sexes any better than they used to be (Less Than Angels, published in 1955). Indeed, the interrelations of men and women are often ridiculous, as Beatrix Howick points out in A Few Green Leaves, and there are times when men band against women and women against men. Grace Williton reaches the point of wondering why people bother to marry—marriage only causes trouble for them and for their kin (No Fond Return of Love).

Given the hiatus in the relationships between the sexes, women often seek friendships with other women and see them as a great comfort, a theme that pervades many of the novels, and the least pleasant of Pym's females are the ones who reject this view. Leonora of The Sweet Dove Died and Wilmet of A Glass of Blessings are the two major female characters seen as inhuman, unemotional, and "fossilized" by those around them. Leonora does not like to be kissed by another woman (or a man, for that matter), has little use for the "coziness" of female friends (whom she regards as foils to herself), and is contemptuous of the type of woman who is always too early. She is late for her lunch with Meg, but not as late as if she were meeting a man. (It is before a woman, nonetheless, that Leonora finally "breaks down.") Wilmet refuses to be one of those women who share confidences and tries to remain aloof from good Mary Beamish. She does later learn what a "splendid and wonderful thing" the friendship of a woman is when she is forgiven by Rowena for Harry's interest in her. Nevertheless, Pym's women are often catty about one another and about their sex in general and usually think the worst of each other. Letty in Quartet in Autumn sees Marcia's leaving her house to Norman as the perfect example of the unpredictability of women, and Letty is perhaps the kindest character in any of the novels. Leonora classes Rose Culver as one of those women who live alone and who do not always realize what they are saying (The Sweet Dove Died), and it is the women who assume that Harriet Bede's fur cape is actually "shaved coney" (Some Tame Gazelle). Once again, people are their own worst enemies, Pym suggests; there is nothing in the order of existence to mandate that the world or the two sexes be so. In the Pym world, bores and boors can be male and female, and men can out-spinster spinsters. Accordingly, we finish each book with the same sensation as that expressed by Sophia Ainger in An Unsuitable Attachment: "The lemon leaves had been unwrapped and there were the fragrant raisins at the heart."

Margaret Diane Stetz (essay date Spring 1985)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4959

SOURCE: "Quartet in Autumn: New Light on Barbara Pym as a Modernist," in Arizona Quarterly, Vol. 41, No. 1, Spring, 1985, pp. 24-37.

[In the following essay, Stetz challenges conventional comparisons between Pym and Jane Austen, noting modernist themes in Quartet in Autumn that bear resemblance to the writing of Virginia Woolf instead.]

Clichés about novelists and their art are like bloodstains; once they have been allowed to stand, they are almost impossible to eradicate. Among the most common and persistent errors in criticism today is the assertion that Barbara Pym's books are "just like" Jane Austen's. Critics point to their shared interest in comedy of manners, their wit, and most of all their style, implying that Pym makes little or no use of literary techniques devised since Austen's time. In fact, as an examination of one of her late novels, Quartet in Autumn (1977), shows, her narrative devices owe more to Virginia Woolf than to Austen. There are, as it happens, superficial resemblances between Pym's novel and Woolf's Mrs. Dalloway; in each, London is as much a participant in, as a setting for, the plot; a mad protagonist wills his or her own death; individuals are pitted against an interfering social system that must be resisted; there is a final social gathering that brings together most of the disparate thematic elements, as well as the major characters. Such similarities, however, are trivial; more important is their shared attitude toward the proper focus of fiction. In Pym's novel, as in Woolf's, actions and external events count for little. What matters in Quartet in Autumn, as in the fiction of Woolf and other modernists, is consciousness itself. The methods used by Pym to convey a character's consciousness are not exclusively those of an Austenian novelist of manners (i.e., gesture and dialogue) but those of a modernist—simultaneity, association, imagery, memory, and dreams.

Perhaps the single most telling characteristic that distinguishes an experimental twentieth-century writer is treatment of time. To a conventional novelist following in the tradition of Austen, time means merely chronological progression—one action succeeding another; to a modernist, time is something that can be reversed, sped up, or stretched infinitely. In Pym's hands, time is malleable. A single moment may be made to last throughout a chapter. Quite often in Quartet in Autumn, we find that the successive scenes depicted are not occurring consecutively, but simultaneously. Chronology is suspended, so that we can be present as the same period of time is experienced in four different places and from four points of view. Thus in chapter 10, the account of Marcia's holiday takes us through Christmas Day at her neighbors's house and on to Boxing Day. But after the section describing her behavior and reactions ends, the next scene does not occur, as we might expect it to, on December 27. Instead, time moves backwards to the chapter's starting point, to Christmas Day as Letty sees it at Mrs. Pope's house. The pattern is repeated in the scene following this one, as once again we return to the dinner hour on Christmas Day, although the central figure now is Norman. The chapter's closing scene does, at last, bring us forward to December 27 (Pym makes a point of mentioning the date); but the main actor here is Edwin, whose reflections on the past two days spent with his daughter are summarized for us.

The purpose of this sort of juggling with time is to turn the audience's attention away from storytelling and to focus it upon revelations of consciousness. As this pattern recurs, we stop expecting to be told what happens next; rather, we wait to receive from the four main characters in turn their impressions of their situations, all of which are occupying the same moment in time. The internal lives of the "quartet" become the center of interest, while external events recede into the background. Suspending forward movement allows Pym to achieve a sense of simultaneity, such as Woolf aimed at in Mrs. Dalloway, of multiple consciousnesses existing independently, but inhabiting the same stretch of time. It enables her to broaden the notion of the "protagonist" as well. Here we are not following the change and development of a single figure, but of four separate characters of equal importance, whose inner lives sometimes intertwine and sometimes move apart, while always operating contemporaneously.

Nothing, however, shows more clearly Pym's familiarity with modernist techniques than her way of linking scenes. The shifts in time, as well as the changes from one character's point of view to another's, are accomplished not by means of narrative intrusion, but through association of ideas. The reader must find the connections for himself, without the aid of an editorializing voice to explain them. When Jane Austen wished to create a link between two separate episodes, her narrator instructed us explicitly in how to draw them together: "She entered the Rooms on Thursday evening with feelings very different from what had attended her thither the Monday before. She had then been exulting in her engagement to Thorpe, and was now chiefly anxious to avoid his sight, lest he should engage her again …" (Northanger Abbey, chap. 10). The common ground—here, the comparison of past and present emotions—was laid out for us. But Pym's method is very different, as we see in Quartet in Autumn. In chapter 6, for instance, Letty, who is about to be homeless, reflects upon her dilemma as a scene ends:

That night, as she lay in bed finding it difficult to sleep, the whole of her life seemed to unroll before her like that of a drowning man … is said to do, she thought, for of course her experience did not extend to drowning and it was unlikely that it ever would. Death, when it came, would present itself in another guise, something more "suitable" for a person like herself, for where would she ever be likely to be in danger of death by drowning? (Ellipsis in original)

The next sentence, however, places us abruptly in a new setting (the office in which all four of the main figures work), a new time (the following day), and a new point of view (Norman's). Nevertheless, the transition becomes quite seamless, because it is made by means of association, through a second cliché involving water. As the scene opens, Norman, who has also been pondering Letty's problem, tells her, "It never rains but it pours." The coincidence of two minds drawing upon related figures of speech bridges the gap between the scenes.

Similarly, in the "Christmas" chapter, the movement from Letty's experiences to Norman's is accomplished through a momentary alignment of feeling, if not of thought. In the after-dinner gloom of Mrs. Pope's house, Letty grows bored and frustrated, until she remembers that the larger shops will be having their sales soon, hence, that she can while away her time by making purchases; then, we are told, "her spirits suddenly lifted." With the very next sentence, we leap to Norman's Christmas dinner at his brother-in-law's, where we find him speaking "with unusual jollity." Although the circumstances and the causes are different, the emotion is the same, and it provides a connection between the characters that eases us out of Letty's world and into Norman's.

Perhaps the most extended use of this kind of linking occurs in chapter 19, as Marcia lies dying in the hospital. Letty discusses with Mrs. Pope the question of what to send her former co-worker, deciding first upon a book, then "on a bottle of lavender water, the kind of thing that could be dashed on the brow of a patient not allowed visitors," as her reflections conclude. The scene that follows immediately plunges us into the consciousness of a character whose mind we have not entered before, Dr. Strong, the surgeon treating Marcia. The leap is accomplished by means of Letty's gift, which must have arrived and been put to use:

Lavender. Mr Strong detected the scent of it above the hospital smells. It reminded him of his grandmother, not at all the kind of thing one associated with Miss Ivory, but on the other hand why should he have been surprised that Miss Ivory should smell of lavender? The really surprising thing was that he should have noticed anything at all like that about a patient, but the scent, that powerful evocator of memory, had caught him unaware, and for a brief moment he—consultant surgeon at this eminent London teaching hospital and with a lucrative private practice in Harley Street—was a boy of seven again.

The smell of lavender becomes a stimulus for the workings of involuntary memory and a means by which Pym can fill in somewhat the otherwise sketchy portrait of the doctor. Later in this scene, however, the sensation of the lavender water, "a cool, wet feeling on her forehead," also provides a transition out of Mr. Strong's consciousness and into Marcia's. Thus, in these three brief paragraphs we move through three different minds. Although we receive no guidance from the narrator, each shift in point of view is easy to follow, yoked as it is to something tangible (i.e., the lavender water).

Unlike a novel by Austen, which is always built on a single, continuous plot line and held together by a sustained narrative tone of voice, Quartet in Autumn is composed of bits and pieces such as those above: short sequences, isolated reflections, episodes involving little or no action, and conversations that appear to be exchanges of non sequiturs. The chapters themselves are extremely brief, often a mere five or six pages in length, and are divided, as in the preceding example, into separate scenes of less than one page each. To create unity out of these fragments, however, Pym does not rely on consistent tone, as Austen would; indeed, the narrator here is almost invisible and is certainly never a personality in her own right. Instead, the unity of the novel as a whole derives largely from the repetition of words, phrases, and even of imagery, as in a poem. Again, this is a technique uncommon in conventional comedy of manners, but quite the rule in modernist fiction. In Mrs. Dalloway, for instance, the recurrence at regular intervals of a line from Shakespeare's Cymbeline ("Fear no more the heat o' the sun") or of the description of Big Ben's chimes ("The leaden circles dissolved in the air") creates an effect of continuity and circularity. In Quartet in Autumn, too, the insistent repetition of numerous motifs gives the reader something familiar to hold onto amid the shifts and digressions.

Several of these motifs are associated with Marcia, who unwittingly acts as the agent drawing together the quartet: first, as the "problem" to which the other three must react; then, after her death, as the giver of the house around which a new circle may be formed (with Letty's friend, Marjorie, in her place). Marcia's frequent declaration, "I've never been a big eater," rings throughout the novel, acquiring an ironic significance as she deliberately starves herself. By the end, however, the phrase has also become a bond between the dead Marcia and Norman, the inheritor of her house. Repeating it allows Norman, usually the least sentimental member of the group, to express his hitherto unsuspected feelings for her. On the first occasion, at the meal after her funeral, we are told that "Norman's voice seemed as if it might break on these words but he controlled himself." In the final scene of the novel, his reminder to the others—"Never a big eater, she used to say"—serves to invoke her presence and to reunite in spirit the members of the original quartet, the survivors of which are gathered in Marcia's kitchen.

Similarly, Marcia's cryptic assertions that she has had "a major operation" and had "something removed" (her euphemisms for a mastectomy) provide a focus for thought throughout the novel, both for herself and others. Edwin and Norman discuss her operation; Edwin speculates about it, as he passes a magazine stand covered with photographs of bare bosoms; Marcia herself feels, with mingled pride and embarrassment, that it sets her apart from her co-workers at the retirement party; it even becomes a topic of conversation at the quartet's last luncheon together. Occasions that are unrelated in terms of action prove to be linked through a sort of congruence of consciousness, as the minds of the characters return again and again to a few key ideas.

Perhaps the most important motif is one suggested by the novel's title. Associations, both obvious and obscure, with autumn dominate the book. Despite the juggling of time in individual episodes, the general movement of Quartet in Autumn is circular. Indeed, this is a novel about four inner lives set not merely against social backgrounds, but against the natural changes of the seasons, beginning one spring and ending in October of the following year. The season is more than scenery alone; it is also a source of recurring figures of speech. When Norman adds up the days of leave from work owed to him, we are told that "he felt that those extra days would never be needed, but would accumulate like a pile of dead leaves drifting on to the pavement in autumn." Later, the correspondence between the cycles of nature and the life cycles of the characters is emphasized by the narrator's remarks "on the retirement of Letty and Marcia, which seemed as inevitable as the falling of the leaves in autumn, for which no kind of preparation needed to be made." The cliché about the old as being "in the autumn of their lives" is made new again by Pym. The similes involving fading and falling leaves serve for us, as much as for the character of Letty, as "reminders of her own mortality or, regarded less poetically, the different stages towards death." In Mrs. Dalloway, Clarissa's frequent meditations upon death, which occur even during her happiest moments, steel the audience psychologically against the shock of Septimus's later suicide. In Pym's novel, too, the insistent use of figurative language that draws upon death keeps us continually aware of the characters' plight and prepares us, in particular, for Marcia's end.

From the notion of natural decay and disintegration comes a host of references to falling. On one occasion, the quartet ponders the situation of an old woman living in the streets, a person whom Norman describes as "a good example of somebody who's fallen through the net of the welfare state." With ironic prescience, he then announces heartily, "Oh, well, that's another thing we've all got coming to us, or at least the possibility—falling through the net of the welfare state." By the novel's end, of course, it is Marcia who has fulfilled the prediction; Janice Brabner, the social worker, thinks to herself, "Miss [Marcia] Ivory might be said to have fallen through the net, that dreaded phrase…." A discussion of falling also ensues when Letty searches for new lodgings. Initially, Mrs. Pope takes her in to calm her own fears of being alone in an emergency: "If one fell downstairs or tripped over a rug and was unable to get up …" she says, unwilling to complete the thought. Letty, in turn, independently raises the same subject during her first night at Mrs. Pope's house: "In the sleepless hours she heard footsteps on the landing and a sudden thump. Supposing Mrs Pope had a fall? She was an elderly person and heavy—lifting her would be difficult." The next day, Norman, whose greatest pleasure lies in gloomy imaginings, warns Letty about living with Mrs. Pope: "You must watch out that you don't get landed with an elderly person and all that entails … she might fall, you know." Letty's answer, which contains both a literal and a symbolic truth, hints at the reason for all this talk of falling: "'Yes, that thought came to me in the night,' said Letty, 'but it might happen to anyone. We could all fall.'" The narrator's terse comment upon this remark—"Nobody seemed inclined to go into the deeper implications of what Letty had just said"—reminds us discreetly that there are indeed deeper implications and that death is never far away in this novel. The awareness of its approach is, ultimately, what brings together these four aging people. In the same way, our recognition of it as a constant presence helps to bring together the book's many small episodes into a whole. Death as an action gives the novel a plot; but its repeated use in imagery and in figurative language gives Quartet in Autumn something far more important in a modernist novel, a unified texture, that acts upon us subliminally.

To a modernist, as opposed to a novelist of manners in the mold of Austen, such appeals to the subconscious are indispensable. Indeed, consciousness itself is defined by modernists as an amalgam of rational thoughts and of those below the level of reason. A twentieth-century psychological novelist usually will try to engage all of the reader's levels of perception and, in turn, to display both the conscious and subconscious impulses of the fictional characters.

In Quartet in Autumn, we do know about the four principal figures what a conventional novelist of manners would tell us: their ages: their physical characteristics; their ways of dressing, speaking, and moving; their tastes; their social positions. We know, too, their intellectual judgments, their opinions of each other in particular and of the world at large. But we learn more than this. We also receive frequent glimpses of their subconscious or only half-conscious feelings and perceptions. Such information does not help to place them on any scale of good or bad conduct, whether moral or social; neither does it advance the action of the novel. Its sole function is to convey consciousness itself. The assumption behind its use is a modernist one, that speech and gesture are insufficient guides to character, because each human personality is a jumble of memories, dreams, and daydreams that are never made visible to others.

Pym's depiction of consciousness varies from situation to situation. There are, on the one hand, many scenes that offer us only the quartet's most logical and coherent thoughts, those which, though left unspoken, could easily be articulated. When, for example, Marcia turns up in an eccentric outfit, the narrator relates the impressions of each of her coworkers:

Edwin, who was not particularly observant, did realise that she was wearing an odd assortment of garments but did not think she looked much different from usual. Norman thought, poor old girl, obviously going round the bend. Letty, as a clothes-conscious woman, was appalled—that anyone could get to the stage of caring so little about her appearance, of not even noticing how she looked….

Here, thought is drawn upon in a straightforward, almost superficial, way, as a kind of shorthand. Presenting these contrasting reactions allows the narrator first to emphasize Marcia's strangeness and then to distinguish the temperaments of the three co-workers from one another, to "type" them. Thus, we can be both told and shown here that Edwin is unobservant and that Letty is vain.

But there are also passages in which a character's thoughts are pursued at length and in detail to create more complex effects, closer to those of stream-of-consciousness narration, which mirrors the involuntary movement of our mental processes. Such an instance occurs when Norman, wandering through London on his lunch hour, finds himself in a park. The incident is trivial in itself; the description of his thoughts during it has no bearing whatever upon the plot. The scene exists purely as a revelation of the workings of consciousness, as if to suggest that characterization is incomplete without such peeks into the private world of the mind:

Norman gravitated towards the girls playing netball and sat down uneasily. He could not analyse the impulse that had brought him there, an angry little man whose teeth hurt—angry at the older men who, like himself, formed the majority of the spectators round the netball pitch, angry at the semi-nudity of the long-haired boys and girls lying on the grass, angry at the people sitting on seats eating sandwiches or sucking iced lollies and cornets and throwing the remains on the ground. As he watched the netball girls, leaping and cavorting in their play, the word "lechery" came into his head and something about "grinning like a dog," a phrase in the psalms, was it; then he thought of the way some dogs did appear to grin, their tongues lolling out. After a few minutes' watching he got up and made his way back to the office, dissatisfied with life. Only the sight of a wrecked motor car … gave him the kind of lift Marcia had experienced on hearing the bell of the ambulance, but then he remembered that an abandoned car had been parked outside the house where he lived for some days, and the police or the council ought to do something about it, and that made him angry again.

We know Austen's heroes through what they say or do or, sometimes, through the letters they write. But we know Pym's Norman through the images and associations that pervade his consciousness. He becomes identified, in particular, with the image of the dog that we find here. Indeed, at the novel's end, the proof that he has been changed by inheriting Marcia's house comes not through his actions or dialogue, but through a subtle alteration in this image summoned up from his memory:

All the same, he was now a house-owner and it was up to him to decide what to do with the property…. The fact that the decision rested with him … gave him quite a new, hitherto unexperienced sensation—a good feeling, like a dog with two tails, as people sometimes put it—and he walked to the bus stop with his head held high.

The grinning dog becomes a more benign creature (i.e., a dog with two tails) as Norman's anger, which arises from a sense of impotence and lack of control over his own fate, begins to dissipate. The narrator may speak lightly of Norman as resembling "a tetchy little dog"; but such an observation grows suggestive when it is coupled with this view into Norman's psyche, through which we see the importance of the canine imagery to him. While seeming, in the passages above, to be tracing mere random thoughts, Pym is in fact establishing the pattern of consciousness that makes this individual unique.

Pym follows Virginia Woolf's famous command in "Modern Fiction" to "Examine for a moment an ordinary mind on an ordinary day." She finds, as did Woolf herself in Mrs. Dalloway, that the "ordinary mind" contains unexpected but revealing patterns. These patterns can often tell us more about character psychology than can dialogue and gestures. The latter may, on the contrary, mislead the observer completely. Characters in Quartet in Autumn are continually misjudging each other on the basis of speech and action. At the retirement party in chapter 12, for instance, Letty's modest and hesitant demeanor causes her to be classified by her fellows "as a typical English spinster about to retire to a cottage in the country, where she would be … doing gardening and needlework." Only through another passage focusing upon consciousness do we learn the truth about Letty's feelings towards the country—that she associates it merely with death and dying, and that it makes her suicidal:

Letty … looked around the wood, remembering its autumn carpet of beech leaves and wondering if it could be the kind of place to lie down in and prepare for death when life became too much to be endured. Had an old person—a pensioner, of course—ever been found in such a situation? No doubt it would be difficult to lie undiscovered for long…. It was not the kind of fancy she could … dwell on too much herself. Danger lay in that direction.

Letty's manner may be that of a cheerful "spinster," eager to get on with domestic tasks; the privileged view, however, that the reader has of Letty's mind belies this assumption. She is, through much of the novel, deeply melancholy, oppressed by thoughts of impending extinction and by memories of lost opportunities. Pym uses both daydreams, such as the one above, and true dreams to show us this concealed side of Letty's nature. Perhaps the most significant of these is the lengthy dream recounted in chapter 2. A blend of fantasy and remembrance of actual events, it returns Letty to the year 1935 and to what seems to have been her last chance to experience love. In the dream, as in reality, Letty allows the moment of decision to pass. She awakens in a mood of regret and puzzlement, "meditating on the strangeness of life, slipping away like this." Hers is an emotion far gloomier than any to be found in Jane Austen's novels, even in Austen's most atypical work, Persuasion, a story of nostalgia for a past love. Letty's despair is never expressed in her behavior, for she believes in "holding neatly and firmly on to life, coping as best she could with whatever it had to offer," as befits her genteel upbringing; but it informs both her conscious and subconscious thoughts, as Pym's exploration of her mind makes plain.

