Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1895
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...
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- Critical Essays
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 mildest, though not the least intriguing, of the novel’s three attachments.
Safe, plain, and unassertive, but also intelligent, firm principled, and humorous, Miss Morrow belongs to the Jane Eyre tradition of English heroines who, despite their low value in the marriage market, nevertheless attract offers from eligible men. When the newly appointed curate Stephen Latimer comes to live at Leamington Lodge, he finds an unexpected temperamental ally in Miss Morrow. (One of the interesting unstressed ironies of the novel is that he, at thirty-five, is a “young man,” while she, at thirty-six, is “a woman no longer young.”) Together, the two inmates can laugh at the world according to their warden Miss Doggett; and Latimer, who, besides having looks and money, possesses the shrewd practicality that goes along with selfishness, soon sees that he could do far worse than marry Miss Morrow. He may not care for her well enough to get her first name right, but he understands that she is the sort of woman who would offer him domestic comforts without making demands of her own—and then a wife would be a bulwark against the predatory females who feed on handsome clergymen. Miss Morrow, to her credit, is wise and independent enough to realize that marriage is not always better than the single state, that marriage to Latimer would be a fate worse than that she now endures.
Whereas the “romance” of Latimer and Miss Morrow involves a proposal but nothing else, Crampton Hodnet’s second attachment entails much carrying on but no proposal; and the second pair of lovers is more ardent but less interesting than the first. Anthea Cleveland, a professor’s pretty, lively daughter, is at home in Oxford and accustomed to the admiration of undergraduates. Her current follower, Simon Beddoes, is everything a girl or her worldly aunt could wish a young man to be: handsome, charming, ambitious, rich, well connected. Although Anthea and Simon are not distinctive characters, their blandness is not a flaw. On the contrary, it demonstrates that people grow into individuals at different rates, that personalities harden and sharpen gradually, shaped by the passage of time and the pressure of circumstances.
Simon and Anthea’s romance, which begins with an October kiss in the Clevelands’ library and ends with a “Dear Anthea” letter written on foreign-looking notepaper the next summer, exists as a kind of romantic control against which to gauge the more complex pairings of the novel. The surprises discernible in Anthea and Simon’s situation have less to do with love’s young dream than with the narrator’s clear-sighted view of that starry-eyed state. Readers see Simon tactfully clear his room of photographs before Anthea arrives for an afternoon of tea and love on his sofa and watch the disconsolate Anthea take immediate solace in a thick slice of walnut cake and eventual delight in collegiate flirtation with Simon’s best friend, Christopher. Even in this early novel, Pym’s talent for detail is evident.
Crampton Hodnet’s remaining pair of lovers, the English major Barbara Bird and her mentor Professor Cleveland, are a formulaic couple: the middle-aged married man attracted to youth and beauty, the enthusiastic student adoring her learned guide. This relationship, which begins like Anthea and Simon’s at the start of the term in October and ends the next summer, has often been made the stuff of farce. Pym sometimes takes that tack, as when Cleveland and Barbara, out for a clandestine stroll in the botanical gardens, hide in uncomfortable bushes to avoid detection. More often, though, Pym stresses the human complexity of the attachment, which is more idea than emotion on both sides, and fully as touching as it is laughable.
Unlike the sensible coquette Anthea, Barbara is a dreamy, unawakened girl. A promising student of literature, she is more familiar with art than with life. When the exchange of meaningful glances ripens into library assignations, café conversations, a declaration of mutual love in (of all places) the British Museum, and a proposed trip to Paris, she does not know what to do. Unwilling to seem a “cold fish,” genuinely attracted to the handsome and erudite older man, highly complimented by his regard for her, Barbara understands at heart that she does not want to be a mistress any more than Francis Cleveland wants to take one.
If Barbara’s state is innocence, the professor’s is, or should be, experience. Yet experience is part of Cleveland’s problem. In her later novels, Pym shows a penchant for examining the small and great disturbances beneath the smooth surfaces of middle-class, middle-aged life; Crampton Hodnet’s Clevelands are a successful early study in this vein. Having married for love, Francis and Margaret Cleveland are equally fortunate (as the other mature characters in the novel are not) in life’s other blessings. They have money, position, health, a fine daughter, a large house, and the respectable occupations of professor of English literature and Excellent Woman. Despite all of this, they seem to have forgotten, or to take for granted, their having each other; and Francis, admired by a young and (he supposes) amorous beauty, gradually realizes that life with placid, prosaic Margaret is insufficient.
Though the student-teacher trysts are less ethereal on Francis’ side than they are on Barbara’s, he, too, clearly finds the pose of lover gratification enough. He has no desire to sacrifice comfort for passion. Only Miss Doggett’s meddling and Margaret’s determined broadmindedness, which he misreads as indifference, lead Francis to propose the lovers’ trip to Paris. He repents of the suggestion as soon and fully as Barbara regrets having accepted it. For a while, neither character is willing to voice reservations, but when they are delayed at Dover, Barbara escapes from the real-life quandary by dealing with it as a literary situation. Like a virtuous heroine in a second-rate Victorian novel, she bolts from the dreary hotel, leaving behind a letter of high-minded renunciation. Francis returns home a Platonist in spite of himself. Speaking literally and metaphorically, he can assure his wife, “I only went as far as Dover.”
In her presentation of this mild, befuddled triangle of love, Pym offers what is one of her telling strengths as a novelist: a sensitive exploration of the varieties of misunderstanding. There are so few ways that people can convey their true thoughts and feelings, so many obstacles to accurate representation and perception. Why is Francis Cleveland’s romantic adventure unconsummated? Why is his marriage preserved? Should one credit Barbara Bird for sound intuitions, or blame her for deficient womanly instincts? Does Francis’ return home demonstrate the weakness of his love (for Barbara), the strength of his love (for Margaret) or something quite different? To answer such questions, Pym forces the reader to become, like her, a student of human nature.
Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 58
The Atlantic. CCLV, June, 1985, p. 105.
Booklist. LXXXI, April 1, 1985, p. 1082.
Kirkus Reviews. LIII, May 1, 1985, p. 389.
Library Journal. CX, May 1, 1985, p. 80.
The London Review of Books. VII, July 4, 1985, p. 10.
The New York Times Book Review. XC, September 1, 1985, p. 14.
The New Yorker. LXI, July 29, 1985, p. 76.
Publishers Weekly. CCXXVII, April 19, 1985, p. 69.
Time. CXXV, June 24, 1985, p. 81.
The Wall Street Journal. CCV, May 28, 1985, p. 28.