Some Tame Gazelle
Philip Larkin’s remark that Barbara Pym is “the most underrated writer of the century” has proved so quotable, and so often quoted of late, that the neglect it asserts has in large measure given way. Pym has for some years been back in style, and though her chronicles of quiet lives do not approach a blockbuster status that she would find—so one imagines—equally amusing and deplorable, public demand for her books has been steady and substantial enough for the publishing house of E. P. Dutton to embark upon, and now complete, a uniform American edition of the ten Pym novels. Some Tame Gazelle, first issued by Jonathan Cape in London in 1950 and reissued there in 1978, was Pym’s first novel but the last to appear in the Dutton series. Confirmed Pymophiles find the book meets the standard set by her bright and sparkling early novels, those written before publishers’ indifference and personal frustrations somewhat darkened Pym’s vision.
It has become a critical commonplace to speak of Barbara Pym as a “twentieth century,” “re-created,” or “funnier” Jane Austen. Pym, shining in her own right, does not need this reflected glory, though the comparison has considerable validity. Both writers were unmarried middle-class women gifted with verbal elegance, irony, economy, and great common sense. Both are miniaturists working in meticulous detail on bits of ivory: Austen depicts two or three families in a country neighborhood, and Pym presents cozy villages and a London that seems a collection of hamlets where her characters are constantly happening upon one another at restaurants, aboard buses, or in the libraries of learned societies. Both writers center on affairs of the heart, though Pym is the less likely to end her books with the ordering dance of matrimony. (Marriages tend to take place between Pym books: Central characters mutually attracted in one book appear incidentally as man and wife in later ones.) Both writers take interest in the alternatives to marriage, though the matter of earning a living, the difficulties of liaisons, the pains and delights of solitude, and the unavoidable process of aging are more explicitly treated in Pym’s novels. Finally, both writers charm their readers by creating distinctive worlds, so true to life that the reader cannot choose but say “yes, this is how it is,” and yet so carefully ordered and consistently colored that the fictional microcosm serves as a pleasing antidote to reality rather than as a reflection of it.
Nowhere is Barbara Pym more like Jane Austen than in Some Tame Gazelle. Having imitated Austen in numerous particulars of this first book, Pym goes on to copy herself in later works, thereby giving her canon a repetitive quality that delights some readers and annoys others. When one compares Some Tame Gazelle with the succeeding novels, one sees that Pym is neither the sort of novelist who served a long and initially awkward apprenticeship nor the sort who used up the best of a talent in a first book. Some Tame Gazelle is not Pym’s finest book, but on the other hand, it is a successful and polished piece—a literary debut that offers a remarkably accurate prediction, as does, for example, Walker Percy’s The Moviegoer (1961), of the career that is to come.
Pym chooses two lines from the not-overquoted Thomas Haynes Bayly to furnish title and epigraph for her novel: “Some tame gazelle, or some gentle dove:/ Something to love, oh, something to love!” Bayly’s couplet holds the key to understanding Belinda and Harriet Bede of this book and indeed most of the women in the Pym world. The identity of a woman’s beloved is secondary; what matters is that her feelings have some focus. Belinda and Harriet, both well into their...
(The entire section is 1551 words.)