Through Letty, too, Pym introduces one of the novel's most important themes, an attack upon manners. Far from acknowledging proper social behavior as the highest good, Quartet in Autumn tells us instead that forms and conventions can be obstacles to happiness. Pym begins with the modernist assumption that every psyche is an island unto itself and that loneliness is mankind's usual condition. She then shows, through Letty, how social rules only serve to increase and to intensify feelings of isolation. The novel's opening chapter, for instance, contains an episode that illustrates the pitfalls of social relations in general. As Letty dines alone in a restaurant inappropriately named the Rendezvous, a stranger happens to sit at her table. The woman makes a tentative move toward addressing Letty; but the latter, a model of social correctness, repels her advances. In Jane Austen's world, Letty's conduct would be praised. But for Pym, a modernist who sees life as tragic, as a procession of isolated souls toward the grave, whatever keeps people apart must be wrong. As the narrator, who is reflecting Letty's own thoughts, informs us,

For all her apparent indifference she was not unaware of the situation. Somebody had reached out towards her. They could have spoken and a link might have been forged between two solitary people. But the other woman … was now bent rather low over her macaroni au gratin. It was too late for any kind of gesture. Once again Letty had failed to make contact.

The highest moral values in Quartet in Autumn are not, as in fiction of manners, truth and propriety; rather, they are tolerance of the shortcomings of one's fellow man and willingness to "make contact" with him.

Finally, we see the difference between Pym's modernism and Austen's traditionalism in their attitudes toward how to conclude a story. The aim of fiction of manners is to affirm stasis by resolving differences and fixing the relations among the characters permanently. In Austen's novels, a happy ending means an end to uncertainty. Characters whose proper connections with each other have been in doubt settle the question through marriage. The reader is asked to believe that these new social configurations, which mirror a higher universal order, will last forever. In the final pages of Austen's novels, the social configurations themselves, rather than the thoughts of the individuals concerned, seem to become all important.

Pym, however, rejects the notion of a permanent resolution as either possible or even desirable; she also keeps our attention upon the minds of her characters, not on their situations, to the last. At the conclusion of Quartet in Autumn, the three surviving members of the group are left with all their major decisions still before them: where to live; how to live; whether to grow more intimate with one another; whether to open their circle to Letty's friend, Marjorie. Yet, although nothing has been settled, we are asked to consider this a happy ending. The characters' positions in the world have not improved so much as have their attitudes towards their fates. For the first time they feel, as Letty puts it, that they "have a choice" about their ways of life, and it is "a most agreeable sensation, almost a feeling of power." Having believed all along that their futures were fixed and could offer nothing but a predictable slide toward oblivion, they discover instead that "life still held infinite possibilities for change," the revelation with which the book ends. In change lies the opportunity for stimulation, surprise, and challenge, values opposed to the stable ideals usually reasserted at the climax of a novel of manners.

It is no accident that Quartet in Autumn concludes with the word "change." To a modernist, flux is the very essence of life. As we see throughout Pym's novel, time leaps backwards and forwards; consciousness shifts in a moment between present and past, between reason and flights of imagination; nature, too, represents a cycle of change, moving from one season to the next. By welcoming and embracing change, instead of stasis, for her characters, Pym proves that she is not a reactionary who imitates Austen, as some have claimed, but a novelist with a distinctly twentieth-century sensibility. For her, as for other great modernists such as Virginia Woolf, the inner life in motion is the true source of both coherence and beauty in fiction.

Jill Rubenstein (essay date Winter 1986)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3852

SOURCE: "'For the Ovaltine Had Loosened Her Tongue': Failures of Speech in Barbara Pym's Less Than Angels," in Modern Fiction Studies, Vol. 32, No. 4, Winter, 1986, pp. 573-80.

[In the following essay, Rubenstein examines the difficulties of self-expression and interpersonal communication among male and female characters in Pym's novels as a source of humor and pathos.]

"Well, hardly that," ventured Belinda, growing a little more confidential, for the Ovaltine had loosened her tongue. "I mean, it's a bit late for anything like that, isn't it? Henry is always loyal to Agatha and feels quite differently about her," she added hastily, in case her sister should take her up wrongly.

             —Barbara Pym, Some Tame Gazelle

Barbara Pym's best novels meticulously and often hilariously examine the problem of imperfect or totally failed communication, the primary source of both comedy and gloom in her vision of human relations. It need be noted only fleetingly that men and women can rarely talk to each other in Pym's novels. Her male characters are generally exploitive, although not intentionally cruel, almost always egotistical, frequently pompous, insensitive, and patronizing, sometimes endearingly childlike, but hardly ever as smart or discerning as the women who endure them and love them. Although Pym's women generally display considerably greater intelligence, sensitivity, and self-awareness than her men, they enjoy little more success in communication, even with the most benevolent intentions toward each other. Critics have frequently noted the triumph of the ordinary in Pym's novels and her glorification of the pleasures of everyday life. Ordinary routines such as housework, cooking, and shopping may indeed help to preserve sanity and even offer a source of joy. However, for many of Pym's characters the ordinary falls far short of the heart's desire. To compensate for the inadequacies of quotidian existence, they exercise a transforming imagination upon the dull and occasionally burdensome activities of daily life. This ability sharply distinguishes them from Pym's male characters, who exercise their imagination only upon themselves, whereas the women use imagination to transfigure their worlds, including, of course, their men.

Toward the end of Less Than Angels, Pym quotes a significant passage from Austen's Persuasion:

While Delia and Felicity had been trained for careers, Elaine had been the one to stay at home. She might, if she had come upon them, have copied out Anne Elliott's words especially as she was the same age as Miss Austen's heroine: "We certainly do not forget you so soon as you forget us. It is, perhaps, our fate rather than our merit. We cannot help ourselves. We live at home, quiet, confined, and our feelings prey upon us. You are forced on exertion. You have always business of some sort or other to take you back into the world immediately, and continual occupation and change soon weaken impressions."

Because they are imprisoned in the routine of common domestic life, Pym's female characters suffer the pain of loss and disappointment with considerably greater sharpness and duration than do her male characters. Consequently, many of them endure or escape this pain through the imaginative transformation of their limited milieux. As a result, these women often inhabit fictive worlds of their own creation and find themselves incapable of successful communication with other women who live either wholly in the real world or in different fictive worlds. Between or among these characters, language loses its effectiveness, interpretation fails to function, and meanings become hopelessly indeterminate. The effects vary from high comedy to touching poignancy and usually coexist in close juxtaposition within the same novel. That this phenomenon occurs with such remarkable consistency in Pym's fiction suggests a reexamination of her attitude toward the trivial and ordinary round of life. Like Catherine Oliphant in Less Than Angels, Pym's most engaging female characters regularly metamorphose reality through their imagination, whereas her least sympathetic ones remain bound to the limitations of actuality.

The theory of speech acts, first developed by J. L. Austin and John Searle and later applied to literary criticism by Mary Louise Pratt, Barbara Herrnstein Smith, and Stanley Fish, provides a useful conceptual tool for examining the failures of speech in these novels. Austin inaugurated speech act theory in his identification of the "performative," an utterance that is itself the performance of an action, such as "I promise you" or "I marry you." As an action rather than the account of an action, these utterances cannot be judged as true or false but must be seen instead as either successful or unsuccessful. Austin emphasizes the ceremonial and ritualistic nature of speech acts and the necessity for certain procedures, conventions, and states of mind to accompany their successful performance. Failures of speech, "infelicities" or "misfires," occur when these conditions are not properly or fully observed by both speaker and listener. Austin implies, therefore, that a felicitous speech act cannot be unilateral and that mutual consent is necessary for its successful completion.

Extending Austin's work, Searle applies it to the vexed question of distinguishing between real and fictive. He postulates the existence of a "shared pretense" that allows fiction to exist, a complex of conventions to which storyteller and reader have willingly acceded. This "shared pretense" allows the creation of a fictional world and distinguishes fiction from both mendacity and from "serious speech." That is, it permits the licensed use of words that do not refer to reality. Pratt suggests that it is this "shared pretense" ("appropriateness conditions" or "felicity conditions" in Austin's terms) that enables us to define literary genres and subgenres. The reader, and perhaps especially the reader of comedy, must then examine what occurs when two or more different groups of "appropriateness conditions" prevail between writer and reader or between separate parties to the same conversation. Would an attempt at communication necessarily turn out to be "infelicitous" or unsuccessful if one participant assumed the prevalence of a set of "appropriateness conditions" (or generic conventions) quite divergent from those assumed by other participants?

Implicitly addressing this as well as other questions, Smith employs speech act theory to distinguish between "natural discourse" and "fictive discourse." Whereas "natural discourse" is a verbal act historically identifiable in time and place and governed by the assumption "that people usually mean what they say," "fictive discourse" is the representation of the verbal act of natural discourse and is governed by the suspension of this assumption. Another difference between the two kinds of discourse depends upon the distinction between determinate and indeterminate meanings. A natural utterance will most likely have (possibly several) determinate meanings governed by historical circumstances and linguistic conventions. However, because a fictive utterance is understood not to be an historical occurrence, that is, not something that actually happened at a given time and place in the historical universe, its meanings are necessarily indeterminate or historically unfixable. This difference provides a functional description of what happens in many Pym novels. One character or participant in a conversation speaks "natural discourse" whereas the other consciously or unconsciously builds a fictive or fanciful structure from the same situation; the two speakers bring to the conversation two quite different sets of assumptions about the mode of existence of their verbal exchange, and the unspoken but unbridgeable gap precludes successful communication.

Fish extends and modifies speech act theory in his construct of "interpretive communities," the multiplicity of public and conventional points of view that authorize meaning. Communication, he argues, occurs only within interpretive communities, and meaning is determinate only within "institutional" contexts. Although he asserts that all utterances require interpretation and are therefore subject to misinterpretation (or what Austin calls "infelicity"), Fish does acknowledge the distinction between the "interpretive confidence" of ordinary discourse, especially face-to-face conversation, and the inherent indeterminacy of fiction. He expands Austin's idea of "dimensions of assessment" to the concept of "standard story," our sense of what is reality or what is normally supposed to exist. For Fish, we are each characters acting within our own standard stories; because the standard story may differ substantially from one person to another, "what may be fiction for the characters in one standard story will be obvious and commonsense truth for characters in another."

Regarded in the light of speech act theory, Less Than Angels may be read as a series of ill-fated conversations or interviews among women who are genuinely fond of each other and sincerely wish to confide in one another. More often than not, however, the interviews go awry, frequently with superb comic impact, so that two characters who begin earnestly discussing the profundities of love and death are likely to retreat quickly to gossip or pleasantries. What occurs between them is not a communion of souls but a breakdown in interpretation in which the appearance of unmediated face-to-face communication is revealed as illusory, primarily because one of the conversationalists habitually transforms the world of reality (or "natural discourse") into the world of imagination (or "fictive discourse"). Her words, therefore, refer not to a shared "standard story" to which they both subscribe, or even to a "shared pretense" they have tacitly agreed to accept, but rather to a system of referents to which the listener has no access. In Fish's terms, the characters only appear to be members of the same "interpretive communities." But although this concept would seem to provide a perfect description of the very limited socio-economic and geographical region that the characters of Less Than Angels inhabit, it does not necessarily apply; because Pym's characters frequently speak from fictive or dramatic realms of their own creation, other characters fail to recognize in their discourse what Smith calls "the cues that identify fictiveness." The failures of speech are often funny for the reader but baffling to the characters, who are left with the disquieting sense that no information has been conveyed and nothing has been said.

Less Than Angels (1955), Pym's fourth novel, most clearly illustrates failures of interpretation and infelicities of speech acts. To a great extent, the novel is about language itself and the comic, sad, and occasionally liberating misfires of language. Pym zestfully gives the novel an academic background modeled on the International African Institute where she worked for many years. Here it is an unspecified "anthropological library and research center" presided over by the insufferably pompous Professor Felix Mainwaring and the officious Esther Clovis and harboring a collection of eccentric anthropologists and scruffy graduate students, a fertile comic field for demonstrations of noncommunication and misinterpretation. Fittingly, the most audible denizens of the research center are the anthropological linguists Miss Lydgate and Father Gemini, fascinated by discourse that has no meaning whatsoever:

"I was interested in what appeared to be something quite new," said Miss Lydgate, drawing Father Gemini almost by his beard into a more secluded part of the room. "Was it this?" A very curious sound, which it is impossible to reproduce here, then came from her. Had she been in the company of ordinary people, it might have been supposed that something had gone down the wrong way and that she was choking, but here nobody took any particular notice of her or of Father Gemini when he cried excitedly, "No, no, it is this!" and proceeded to emit a sound which would have appeared to the uninitiated exactly the same as Miss Lydgate's choking noise.

It is thus most fitting that Father Gemini purloins the Foresight grant money in order to finance his studies of "The hill tribes … A few hundreds living on each hill and each group speaking a different language, totally unrelated to that of any of the others!" Pym's scholars practice what may be the ultimate devaluation of language, inserting Latin and Greek into learned essays "to avoid giving offense to those who probably cannot understand it anyway." Academic language, therefore, exists at least thrice removed from the actual speech act, the ritual in the African bush first observed by the anthropologist, then described in English, then translated into Latin, so that by the end of this series of interpretive acts language achieves its goal of totally obfuscating communication.

The comic catastrophe in this world of useless language appropriately occurs as the failure of a speech act precisely as Austin describes a verbal "misfire," the promise not fulfilled. Minnie Foresight had promised the grants for deserving graduate students to Professor Mainwaring, but she had not actually given him the money, thus affording the opportunity for Father Gemini to convince the gullible lady that she should finance his research instead. The performative ("I promise") misfires and cannot be executed, rendering the speech act void. This revelation, however, provides the circumstances for one of the very few successful interview scenes in Pym's fiction. Miss Clovis and Miss Lydgate argue bitterly over a speech act that never occurred, the warning of Father Gemini's intended perfidy. But their quarrel leads to a successful performative, forgiveness, which is touchingly and doubly verbal. As penance, Miss Lydgate resolves to withhold from Father Gemini her research on the Gana verb, thus invalidating his work; but Miss Clovis selflessly dissuades her from doing so, citing its paramount importance to scholarship. The comedy of the scene does not vitiate its poignance. The reader understands that the research is meaningless, and the two women are graceless and generally ridiculous; nevertheless, they achieve a mutual understanding more complete than most Pym characters ever manage.

Failures of speech in Less Than Angels are not confined to the absurdities of the academic world; they also pervade the cozy suburban milieu of the Swans. Like many Pym characters, the two middle-aged sisters, Mabel Swan and Rhoda Wellcome, find the meaning of their lives in ordinary, ordered domesticity. Even in this conventional and safe enclave, however, language frequently fails to convey discernible meaning. Conscientiously listening to a radio lecture, "something about the betrayal of freedom," the sisters conclude that they cannot understand it because the tape is being played at the wrong speed. Similarly, the substance of religion becomes a meaningless babble as Rhoda summarizes Father Tulliver's "little talk about the meaning of Pentecost": "'Oh, it is Jewish or Greek in origin,' said Rhoda in a flustered tone, 'and Paraclete, that is Greek too. Come thou Holy Paraclete, you know the hymn. I think we'd better have the lace mats, don't you?'" To exploit the comic potential of verbal infelicity, Pym brings the two worlds together in a suburban dinner party. Rhoda "had imagined that the presence of what she thought of as clever people would bring about some subtle change in the usual small talk. The sentences would be like bright jugglers' balls, spinning through the air and being deftly caught and thrown up again." As the table talk burns to the fondness of African tribes for putrescent meat and their rather primitive culinary practices, however, Rhoda realizes "that conversation could also be compared to a series of incongruous objects, scrubbing-brushes, dish-cloths, knives, being flung or hurtling rather than spinning, which were sometimes not caught at all but fell to the ground with resounding thuds."

Next door to the Swans, Alaric Lydgate cultivates reverie behind his African mask:

He often thought what a good thing it would be if the wearing of masks or animals' heads could become customary for persons over a certain age. How restful social intercourse would be if the face did not have to assume any expression…. Alaric often avoided looking into people's eyes when he spoke to them, fearful of what he might see there, for life was very terrible whatever sort of front we might put on it, and only the eyes of the very young or the very old and wise could look out on it with a clear untroubled gaze.

Like Catherine Oliphant, Alaric takes pleasure in perusing wine lists for the pure joy of words that require no interpretation at all. Both activities offer imaginative escape from loneliness and from the world's desolation; and because they are pursued in solitude, they require no communication and thus afford no room for misinterpretation. Alaric seeks a verbal transformation of the world that is totally satisfying because it entails no "felicity conditions" dependent on another person. Ultimately, with Catherine's inspiration, he liberates himself from the prison of language, immolating his anthropological notes in a Guy Fawkes Night bonfire, finally freed from the self-imposed responsibility of "writing them up." When the burden of interpretation becomes intolerable and paralyzing, Alaric finds that the only escape lies in destruction of the verbal construct. Once the imagination has been thus liberated, the ensuing freedom may lead even to art. "I shall be free to do whatever I want to. I shall still review books, of course, but I could even write a novel, I suppose."

Catherine Oliphant, the protagonist of Less Than Angels, most clearly exemplifies the limits of interpretation and the consequent failure of utterance. By profession a writer, she instinctively fictionalizes reality: "she earned her living writing stories and articles for women's magazines and had to draw her inspiration from everyday life, though life itself was sometimes too strong and raw and must be made palatable by fancy…." Catherine possesses a vivid imagination, pictorial as well as verbal, susceptible to the slightest suggestion. Her lover's self-dramatizing declaration of a loss of faith (in anthropology!) immediately brings to mind "the picture—surely a sepia daguerrotype—of a high-collared, bewhiskered Victorian clergyman, his beliefs undermined by Darwin and the rationalists." Similarly, a casual allusion to "Baron's Court" elicits a vision "of feudal spaciousness, although she knew that it was only one station beyond West Kensington." Catherine employs this fictionalizing habit of mind as a distancing device and a defense; the Pym reader discovers in another novel that her accidental sighting of Tom Mallow and Deirdre Swan holding hands in the Cypriot restaurant becomes the raw material for a story. However, although the tendency to treat life as fiction may both insulate and isolate because it makes interpretation difficult if not impossible, in Catherine's case it enhances the imagination and thus the capacity for sympathy. It allows her to anticipate Rhoda's reaction to Tom's death as she envisions the scenes taking place in the older woman's mind:

Catherine saw past Rhoda's shocked face into her thoughts, the shouting mob of black bodies brandishing spears, or the sly arrow, tipped with poison for which there was no known antidote, fired from an overhanging jungle tree … and again Catherine saw her picture of Tom, the British anthropologist in immaculate white shorts and topee, note-book and pencil in hand.

Even before Tom Mallow leaves her for Deirdre, Catherine regards the world in her darker moments as a universe of meaningless babble, of "confused alarms of struggle and flight" to which no interpretation can grant significance. Quoting the last stanza of "Dover Beach" to Tom, she feels compelled to add that it is "not a comfortable poem." Notwithstanding her fondness for poetry, Catherine derives no real solace from language; on the night of Tom's departure, she searches in her bookshelf for consolation but finds none. Pym's words are eloquent, terse, and dark: "The only real book of devotion she had … told her that we are strangers and pilgrims here and must endure the heart's banishment, and she felt that she knew that anyway." After Tom dies, Catherine turns once again to poetry, this time Vaughan's "They Are All Gone Into the World of Light." Like her impulsive visit to the Roman Catholic church, however, it leaves her with no assurances, only an unanswered question.

Pym structures Catherine's story around a series of abortive or otherwise unsatisfactory conversations. After seeing Tom and Deirdre holding hands, Catherine first feels the need for a confidant but has none and so must rely instead on the dubious and impersonal comfort of a self-service restaurant and the bizarre conversation of strangers whom she labels "black-beetle" and "leopard-hat." Shortly thereafter, Catherine's habit of fictionalizing reality redeems the awkwardness of the interview with Mrs. Beddoes, Tom's aunt. To distance herself from the immediate situation she thinks of it as an opera libretto or an Edwardian novel, and to relieve tension she focuses her imagination on the cookies:

"Do have a biscuit. I hope you like Bourbons. They always remind me of exiled European royalty, and that's one of those sad but comforting thoughts that one likes to have. Do you suppose they sit around in their villas at Estoril eating Bourbon biscuits?"

Mrs. Beddoes threw Catherine a startled glance but took a biscuit.

Catherine's interviews with Deirdre Swan, the young woman who supplants her in Tom's affections, are less ludicrous but no more successful as communication. After a suitable interval, they meet for lunch, both hoping to be friends. Despite the best of intentions, however, they patronize each other, Deirdre as the anthropologist-in-training who alone will properly appreciate Tom's doctoral thesis and Catherine as the older and more experienced of the two. Speech fails, and intimacy proves elusive as Catherine withdraws into "her women's magazine tone" in order to discourage any discussion of "the deeper passions." After Tom's death, while Catherine is staying in the Swans' spare room, the two women once again attempt to establish an emotional bond. Deirdre's grief is inarticulate but superficial; she has already fallen in love again and is easily soothed by Catherine's verbal facility. Catherine's grief, however, is considerably more profound and remains unassuaged. Speech fails to penetrate her essential isolation, and the conversation trails off into meaningless clichés.

The final interview scene, the lugubrious luncheon at Tom's sister's club, combines pathos with comedy and reinforces the theme of failures of interpretation. Deirdre and Catherine join Elaine, Tom's first and lasting love, and his sister, the "brisk" and "practical" Josephine, whose vocabulary appears limited largely to "good show." (On those rare occasions in which the upper classes appear in Pym's novels, they are generally portrayed as thoroughly ineffectual, suitably represented here by the Mallow family, whose various members seem incapable of uttering anything more complicated than "Well Tom.") As is her wont, Catherine smooths over the underlying tension, but the luncheon ends painfully for her as Josephine gratuitously reveals the existence of Tom's last letter, the ultimate infelicity, the written utterance interrupted by death:

I don't suppose anybody told you, I suppose nobody would, really, but a half-written letter to Elaine was found on the table in Tom's hut. The District Officer sent it with some small personal things. It was a nice chatty letter, you know, but at least she is able to know that he was thinking of her so very shortly before the end.

Like most of Pym's novels, Less Than Angels ends inconclusively with Catherine helping Alaric Lydgate to gather rhubarb in his garden. The epitome of resilience and self-reliance, she will survive nicely with or without him. Just before Tom left her, Catherine had inquired, "Who understands anybody, if it comes to that?" In Pym's characteristically understated manner, the question demonstrates her protagonist's accommodation to a world in which interpretation is all but impossible and language—whether casual or scholarly or literary—almost invariably unreliable. The most complicated and self-aware of Pym's characters, Catherine Oliphant earns the reader's respect by facing that truth unflinchingly.

