So long as curiosity remains a human attribute, people will rummage through literary attics as well as all the other kinds. When such rummaging results in the publication of a work that its author, for whatever reason, has not seen through to print, the general public and particular literary reputation may or may not benefit. For instance, readers could have done well enough without Ernest Hemingway’s Islands in the Stream (1970) and A. E. Housman’s More Poems (1936); both writers apparently knew that their prestige would not be enhanced by the publication of the works they held back. Conversely, some literary reputations would be nonexistent were it not for posthumous publication—the poets Emily Dickinson and Wilfred Owen are but two examples. A third class would contain works that neither create nor detract from a literary corpus but instead add an achievement consistent with what is already published. Barbara Pym’s Crampton Hodnet, the latest in the handsome Dutton series of her novels, belongs in this last group.
Pym began Crampton Hodnet in 1939, just after the outbreak of World War II. She completed a draft in 1940, then put it aside when war work engrossed her energy and attention. After the war, Pym took up her manuscript, and then, after some revision, decided that it was “too dated to be publishable,” as her friend and literary executor Hazel Holt puts it. Yet, if the past seems dowdy when immediate, it can become exotic when more remote. A portrayal of the 1930’s can be redeemed—especially when the setting is that picturesque home of lost causes, Oxford.
Oxford as it appears in Crampton Hodnet is not the university city of Max Beerbohm’s Zuleika Dobson (1911), Compton Mackenzie’s Sinister Street (1913-1914), or Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited (1945). Though it shares certain characteristics with the Oxford of these novels, Pym’s setting has more in common with the villages and London neighborhoods of her other books. Undergraduates are generically important to the Oxford of Crampton Hodnet, but as individuals they matter little. In fact, the structure of Pym’s novel, which begins as Jessie Morrow awaits a Sunday tea at the start of the academic year and ends with the same woman waiting for the same event a year later, reminds readers that the eligible, ambitious, provincial, pretty, brilliant, or gauche members of one class are succeeded by their counterparts just as one year’s Michaelmas daisies supersede the previous crop. Though the students are ephemeral, the community itself is enduring if not eternal, much like the sturdy, ugly monkey puzzle tree that is so prominent a feature of the front garden at Leamington Lodge, where Morrow lives as companion to Maude Doggett, a lady as grim, respectable, and consummately Victorian as her house and garden.
Crampton Hodnet follows Pym’s typical pattern in presenting the interrelated lives of a particular set, in this case the people who live at or visit Miss Doggett’s house or the North Oxford house of her nephew, Professor Francis Cleveland. Crampton Hodnet departs from the usual Pym course in that it does not center on characters of any particular age. The all-seeing narrator’s attention roves from the doings and thoughts of the aged to those of the middle-aged, the somewhat younger, and the truly young. The reader is variously allowed to share, if briefly, the inner lives of a woman as old and ruthless as the robust widow Mrs. Killigrew, a middle-aged man as amiably spiteful as her repressed librarian son, Edward, or a youth as heartily normal as the first-year college athlete Mr. Bompas. Pym wrote Crampton Hodnet a few years after her own Oxford days, and one of the novel’s remarkable achievements is her ability to make the older characters at least as plausible and interesting as the younger ones whom she could draw from recollection and experience.
As is customary in the Pym world, ordinary doings such as teas, church work sales, library sessions, and vacation trips are the activities of the novel. The events are romantic attachments whose intricacies flourish, fade, and reappear in the prosaic world where dresses are bought, essays prepared, and gooseberries topped and tailed. The novel’s title, which is the name of a nonexistent village invented by the curate—who seems to have read or seen Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest (1895) and to have remembered how useful an imaginary invalid named Bunbury proves to Algernon Moncrieff in that play—leads one to the...
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