No Fond Return of Love
Barbara Pym’s reputation is that of a writer of distinctive qualities who, having suffered discouragement and partial eclipse for sixteen years, was rediscovered toward the end of her life and allowed to take her rightful place as a contemporary novelist of considerable originality and lasting value. No Fond Return of Love, first published in England in 1961, was her sixth novel—and the last of her books to be published before her “rediscovery” in 1977.
The time is the England of the 1950’s, and most of the events described occur in the Thames-side suburb of London, the Anglican Church of St. Ivel’s in Northwest London, and the Eagle House Private Hotel in Taviscombe. Classic in proportion, the novel is seventy thousand words in length and arranged in twenty-five chapters corresponding with the four seasons as well as with the Church calendar—Christmas, Lent, Palm Sunday, and Easter. A carefully planned story, stripped of all unnecessary details, an arresting phrase or idea reserved for the beginning and end of each chapter—these elements and others also contribute to the symmetry of form and structure.
This symmetry is combined with a subtle wit and a keen sense of humor—especially when the game of matrimony is being observed. The novel develops its effects, as indeed do all of Pym’s novels, through exploiting the comedy of contemporary manners. Like the anthropologists whose esoteric detachment she shares even as she gently mocks it, Pym scrupulously notes and records the frustrations, unfulfilled desires, boredom, and loneliness of “ordinary people, people who have no claim to fame whatsoever.”
In the quiet comfort of this world, where a new face is an occasion for speculation, the pleasantness and security of everyday life dominates. Only small crises—such as a fainting literary editor or a missing vicar during Easter services—form the counterpoint to comfort. Marriage is always an issue, and so is professional advancement or stagnation, as the case may be. Most pertinent of all, perhaps, the issue of interpersonal relationships engages Pym. The reader sees in her fiction the ways in which people relate or fail to relate to one another, and why.
Usually, Pym appoints a heroine to comment on the intimate details of the social behavior which is her subject. Here, that assignment falls to Dulcie Mainwaring—another of the author’s “excellent women.” Although Dulcie is preoccupied with order, stability, and routine, her raison d’être is found in the lives and crises of those around her—including Viola Dace, a fellow researcher; Aylwin Forbes, a fastidious litterateur to whom both women are attracted; Marjorie Forbes, his estranged wife; and Neville Forbes, who is so attractive to the women in his congregation that he flees to his mother. Dulcie’s observation of these other lives is of central importance to her: it provides compensation for the dreariness of her own ordinary life, and, in the case of Dulcie and Viola, it creates one of the fragile bonds of their relationship.
(The entire section is 1266 words.)