Mason Cooley (essay date Spring 1986)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3949

SOURCE: "The Sweet Dove Died: The Sexual Politics of Narcissism," in Twentieth Century Literature, Vol. 32, No. 1, Spring, 1986, pp. 40-9.

[In the following essay, Cooley contends that The Sweet Dove Died is among Pym's most effective literary creations. According to Cooley, "The book is a triumph of artistic consistency and economy, yet it is the coldest and most unforgiving of Barbara Pym's novels."]

Considered from a purely aesthetic point of view, The Sweet Dove Died is the most brilliant success of Barbara Pym's career. It lacks the geniality and fun of her earlier work, but it is written with a tense economy that generates greater force than the rather relaxed storytelling of its immediate predecessors, A Glass of Blessings and An Unsuitable Attachment. During the years of silence, Barbara Pym worked on The Sweet Dove Died, cutting, polishing, and recasting with a passion for perfection apparently deepened by her inability to find a publisher. She was never a slack or a casual writer, but after she began publishing in 1950, she wrote quickly and easily enough to bring out a novel every other year for the next decade. When her troubles with publishers began in 1961, she apparently responded in part by adopting a more severe and self-critical artistic standard. The results are The Sweet Dove Died and Quartet in Autumn, both masterpieces of condensation and lucidity—two qualities that do not often go together. Built on a series of love triangles, the plot of The Sweet Dove Died represents tangled and mismatched loves with great conciseness and richness of implication.

The greatest achievement of all in The Sweet Dove Died is its remarkable heroine: cold, elegant Leonora Eyre, incapable of passion but capable of heartbreak, strong-willed but finally miserable and helpless in her self-absorption. The exploration of Leonora's character so dominates the book that it might well have been titled Portrait of a Lady. Indeed, Leonora shares with James's lady, Isabel Archer, a distaste for sexual relations and disruptive emotion, and like Isabel she mistakes a rather decadent interest in collecting for an aesthetic passion. She is perhaps the Hermione of D. H. Lawrence's Women in Love as seen by a woman, and she has similarities to the mother in James's Spoils of Poynton, with her invincible love of beautiful possessions, and her subordination of human relations to them.

The book is a triumph of artistic consistency and economy, yet it is also the coldest and most unforgiving of Barbara Pym's novels. The irony is always verging on the sardonic, and the geniality and high spirits of Pym's earlier work are nowhere in evidence. The mood is one of carefully restrained bitterness, and the portrayal of character bites deeper and reveals more ambivalence than ever before. Not one of the characters is truly likable, yet every one of them except Ned, the American, forces the reader to extend a certain sympathy. Their suffering and self-discontent are just as real as their selfishness.

These qualities are particularly evident in the portrayal of the heroine, Leonora Eyre. Despite her last name, Leonora is almost the reverse of the plain, passionate, and adventurous Jane Eyre who shares her surname. Jane Eyre has a commonplace exterior, underneath which is a fiery imagination and a full heart. Leonora, on the other hand, is an aging beauty of exquisite refinement; the exterior is still beautiful, impeccable, a triumph of taste. The interior, however, is one of emotional poverty, tedious self-absorption, and cautious avoidance of experience.

In her age and situation in life, if not in moral quality, Leonora is similar to other Pym heroines. She is a single woman of good education living on her own as she approaches middle age. She has a private income, so that she does not have to work. And in the course of the book she experiences an unrequited passion for a man. Unlike other Pym heroines, though, she has no contact at all with the Church or, for that matter, with any institution. She seems to be tied to the world only by shopping and by the perfect clothes and furniture that are the fruit of that shopping.

Leonora is a recognizable member of the family of Pym heroines, but she is drawn in much darker colors. The earlier heroines are often prim and excessively concerned with propriety, but they are warm-hearted, generous, and gallant. Leonora is a worshiper of perfection in objects and in people—not moral perfection but perfection of style and appearance, the unflawed vase, the unlined face. Other Pym heroines are alone in the world, and their aloneness impairs their happiness, but not their humanity. Leonora's aloneness is the result of her disdainful indifference to the rest of mankind and her distaste for physical lovemaking. She thinks of herself primarily as someone who wins admiration, but even those who admire her scarcely arouse her liking.

Leonora, then, is a chill-hearted narcissist, and this novel is about the sexual politics of narcissism. The theme is chiefly realized through the character of the heroine, but Leonora's lover James and his subsequent lover Ned are also variations on the theme of narcissism. Determined to live without suffering or strong emotion, Leonora keeps experience at a distance. She dines with elderly admirers who have been trained to look but not touch. She spends her days drifting through antique stores and auction rooms. She sends her friend Humphrey flowers of sympathy when his antique shop is robbed of a few valuable objects, as if someone had died.

The portrait of Leonora is sharpened by a group of surrounding minor characters who serve as foils to the heroine—parallels, contrasts, implicit commentaries. Each of the female characters, simply by being what she is, casts a revealing light on Leonora. The dowdy, middle-aged friend Meg has an abiding maternal love for a gay young man named Colin, who comes to her between lovers and disappears when he is involved with someone. When he is there, she is happy, and when he is away she grieves. When he comes back, she has his favorite Riesling waiting in the fridge, and forgives him. She knows that she needs to love someone, and Colin is her choice, so that she imposes no condition of faithfulness on her love. Leonora coolly turns James away when he returns after just such an escapade; she returns to her first love, her own inviolate self, with some regret that she had permitted James to ruffle her life so disagreeably.

James's girlfriend, Phoebe Sharpe, is a vague, badly dressed young woman who lives in a country village and does literary research. Her house is a jumble of cheap objects, her sink is full of dishes, and a cat appears to live on top of her radio. But she feels a quick sexual passion for James, and despite her timidity, finds the courage to act on it at once. Leonora, all self-command and impeccable taste, is amazed that James could take up with such a tawdry young woman, missing, as usual, whatever might be sexual and human rather than tasteful and suitable.

Leonora's neighbor Liz, after a bitter divorce, spends her time (and her love) on her Siamese cats, which she breeds for competition. She is an angry and disappointed woman whose attachment to life has shrunk down to her cats, but they have the advantage over Leonora's objects and furniture of being alive.

After being abandoned by James, Leonora goes to visit her friend Joan in the country. The visit is less than a success. Joan is immersed in her family, in the party she is giving in the evening, in the gossip and jokes of her busy world. Leonora is stiff and contemptuous and overdressed at the party, where she has a miserable time out of her London element and the very special conditions she requires. There is no one there to admire her, only an obnoxious woman named Ba, who tells Leonora that she should do some volunteer work.

Leonora is more intelligent and more self-aware than any of these women characters, but intelligence and self-awareness are of little avail. The other women love something living: a gay boy, a Siamese cat, a pipe-smoking husband and noisy children. All Leonora has is a few memories of youthful flirtations in the great gardens of Europe, flirtations that somehow came to nothing. In large measure by her choice, her inner world is mausoleum-like, though by no means free of waves of anxiety.

Into this unoccupied life comes an elderly antique dealer, Humphrey Boyce, and his sexually ambiguous young nephew James. The opening scene is a book auction. Leonora has been bidding for a pretty Victorian flower book, one made for a love-token. Appropriately, Leonora plans to make it a present to herself. Overcome by the excitement of bidding, the bad air, and the crowded room, Leonora almost faints. The uncle and nephew rescue the distressed lady, and the three go off for lunch at a good restaurant. The pickup has been executed quickly and efficiently, but within the rules of Edwardian gentility. The delicacy of the lady and the gallantry of the gentlemen have made the contact easy rather than difficult, because the players know the rules and how to use them. They have no need to resort to the uncertainties of spontaneous reactions.

The first scene of the novel introduces us to a world where the artifice prevails over nature. The characters speak and act for effect—to project an image, to negotiate some kind of emotional deal. Seldom do any of the central characters do anything merely from impulse or conviction, except when surprised into it by sexual passion. Here are the first paragraphs of the novel:

"The sale room is no place for a woman," declared Humphrey Boyce, as he and his nephew James sat having lunch with the attractive stranger they had picked up at a Bond Street sale room half an hour ago.

"Now you're scolding me," said Leonora, with mock humility. "I know it was stupid of me, but I suppose it was the excitement of bidding—for the first time in my life—and then getting that dear little book. It was just too overwhelming."

"And the room was so hot," James suggested, trying to take his part in the conversation, for after all it was he who had noticed the woman in black sway sideways and almost collapse at her moment of triumph, when she had challenged the auctioneer's rather bored "Twenty pounds at the table?" with a cry of "Twenty-five!" Between them James and Humphrey had supported her out of the sale room and after that it seemed the natural thing for the three of them to be having lunch together.

These three characters have just taken an initiative very much against the conventions of British decorum. They have violated the rule implied by one of an Englishman's proudest remarks, "I keep myself to myself." They have made a public pickup of a stranger. In the subsequent conversation each falls back on a conventional posture that reassuringly obliterates the unconventional nature of what has just taken place. Humphrey says, in a heavy, old-fashioned, masculine way, "The sale room is no place for a woman." Courtly and pompous, kind but more than a little condescending, he is the old-fashioned Edwardian gentleman who knows how to treat a lady.

Leonora's girlish trill responds appropriately to his basso. When she says, "Now you're scolding me," she is playing at submission as he is playing at masterfulness. The two middle-aged people fall into a stylized pattern of flirtation, long sanctioned by tradition. The man plays the rescuer and the mentor; the woman plays the adorable but fragile little woman. This stereotyped erotic play is one of the ironies of the novel: in the ensuing power struggles Leonora has a certain ruthless competence in pursuing her erotic goal of capturing young James, and Humphrey stands by comparatively helpless. By her speech Leonora also gives us a foretaste of her collector's passion for ownership of beautiful objects, her delight in admiration, her physical fragility, her ostentatious "sensibility," and her tough ability to manage situations.

Young James has no period style to fall back on, and no imagination to tell him what to do. All he can contribute to the situation is his extreme good looks and a flat statement of fact, "And the room was so hot." As he is to be the cipher over whom others contend, he is appropriately passive and untalkative.

This first incident sets up a triangle in which none of the attractions match. Humphrey is attracted to Leonora, who cultivates him in order to get at his nephew. Leonora is attracted to James as a flirtatious son whom she can captivate with comforts and attentions. James likes Leonora well enough, but he will also sneak off to his sexual lovers, first a woman, then a man. The erotic merry-go-round of Viennese bedroom farce is adapted to the more restrained conditions of British high comedy; the comedy of opening and closing bedroom and closet doors is replaced by the mental acrobatics of lovers who spend much of their time waiting and watching one another.

None of these attractions is predominantly sexual; the motives have to do more with possession and display than with genital love. Humphrey likes Leonora because she is someone elegant to be seen with at the opera and in fashionable restaurants. Leonora likes James, because he is so handsome and so seemingly easy to manipulate, and because he does not make any of the sexual demands that she dreads. James likes Leonora because she uses all her taste and tact to flatter him and serve him. Of the three, only Leonora feels something close to passion, and even she never comes close to self-abandonment, or even to an active desire for sexual union. Only in one outburst of weeping does she ever venture outside the fortress-prison of her self-control.

Until meeting James, Leonora has never gone beyond mild courtships. She has reached middle age without getting past a virginal playing at love, coquetting in a perfectly ladylike way with decorous suitors. James rouses her as no one ever has. Past forty, she finds his youth magical, and she is enchanted to be a combination of mother and glamorous older woman respectfully adored by a perfect son-lover-friend. James receives her love offerings with detachment and slight surprise, a response he generally accords to the love offerings inspired by his good looks. With the almost innocent egotism of youth, James finds nothing remarkable about Leonora's lavish attentions. Both are relieved that no physical relationship is expected, and they are free to play at "adoring" one another. Leonora is delighted by James's humdrum conversation, and her delight makes him feel, a little uncertainly, that he may indeed be more interesting than he had imagined.

Driven by her desire for secure possession of James, Leonora becomes both less idle and more ruthless. Finding that James plans to move from his present flat, Leonora decides to drive out the elderly tenant from the upstairs flat of her house and redecorate it for James. Miss Foxe, the elderly gentlewoman, was, as it turns out, already planning to move, so that Leonora does not need to put her out. This is a typical Barbara Pym development. In her novels, the worst that happens is that someone forms a wicked intention. But usually events take a turn that prevents the wicked intention from being carried out or, if the plans are carried out, the result is not as bad as might be expected. So there are villainous intentions but few villainous deeds in Barbara Pym. Her morally deficient characters suffer enough from their selfishness and emptiness; the author avoids adding the burden of guilt for real misdeeds. The suffering consequent on being what they are is sufficient for Barbara Pym's comic purposes. Extremes of badness and goodness have no place in her measured and middling world. Thus Leonora is perfectly willing to play the wicked landlady, but circumstances prevent her from acting on her intentions.

When Leonora discovers that James has a girlfriend, Phoebe Sharpe, to whom he has loaned some furniture while he is traveling in Europe, she uses Humphrey to force the return of the furniture. She succeeds in driving James's young woman away, but the job is easy because James's attachment is a feeble one, and vague, uncertain Phoebe is no match for Leonora. Indeed, Phoebe is a perfect foil for Leonora. She is very young, badly dressed, housed in a messy overgrown cottage, eager to make love, undefended against her emotions, too unfocused to scheme or manipulate. She doesn't have a chance in a contest with Leonora, yet the vague, vulnerable way she wanders through life has a certain emotional reality that is lacking in the chill existence of Leonora.

Having driven out her tenant, defeated James's girlfriend, and most important of all, gained possession of the furniture, Leonora turns her upstairs flat into a place of perfect comfort and taste for James. James is again a little surprised, but accepts the tribute with perfect equanimity, as part of the general tendency of life to take care of him. For a time, they play a game of loving housemates, ideal friends, imaginary parent and child.

The flimsy nature of this arrangement promptly becomes evident when James is seduced by a sexually accomplished young American named Ned, on sabbatical leave in England. Leonora is a sentimental narcissist, and James is a passive one. The narcissism of Ned, however, is a cold and clear-eyed drive for power. For him, the chief interest of getting involved with James is to separate him from Leonora, just to show that he can do it. Without much difficulty, Ned persuades James to move out of Leonora's house. Leonora is bereft:

The days seemed long and hopeless and Leonora began to wish she had not given up working, for a routine job would at least have filled the greater part of the day. Yet she lacked the energy and initiative to find herself an occupation; she remembered the dreadful woman she had met at the Murray's party and the impertinent suggestion she had made about the useful voluntary work one could do. But when Leonora came to consider them each had something wrong with it: how could she do church work when she never went near a church, or work for old people when she found them boring and physically repellent, or with handicapped children when the very thought of them was too upsetting.

The solution to her loneliness is her possessions:

She had always cared as much for inanimate objects as for people and now spent hours looking after her possessions, washing the china and cleaning the silver obsessively and rearranging them in her rooms. The shock of finding James had taken the fruitwood mirror upset her quite disproportionately….

The new triangle of Ned, James, and Leonora replaces the triangle of Phoebe, James, and Leonora. In this match it is Leonora who is the losing player. After having defeated Phoebe, she is in turn defeated. Her genteel strategies are no match for the steely expertise of Ned in erotic intrigues. Her only resource is to try to maintain her stoicism so that Ned cannot see, directly at least, the extent of her suffering.

Ned makes others suffer, as he admits with an unconvincing display of regret. If someone is to suffer a narcissistic wound, he will make sure it will not be himself. When he senses a slight restiveness on James's part, Ned determines to reject James before James rejects him. Ned quickly finds a series of other lovers, and then, announcing that his mother needs him, returns to America. Before he leaves, he shamelessly calls on Leonora and offers to send James back. She coolly declines. At this point Ned and Leonora are roughly equal antagonists. James, the prize over whom they have struggled, is so inept even in his efforts to keep his various loves hidden from one another, that he scarcely qualifies as a player.

The Ned-James-Leonora episode of the book has a heartless brilliance, wit, and perversity that suggest Restoration comedy with its rakes and dissolute ladies in their dancelike changes of partners and their delight in deception. Restoration comedy suggests that all these intrigues, though doubtless brutal and immoral, are highly entertaining. The Sweet Dove Died presents this triangle as filled with a fascinating and amusing perversity, but it also renders the suffering and aching feeling of loss beneath the surface of the love intrigue. Comedy usually keeps suffering in the background, but this comedy is shot through with Leonora's anguish. She turns out to be more adept at suffering than at love.

With the departure of Ned, the original triangle of James-Leonora-Humphrey is reestablished. After waiting so patiently for Leonora's infatuation with James to end, Humphrey wins, whatever winning may mean when Leonora is the prize. After an unsatisfactory meeting with James, Leonora finds herself weary of her position as admirer and decides to go back to her old, comfortable, undemanding position as the one who is courted and admired. Here is the last paragraph of the novel:

The sight of Humphrey with the peonies reminded her that he was taking her to the Chelsea Flower Show tomorrow. It was the kind of thing one liked to go to, and the sight of such large and faultless blooms, so exquisite in colour, so absolutely correct in all their finer points, was a comfort and satisfaction to one who loved perfection as she did. Yet, when one came to think of it, the only flowers that were really perfect were those, like the peonies that went so well with one's charming room, that possessed the added grace of having been presented to oneself.

The Sweet Dove Died is the least lovable of Barbara Pym's books, but it is also her most perfect work of art. Like Jane Austen's Emma, it has a heroine whom most people dislike. Leonora is fascinating but unsympathetic; indeed none of the characters offer much of an opening to sympathy. The self-satisfied doltishness of the men makes us keep our distance from them, and even Leonora's courage in her love-sufferings has something repellent about it. Driven back from sympathy, we are forced to deal with this book through our intelligence. Emotion held in check, we contemplate this picture of a skittish, anxious world of attenuated passions and faithless relationships, a world in which no one finally connects with anyone else and no emotion completes itself. The protagonist is left alone at her mirror with an empty heart, and that is the picture of chill unhappiness that stays with the reader.

The Sweet Dove Died may not have lovable characters, but as a whole it has a power and beauty that increase on rereading. The novel itself provides an emblem of its artistic character: the small Japanese toggles called netsuke. Humphrey sells them in his antique shop; James and Leonora admire them. Their dentist collects them. Netsuke are bits of wood, ivory, or metal with realistic, fiercely energetic little figures carved into them. Small as they are, they give an impression of power and completeness, a life that is about to burst out of the confines of these little objects that are attached to kimono sashes. They resemble that "little bit of ivory, two inches wide," on which Jane Austen described herself as working. Barbara Pym powerfully inscribes her unyielding message within the confines of a short comic novel. Compact, intense with life, complete—that is the essence of The Sweet Dove Died.

Margaret C. Bradham (essay date Winter 1987)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5432

SOURCE: "Barbara Pym's Women," in World Literature Today, Vol. 61, No. 1, Winter, 1987, pp. 31-7.

[In the following essay, Bradham reevaluates Pym's portrayal of unmarried women, dismissing superficial comparison to the work of Jane Austen and association with feminist literature. Bradham examines the "condition, thoughts, desires, and emotions" of Pym's female protagonists as they reflect the author's attitudes and interests.]

Since the Barbara Pym revival, begun in 1977 when Philip Larkin and Lord David Cecil independently cited her in the Times Literary Supplement as one of the most underrated novelists of the twentieth century, surprisingly little of consequence has been written about one of this century's great writers. Most of the criticisms of Pym's novels have consisted of brief articles and book reviews in publications such as the TLS and the New York Times Book Review. Most of these have demonstrated only a shallow understanding of Pym, and some have actually been wrong. They have concentrated on the superficial similarities between Jane Austen and Pym, on Pym's vain clergy and her churchgoing spinsters, and on the high Anglican comedy of her novels. Some critics even make the mistake of saying that Pym writes about marriage and marriageability or of suggesting that she writes feminist novels.

The essence of Pym has either been glossed over or misunderstood. She is not a twentieth-century Jane Austen. Pym's heroines, who are past their prime, do not have the same concerns as Austen's heroines, who are between the ages of seventeen and twenty-one. Pym does write about church-going spinsters; but the lives of many of her women do not revolve around the church, and not all her novels are centered on a clergyman and his parish. It is not about marriage and marriageability that Pym writes, but about spinsterhood and unmarriageability, and there is a great deal of disappointment, despair, failure, and loneliness in her works. The essence of Pym's answer to the feminist characterization can be found in a letter to Philip Larkin, where she wrote: "I did at least save myself once when a question about my treatment of men characters suggested that I had a low opinion of the sex. My instinctive reply sprang to my lips, 'Oh, but I love men,' but luckily I realized how ridiculous it would sound" (A Very Private Eye).

In most of her eleven published novels Pym's main character is in the position of the unmarried, unattached, aging woman, and it is this character's condition, thoughts, desires, and emotions that interest the author. In the following study I hope to illuminate the condition of the Pym woman, her identity and experience; the quest of the Pym woman, her search and failure; the predicament of the Pym woman, her disappointments and illusions; and finally, Pym's attitude toward her characters and their condition, the sympathy and irony.

The Condition of the Pym Woman: Her Identity and Experience

The vast majority of Pym's women are spinsters. For the most part they are past their prime or at least have missed out on life. Pym has only three main female characters under thirty years of age; the others are in their thirties, forties, and fifties. They live in middle-class areas of London or small English villages such as West Oxfordshire, and they lead mundane, unexciting, and lonely lives.

Of Pym's main female characters, three are "excellent women" (Belinda and Harriet in Some Tame Gazelle and Mildred Lathbury in Excellent Women), defined by the characters in the Pym world as a certain group of unmarried women who are sensible and good and who spend their time involved with "clergymen and jumble sales and church services and good works." Five of Pym's main female characters are spinsters who work either in offices (Prudence in Jane and Prudence, Penelope in An Unsuitable Attachment, and Marcia and Letty in Quartet in Autumn) or at home doing odd jobs and making indexes (Dulcie in No Fond Return of Love). One is a spinster who is financially well off and does not work (Lenora in The Sweet Dove Died); one is a spinster who is not financially well off and is a companion to an older woman (Jessie Morrow in Crampton Hodnet); and two are spinsters with careers (Catherine, the writer, in Less Than Angels, and Emma, the anthropologist, in A Few Green Leaves). Only three of her main female characters are married, two of them to vicars (Jane in Jane and Prudence and Sophia in An Unsuitable Attachment) and one to a civil servant (Wilmet in A Glass of Blessings).

In Pym's seventh published novel, Quartet in Autumn, Letty, a spinster in her fifties, asks, "Might not the experience of 'not having' be regarded as something with its own validity?" To this question Pym answers "Yes," for the experience of not having is precisely what her novels are about. Whether the Pym women spend their day doing domestic chores and church tasks, or editing and proofreading manuscripts, or working in offices or libraries, or even pursuing careers as writers or anthropologists, they are lonely, restless, unhappy, and unfulfilled. Spinsters such as Rhoda Wellcome in Less Than Angels attribute their feelings of inadequacy and unfulfillment to having not had "'the experience of marriage,' a vague phrase which seemed to cover all those aspects which one didn't talk about." In the Pym world "all those aspects which one didn't talk about" are passion and romance, the experiences and emotions a Pym woman, as a respectable spinster, is not supposed to know or speak about. Even Pym's married main characters—Jane Cleveland, Wilmet Forsyth, and Sophia Ainger—feel that they have missed something. They are restless and lonely since their husbands do not pay them much attention.

In the Pym world marriage forms the basis of the social scale, with married women at the top and spinsters at the bottom. Pym's spinsters confess to feeling "like an inferior person," "not socially equal," or "inadequate." They equate marriage with a full life and spinsterhood with an empty life. The fear of being passed over is prominent in the thoughts of Pym's two youngest main characters, Prudence Bates of Jane and Prudence and Penelope Grandison of Unsuitable Attachment. At twenty-five Penelope had "reached the age when one starts looking for a husband rather more systematically than one does at 19 or even at 21." And at twenty-nine Prudence had reached "an age that is often rather desperate for a woman who has not yet married." As Pym's characters get older, the fear of being passed over becomes reality. Excellent Women's Mildred Lathbury, having just attended a school reunion with her old friend Dora, also a spinster, reflects, "We had not made particularly brilliant careers for ourselves, and, most important of all, we had neither of us married. That was really it." Marriage is an achievement, and it is the experience the Pym spinster wants; she never questions whether marriage will dispel her loneliness and make her happy.

The irony of the spinsters' perception of marriage is shown by the experience of Pym's married women. Marriage does not make them happy, and it is not filled with passion and romance. In Excellent Women Helena Napier is dissatisfied with her husband Rocky and leaves him. In A Glass of Blessings Wilmet Forsyth is bored with her husband and seeks attention from other men. Marriage also does not guarantee passion and romance, the experiences and feelings the Pym spinsters are aware of having missed. In Jane and Prudence Jane, realizing that the passion in her marriage has faded, looks at her husband and thinks, "Mild, kindly looks and spectacles … this was what it all came to in the end." Pym's spinsters do not recognize that they are searching for the same things as Pym's married women: love and happiness. Pym's single women believe marriage will bring them all they do not have, but Pym's married women know marriage does not bring all these things.

Despite being denied certain of life's experiences, the Pym spinsters do not give up their interest in them. Spinsters such as Prudence, Emma, and Penelope are not so confined as the others by models of respectability, and they actively seek passion and romance. The excellent women are curious about passion and romance. The Pym women are openly interested in whether a clergyman is celibate. Comments and questions such as that by Ianthe Pott, a spinster in A Few Green Leaves, "Your vicar's good-looking isn't he?… Is he a celibate?," are scattered throughout the novels. Mildred Lathbury, at her annual luncheon with William Caldicote, the brother of her good friend Dora, finishes a quotation begun by William, saying, "Drink deep, or taste not the Pierian spring." Mildred personalizes this statement by commenting, "But I'm afraid I shall never have the chance to drink deep so I must remain ignorant."

Just as Pym's spinsters do not give up thoughts of passion and romance, they also do not give up hopes of marriage. They keep these longings private, however, for in the Pym world, once a woman is resigned to being a spinster, she is expected to give up such hopes of marriage. At the annual luncheon between Mildred and William Caldicote, William tells Mildred that he and she are "the observers of life" and that marriage is for other people. Nonetheless, Mildred does not give up hope, although she cloaks it. She admits to herself, "But I have never been very much given to falling in love and have often felt sorry that I have so far missed … the experience of marriage." The use of the phrase "so far" indicates that she has not abandoned hope. When William questions her, "I do hope you're not thinking of getting married?," Mildred, reverting to the attitude her role requires, responds, "Oh, no, of course not!" She knows that a respectable spinster should not openly confess her desire for marriage.

The Quest of the Pym Woman: Her Search and Failure

The Pym spinster, not content with her station in life, looks for marriage, or at least attention from men, but she has to be either cautious or clever in the way that she does it. As a respectable spinster, she offers her services, whether typing, editing, making casseroles, knitting socks, or doing churchwork. As Belinda notes, she has to consider what is "fitting to her own years and position."

The main focus of Pym's excellent woman is usually her clergyman. Her efforts to get his attention are often cloaked in the guise of church work. As Wilmet notes in A Glass of Blessings, most of the excellent women are devoted rather than devout. The excellent women are fierce competitors for the attention of the clergy, and most of them harbor hopes of being chosen by a single clergyman for marriage. In fact, in one of the novels a character explicitly mentions the irate women a clergyman would have to contend with if he came to a parish already engaged.

The Pym women who work in offices are just as eager as the excellent women to find love and happiness. Their methods of finding men range from those of Dulcie, who stalks Aylwin Forbes like a detective, to Prudence Bates, who overdresses and applies a green, "greasy preparation which had little flecks of silver in it" to her eyelids. Instead of offering to knit socks or to do church work, they offer to type, edit, or make indexes. They also do other chores for men in exchange for attention and affection. For example, Emma Howick, the anthropologist in A Few Green Leaves, picks up groceries for Graham Pettifer and takes casseroles to his cottage. In Less Than Angels, Pym's novel about a community of anthropologists, Dierdre, a young student of anthropology, accurately describes how the Pym women seek love and happiness: "They had learned early in life what it is to bear love's burdens, listening patiently to their men's troubles and ever ready at their typewriters, should a manuscript or even a short article get to the stage of being written down." One can see that the relationships are sought after in a barterlike system, with Pym women applying the rules of trade to their struggles to escape their loneliness and unhappiness.

Still, the ways in which Pym's women seek love are not consonant with what they seek. Indeed, their choice of language reveals that their relationships are to be engineered by manipulation. In Some Tame Gazelle Edith, in speaking about Harriet and the bishop, comments, "I don't think Harriet will get him." She continues, "I think he has successfully avoided so many women in his life that not even Harriet will be able to catch him." In Excellent Women Sister Blatt decides, "Oh they [widows] have the knack of catching a man. Having done it once I suppose they can do it again." With language such as this, the ulterior motives behind these single women's typing and cooking become more apparent.

Despite the casseroles, knitted socks, indexes, typed manuscripts, and editing, the Pym woman never gets what she wants—love and happiness. The excellent women who hope to win the heart of their clergyman or some other suitable man perform tasks which more often than not confirm their position as excellent women. The spinsters who are not excellent women, like Prudence and Penelope, are usually rejected by men as being either so overdone in their makeup and dress as to be "formidable rather than feminine and desirable" or as the type of women who "would have wanted so much."

Although the Pym women never get what they seek—love and happiness—some of Pym's spinsters find mild flirtations, lukewarm affairs, or suitable attachments. The experience that all the Pym women seem to crave is one that they have not had, since their "hearts mend too easily." Jane and Prudence's twenty-nine-year-old spinster, Prudence Bates, one of Pym's favorite characters, is also one of her most promiscuous. Prudence enjoys affairs, and she is even described by her close friend Jane as having gotten "into the way of preferring unsatisfactory love affairs to any others, so that it was becoming almost a bad habit." The lack of emotion and feeling in Prudence's affairs is revealed by her ability to recover so quickly when they are over. Shortly after being jilted by Fabian Driver, she looks forward to having an affair with Gerry Manifold, although, as she tells Jane, "we shall probably hurt each other very much before it's finished."

More often than not, the Pym woman has, like Leonora, "never been badly treated or rejected by a man—perhaps she had never loved another person with enough intensity for such a thing [love wasted] to be possible." When Emma struggles to find the correct phrase to define her relationship with Graham, the description deflates from "brief love affair" to "mild affection" to "knew him quite well." Mildred admits that she "had once imagined [herself] to be in love" with Bernard Hatherley. When Dulcie meets Maurice Clive, the man who formerly had rejected her, she feels indifferent toward him. And when Tom Mallow, a young anthropologist, is killed in Africa, his girlfriend Dierdre is upset over not being upset. She tells Catherine, "I know you won't be too shocked when I say I can't really feel anything about Tom." More often than not, if a Pym woman has loved and lost, the love proves to have been so lukewarm and one-sided that she really had nothing to lose in the first place. In Less Than Angels Mark Penfold, a fledgling anthropologist, describes this kind of tepid affair: "It is commoner in our society than many people would suppose … the woman giving the food and shelter and doing some typing for him and the man giving the priceless gift of himself." Mark is speaking of the relationship between Catherine Oliphant and Tom Mallow, two of his friends who live together. His description, which recognizes primarily the convenience of the relationship instead of the romance, is an accurate one. When Tom leaves Catherine, there are no outbursts of emotion, but rather perfunctory acceptance of a lack of interest.

When marriages occur in Pym's novels, they are generally the type of relationship known in the Pym world as a "suitable attachment." In No Fond Return of Love Dulcie describes this type of relationship. Quickly informing middle-aged Aylwin Forbes that any thoughts of marrying her nineteen-year-old niece are clearly out of place, Dulcie boldly instructs him in what is suitable: he should make a "sensible marriage," a marriage with "somebody who can appreciate [his] work and help [him] with it." In A Few Green Leaves Emma, who at times views her condition as objectively as any of the Pym characters, expresses the essence of the suitable attachment in her assessment of her situation with Tom: "After all, they were two lonely people now, and as such should get together." In thinking of a possible union between herself and Tom, Emma appeals to logic, not to romantic notions.

For the most part, these suitable attachments occur between minor characters and are mentioned only in passing. Such attachments for Pym's main characters never occur in full focus in the individual novels in which the characters appear. If there is hope of a possible marriage for the Pym spinster, it is suggested only at the end of the novel. For example, at the respective conclusions of Excellent Women, No Fond Return of Love, and A Few Green Leaves, the possible marriages of Mildred Lathbury and Everard Bone, Dulcie Mainwaring and Aylwin Forbes, and Emma Howick and Tom Dagnall are suggested but left in question. By only suggesting marriages at the end of her novels, Pym downgrades the importance of these less-than-ideal relationships. In fact, this is one of the ways she shows that these relationships are less than ideal.

The grimness of the suitable attachment is recognized by Ianthe Broome, one of the main characters in An Unsuitable Attachment. On learning of the engagement of Miss Grimes, a retired elderly spinster, to a Polish widower, she thinks:

At that moment life seemed very dark; Ianthe was perhaps too rigid in her views to reflect that a woman might have worse things to look forward to than the prospect of marriage to a Polish widower and a life in Ealing, or even a quick drink in one's own room at the end of a hard day.

Having "worse things to look forward to" is a condition in which many of the Pym women find themselves. However, Ianthe knows and on one occasion admits that life can be very lonely for a woman, and that is "why it's better to marry when one has the chance—or perhaps I should say if one has the chance." The spinsters do not all have the chance to escape loneliness by marriage, for, more often than not, the relationship peters out. In Jane and Prudence Fabian Driver loses interest in Prudence; in Less Than Angels Tom loses interest in Catherine; in An Unsuitable Attachment Rupert never really has any interest in Penelope; in The Sweet Dove Died James leaves Leonora for a homosexual; and in A Few Green Leaves Graham Pettifer loses interest in Emma.

Having found neither lukewarm love affairs nor suitable attachments, most Pym women are so desperate for affection that they will content themselves with illusions. Viola Dace, a character in No Fond Return of Love, had "offered to do Aylwin's index, unfairly waylaying him on the steps of the British Museum so that he could hardly have refused." Viola creates an illusion out of this incident and smugly tells Dulcie, "Aylwin has asked me to do the index for his new book." She even drops the line, "I shall be rather busy … so you may not see very much of me," as a way of "casually" telling Dulcie this news. Dulcie's accurate judgment about Viola, which is applicable to many of Pym's women, is: "Just to be allowed to love them [men such as Aylwin Forbes] is enough." The Pym women have no other choice, since they, like Viola, can expect nothing more. Furthermore, "to be allowed to love them" is essential.

Dulcie discovers why "to love them is enough" for the Pym women: she understands that "perhaps women enjoy that [doing what they could] most of all—to feel that they are needed and doing good." This observation of Dulcie's is confirmed by another Pym character. Wilmet, in A Glass of Blessings, admits, "Everybody wants to be needed, women especially." From Wilmet's statement we begin to realize that one of the reasons women want to be needed is that it makes them feel important or at least useful. Feeling needed is a way of hedging against the fear, as Mildred puts it, of "being unwanted," the terror of knowing that one, like a photo in a picture frame at a jumble sale, "could so very easily be replaced."

The Predicament of the Pym Woman: Her Disappointments and Illusions

In Less Than Angels Catherine describes the life that she herself knows and observes around her: "It's comic and sad and indefinite—dull, sometimes, but seldom really tragic or deliriously happy, except when one's very young." This description could apply to the lives of all Pym's main female characters. In every Pym novel a character makes a similar confession: "We can't expect to get everything we want … we know that life isn't like that"; "Life hasn't turned out quite as she meant it to." If a character does not admit this in words, we nonetheless sense that she feels it.

Pym's characters assuage their disappointment by fostering vague hopes. On several occasions throughout A Few Green Leaves Emma wonders, "Who knew what might come of it?," and "There was no knowing what it might lead to." When Letty, after retirement, is "settled in Mrs. Pope's back room," she thinks. "There was no knowing how her life would change," and she retains these illusions. Quartet in Autumn ends with Letty thinking, "At least it made one realise that life still held infinite possibilities for change." The "it" refers to Letty's choice of either remaining with her London landlady or joining Marjorie, a friend who has recently been jilted by her fiancé. Letty's possibilities are hardly "infinite," for the available change is not significant. The reader therefore understands Letty's perception of 'infinite possibilities of change" as illusory. There is no hope for real change in her life. The only change that will occur is the change all the characters in this novel fear: aging and death.

The Pym woman adopts certain attitudes as camouflage for the despair and loneliness she feels. The fierceness of her determination to keep up appearances is virtually a barometer of the extent of her unhappiness. For example, after her retirement, Letty feels that "she must never give the slightest hint of loneliness or boredom, the sense of time hanging heavy." Letty is not the only character who "made up her mind to face Christmas with courage and a kind of deliberate boldness, a determination to hold the prospect of loneliness at bay." Christmas is the one holiday that most of Pym's spinsters dread, for, as Pym tells us in Quartet in Autumn, it is "a difficult time for those who are no longer young and are without close relatives or dependents." Letty herself admits that she is "dutifully assuming the suggested attitude towards retirement that life was full of possibilities." Letty's situation seems even grimmer, because she admits for a moment that even she does not believe in the attitude she is expected to adopt. We see a paradox: she is expected to expect the unexpected.

Presenting optimistic attitudes for the future is not enough for the Pym women. They must also dampen the disappointments of the past with convenient fictions. This conversation between Mildred and Dora could easily occur among other Pym spinsters.

'There's not much you can do when you're over thirty,' she went on complacently. 'You get too set in your ways, really. Besides, marriage isn't everything.'

'No, it certainly isn't,' I agreed, 'and there's nobody I want to marry that I can think of. Not even William.'

'I don't know anyone either, at the moment,' said Dora.

We lapsed into a comfortable silence. It was a kind of fiction that we had always kept up, this not knowing anyone at the moment that we wanted to marry, as if there had been in the past and would be in the future.

Mildred recognizes these shared illusions, these fictions, for what they are. She does not dispel them, however, for she feels the essential comfort and compensation they provide.

Pym's characters frequently escape rejection and unhappiness by reshaping disappointing circumstances. With the aid of rationalizations they create consolations. In Less Than Angels Catherine views an example of this type of consolation in Rhoda's response to Mabel as they discuss Dierdre's reaction to the death of her boyfriend Tom Mallow.

'You must allow Dierdre her grief,' said Mabel almost sharply. 'You don't know what it is to lose somebody you love.'

'You've no right to say that, of course I do' … Rhoda's voice trembled and she began to refill the teacups in an agitated way.

Catherine noticed her confusion and wondered if she were trying to justify herself, to think of some kind of compensation for the shame of not having lost lover or husband, but only parents and others who had died at their natural and proper time. If women could not expect to savour all experiences that life could offer, perhaps they did want the sad ones—not necessarily to have loved or been loved, but at least to have lost, she thought simply and without cynicism. (emphasis mine)

The only sustainable fiction the Pym woman can create is the belief that she has loved and lost, thereby justifying her existence as a spinster. What becomes clear is that the Pym spinster's delusion about romance, loving, and losing is a way to see herself as someone she is not, to distinguish herself from others, to embellish or even invent reality and thereby, if only as an illusion, create some of the experience she has not had. These illusions are more pathetic and difficult to sustain as the Pym women grow older. Aging means a loss of one's self-esteem as well as one's ability to attract men, or at least the hope of being able to attract men. Thus, as Pym's women grow older and less attractive, they begin to see loneliness as a permanent condition.

Still, sometimes these illusions catch up with their creators, as in Belinda's effort to console Count Bianco for his unrequited love for Harriet.

Her eyes lighted on the works of Alfred, Lord Tennyson 'that it is better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all. I always think those lines are such a great comfort; so many of us loved and lost.' She frowned: nobody wanted to be one of the many, and she did not like this picture of herself, only one of a great crowd of dreary women. Perhaps Tennyson was rather hackneyed after all.

Belinda shifts the blame to Tennyson and refuses to see herself as one of a great crowd. She dodges the implication and avoids having her comfortable illusion melt.

The grim reality, however, is probably as Letty sees it: "Even Marcia had once hinted at something in her own life, long ago. No doubt everybody had once had something in their lives? Certainly it was the kind of thing people like to imply, making one suspect that a good deal was being made out of almost nothing." Catherine, in Less Than Angels, notices that the experience that the Pym woman wants is at least "to have lost." In Some Tame Gazelle Belinda expresses a related belief shared by many of Pym's women. She is "sure that our greater English poets had written much about unhappy lovers not dying of grief, although it was of course more romantic when they did." There is no logic in her idea that to die for grief is romantic. Having loved and lost is to the Pym character both tragic and romantic; indeed, tragic and romantic seem almost to be synonyms. The irony is that the condition she desires would bring her only that from which she wants to escape: loneliness, unhappiness, and despair.

The Attitude of the Author Pym: The Sympathy and Irony

Pym states the cases of types of women who have not, at least in the twentieth century, often found their way into literature. She writes the novels that Letty in Quartet in Autumn looked for but could not find: "[Letty] 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 realise that the position of an unmarried, unattached, ageing woman is of no interest whatever to the writer of modern fiction." In stating the case of the lonely women who are not regarded with much concern even in their world, Pym is sympathetic to her characters' plight. For all her sympathy, she writes realistic, indeed ironic novels, not sentimental ones. For all her characters' loneliness, they are women who are, for the most part, selfish and self-concerned. The Pym woman is observant of those who surround her, but her awareness does not stem from concern about others, only curiosity. In fact, when Pym women become aware of situations in which they might be expected to help, they recoil. After her brother's engagement is announced, Winifred tells Mildred, "I hoped I would come and live with you." Mildred confesses that the thought of Winifred staying with her "filled [her] with sinking apprehension," and she is careful in her answer because she realizes that "easy excuses … would not do here." And when Letty and Marcia, two of the quartet in Quartet in Autumn, retire, Marcia fears that Letty will ask her if she can come and live with her.

Thus the Pym women, although they recognize the loneliness of others, do not exhibit real compassion or sympathy. Their thoughts remain centered on themselves, and they remain detached and aloof. Indeed, the Pym women even see each other as rivals, natural antagonists in a world where pettiness has replaced compassion. When a woman is successful in getting "the desired object," the other women reveal their jealousy. For example, in discussing Mildred Lathbury's marriage to Everard Bone, Miss Morrow learns from Miss Bonner that "Mildred helped him a good deal in his work" and that "she even learned to type so that she could type his manuscripts for him." Miss Morrow immediately decides, "Oh, then he had to marry her…. That kind of devotion is worse than blackmail—a man has no escape from that."

Pym's works are infused with irony. The criticism that "nothing ever happens" is often applied to her novels. Nothing much happens in them, and thus the reality of the characters' lives is just what makes their statements that "anything might happen" ironic. Despite their unhappy circumstances. Pym's women cling to their illusions. Belinda observes, "But there was always hope springing eternal in the human breast, which kept one alive, often unhappily … it would be an interesting subject on which to read a paper to the Literary Society." The works of Barbara Pym are "papers on this interesting subject." While we laugh with Pym as she exposes, in her witty way, her characters' minor foibles and petty machinations, we should not gloss over the darker side of her writing or ignore the grim reality of her characters' conditions. She shows us women who search for love and happiness. In their quest they offer their services and compete fiercely among themselves to gain attention and affection. Not finding what they seek, her women remain unhappy and lonely. Self-centered and self-concerned, and at times petty, they are painfully aware of having missed out on life. To fend off their disappointments, they occupy themselves with trivial chores and minor tasks, and they fortify themselves with vague hopes and small consolations. Pym's women have failed at romance and love, and they grow old suffering the fears of aging and the terrors of loneliness. They cling to pathetic illusions and look to the future with vain expectations that "anything could happen." To protect their optimistic attitudes and to ward off potential disappointments, they have learned to keep their hopes vague and unspecific.

Merritt Moseley (essay date Winter 1990)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5487

SOURCE: "A Few Words about Barbara Pym," in The Sewanee Review, Vol. 98, No. 1, Winter, 1990, pp. 75-87.

[In the following essay, Moseley provides a critical overview of Pym's fiction through discussion of her recurring preoccupation with unmarried women, the Anglican church, English literature, anthropology, and weak men.]

Thinking about Barbara Pym's present state of renown reminds me of the character in one of Kingsley Amis's novels who occupies himself in trying to understand his liking for women's breasts: "I was clear on why I liked them, thanks, but why did I like them so much?" Those who like Barbara Pym like her so much that perhaps some attempt to explain why is in order. As late as 1977 she was completely obscure. Now Eudora Welty, Anne Tyler, and Mary Gordon, among others, name her as a favorite writer. Scholarly writers regularly link her casually with Jane Austen. A Barbara Pym Newsletter is appearing. At the Bodleian Library, where her literary effects are deposited, most visitors ("especially Americans") are said to be in search of the Pym collection, and the curator explains that at least five people are writing books about her. One of her discarded novels, Crampton Hodnet, has recently been resurrected and published, and all her others, in addition to her "autobiography" in letters and journals, are available in paperback.

Miss Pym's novels have an amazing consistency or reliability ("sameness" suggests the wrong idea). This is amazing, since she began her first in 1935, when she was just out of Oxford, and completed her last in 1979. Reading through them in order, one enjoys a remarkable feeling of familiarity, recurrence, the repetition of established pleasures. Her resistance to change (other than in two of her books written under special circumstances) gratifies her admirers. But it is also the reason, apparently, for the wilderness years, beginning in 1961, during which she published nothing.

Some Tame Gazelle, the novel which she had begun in the middle thirties and worked on for years, despite rejections from publishers who thought it not exciting enough, was published in 1950. The reviews were respectful, the sales modest but enough to encourage further books. And so she wrote, steadily, five more novels—Excellent Women, Jane and Prudence, Less Than Angels, A Glass of Blessings, and No Fond Return of Love, published at regular intervals from 1952 to 1961. The normal successful English novelist always publishes more novels than his American counterpart. Prolificacy is considered a sign of professionalism rather than (as sometimes here), facile lack of artistic weight; the pace achieved by Anthony Burgess or Kingsley Amis or Iris Murdoch, a novel about every other year, is expected, rather than the infrequent and painful deliveries of a Joseph Heller or Thomas Pynchon. Barbara Pym settled comfortably into this routine and planned to continue in it.

In 1963 she sent her newest manuscript, called An Unsuitable Attachment, to her publisher, Jonathan Cape. She knew that the fiction market was moving away from her kind of book and even in the nineteen thirties her agent had advised her to "be more wicked, if necessary." Now she worried, in a letter to Philip Larkin: "I sent my novel to Cape last week but don't know yet what they think of it. I feel it can hardly come up to Catch 22 or The Passion Flower Hotel for selling qualities but I hope they will realise that it is necessary for a good publisher's list to have something milder." They did not realize it, though, and rejected the novel, explaining that it was of a type that readers no longer wanted to buy. The novelist was terribly hurt. She tried a number of other publishers (twenty-one, eventually), made changes in the manuscript, pulled what few strings she had access to. Another publisher wrote her that An Unsuitable Attachment was "a pleasant book, but hardly strong enough," to which she responded in her journal—"almost exactly what Cape said of Some Tame Gazelle in 1936."

Eventually she quit trying to place the novel, reflecting at one point that "it might appear naive and unsophisticated, though it isn't really, to an unsympathetic publisher's reader, hoping for that novel about negro homosexuals, young men in advertising, etc." In the next years she wrote two others, working in considerable bitterness and convinced that she could get nothing published. In them, The Sweet Dove Died and Quartet in Autumn, she retained her special subject, unmarried women, but with an edge of grimness and humorlessness which is striking. And she turned now to what she undoubtedly felt were more "contemporary" themes—sex presented more openly; bisexuality; aging, lonely, and loveless people; insanity. She continued with the job she had held since 1946, as an editor of the anthropological journal Africa. In 1974, following a stroke and an operation for cancer, she retired to live in an Oxfordshire village with her sister Hilary. She was now resigned to silence as a novelist, though she continued writing fiction for herself and her friends, and she kept on with her journals.

These journals, published in part as A Very Private Eye, provide some vivid glimpses of her pain. Through the sixties she chafed at the changed literary world, which no longer had room for her. One journal entry summarizes 1963 as "a year of violence, death and blows," and includes among the blows the rejection of her novel, the burglary of her flat, the popularity of Honest to God and Tropic of Cancer, and her own reading of Naked Lunch. Always fascinated by details of dress, she frequently contrasts her own appearance, dowdy and "correct," with that of younger novelists: at the Writers' Circle Dinner in 1966, "Margaret Drabble in a beautiful short flowered dress with long sleeves. Some in long glittering brocades. All with neat little 'evening bags'—only B.P. with her black leather day handbag." Though she writes bravely to Philip Larkin that she will never publish again, her journal shows her inability to accept her fate:

What is wrong with being obsessed with trivia? Some have criticized The Sweet Dove Died for this. What are the minds of my critics filled with? What nobler and more worthwhile things?

Mr. C in the Library—he is having his lunch, eating a sandwich with a knife and fork, a glass of milk near at hand. Oh why can't I write about things like that any more—why is this kind of thing no longer acceptable?

The position of the unmarried woman—unless, of course, she is somebody's mistress—is of no interest whatsoever to the readers of modern fiction.

Being told that it is "virtually impossible" for a novel like The Sweet Dove to be published now (by Constable). What is the future of my kind of writing? What can my notebooks contain except the normal kinds of bits and pieces that can never (?) now be worked into fiction. Perhaps in retirement, and even in the year before, a quieter, narrower kind of life can be worked out and adopted. Bounded by English literature and the Anglican Church and small pleasures like sewing and choosing dress material for this uncertain summer.

As a novelist Barbara Pym was recalled to life by an article in the Times Literary Supplement. Among a group of literary eminences asked to name the most underrated writers of the century, both Philip Larkin and Lord David Cecil named Barbara Pym—the only living writer to be mentioned by two people. Almost overnight she was a celebrity. Her most recently written novel, Quartet in Autumn, was soon published by Macmillan, followed by The Sweet Dove Died. Jonathan Cape, her old publisher, who had lost interest in her after 1961, jumped on the bandwagon, and between 1977 and 1979 reissued her six novels of the fifties. Quartet in Autumn was a finalist for the Booker prize in 1977. Eventually Macmillan published A Few Green Leaves, written after her new celebrity, and An Unsuitable Attachment, the book which was rejected in 1963. She died in 1980. Beginning in 1978, Dutton has published all her novels in the U.S., including Crampton Hodnet, an early, abandoned novel about Oxford. There should be more manuscripts, to judge from comments in her journals; and at this rate we are likely to see them in print before too long.

But why? To say that the Barbara Pym revival was caused by Lord David Cecil and Philip Larkin is obviously too simple; though their endorsement does explain the surprised articles on Pym and the 1977 BBC film showing her and Lord David drinking tea at her Oxfordshire cottage, it can't, after all, explain much more. Few people will read a Barbara Pym novel because Lord David Cecil and Philip Larkin, two old-fashioned readers who are hardly taste-makers for the masses, say they should—much less read more than one book. A professed admiration for her work may make one feel knowing. But her readers respond to something more important.

What are Barbara Pym's novels about? One could do worse than begin with her wry self-appraisal: "a quieter, narrower kind of life … bounded by English literature and the Anglican Church and small pleasures like sewing and choosing dress material for this uncertain summer." With the exception of The Sweet Dove Died, which is an experiment, her novels involve a quiet narrow life. Perhaps this narrowness produces the comparisons with Jane Austen, who also focuses on the domestic life of a few people. But the comparison is misleading, since Barbara Pym's novels are much narrower and much quieter. Though like Jane Austen she places at the center of all her books (there is one exception). Some do show signs of movement toward marriage, and some marriages are revealed in later novels, but this is no unambiguously happy ending. In place of the perfect happiness described at the end of Pride and Prejudice or Emma, Pym's Excellent Women ends with a dullish anthropologist, Everard Bone, gracelessly asking the heroine to type and index his book. This is nearly as much romance as a Pym novel ever contains.

The recurrent features of the Pym novels are then:

1) unmarried women, the most important of whom are never young. The typical Pym protagonist is in her mid-thirties, having survived a bad love affair that seems to have ended through pointlessness. She works as something moderately intellectual, as a librarian or researcher or indexer, or does volunteer work, perhaps with the church. She is usually a reader and may be a writer or an anthropologist. She probably lives alone. She is, in almost every case, a "gentlewoman," because she wears good tweeds and wistfully recognizes certain things she may not do.

2) the Anglican church, usually as represented by its clergy and its female worshipers, who loom large in the dramatis personae of the novels. Much of the activity of such books as Excellent Women and Some Tame Gazelle and A Few Leaves revolves around the church. Nobody seems particularly devout or ardent, even the clergy. There are Anglicans who attend church for aesthetic reasons—to hear a good sermon, to see a well decorated nave, even to inhale good incense. For most the church imposes certain rhythms—harvest festivals and Lent and Confirmation classes—and provides a center, even if frequently factitious, for the lives of unmarried women. They decorate the altar; they buy and sell marrows and marmalade at dreary garden fetes; they collect jumble and price it for the sale; they turn up at the parish hall for slide shows by visiting African bishops; they gossip about incense and confession and celibacy and birettas on priests, they read the parish magazine and pitch in to launder the vicar's vestments. The women who, in such tasks, provide the backbone of the church, are regularly referred to as "really splendid," or "excellent women." Some Tame Gazelle gives a comic picture of such a woman, Edith Liversidge:

"She's a kind of decayed gentlewoman," said Harriet comfortably, helping the curate to trifle.

"Oh no, Harriet," Belinda protested. Nobody could call Edith decayed and sometimes one almost forgot that she was a gentlewoman, with her cropped grey hair, her shabby clothes which weren't even the legendary "good tweeds" of her kind and her blunt, almost rough, way of speaking. "Miss Liversidge is really splendid," she declared and then wondered why one always said that Edith was "splendid." It was probably because she hadn't very much money, was tough and wiry, dug vigorously in her garden and kept goats.

And the next novel, Excellent Women, analyzes more seriously the roles of such mainstays of the parish; Mildred Lathbury, the narrator and a classic example of the type, reflects that "it was not the excellent women who got married but people like Allegra Gray, who was no good at sewing, and Helena Napier, who left all the washing up." When the unmarried sister of her vicar comments that "Mildred would never do anything wrong or foolish," Mildred "reflected a little sadly that this was only too true and hoped I did not appear too much that kind of person to others. Virtue is an excellent thing and we should all strive after it, but it can sometimes be a little depressing."

3) English literature. Often the central character has taken a degree in English and may be a lecturer in the subject; almost all of them are readers, specifically of English poetry of the eighteenth and nineteenth century, and comment on events with remembered quotations. Barbara Pym, who read English at Oxford, weaves a network of literary references into her novels, beginning with a number of the titles: Some Tame Gazelle is from Nathaniel T. H. Bayly; Less Than Angels from Pope; The Sweet Dove Died from Keats; A Glass of Blessings from Herbert. Sometimes these titles are exquisite—Belinda Bede quotes the lines which reverberate through all the novels:

     Some tame gazelle, or some gentle dove:      Something to love, oh, something to love!

The fondness for literature is sometimes a bit imperialistic, as in the case of Archdeacon Henry Hoccleve, a major figure in Some Tame Gazelle, whose sermons are incomprehensible and self-indulgent ragouts of inappropriate quotations. Or the literary habit can lead to the minor social discomfort produced by a spontaneous but "unsuitable" quotation. Belinda Bede, caught in the middle of a conversation about plans for a fishpond, thinks of poetry. "Belinda shivered. The fishes would be so cold and slimy…. 'Leigh Hunt writes rather charmingly about a fish,' she said aloud." "'Legless, unloving, infamously chaste'; she paused. Perhaps it was hardly suitable, really, and she was a little ashamed of having quoted it, but these little remembered scraps of culture had a way of coming out unexpectedly." Indifference to poetry is frequently an unsympathetic characteristic; and Pym's two darkest novels, The Sweet Dove Died and Quartet in Autumn, are strikingly bare of literature as well as religion.

4) Anthropology. Barbara Pym worked with anthropologists at the International African Institute, and they populate her novels. Her picture of them is not impressive. They are unloving and sometimes infamously chaste (the two most important ones are called Everard Bone and Rupert Stonebird), self-centered, and usually ridiculous. They go "out into the field" (Africa) with no clear idea why; they draw up kinship diagrams and tables and graphs, and exchange unwanted off-prints. From time to time someone among the uninitiated inquires how the anthropologist helps the Africans, but nobody can answer. Some of Pym's novels include the formidable figure of Esther Clovis, a secular "excellent woman," who administers an anthropological institute, and a circle of others around her who exchange arcane information. "Oh, Miss Lydgate," says one at a sherry party, "I must apologize for what I sent you," he wailed. "It was immensely unfortunate, but the language is spoken by only five persons now, and the only informant I could find was a very old man, so old that he had no teeth."

Some of the anthropologists turn to better things. Emma Howick, the protagonist of Pym's last novel, A Few Green Leaves, has come to a village to "write up her notes" (always represented as a terrifying and bewildering procedure), but turns gradually to a more humane observation of her village and, by book's end, seems to have become a novelist herself. Less Than Angels shows some of the more intelligent young anthropologists in training coming to question its value. And the most liberating act of that novel, perhaps the most liberating event in Barbara Pym's life work, comes when Catherine Oliphant, a fiction writer, persuades an anthropologist to burn all his notes.

A large bonfire of sticks and garden rubbish was blazing beyond the vegetable patch. Two figures, a tall man and a small woman, were poking at it vigorously with long sticks, pausing from time to time to throw on to it bundles of paper which they were taking from a tin trunk which stood on the ground nearby.

"Alaric, what are you doing?" Miss Lydgate's voice had now risen to a screech.

"Why, hello, Gertrude," he said, "we're having a bonfire."

"Yes," said Catherine, her face shining in the firelight, "Alaric had so much junk up in his attic and Guy Fawkes night seemed just the time to get rid of some of it."

She is calling him Alaric, thought Gertrude irrelevantly.

"But these are your notes," screamed Miss Clovis, snatching a half-burned sheet from the edge of the fire. "'They did not know when their ancestors left the place of the big rock nor why, nor could they say how long they had been in their present habitat …'" she read, then threw it back with an impatient gesture. "Kinship tables!" she shrieked. "You cannot let these go!" She snatched at another sheet, covered with little circles and triangles, but Alaric restrained her and poked it further into the fire with his stick.

Though the irreverence toward the written word and the reckless cutting loose which Catherine and Alaric enjoy here is not representative of Pym's characters and plots, several things about this episode are exquisitely typical. One is the sharp eye for social detail shown in Gertrude's wholly relevant observation that Catherine is calling Alaric by his first name. Another is the reaction of a neighbor who, like many of Pym's characters, is very nosy and thus spends much of her time spying on others. "'I don't know what's going on at Mr. Lydgate's', said Rhoda, stumbling across the lawn. 'They're burning papers on a bonfire and dancing round it. It seems so'—she hesitated for a word—'unsuitable,' she brought out."

5) The weakness of men. Oddly this is usually disguised as strength. The disguise fools the men themselves and some of the less observant women, but not the novelist or her most perceptive female characters. Her men, especially those who figure as sexually appealing, are compounds of petty flaws. Usually self-absorbed, fairly boring, pretentious, they cannot cope with disagreeable details of life, like making tea or doing clerical work. They are abetted by women who pamper men, justifying themselves by a belief in men's greater needs or their greater importance. Women eat macaroni and cheese, but men need stronger stuff. Occasionally a perceptive woman wonders why. "This insistence on a man's needs amused Jane. Men needed meat and eggs—well, yes, that might be allowed; but surely not more than women did? Perhaps Mrs. Crampton's widowhood had something to do with it; possibly she made up for having no man to feed at home by ministering to the needs of those who frequented her cafe." But even Jane never speaks out against this kind of coddling which, in this case, is directed at her husband, a clergyman and thus a member of the most coddled and excused class of men. The novels are full of bachelor vicars, depending either on unmarried sisters or on sympathetic female parishioners for such needs as food, laundering, and walking-around sense.

Pym's attitude toward men is oddly hard to define. Though her fiction contains no impressive men, her women are satisfied to love those who are available. The insensitive Archdeacon Hoccleve tells Belinda Bede: "I thought women enjoyed missing their meals and making martyrs of themselves." Her response is momentarily acerbic: "We may do it, but I think we can leave the enjoyment of it to the men." But she continues loving the archdeacon all the same, perhaps more the more weaknesses he exposes.

Barbara Pym had love affairs, usually with egoistic and selfish men (Henry Hoccleve is an acknowledged portrait of the great love of her undergraduate days). Her male characters, even when satirized, are handled with affection. Interviewed for the BBC in 1977, she was flustered when "a question about my treatment of men characters suggested that I had a low opinion of the sex. My instinctive reply sprang to my lips 'Oh, but I love men,' but luckily I realised how ridiculous it would sound, so said something feeble."

Like her major women characters Miss Pym saw the unsuitability of men but continued to love them. In A Very Private Eye we occasionally come across the kind of acidly perceptive comment on this paradox which the fictional heroines never make. In wartime, in the middle of another hopeless love affair (this time with the estranged husband of one of her friends), she writes: "A wild and stormy day. Icy wind and driving rain—we all got soaked coming back to lunch. I made curry for supper. Late in the evening, cutting dreary sandwiches for work tomorrow, I let myself go for perhaps half an hour. But one always has to pick oneself up again and go on being drearily splendid." And, in a reflection which none of her fictional "excellent women" would make, she writes: "Last night Margaret and I went out with Peter (boredom is an exquisite experience, to be savoured and analysed like old brandy and sex)."

The source of Barbara Pym's appeal, though, is something more than this summary can explain. As her own uneasy suspicion of her books' unfitness for the sixties indicates, there are fashions in these matters. After the craving for the new and exotic that was a phenomenon of the sixties, readers perhaps have reacted with a new longing for the old and familiar. The frequent complimentary comparisons of Barbara Pym to Jane Austen suggest the existence of Pymites or Barbaraites like the Janeites who preserve the myth of gentle Jane. There are distinctly nostalgic strains here. Lord David Cecil, whose book on Jane Austen shows some uneasiness with the Regency period and backdates Jane to make her a contemporary of Dr. Johnson, has praised Barbara Pym as the author of "the finest examples of high comedy to have appeared in England during the past seventy-five years." The other architect of her revival, Philip Larkin, shunned the literary vanguard, saying: "I very much feel the need to be on the periphery of things. I suppose when one was young one liked to be up to date." England has lately, according to journalists, seen the rise of the "young Fogies," and Barbara Pym may figure in some scheme of retrogression together with braces and bowlers and tea-dancing at the Ritz. Some people read Trollope for the same reasons. The English have always had a vocal faction that decries modernism as nonsense, and Barbara Pym, by no means a modernist writer, may quiet anxieties of dislocation and confusion.

The main reasons for her growing reputation, and the reasons why people should read her, are literary and aesthetic. One of these is her creation of a little world, made up of bedsitters and country villages, single women (mostly excellent, or drearily splendid), eccentric older people, minor and inconclusive class conflicts, women falling in love with men who accept that love and in some cases even return it. There is no intrinsic value to any of these particular constituents of her world; nor to the fact that it is a little world, as the little-bit-of-ivory, or what-to-make-of-a-diminished-thing school of Pymites imply.

Her strength is in her mastery of that world, the result of a tough and absolutely clear-eyed realism. When we read a novel by Barbara Pym, we may find ourselves thinking of the most prominent young woman as the heroine, as I have done in this essay, but, except for the few novels with first-person narration, there is nothing in the book to authorize this reading. Even characters who write for a living, often a sure indication of their creator's fondness, are granted no special sympathy or attractiveness, and are as liable to mistakes as anybody else. These putative heroines are clearly scrutinized and sharply judged implicitly and explicitly by the narrator. There is no privileging of the major character. In the case of The Sweet Dove Died, the protagonist, Leonora, is ruthlessly anatomized, although she is a partial self-portrait of Pym. Quartet in Autumn balances four main characters, none of them particularly sympathetic. Barbara Pym frequently uses bits of herself—wartime service in the Wrens, futile attachment to a younger homosexual, interest in cats—but almost impartially, readily assigning her own traits to the most unlikely or unpleasant of characters.

Some Tame Gazelle, for instance, is extraordinary. Begun when she was at Oxford, it is a successful attempt to write about herself, her sister, the love of her life, the love of his life, and all their friends, at age fifty or so. Belinda Bede, who is Barbara Pym thirty years on, is slightly set apart and enhanced by more sense and more decorum than the other characters, though these help make her a bit silly; but she is hardly the main character in the plot, which, typically slight, revolves around her sister's fondness for young curates. The novel, which Pym showed as she wrote it to the man she loved, is exquisitely accurate in portraying him in the complacent egoist Henry Hoccleve; and no less accurate in its discovery that Belinda (Barbara) loves him despite his unworthiness, to which her loyalty cannot blind her.

Realistic, too, is her fidelity to little things. Her world is made up of homely details: what people eat for meals, what women wear and whether or not it is suitable, the books people give each other, their haircuts, jewelry, quality of overcoats, their seats in church. Moreover Pym's steady devotion to "little," ordinary events as the staple for her plots is also admirable. Her novels almost never include death, and in only one case can be said to build toward a death as a resolution of plot. More surprising with unmarried women as protagonists, her novels almost never build toward a marriage. Or if they build toward one, it is averted. The unwillingness to use marriage as a satisfactory conclusion is by no means unusual in contemporary fiction: instead it shows some signs of becoming the convention. But in Pym's novels there is absolutely nothing didactic about this rejection of the marriage solution. Women think about getting married but don't; or as the novel ends they may get married, but they haven't yet; and it is clear that even if this marriage will not be the answer to all prayers, it will not be a catastrophe, either. Pym doesn't use marriage in the traditional way, but her omission of it is entirely unostentatious and untendentious. That is the way things work out. The end of A Few Green Leaves is unusually forceful, by comparison with the usual dying fall or commonplace observation. Emma Howick faces the future: "'Yes, I might do that,' Emma agreed, but without revealing which aspect she proposed to deal with. She remembered that her mother had said something about wanting to let the cottage to a former student, who was writing a novel and recovering from an unhappy love affair. But this was not going to happen, for Emma was going to stay in the village herself. She could write a novel and even, as she was beginning to realize, embark on a love affair which need not necessarily be an unhappy one."

But we must go beyond Barbara Pym's patient realism, which cannot by itself explain her attractions, to something much more shadowy and difficult to name. Besides the "world" that she creates, her novels are distinguished just as much for their tone. Lord David's claim that her novels are the finest examples of high comedy in England in the past seventy-five years is probably excessive, but all except the two dark books I have mentioned are nevertheless quite funny. If "high comedy" induces a civilized smile rather than helpless laughter, it is an accurate characterization. There are few really rich "situations," few witty lines. The comedy is almost entirely a matter of slightly unusual events, slightly odd remarks, observed sharply and reported with unvarying aplomb.

Perhaps the most essential quality in Barbara Pym's comic world is the perception of what is "suitable." Among her gentlewomen things are seldom really evil, or wrong: they are unsuitable. This unsuitability, perceived as comic incongruity, flavors the distinctive tone of her novels. And, though they are by no means constructed around set pieces, making excerption difficult, a few quotations may convey something of their flavor. In Excellent Women, Mildred is working at that most characteristic event for a Pym novel, a church bazaar, which characteristically is depressing and unsuccessful in raising funds for the church.

At the tea hatch, too, trade had slackened and we were able to talk as we ate and drank. Mrs. Morris's sing-song voice could be heard above the others: "Lovely antique pieces they've got. I said what about giving them a bit of a polish and he said oh yes a good idea, but she said not to bother, it was the washing up and cleaning that was the main thing."

I knew that she was talking about the Napiers, but though my natural curiosity would have liked to hear more, I felt I could hardly encourage her. Is it a kind of natural delicacy that some of us have, or do we just lack the courage to follow our inclinations?

"Of course he's been in the Navy," said Mrs. Morris.

"Yes, Lieutenant-Commander Napier was in Italy," I said in a rather loud clear voice, as if trying to raise the conversation to a higher level.

"How nice," said Miss Enders. "My sister once went there on a tour, my married sister, that is, the one who lives at Raynes Park."

"Such a nice young man, he is, Mr. Napier," said Mrs. Morris. "Too good for her, I shouldn't wonder."

My efforts had obviously not been very successful but I did not feel I could try again.

"The Italians are very forward with women," declared Miss Statham. "Of course it's unwise to walk about after dark in a foreign town anywhere when you're alone."

"Pinch your bottom they would before you could say knife," burst out Mrs. Morris, but the short silence that followed told her that she had gone too far.

Like Miss Statham, Miss Doggett in Jane and Prudence is a vague older woman interested in gossip.

"She told me a good deal about Mr. Driver," said Jane. "About his wife and other things."

"Ah, the other things," said Miss Doggett obscurely. "Of course, we never saw anything of those. We knew that it went on, of course—in London, I believe."

"Yet, it seems suitable that things like that should go on in London," Jane agreed. "It is in better taste somehow that a man should be unfaithful to his wife away from home. Not all of them have the opportunity, of course."

"Poor Constance was left alone a great deal," said Miss Doggett.

"In many ways, of course, Mr. Driver is a very charming man. They say, though, that men only want one thing—that's the truth of the matter." Miss Doggett again looked puzzled; it was as if she had heard that men only wanted one thing, but had forgotten for the moment what it was.

Are these passages charming? Though I find them so, charm is an elusive quality, hard to demonstrate. No doubt there are many readers for whom they are nothing of the sort, or nothing at all. They certainly are not hilarious, and no scene in Barbara Pym's eleven novels remains in the memory like the high spots of Jane Austen or Evelyn Waugh. But, though the special range and preoccupations of her novels make her distinctive, still these can hardly be very lasting or impressive virtues by themselves. It is what she does within her little world that makes Pym rewarding reading; her special voice, soft, firm, knowing, delicately humorous, just a bit acerbic, which illuminates these bits and makes them live. To be "bounded by English literature and the Anglican Church and small pleasures like sewing and choosing dress material" has no obvious appeal, unless one can share those boundaries with the stimulating mind of Barbara Pym.

Laura L. Doan (essay date 1991)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 6323

SOURCE: "Pym's Singular Interest: The Self as Spinster," in Old Maids to Radical Spinsters: Unmarried Women in the Twentieth-Century Novel, edited by Laura L. Doan, University of Illinois Press, 1991, pp. 139-54.

[In the following essay, Doan examines Pym's portrayal of unmarried women as a reflection of the author's personal struggle to reconcile her own feelings about marriage and sexuality. Doan describes Pym's version of spinsterhood as "an alternative life-style which offers women an active role in society and allows them the opportunity to examine others critically."]

In the spring of 1938, the twenty-four-year-old Barbara Pym made a curious, even bizarre, declaration in a joint letter addressed to her closest friends. Writing in an uncharacteristic, stream-of-consciousness style and rendering herself the subject by using the detached third person, Pym proclaims herself a spinster: "And Miss Pym is looking out of the window—and you will be asking now who is this Miss Pym, and I will tell you that she is a spinster lady who was thought to have been disappointed in love, and so now you know who is this Miss Pym" (A Very Private Eye, emphasis added). The disparity between what is actually written ("who was thought to have been disappointed in love") and what might have been written (a more open, unequivocal statement of fact—"who was or was not disappointed in love") is telling. The choice of the former, more ambiguous expression points to the chasm between public perception and individual experience. The letter, an exercise in ambiguity, teases by gesturing toward disclosure only to draw back playfully. The promise of revelation is illusory: "This spinster, this Barbara Mary Crampton Pym, she will be smiling to herself—ha-ha she will be saying inside. But I have that within which passeth show—maybe she will be saying that, but she is a queer old horse, this old brown spinster, so I cannot forecast exactly what she will be saying." Closing with a mock invitation to speculate on the reason for her happiness, the elusive text refuses to supply the answer: "you will never know now, because this Miss Pym, this old brown horse spinster, is all shut up like oyster, or like clam."

Pym's recognition of the difficulty of a life on the margins of the social order resonates in this early letter, and we find a microcosm of Pym's problem within its various and conflicting views of a spinster. Among such scattered self-referential epithets as "dull" or "old brown" spinster, we find a seemingly contradictory reference to the "prudent, sensible spinster." Pym readily asserts that she is "not … by any means one of your old fashioned spinsters," but instead of explaining what she is—what sort of different spinster she has become—the writer maintains silence. Could it be that Pym "clams up," so to speak, because she has arrived at a knowledge of self at once liberating and frightening? The independence and autonomy of a life without the conventional (heterosexual) attachment is so socially problematic, indeed so deviant, that Pym's greatest difficulty as a writer is to summon the willingness to communicate her life-choice. In a very real sense, then, this letter works as the declaration of independence of a twenty-four-year-old woman. It is an extraordinarily young age, we might think, to embrace spinsterhood for life, though three years earlier Pym entered in her commonplace book the following passage from Virginia Woolf's To the Lighthouse: "it had flashed upon her that she … need never marry anybody, and she had felt an enormous exultation." Moreover, in 1934 (at age twenty), Pym confides in her diary that "sometime in July I began writing a story about Hilary [Pym's sister] and me as spinsters of fiftyish."

Just as Pym's letters and diary entries of the 1930s would seem to confirm spinsterhood as a deliberate choice—sometimes equating marriage with death—her early attempts at fiction explore the question of what sort of writer she would become, how to find a place for her (single) self in the text, and how to present the single state to the reader as a positive choice. After experimenting with various styles and subjects, by 1940 Pym settled into writing what she would often refer to as "her type of novel"; that is, the sort which invariably included spinsters, middle- or upper-middle-class English gentlewomen, living quiet, private lives in unfashionable London suburbs or obscure country villages. Even when publishers began rejecting her manuscripts in the 1960s, often arguing that the readership for her "type of novel" had disappeared, Pym made few substantive concessions in shifting to subjects purportedly more congruent with contemporary tastes.

Such a reluctance to relinquish an interest in an "old-fashioned" topic suggests the depth of Pym's emotional investment, especially in light of her willingness to appropriate its unpopularity, as a 1972 diary entry reveals: "the position of the unmarried woman—unless, of course, she is somebody's mistress, is of no interest whatsoever to the readers of modern fiction. The beginning of a novel?" Pym reintroduces the issue, albeit in a version slightly modified and curiously disengaged, in the opening of Quartet in Autumn, where Letty complains that "if she hoped to find [a novel] which reflected her own sort of life she had come to realise that the position of an unmarried, unattached, ageing woman is of no interest whatever to the writer of modern fiction" (emphasis added). Shifting the disinterest from the reader to the writer is significant because, in this last novel written before her "rediscovery," Pym displaces her private fear that the single woman might be uninteresting to an actual reader: the fictional spinster now questions why an actual reader neglects her experience.

In anticipation of the reader's objections to the preoccupation with spinsters, Pym exposes the gap between experience and the novel so that her subsequent work fills the fictional lacuna. The tactic gives the appearance of writing against her own text but, in fact, constitutes the means to justify and legitimize the larger project of locating a space for her (writing) self. For Pym, the act of writing and the process of self-definition are inextricably connected. As Judith Kegan Gardiner argues, "The woman writer uses her text, particularly one centering on a female hero, as part of a continuing process involving her own self-definition and her emphatic identification with her character." Pym's determination to put the single woman at the center of her narrative suggests that writing becomes the process to facilitate her own personal reconciliation with the unmarried state and to resolve her ambivalence toward marriage and sexuality.

Crampton Hodnet (an early novel written in the late 1930s but published only posthumously and therefore untouched by any revisions Pym might have made for publication) offers an unusually transparent view of Pym's first strategy: to disrupt the spinster stereotype. In the opening, Pym's description of Miss Jessie Morrow borders on the pathetic: Miss Morrow, "a thin, used-up looking woman in her middle thirties," sits alone in a gloomy North Oxford sitting room on a rainy afternoon. Here her physical features are fully in keeping with the reader's expectations of the spinster stereotype. In the short span of a few lines, however, Pym abruptly contradicts this initial impression by informing the reader that Miss Morrow's appearance is "misleading" because she possesses a "definite personality." Yet the narrator then returns to Miss Morrow's "thin neck … small, undistinguished features, her faded blond hair done in a severe knot." By deftly fluctuating between Miss Morrow's relative unattractiveness and her more admirable personal qualities, Pym throws the reliability of superficial impressions into question and posits the existence of a discrepancy between appearance and reality. If Miss Morrow's inner strength enables her to survey the outside world with an amused and self-assured eye, then appearance is of dubious relevance.

After measuring Miss Morrow against the physical stereotype, Pym establishes a further point of reference by comparing Miss Morrow to her employer, the aging spinster Miss Doggett, who specializes in interfering in the business of others. The generational difference between the two women suggests a continuum, the inadequacy of an exhausted stereotype and the possibility of a new image—one which the reader must patiently wait for Pym to create. Miss Doggett's incessant abuse of Miss Morrow merely amplifies the potential to assert a negative as positive: "'Miss Morrow,' said Miss Doggett in a warning tone, 'you are not a woman of the world.'" Miss Morrow lowers her head in silence, but the narrator tells us, "The last thing [Miss Morrow] would ever claim to be was a woman of the world." By seditiously questioning the logic of a privileged attribute, the idea of a worldly woman, Pym neutralizes and ultimately dismisses the negative potential of unworldliness. Miss Doggett's admonitions—on appearance or character—are carefully undermined to establish the groundwork for a more positive characterization of the spinster.

If, as I have argued, the rupture of the spinster stereotype depends on labeling physical appearance as problematic and misleading, Pym must succeed in conveying an impression of the spinster that lies beneath the surface. By investing Miss Morrow with brutal self-honesty and self-acceptance, the same qualities that separate Pym's new spinster from the Miss Doggetts of the world, Pym gives the spinster an integrity that preempts the negative image and thus disarms it. Miss Morrow "did not pretend to be anything more than a woman past her first youth, resigned to the fact that her life was probably never going to be more exciting than it was now." Her secondary status as a paid companion in a household is similar to that of a governess, and she freely admits to a laughing vicar that "a companion is looked upon as a piece of furniture … hardly a person at all." This statement may register as hard and blunt, but the bold terms are Miss Morrow's own, uttered without bitterness.

Throughout the narrative, Pym repeatedly posits the equivalence of a paid companion and a piece of furniture and, surprisingly, even claims it is a virtue: "If [the new curate] had time to analyze his feelings," he would probably think of Miss Morrow as a "comfortable chair by the fire." With remarkable economy, she transposes the analogy ("piece of furniture" to "comfortable chair by the fire") to imply that men are unthinking and, more important, that a spinster of Miss Morrow's caliber, like comfort itself, is hardly unwelcome. With a matter-of-fact acceptance rather than anxiety, Miss Morrow reflects that "inanimate objects were often so much nicer than people."

The introduction of a male inhabitant into the household (a typical tactic in Pym's later novels) is the catalyst to demonstrate that Miss Morrow is not a spinster because she is unmarriageable: Stephen Latimer, an eligible bachelor, finds Miss Morrow quite pleasant to look at, sensible, and "safe." In other words, she "wasn't likely to throw her arms around his neck." Latimer's intrusion into the all-female environment invites speculation about Miss Morrow's experience with men and with life in general. Miss Morrow does make a bit of a fool of herself in fumbling with makeup before Latimer's arrival, but the triumph of appearance over character is short-lived. Miss Morrow never repeats the momentary lapse of the makeup incident, and, in fact, Pym takes care to stress that Miss Morrow is beyond becoming infatuated with a man. Midway through the narrative, the tone shifts significantly as Pym becomes increasingly brazen about the inadequacies of the opposite sex. Latimer's little attentions—received as compliments rather than as signals to set about scheming on how best to trap a man—impel Miss Morrow to recall male shortcomings and to extol female virtues: "Men are feeble, inefficient sorts of creatures … women are used to bearing burdens and taking blame."

In Latimer's proposal to Miss Morrow, Pym situates her most explicit and radical statement in favor of spinsterhood, denying that spinsters are spinsters because they cannot find husbands. Pym cleverly demonstrates how the prospect of marriage elicits different, and unanticipated, responses. In Latimer's case, the offer is a desperate and vaguely despicable act stemming from his own restlessness and a fundamental dissatisfaction with his career. Miss Morrow enjoys his attentions and finds his proposal flattering, but, because she perceives that his offer stems not from love but from a need to escape a dull life, she must reject him. A marriage for the sake of marriage (that is, without love) is out of the question. By casting Miss Morrow's rejection as a courageous endorsement of her values and her dignity, Pym distracts the reader's attention to preclude a negative interpretation and to demonstrate that Miss Morrow's motives are laudable. Pym's diversionary tactic leaves little room for the reader to realize that marriage would afford Miss Morrow the opportunity to escape her own dull life, not to mention the tyranny of Miss Doggett. Through this episode in which Miss Morrow accepts a life alone rather than compromise her ideals, Pym asserts that high standards, more than anything else, force spinsters to refuse marriage proposals. (Later we will see that "high standards" can cloak a more complex response to the idea of marriage.) The point here is that she makes the choice to marry or to remain single, and, as Joanne Frye notes, "choice becomes a part of the overall defining quality of … character and self…. To choose is itself an action and to be able to choose is the decisive characteristic of selfhood." With the power that choice engenders, the possibility of being left on the shelf is not the most frightening prospect to Pym's spinsters.

Upon Latimer's holiday departure, Miss Morrow enjoys her newly restored sense of freedom—a liberation symbolically marked by the transformation of the monkey-puzzle tree. In the opening of the novel, the branches of the tree outside the sitting-room window obliterate the sunlight, forcing Miss Morrow to sit in dark isolation. When Latimer eventually takes his leave, the monkey-puzzle tree, once an emblem of loneliness, now becomes the focus for a celebration of life: "Even the monkey-puzzle was bathed in sunshine … one realized that it was a living thing too and had beauty, as most living things have in some form or another. Dear monkey-puzzle, thought Miss Morrow, impulsively clasping her arms round the trunk." The incident constitutes one of the few occasions when Miss Morrow acts impulsively. Freely accepting spinsterhood so emboldens her that, when Miss Doggett pronounces her ridiculous for embracing a tree, the normally silent Miss Morrow "unexpectedly" challenges the censure: "'Only God can make a tree.'" Identifying with the tree itself, Miss Morrow perceives a natural place for women like herself in the vast plan of life. While continuing to think of herself as a "neutral thing, without form or sex," she is certain of her value as a living being and confident of her right to a bit of happiness. In this, Miss Morrow is successful, and, feeling no sentimentality over Latimer's leaving, she strips his bedsheets and thinks herself lucky to have escaped.

Depicting the psychological journey from complacent resignation to a joyful embrace of the single life, Pym ends the narrative with an account of a failed marriage, inviting the reader to decide who is really better off. The narrator juxtaposes Miss Morrow's contentment with Mrs. Cleveland's distress over her husband's affair. In an ironic twist, the wife, who realizes that the strange woman sitting beside her in a restaurant is probably not married, contemplates the spinster's enviable position: "She was a comfortable spinster with nobody but herself to consider. Living in a tidy house not far from London, making nice little supper dishes for one, a place for everything and everything in its place, no husband hanging resentfully round the sitting-room … Mrs. Cleveland sighed a sigh of envy. No husband." Here the endorsement of spinsterhood resonates from the realizations of a wife trapped in a dreary, unsatisfying marriage—not from the rationalizations of a disgruntled spinster trapped in bitter isolation. Married women cannot escape.

As Pym's voice breaks through the text and rejects any attempt to negate women like herself, mere self-acceptance gives way to a more radical and subversive strategy designed to question the very validity of marriage. The life of a spinster only seems dreary to those on the outside; Pym demonstrates that, for those with a properly informed disposition, the life-style is a viable option and often preferable. When a young undergraduate named Barbara Bird flees her affair with Mr. Cleveland at the end of the novel, she also feels as if she has escaped. Young Barbara, a character Hazel Holt suggests is Pym herself, reflects, "She was sure she would never marry now; and there came into her mind the comforting picture of herself, a beautiful, cultured woman with sad eyes." This romantic, if somewhat tragic, representation of the single woman is a far cry from that of the lonely, pathetic spinster.

In the introductory note to Crampton Hodnet, Hazel Holt speculates that, rather than find a publisher, Pym moved on to other projects because the manuscript "seemed to her to be too dated to be publishable." Given the power of her uncompromising attitude toward single women and marriage, it is equally plausible that Pym could not yet so blatantly present such an intensely personal view. Pym's own consciousness of marginality inhibits her temptation to denounce openly the constraints imposed by a rigid social order. In a sense then Crampton Hodnet, with its nascent, experimental narrative strategy, functions as a blueprint for Pym's other novels, which are in many ways variations on its theme. Pym's own conflicting attitudes toward the single life are slowly and cautiously plotted out because she believes her socially unacceptable life-style requires a modified or disguised voice rather than one ringing and explicit. Pym thus shares in the strategy that Elizabeth Meese claims for Mary Wilkins Freeman, a woman writer who elects to "display the shadows of her own doubt." Pym can and does rebel against the edict that marriage is the only valid alternative, but her unorthodoxy culminates in a complex and indirect paradigm emblematic of her uncertainty: rebellion and retreat.

Pym resorts to multifarious means to achieve resolution, including the retention of the stereotype. In reiterating conventional notions of the spinster with the detached voice of an outsider, Pym gradually corrects the false impression that spinsters are helpless victims resigned to living vicariously: "'What do women do if they don't marry…. "Oh, they stay at home with an aged parent and do the flowers, or they used to, but now perhaps they have jobs and careers and live in bed-sitting-rooms or hostels. And then of course they become indispensable in the parish and some of them even go into religious communities'" (Excellent Women). With the character of Jessie Morrow as an exemplum, Pym steals the thunder from her readers by embracing the caricature, only to turn around and undermine it by revealing its limitations. Sensing the power of language and naming, Pym introduces a phrase to accommodate her new concept: an "excellent woman." Whenever possible Pym supplants the preconceived notion of the spinster with this more daring, one might even say liberated, vision of the unmarried woman, whose persona is strong enough to reject the side effects associated with marginalization. If appearance and behavior play crucial roles in stereotyping, innovation and change are effected only through reinterpretation, and the possibilities of comparison and contrast are endless: plain and dowdy/handsome and elegant, eccentric and inquisitive/educated and cultured, dull and fussy/happy and amusing, useless and pathetic/indispensable and comfortable, unwanted and lonely/practical and assertive. As the embodiment of so many enviable qualities, the proud, excellent woman is rarely an object of pity or contempt.

As I have mentioned, Pym says very early that resolution depended on the ability of the text to demonstrate that a chasm existed between appearance and reality, between how society viewed spinsters and how they really were. Hence the inclusion of stereotypical spinsters (such as Belinda Bede in Some Tame Gazelle who feels "dowdy and insignificant, one of the many thousand respectable middle-aged spinsters") neutralizes the negative by penetrating the superficiality of such generalizations. Like Belinda, Pym's spinsters struggle to emphasize their individuality: "nobody wanted to be one of many, and she did not like this picture of herself, only one of a great crowd of dreary women." But the metamorphosis from spinster to excellent woman cannot be achieved by proclaiming one's individuality alone, as Mildred Lathbury recognizes in Excellent Women: "We had neither of us married. That was it really. It was the ring on the left hand that people at the Old Girl's Reunion looked for." The absence of the all-important wedding ring still symbolizes the social stigma associated with spinsterhood.

Pym's critique of the institution of marriage is integral to her reconceptualization of spinsterhood. In a two-pronged attack, Pym first depicts marriage as a less than desirable state and then proceeds to show that spinsters choose not to marry for any number of reasons. While it would be too simplistic to claim that spinsterhood wins out unequivocally, Pym never presents marriage as anything more than an option. Marriage can certainly be a very tiresome affair, and wives find themselves envying their unmarried friends, with their independent lives and freedom to do as they wish. Rowena Longridge in A Glass of Blessings, for instance, confides, "'Sometimes, you know, I envy really wicked women, or even despised spinsters—they at least have their dreams … the despised spinster still has the chance of meeting somebody…. At least she's free!'" The implication that marriage signals a loss of freedom, tantamount to "being caught," compels the spinster to reject the marriage offer when it comes. In Some Tame Gazelle, Harriet Bede "began to see that there were many reasons why she should refuse [Mr. Mold's] offer when it came … who would change a comfortable life of spinsterhood in a country parish … for the unknown trials of matrimony?" Independence takes precedence over marriage.

Ironically, to reclaim a powerful new identity for independent women, Pym appropriates an exhausted, outdated attitude toward sexuality and romance. Typically, Pym's spinsters are sexually naive or even asexual—the physical manifestations of love, when unavoidable, can be unpleasant and must simply be endured. The fact that many of them fall in love with men who are married, or otherwise unsuitable or unavailable, reinforces the spinster's idealized notion of love. (Pym herself, as Constance Malloy observes, "tended to fall in love 'safely': she usually fixed her romantic longings on men she didn't know, on men she loved unbeknownst to them, or on 'unsuitable' men who were unstable, much younger, bisexual or homosexual.") Since men, according to the rules of romantic love, are more interesting and attractive from a distance, the first actual encounter transforms the more "noble … abstract passions" into "sordid intrigue" (Crampton Hodnet). Passion dissolves rapidly once contact is established. As Ann Snitow writes, "In romanticized sexuality the pleasure lies in the distance itself. Waiting, anticipation, anxiety—these represent the high point of sexual experience."

Pym acknowledges that the spinster pays a high price for her romantic ideals. Thus, in Quartet in Autumn, Letty reflects on how "no man had taken her away and immured her in some comfortable suburb…. Why had this not happened? Because she had thought that love was a necessary ingredient for marriage? Now, having looked around her for forty years, she was not so sure. All those years wasted, looking for love!" In what is perhaps Pym's most bleak novel, Letty's unhappy circumstances are, in a sense, a punishment for her (impossible?) demands on marriage. Yet the notion that marriage must be rejected if love is absent becomes yet another means to convince the reader of the unmarried woman's integrity.

The most extreme manifestation of Pym's views on marriage appears in Jane and Prudence, the story of a young spinster at the crossroads, with just a few years left to make the choice of whether to marry or to remain single. In a fascinating role reversal, a married Jane Cleveland is dowdy and frumpish, while an unmarried Prudence Bates is elegant and chic. Socially inept Jane spends her time matchmaking and scheming, while cultured Prudence—extremely adept at entertaining men—sees life as an unending series of affairs and enjoys romance and passion, without any commitment to marriage. Such a state of affairs, so to speak, cannot continue indefinitely, and Prudence faces the dilemma of whether to become "the comfortable spinster or the contented or bored wife." Pym delights in averting closure by perpetuating the dilemma beyond the confines of the narrative. Yet, in Prudence's postponement of any final decision and in her recognition that marriage is not necessarily the best solution, Pym tips the balance in favor of spinsterhood:

Husbands took friends away, [Prudence] thought, though Jane had retained her independence more than most of her married friends. And yet even she seemed to have missed something in her life; her research, her studies of obscure seventeenth-century poets, had all come to nothing, and here she was, trying, though not very hard, to be an efficient clergyman's wife, and with only very moderate success. Compared with Jane's life, Prudence's seemed rich and full of promise. She had her work, her independence, her life in London and her love for Arthur Grampian. But tomorrow, if she wanted to, she could give it all up and fall in love with someone else. Lines of eligible and delightful men seemed to stretch before her.

It would be absurd, Pym argues, for the spinster to relinquish so rewarding a life-style for the unknown territory of marriage, as Mildred emphatically affirms in Excellent Women: "I valued my independence very dearly … I thought, not for the first time, how pleasant it was to be living alone." Pym's spinsters know that their autonomy will be threatened if they succumb to marriage and, ultimately, no man is worth such a sacrifice. Because Pym recognizes that the patriarchy values only the married woman, she strives to show that spinsterhood is not a temporary solution to an impossible situation but a permanent resolution. Mildred refuses to accept any devaluation of the spinster and insists that excellent women are "for being unmarried … and by that I mean a positive rather than a negative state." The use of the "I" opens up what Frye calls "the possibility of self-definition, the capacity to reconceptualize both experience and interpretive framework, the claiming of self-defined action as a way of eluding some of the constraints of an oppressive social context."

While the sorts of tactics surveyed thus far (calling the stereotype into question or launching a critique of marriage) are undeniably useful in contradicting and undermining the dominant ideology, the primary obstacle to a permanent resolution remains in the chasm that exists between the individual and social reality. Pym understands that without a newly conceived narrative structure, the process of self-definition stands in danger of achieving only minor revisions. Since fundamental change must occur at the level of narrative structure, Pym adopts a way of writing that allows for the insertion of critical commentaries into the text so that, in effect, two voices, articulating differing positions, resonate from a unitary text. The development of this strategy aligns Pym with a tradition of women writers who, as Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar explain, "managed the difficult task of achieving true female literary authority by simultaneously conforming to and subverting patriarchal literary standards." Like Austen's and Brontë's fiction, Pym's narrative works on two levels, where the surface meaning disguises the "deeper, less accessible (and less socially acceptable)" meaning.

Pym's characters, as I've argued elsewhere, are "continually engaged in [a] quiet, civilized struggle which pits their individual needs against the larger social expectations. It is a rare occasion indeed when a Pym character freely pursues personal needs or desires without guilt." The spinster, a character most susceptible to heeding this voice of duty, rarely eludes acting responsibly because all actions are measured against an invisible public standard. To neglect selfishly and recklessly the proprieties of the social order is to risk personal guilt. In An Unsuitable Attachment, Ianthe Broom visits the elderly Miss Grimes both as an act of Christian charity and an overarching sense of obligation. By juxtaposing Ianthe's private thoughts and her actual conversation with Miss Grimes and by situating the obligation just at the moment Ianthe would least care to fulfill it, Pym ensures that the reader is aware of the full measure of this difficult duty. Ianthe has just received a bunch of violets from her coworker John as she leaves work, and the "cold fresh scent and passionate yet mourning purple roused in her a feeling she could not explain." Ianthe would prefer to enjoy the strange new sensation the flowers inspire; however, "it was with a slight shock of coming back to reality that she remembered her resolution to visit Miss Grimes on her way home that evening, as part of her contribution to Christmas goodwill, a sort of 'good turn' done to somebody for whom one felt no affection. To love one's neighbour, she thought … must surely often be an effort of the will rather than a pleasurable upsurging of emotion." Only women, and spinsters in particular, are capable of such unselfish acts (though clergymen can sometimes rise to the occasion) because they can repress their own desires for the good of others, including those "for whom one felt no affection." Ianthe thus appears incapable of expressing her reluctance about visiting Miss Grimes and remains silent when Miss Grimes mistakes Ianthe's Christmas gifts for her own. To speak up and inform Miss Grimes of her error would violate the behavior code imposed on women by the dutiful voice.

Pym rescues the spinster from a debilitating sense of guilt and facilitates a psychological release by overriding the voice of the dominant social order to insert a more subversive voice into the text. When personal desire collides with duty, the dual-voiced narrative mediates between the two through the juxtaposition of inner thoughts with conversations and actions. When Ianthe gives fleeting consideration, "in a rush of wild impractical nobility," to inviting Miss Grimes to her house for Christmas, the second voice thus intervenes: "That would be true Christian charity of a kind that very few can bring themselves to practise." There are limits as to how far the obedient spinster will go. Upon taking leave of Miss Grimes, Ianthe begins to "feel a little sorry for herself … she found herself resenting the way [Miss Grimes] had taken the violets." Overzealous behavior is discouraged because spinsterish self-sacrifice cannot appear ridiculous; Ianthe does not degenerate into a total martyr.

At times the spinster's repression of her personal needs, coupled with an obsequious self-effacement, does lead to victimization. Yet this does not prevent Pym from allowing the spinster to speak out indirectly, as in Quartet in Autumn when Letty's retirement plans are torn asunder by the Reverend David Lydell's arrival in her friend Marjorie's village. Although Letty immediately suspects that Marjorie's romantic interest in the vicar poses a substantial threat to her own future plans of sharing Marjorie's house, the spinster initially puts on a brave face. During a church service, Letty sits beside Marjorie and, rather than contemplate her own precarious situation and worry that something unpleasant might be brewing, a "generously indulgent" Letty suspends all personal considerations and thinks, "Nice for Marjorie to have an interesting new vicar."

Later, when the trio goes off for a day's drive in the countryside, Letty "was not surprised to find herself squashed into the back of the car … David and Marjorie in front made conversation about village matters which Letty could not join in." A subservient spinster, Letty takes a backseat in the car, a place that emblematizes her position in society; within the social hierarchy, her insignificant needs do not even register. The seating arrangement at the picnic is also paradigmatic of Letty's inferiority: "Marjorie produced two folding canvas chairs … [and] these were solemnly put up for herself and David, Letty having quickly assured them that she would just as soon sit on the rug—indeed, she preferred it. All the same, she could not help feeling in some way belittled or diminished, sitting on a lower level than the others." Again duty and desire collide to reveal the spinster's vulnerability, even as Letty fights to repress her own indignation. The dual-voiced narrative enables Pym (and Letty) to observe respectfully the restraints imposed by the dominant social order, in this case taking a backseat, in order to attack it subversively. But Letty does not remain a victim, as the unexpected turn of events at the end of the narrative demonstrates. When Letty learns that Marjorie's engagement to David is called off, reversing the fortunes of both women, Letty feels "curiously elated, a feeling she tried to suppress but it would not go away." Marjorie, a widow with minimal understanding of the spinster, "naturally" assumes that Letty will leap at the opportunity to return to the original plan. These new circumstances, however, permit Letty to control the outcome and make the choices: "[Letty] experienced a most agreeable sensation, almost a feeling of power…. Letty now realised that Marjorie … would be waiting to know what she had decided to do … life still held infinite possibilities for change." The situation signals a more positive outcome for Letty, who now views her impending retirement with a sense of hope.

The dual-voiced narrative is also effective in allowing two attitudes toward the single woman to emerge simultaneously from the text: the voice of the patriarchy and the voice challenging that authority. In Jane and Prudence, Jane often functions as a mouthpiece for the social order, regarding her friend Prudence as an oddity and, occasionally, as an object of pity: "It was odd, really, that [Prudence] should not yet have married … poor Prudence." Yet Prudence, weary of the misunderstanding of outsiders, reflects with impatience, and perhaps a hint of resentment, that "one's married friends were too apt to assume that one had absolutely nothing to do when not at the office. A flat with no husband didn't seem to count as a home." The irony here, though, is that Prudence is in perfect control of her life—some of her relationships with men are unsuccessful, but on the whole she enjoys her freedom. As mentioned, in this novel Pym turns the tables on the situation of the married woman and the spinster. Jane's sort of marriage, a complacent cohabitation, is so unenviable that her observations on the plight of the spinster fail to convince even the most skeptical reader. Jane's assessment of the value of marriage—"Oh, but a husband was someone to tell one's silly jokes to, to carry suitcases and do the tipping at hotels"—is so ridiculous that it cannot detract from the attraction of autonomy.

In Jane and Prudence, Pym achieves the privileging of spinsterhood through a minor spinster character who seemingly embodies both voices. At the same time Eleanor Hitchens reassures Prudence that marriage would settle her unsettled life ("'You ought to get married,' said Eleanor sensibly"), the underlying message is really "do as I do, not as I say." While Eleanor offers the sort of advice one might expect (in accordance with the social order) and even perpetuates an outmoded attitude, she calmly pinpoints her own disheveled appearance as the reason for her remaining single ("'I suppose I'll never get a man if I don't take more trouble with myself'"). Just as these words are uttered aloud in Prudence's sitting room, Pym inserts a lengthy description of Eleanor's private thoughts: "she spoke comfortably and without regret, thinking of her flat in Westminster, so convenient for the Ministry, her weekend golf, concerts and theatres with women friends, in the best seats and with a good supper afterwards. Prue could have this kind of life if she wanted it." On one level Pym suggests that Prudence has the option of marriage, but Eleanor's inner dialogue leaves little doubt in the reader's mind as to what the sensible woman would select. Eleanor personifies the new woman and serves as a reminder that the image of the reluctant, pathetic spinster is a creature of the past. The careful juxtaposition of two radically opposed positions demonstrates the inadequacy of Eleanor's spoken account of her spinsterhood. Pym once again reminds the reader of the disparities between perception and reality, between surface and depth.

Barbara Pym's novels become an opportunity to undermine traditional notions of the spinster and to create a positive self-identity. Pym presents spinsterhood as the embodiment or synthesis of all the better things life has to offer. So has Pym, in effect, created a third sex? To be sure, the spinsters' very exemption from the rules of the game grants them a different sort of power: they have the choice to play or not to, and from this choice their uniqueness springs. Spinsterhood, then, is an alternative life-style which offers women an active role in society and allows them the opportunity to examine others critically. As active "observers of life," the new excellent women claim singleness as "a positive rather than a negative state" (Excellent Women). Like an uncertain lesbian writer who uses the text to justify her sexuality, Pym's experience of difference culminates in a text of persuasion, compelling an identification with the heroine and convincing the reader of the validity of her life-choice. By achieving this, she exemplifies another narrative strategy used by twentieth-century women writers: transform the negative and thereby reclaim an old identity. Her subversion, her process of interjecting herself into the text, enables her to argue the case for the spinster—a remarkable strategy in compliance with Hélène Cixous's imperative: "Woman must write her self…. Woman must put herself into the text—as into the world and into history—by her own movement."

Jean E. Kennard (essay date Spring 1993)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 6405

SOURCE: "Barbara Pym and Romantic Love," in Contemporary Literature, Vol. XXXIV, No. 1, Spring, 1993, pp. 44-60.

[In the following essay, Kennard considers comparisons between Pym and Jane Austen, concluding that, unlike Austen, Pym subverts the traditional romance plot by focusing on older, unmarried female characters who take pleasure in the mundane realities of ordinary life.]

Barbara Pym's work is markedly different from that of other contemporary women novelists. On the surface her early novels in particular have the coziness of a Jane Austen world, and it is to Austen, whose influence Pym acknowledged, that she is most frequently compared. A. L. Rowse has called her "the Jane Austen de nos jours." Diana Benet claims that readers of Pym "are reminded of Austen because of her satiric and detailed treatment of a distinctive social group, and because of her narrative method." But, though the influence of Austen is clear, Pym is, in one way at least, the Austen of our days. She works constantly to subvert the Austen world through a systematic attack on the romantic love plot. An indication of this is obvious from an overview of the characters themselves. Although Emma in A Few Green Leaves is self-conscious about her Jane Austen namesake, the protagonists of Barbara Pym's novels usually resemble Miss Bates more than Emma. The marginal, older spinster frequently displaces the attractive young woman as protagonist in Pym's novels, and, as I shall argue, this is one aspect of Pym's revision of the romantic love plot.

It is in their settings that Pym's novels are most like Jane Austen's. Pym, like Austen, seemed to feel that "two or three families in a country village" were the very stuff of fiction. She plays on this consciously in A Few Green Leaves, where the protagonist, Emma, recalls Mr. Woodhouse's comments on soft-boiled eggs in "that novel about her namesake" and Tom Dagnall remembers Jane Fairfax and "her gift of a pianoforte." Even when the novels are set in London—Quartet in Autumn, An Unsuitable Attachment, The Sweet Dove Died, for example—London seems like a village. Characters actually inhabit a few circumscribed blocks and run into each other much as they might in a village. As Mildred Lathbury points out in Excellent Women, "so many parts of London have a peculiarly village or parochial atmosphere that perhaps it is only a question of choosing one's parish and fitting into it."

Characters are frequently compared or compare themselves or others to those in Austen's fiction, even though Ianthe in An Unsuitable Attachment claims "one did not openly identify oneself with Jane Austen's heroines." In Less Than Angels the stay-at-home daughter, Elaine, might well "have copied out Anne Elliot's words, especially as she was the same age as Miss Austen's heroine." At the end of No Fond Return of Love Aylwin Forbes justifies his own change of heart by remembering the end of Mansfield Park and "how Edmund fell out of love with Mary Crawford and came to care for Fanny."

Other literary comparisons to characters from romantic fiction, particularly to Brontë characters, are also frequent. Leonora Eyre in The Sweet Dove Died is aware of her namesake; Mildred in Excellent Women claims she is "not at all like Jane Eyre"; Beatrix in A Few Green Leaves recalls Villette; and in An Unsuitable Attachment Sophia hopes that the marriage of Ianthe to John might be interrupted like that of Mr. Rochester to Jane Eyre. In Less Than Angels Catherine thinks of herself as "looking like Jane Eyre" and Alaric Lydgate as resembling Mr. Rochester. "It isn't only we poor women who can find consolation in literature. Men can have the comfort of imagining themselves like Heathcliff or Mr. Rochester."

But the comforts and consolations of romantic fiction have their dangers for both sexes, particularly for women. Pym is not the first novelist to point out to us that novels have lied and that if we trust their portrayal of human experience we are likely to be disappointed. Jane Austen herself, after all, warned of the dangers of the gothic in Northanger Abbey. In No Fond Return of Love, Dulcie Mainwaring, admitting that her friend Viola has "turned out to be a disappointment," says she felt "as if she had created her and that she had not come up to expectations, like a character in a book who had failed to come alive, and how many people in life, if one transferred them to fiction just as they were, would fail to do that." Letty Crowe "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 realise that the position of an unmarried, unattached, ageing woman is of no interest whatever to the writer of modern fiction" (Quartet in Autumn). In Less Than Angels the protagonist, Catherine Oliphant, makes her living writing romantic fiction. "Did people really say things like that to each other?" wonders her friend Digby at reading the page in her typewriter.

Barbara Brothers points out that "Pym contrasts her characters and their lives with those which have been presented in literature to mock the idealised view of the romantic paradigm and to emphasise that her tales present the truth of the matter." She does not, however, examine the romantic plot conventions that Pym subverts. In the most extended and thorough treatment to date of this romantic love plot and its hold over fiction written in English, Joseph Boone examines the effects of "the fictional idealization of the married state as the individual's one true source of earthly happiness." Boone points out the marriage tradition's "manipulation of form to evoke an illusion of order and resolution [and] … the codification of its narrative plots into recognizable, repeating, and contained structures." I have discussed one of these plots, the convention of the two suitors, in Victims of Convention, where I illustrate the necessarily sexist implications of a structure in which a female protagonist learns maturity from an appropriate male suitor after rejecting the false values embodied in an unsatisfactory suitor. The readers' expectations of romantic fiction are, then, of a young, usually attractive, female protagonist who will mature as the novel progresses by learning from a superior male. The implications of the plot are of the great desirability of marriage, a life's goal for the female, sufficient to provide a sense of closure to the fiction once it has been achieved.

Boone suggests two basic ways by which the tradition of the romantic love plot has been countered by some novelists. One involves "attacking the tradition from within … by following the course of wedlock beyond its expected close and into … marital stalemate." The other is to create alternative possibilities for the single protagonist whose actions thereby create formal innovations in the conventional marriage plot. Rachel Blau DuPlessis also explores ways in which novelists have written beyond the expected ending to "express critical dissent from the dominant narrative" of the romantic love plot. "These tactics," she claims, "among them reparenting, woman-to-woman and brother-to-sister bonds, and forms of the communal protagonist, take issue with the mainstays of the social and ideological organization of gender, as these appear in fiction."

A feminist and a realist, Pym works systematically to undermine her readers' expectations of the romantic love plot and in so doing makes use of several of the methods suggested by Boone and DuPlessis. In place of the values implied by this plot, Pym offers us an ideal of community based upon what she argues is a more genuine form of love. The wrong attitude to community is exemplified in her novels by the scientific detachment of anthropologists and the right attitude by Christian commitment and caring. Although they are apparent in all her work, these values are best exemplified in what are arguably her two finest novels, Excellent Women and Quartet in Autumn.

One of Pym's most obvious methods of attacking the romantic love plot is to rebuff our expectation of a young, attractive protagonist. Her characters are marginal people, to use Jane Nardin's term, "unachieving." "Pym's characters," says Nardin, "generally tend to be older, less involved with other people, especially less involved sexually, and tend to have achieved less than the characters of many other novelists. Typically they have not married, had children, formed close emotional ties, felt great passion, or gotten anywhere in the world of work."

Her female protagonists are frequently "excellent women," older spinsters, rarely attractive, working at dead-end jobs or subsisting on small private incomes, who are often attached to a church that provides their only opportunity for good works and for a social life. We do not expect them to marry, though they are usually mildly attached to a male of their acquaintance. Jessica Morrow of Crampton Hodnet is a companion to an older woman, has a flirtation with a young curate, but is too sensible to accept his unemotional proposal of marriage. Mildred Lathbury of Excellent Women, Dulcie Mainwaring of No Fond Return of Love, Prudence Bates of Jane and Prudence, and Harriet and Belinda Bede of Some Tame Gazelle similarly occupy places in society that fiction has rarely taken seriously or considered interesting. Mary Beamish of A Glass of Blessings epitomizes the type: "she was so very much immersed in good works, so splendid, everyone said. She was about my own age, but small and rather dowdily dressed, presumably because she had neither the wish nor the ability to make the most of herself." Letty Crowe and Marcia Ivory of Quartet in Autumn have spent their lives at jobs so undistinguished that Pym never tells us what they do. When they retire they are not replaced.

It is clear that Pym has both respect and affection for her female characters, with whom she obviously identifies. She plays deliberately upon her readers' stereotypical views of them. A good illustration of this is Miss Grimes in An Unsuitable Attachment. Full of a self-righteous sense of doing good, Ianthe Broome goes to visit Miss Grimes, who has recently retired. She is at first surprised to find that Miss Grimes, "with her raffish appearance and slight Cockney accent," owns some good furniture and china. Miss Grimes offers her a glass of her regular wine, on which she spends six shillings and sixpence a week out of her old age pension. Ianthe finds this "slightly shocking … Haricot beans and lentils—or chicken breasts in aspic if they could be afforded—were really much more suitable." When Miss Grimes makes a joke about her ex-boss's sexual orientation, Ianthe begins "to feel indignant that Miss Grimes wasn't conforming more to type" and leaves realizing that she "had not really seemed as destitute and lonely as Ianthe had expected." Miss Grimes finally confounds everyone's expectations by marrying a widower she meets in a pub.

Pym's female characters are invariably stronger than their male counterparts, whom, as Jane Cleveland points out, they allow to feel superior: "Making them feel, perhaps sometimes by no more than a casual glance, that they were loved and admired and desired when they were worthy of none of these things" (Jane and Prudence). Women, Jane tells her friend Prudence, "can do nearly everything that men can now. And they are getting so much bigger and taller and men are getting smaller, haven't you noticed?" John Halperin quotes the comment made to him by Pym's editor and friend, Hazel Holt: "'There is no doubt that she thought women the stronger sex.'" There is no question in a Pym novel of women maturing under the guidance of a male suitor. They are fully aware of their own superiority, tending, like Catherine Oliphant in Less Than Angels, "to regard most men … as children." Men, she feels, "appeared to be so unsubtle."

Pym's male characters do little to counteract this view. They are usually weak figures. Self-centered, ineffectual clergymen, like Archdeacon Hoccleve in Some Tame Gazelle or Nicholas Cleveland in Jane and Prudence, are common. They are also given to stereotypical views of women. Women smoke more than men at conferences, according to Aylwin Forbes, "Because of the emptiness of their lives, no doubt, most of them being unmarried" (No Fond Return). Mark Penfold defines a reciprocal relationship as "the woman giving the food and shelter and doing some typing for him and the man giving the priceless gift of himself" (Less Than Angels). The fussy old maids of Pym's novels are invariably men, William Caldicote of Excellent Women; for example, who is upset when his office is changed because different pigeons come to the window, or Mervyn Cantrell of An Unsuitable Attachment, living with his old mother, unable to eat restaurant food, coveting other people's furniture.

Marriage is not presented as a goal to be sought in Pym's novels, and she demonstrates this by the method Boone discusses of pursuing wedlock into "marital stalemate." Marriage is frequently a question of "dullness rather than cosiness" and without "much rapture" (Less Than Angels). Those long-term relationships that do occur in Pym's fiction tend to have gone stale, like Jane and Nicholas Cleveland's in Jane and Prudence, called by Halperin "the most sustained attack on men among Pym's novels." It is not surprising that Mrs. Williton "began to wonder why Marjorie had married Aylwin, and when no answer suggested itself she went on to wonder why anybody married anybody. It only brought trouble to themselves and their relations" (No Fond Return). In Quartet in Autumn Edwin celebrates the freedom his widowhood brings: "He could go to church as often as he liked, attend meetings that went on all evening, store stuff for jumble sales in the back room and leave it there for months. He could go to the pub or the vicarage and stay there till all hours." Mary Strauss-Noll points out that "the ideal state in Pym's fiction appears to be widowhood."

Nevertheless, in contrast to the problems and illusions of romantic passion, the ordinary comforts of marriage sometimes hold up quite well. Pym deliberately undercuts the romantic daydreams of her characters with the mundane realities of everyday life. Her characters like the fantasy of romantic love but not the discomforts of an erotic relationship. The pattern of Crampton Hodnet is typical of Pym's method. Three relationships begin in the early chapters of the novel. Anthea Cleveland has a new boyfriend, Simon; her father is infatuated with one of his students, Barbara Bird, who has a crush on him but knows that "although it was a love stronger than death, it wasn't a love one did anything about"; and the curate, Mr. Latimer, takes a room in the house of Miss Doggett where, out of boredom, he becomes involved with her companion, Jessica Morrow. All three relationships become complicated: Simon goes on vacation; Francis and Barbara are observed together by several of their acquaintances; and Miss Morrow and Mr. Latimer become involved in a series of lies in an attempt to explain an innocent afternoon in the country. But instead of rescuing her lovers from their dilemmas Pym merely exposes the shallowness of their feelings. Simon finds a new girlfriend and Anthea is not long in finding new interests herself; rejected by Miss Morrow, Mr. Latimer similarly finds himself a new relationship while on vacation in Paris; and Francis Cleveland is relieved and quite content to return to his mundane marriage when Barbara abandons him on the first night of their trip to Paris.

Pym also challenges the conventions of the romantic love plot with the reappearance, usually in cameo roles, of characters from her earlier novels. In Excellent Women, Archdeacon Hoccleve from Some Tame Gazelle is a guest preacher. In Jane and Prudence both Mildred Lathbury and William Caldicote are briefly mentioned, and we learn of Mildred's marriage to Everard Bone. In the same novel Miss Doggett, Miss Morrow, and a very changed Barbara Bird from Crampton Hodnet reappear. Less Than Angels, like Excellent Women about anthropologists, recycles Professor Mainwaring, Esther Clovis, Helena Napier, and Everard Bone from the earlier novel. A Glass of Blessings gathers together characters from several other novels: Archdeacon Hoccleve from Some Tame Gazelle, Julian and Winifred Malory and Rocky Napier from Excellent Women, Prudence Bates from Jane and Prudence and Catherine Oliphant from Less Than Angels.

Sometimes the effect of the reappearance is ironic. In A Glass of Blessings Rowena comments on a story by Catherine Oliphant in a magazine she is reading in which a young man and a girl hold hands in a restaurant watched by the man's former mistress. "What a farfetched situation," Wilmet protests. "As if it would happen like that!" A reader who is familiar with Less than Angels knows, of course, that the incident did in fact happen to Catherine Oliphant herself. As Diana Benet says, "these cameo appearances satisfy our curiosity about the fate of certain characters." Mildred Lathbury and Jessica Morrow, for example, do not marry in the novels in which they first appear; Esther Clovis and Fabian Driver die in later novels, Esther after several reappearances. The main purpose of the recurring characters is surely, though, to resist the sense of closure provided by the romantic love plot. Pym suggests a world of ever-widening circles. As in Margaret Drabble's novels, each story is broadened by our knowledge of the others. Her universe is potentially unlimited, her novels without boundaries.

In a variety of ways, then, Pym works to subvert the romantic love plot, but this is not the whole of Pym. There is affirmation in her novels as well as a good deal of clear-eyed cynicism. As I suggested earlier, Pym appears to affirm the ordinariness of daily life as opposed to the intensities of romantic passion. Dulcie Mainwaring's comments in No Fond Return of Love could have occurred in a Drabble novel: "But there is more satisfaction in scrubbing a floor or digging a garden, Dulcie thought. One seems nearer to the heart of things doing menial tasks." Her novels often tend, through circular plots, to return characters, perhaps a little more content, to where they were when the novel opened. Both Some Tame Gazelle and A Glass of Blessings are examples of this. Marriages continue; extramarital relationships, which threatened change, are discontinued. The solace of a cup of tea or some Ovaltine is frequent in Pym: "What a pity we can't make a cup of Ovaltine," thinks Dulcie. "Life's problems are often eased by hot milky drinks." Pym said of herself that "I've always liked details" (Civil to Strangers), and she does indeed give us a wonderfully perceptive realism dense with affectionately observed details of ordinary life.

But Pym also sees obsession with detail as neurotic ritualization, often a source for comedy in the novels. Less Than Angels shows us a range of characters all concerned with their own or others' rituals. Mark and Digby are surprised that Catherine does housework in the evenings: "'People usually do that kind of thing in the mornings,' said Digby almost disapprovingly. 'I don't know what my mother would say.'" Similarly Rhoda objects that Mrs. Skinner beats her rugs in the evening rather than the morning: "if everybody were to beat their rugs in the evening, just think of the noise!" Deidre thinks that at home "her mother would be laying the breakfast and later her aunt would creep down to see if she had done it correctly. And they would probably go on doing this all their lives." In Quartet in Autumn Marcia Ivory crosses the line between common neurosis and debilitating compulsion. She collects tins of food but rarely eats, sorts plastic bags into various sizes and keeps them in drawers but never uses them, and collects milk bottles, though only of one kind, in her shed in the garden. Pym's superb description of her decline from eccentricity into insanity makes it clear that Marcia is only an extension of any of us.

Obsessive ritualization is, as Pym realizes, often a substitute for feeling, and it is genuine feeling, including romantic love, that Pym affirms. Real emotion, of course, does not always occur between heterosexual couples with a potential for marriage, as the romantic love plot suggests. In Pym's novels it frequently springs up between unlikely people. Her attachments are often "unsuitable": older women and homosexual men like Leonora and James or Meg and Colin in The Sweet Dove Died or Wilmet and Piers in A Glass of Blessings; homosexual couples such as James and Ned in The Sweet Dove Died; homosexual couples of different social classes such as Harold and Colin in The Sweet Dove Died or Piers and Keith in A Glass of Blessings. Highlighting the positive values of alternative relationships, as DuPlessis argues, in itself counters the ideal of heterosexual marriage.

Pym's excellent women do not marry for the sake of being married, but they do seek love. Belinda Bede rejects the marriage proposal of Bishop Grote because she does not love him, and even in old age she is not prepared to settle for anything less: "'I'm afraid I can't marry you,' she said, looking down at her floury hands. 'I don't love you.' 'But you respect and like me,' said the Bishop, as if that went without saying. 'We need not speak of love—one would hardly expect that now.' 'No,' said Belinda miserably, 'I suppose one would not expect it. But you see,' she went on, 'I did love somebody once'" (Some Tame Gazelle). Jessica Morrow's thoughts after she rejects Mr. Latimer probably represent Pym's views best: "For she wanted love, or whatever it was that made Simon and Anthea walk along the street not noticing other people simply because they had each other's eyes to look into…. And then, how much more sensible it was to satisfy one's springlike impulses by buying a new dress in an unaccustomed and thoroughly unsuitable colour than by embarking on a marriage without love" (Crampton Hodnet). Pym does not suggest that Jessica Morrow is foolish for feeling this way. Spring impulses toward erotic love move many of her characters; even Norman takes an unaccustomed evening bus ride in Quartet in Autumn and finds himself standing outside Marcia's house. And Pym finally allows Jessica the marriage she wants, to Fabian Driver, but not until a later novel, Jane and Prudence.

Pym effectively convinces her reader that the romantic love plot does not apply in her novels, that she is describing life more realistically. She appears to assure us that her women are not the kind that receive a fond return of love and marry, only, on occasion, to marry them after all. So in An Unsuitable Attachment Penny does get Rupert and Ianthe marries John against the expectations both of her friends and the reader: "'I never thought of her as getting married—it seems all wrong,' Sophia burst out." Similarly in No Fond Return of Love Dulcie Mainwaring gets Aylwin Forbes and in Excellent Women Mildred Lathbury ends up with Everard Bone. Pym, then, does not reject romantic love, only the limitations of the plot in which novelists have usually presented it. Marriage is not the aim of life, but it is possible even for "unlikely" people.

The pattern I have described above is perhaps best illustrated by Excellent Women, one of Pym's finest novels. Excellent Women is the story of Mildred Lathbury; at least it becomes the story of Mildred Lathbury, because initially, as Benet says, "Mildred denies possession of the heroine's sine qua non: she has, she implies, no story of her own." Mildred is "an unmarried woman just over thirty who lives alone and has no apparent ties." Not very attractive, she refuses to identify with even a plain heroine: "Let me hasten to add that I am not at all like Jane Eyre, who must have given hope to so many plain women who tell their stories in the first person, nor have I ever thought of myself as being like her." So Pym warns us against the expectations of the romantic love plot.

Mildred lives in London, but in a part of London that has become no larger than a village to her, on a small private income, helping, on a volunteer basis, distressed gentle-women, "a cause very near to my own heart, as I felt that I was just the kind of person who might one day become one." Small details absorb her. She worries about who should buy the toilet paper when she has to share a bathroom: "The burden of keeping three people in toilet paper seemed to me rather a heavy one." She is fully self-aware, even ironic, about her own situation, one of the qualities that makes her sympathetic to the reader. She expects "to find herself involved or interested in other people's business" and knows that since "she is a clergyman's daughter then one might really say that there is no hope for her." She is prepared to find it right that she should spend Saturday night "sitting alone eating a very small chop."

She sees herself as a different species of woman from those who marry. Her memories are all of rejection. "I remembered girlhood dances, where one had stayed there too long, though never long enough to last out the dance for which one hadn't a partner. I didn't suppose Helena had ever known that." "I have never been very good at games; people never chose me at school when it came to picking sides." She often feels like "a dog or some inferior class of person." Mildred's only romantic interest has been a tepid relationship with a bank clerk called Bernard Hatherley whom she met at church. He had given her less expensive presents than she had given him; they had gone for country walks and had "talks about life and about himself. I did not remember that we had ever talked about me." Eventually he had rejected her for a girl he met on vacation and "had not broken the news of another attachment very gracefully."

Mildred is remarkably positive about her life, despite regretting that she "was not really first in anybody's life." She finds it "pleasant … to be living alone," feels that "I was now old enough to become fussy and spinsterish if I wanted to," and tells Everard Bone that "excellent women" "are for being unmarried … and by that I mean a positive rather than a negative state." She has romantic moods: a fine spring day with a "blue sky full of billowing white clouds … thrilling little breezes … mimosa on the barrows" makes her long for "a splendid romantic person" to be having lunch with, rather than William Caldicote with "his preoccupation with his health and his food and his spiteful old-maidish delight in gossip." But she finds it safer to avoid feeling: "Mimosa did lose its first freshness too quickly to be worth buying and I must not allow myself to have feelings, but must only observe the effects of other people's."

We are not led to expect more for Mildred than she expects for herself. Her closest friends are Julian Malory, her clergyman, and his sister Winifred. Although they both, together with most of her other acquaintances, believe that Mildred must be in love with Julian, she is not. Nor, of course, is she in love with William Caldicote, with whom she has an annual lunch. He works with other "grey men" at an undefined clerical job and encourages Mildred to believe that they are "the observers of life." Mildred is cynical about men, observing that "men did not usually do things unless they liked doing them," and that "men sometimes leave difficulties to be solved by other people." She laughs with her cleaning woman, "a couple of women against the whole race of men." Attending an Old Girls' Reunion with her friend Dora, Mildred realizes that it is "the ring on the left hand" that people looked for but adds "somehow I do not think we ever imagined the husbands to be quite so uninteresting as they probably were."

Into Mildred's life come the Napiers—Rocky, a naval officer with a reputation as a ladies' man, and his anthropologist wife Helena. They move into the flat below Mildred, and their proximity makes frequent contact inevitable. Three "unsuitable" attachments develop: Helena is romantically inclined toward Everard Bone, an anthropologist colleague who has no interest in her; Julian Malory becomes engaged to Allegra Gray, a selfish clergyman's widow, who has no concern for the future of Julian's sister, Winifred; and Mildred is attracted to Rocky, whose charm and kindness make it easy for her to forget his shallowness.

The pattern of Excellent Women is a series of flows and ebbs in Mildred's emotional state. Whenever Mildred is tempted into romantic ideas, the chapter ends by bringing her—and the reader—firmly back to what we take to be reality. Thinking of Rocky, Mildred forgets her prayers, and chapter 4 ends with: "There came into my mind a picture of Mr. Mallett, with raised finger and roguish voice, saying, 'Tut, tut, Miss Lathbury….'" After Mildred spends an afternoon with Rocky, he forgets to give her back her mimosa; Mildred observes at the end of chapter 8, "There was a vase of catkins and twigs on the table in my sitting-room. 'Oh, the kind of women who bring dry twigs into the house and expect leaves to come on them!' Hadn't Rocky said something like that at tea?" After talking with a stranger about Rocky, she looks at her face in the mirror and finds it "enough to discourage anybody's romantic thoughts." In a moment of excitement Mildred buys herself a lipstick called Hawaiian Fire but on the way home stops for tea and sees women "braced up, their faces newly done…. I had only my Hawaiian Fire and something not very interesting for supper." Rocky returns to his wife, who has given up all hope of Everard; Julian breaks off his engagement to Allegra when she tries to drive Winifred out of the house; and Mildred loses interest in Rocky after he moves away and fails to follow up on an invitation to visit him. The romantic love plot appears to be thoroughly undermined.

But Mildred's life changes after all. At first too self-deprecating to believe that Everard can have any feeling for her, she finally allows a relationship to develop between them. Nardin claims that "Mildred's marriage to Everard will be based upon an excellent woman's habit of putting herself second…. The ending of Excellent Women is as sly an attack on the conventional conclusion of comedy with its celebratory marriages as is the ending of Some Tame Gazelle." Surely this is not the case. We learn little of Mildred and Everard's marriage in later novels, but it is probably safe to assume that it has its disappointments, like all the other marriages in Pym's work. Nevertheless, if we agree with Benet that the novel is concerned with whether the protagonist will continue to be an observer of "the lives of others, or a woman engaged in a full life of her own," then the ending is not ironic. Mildred herself certainly believes her situation has changed, and she has not been given to self-deception. Julian Malory, she thinks at the end of the novel, "might need to be protected from the women who were going to live in his house. So, what with my duty there and the work I was going to do for Everard, it seemed as if I might be going to have what Helena called 'a full life' after all." "A full life," to Pym, is involvement in a community, albeit through small, ordinary deeds. It is significant that though readers of Pym's later novels know that Mildred and Everard do marry, she ends Excellent Women with that marriage only a possibility, not a solution. It is not marriage that matters, Pym is saying, but living one's own story.

Pym's ideal of community is defined through a contrast between anthropology and Christianity that begins in Excellent Women, occurs throughout Pym's work, and comes to signify the opposition of detached observation to involvement and genuine emotion. In An Unsuitable Attachment, Rupert Stonebird, anthropologist, knows "that men and women may observe each other as warily as wild animals hidden in long grass." He "changed into a dark suit as a kind of protective colouring, so that he could sit quietly observing rather than being observed." Rupert has "an anthropologist's detachment," Pym tells us. When anthropologist Gervase Fairfax makes a sarcastic remark, Ianthe "did not know what answer to make. People at church garden parties did not make such remarks" (An Unsuitable Attachment).

Pym makes frequent comparisons between anthropologists and novelists. Everard Bone points out that "both study life in communities, though the novelist need not be so accurate or bother with statistics and kinship tables" (An Unsuitable Attachment). This comparison suggests that Pym was perhaps ambivalent about her profession despite her claim that she "learned how it was possible and even essential to cultivate an attitude of detachment towards life and people, and how the novelist could even do 'field-work' as the anthropologist did" (Civil to Strangers). It seems probable that Pym saw the novelist's job as isolating and novelists as potentially lacking in compassion as social scientists.

The alternative to anthropology is Christianity. Emma, the anthropologist in A Few Green Leaves, remembers "her role as an anthropologist and observer—the necessity of being on the outside looking in." However, she abandons anthropology and moves from detachment to emotional involvement, with the local clergyman, Tom Dagnall. Pym gives us to understand that this is a good thing. Pym does not idealize the church or clergymen or Christians—she is all too well aware of human limitations to do that—but she does respect the spirit of Christianity even if she sometimes mocks its practitioners. The church in Pym's novels does serve to bring people together, often providing them with a caring community. In An Unsuitable Attachment clergyman Mark Ainger and his wife Sophia renew their marriage on a trip to Rome, a trip that Mark has organized as a vacation for an odd assortment of his parishioners. "Underlying the concept of community," says Benet, "is an essential form of love, an attitude composed of goodwill and compassion for others simply because they are fellow human beings; it is the responsible benevolence toward others enjoined by the commandment to 'Love thy neighbor as thyself.'"

It is essentially a Christian concept of community that Pym makes the subject of Quartet in Autumn, although of the four main characters only Edwin is a churchgoer. Interestingly, he seems the most contented of the four and the most connected to other people. Pym's concern here is "the ordinary responsibility of one human being towards another." The four protagonists, Norman, Edwin, Marcia, and Letty, colleagues working in the same office at undefined tasks, are all single and living alone. They do not see each other outside the office and yet are really more comfortable with each other than with other people. After his Christmas break, Norman "quite looked forward to getting back to the office and hearing how the others had got on." The pattern of the novel follows their occasional moves toward contact, moves that are almost never completed. The most successful at human contact is Edwin, the only one who has been married. He finds Letty a new place to live when she feels she must leave her apartment, goes with Father Gellibrand to see if he can help Marcia, and organizes the lunch for Letty and Marcia after their retirement.

The least connected is Marcia. She dreads being forced to offer Letty a home: "For of course it would be impossible—she couldn't have anybody else living in her house…. The difficulties were insuperable." Marcia becomes increasingly isolated as the novel progresses, resenting and resisting all efforts to help her. Marcia once had some feeling for Norman but has transferred all feeling now to her surgeon, Mr. Strong, who performed her mastectomy. The only way in which Marcia expresses her feelings, though, is spying. She once followed Norman to the British Museum and makes a treat for herself of standing outside Mr. Strong's house. The detachment involved in spying and observation is, of course, linked to the negative aspects of anthropology. And Marcia is by no means alone among Pym's characters in doing it. In A Few Green Leaves, Miss Lee and Miss Grundy conceal themselves in a thicket to catch a glimpse of Sir Miles and his guests at the manor, and Adam Prince watches "Graham and Emma 'canoodling,' as he put it, on the grass."

Ironically it is Marcia's death that improves their situations for the other three. They meet in Edwin's house for the first time after the funeral for which he has made all the arrangements. "Marcia's death had of course brought them closer together…. The most important thing was that they were seeing Edwin's house for the first time, never having been invited into it before." Norman inherits Marcia's house, which gives him "a good feeling, like a dog with two tails, as people sometimes put it." The book ends with a sense of increased community as Letty invites the other two to a day in the country with her friend Marjorie and realizes "that life still held infinite possibilities for change."

In place of the values of the romantic love plot, Pym affirms the interdependence of community, the pleasures of ordinary life, and the importance of genuine emotion—even of romantic love—in human relationships. Small communities exist in most of Pym's novels, often centered around a church as in Some Tame Gazelle and Excellent Women. Sometimes, as in A Few Green Leaves, the setting actually is a country village, but more often Pym simply creates the sense of limited space by frequent interaction among a small number of characters. She heightens this sense of community by her habit of reintroducing characters from earlier novels. This is her way, perhaps, of redeeming novelists after all, for, in addition to preventing closure, this device also serves as a way of providing her readers with their own sense of community, a sense of belonging to the world of Pym's novels.


Barbara Pym World Literature Analysis


Pym, Barbara (Vol. 13)