I missed Barbara Pym Reading Week by just a bit. I have been keen to read more Pym and serendipitously picked up a couple of Pym’s novels at a book sale just in time for it (The Sweet Dove Died and A Few Green Leaves). And I ordered Harrison Solow’s Felicity & Barbara Pym, which arrived on schedule. Then other things got in the way and I missed it.
I did read The Sweet Dove Died a week or so later, though. It’s a slight little book, yet it wasn’t an easy read for me: I kept picking it up and putting it down and letting myself be diverted to other books. It’s true I’d been on a steady diet of Dick Francis novels and so perhaps my reading senses (they’re like spidey senses only less tingly) were not attuned to Pym’s dry tone and small scale. I was eventually drawn into the pathos (or is it bathos?) of Leonora’s lost loves, and of course I abhorred the loathsome Ned … but I felt as if the larger significance of the subtle nuances were escaping me.
I was afraid that my relative inexperience and lack of success with Pym (I didn’t love Jane and Prudence either, when I read it last year) set me up badly for Felicity & Barbara Pym. It turns out, though, that the opposite was true, as Solow’s charming and slyly provocative book is (in part) a tutorial for someone not altogether unlike me. Not quite or even very much like me, I hope, as the recipient of the letters that compose the novel is a self-absorbed undergraduate who gets a little snippy at blows to her self-esteem. Actually, that last bit sounds kind of familiar … Anyway (as Felicity might say), she’s registered for a seminar on Barbara Pym and Mallory Cooper (whose side of the correspondence is all we see) is called in to provide some advance tutoring.
Felicity initially isn’t much better at appreciating Pym than I was, and Mallory is quick to call her (alright, us) on it:
Your notes aren’t bad. You have touched on a few themes that Pym’s biographers, editors, and critics analyse repeatedly: Silly men. Mousy women. Tea. Religion. Quotations. These are worthy of mention. The fact that you still think nothing happens is not. It merely shows that you do not respond to what does happen in the novel, for whatever reason — innocence, feminism, scepticism, youth, cynicism, thoughtlessness, expectation, or too rapid and therefore too shallow reading of the novel — too light, perhaps, a perception of the economy of expression Miss Pym employs.
OK, OK: I am appropriately shamed and humbled.
Over the rest of the correspondence Mallory — cranky, erudite, witty, persistent — does her best to improve Felicity’s perception, working with her on nuances of dress and class, on historical contexts, on literary relationships (the riff on Religio Medici is particularly memorable), on silly men and, crucially, on the real significance of mousy women:
At best, the cultivation of mousiness is to participate in a distinctive moral past. At worst, it may indeed be a camouflage, brought about by war, under the protective covering of which the wish to inhabit one’s own cosmos peacably can be fulfilled.
“And now,” she continues, “– on to Tea” — and the excursus on tea is a wondrous thing indeed.
The Pym neophyte will benefit enormously from all of this: I have been moved not only to a greater appreciation of The Sweet Dove Died (“There is even an entire Pym novel devoted to the downfall of elegance, beauty, and taste, personified in the character of the colossally self-preoccupied Leonora”) but to a wish to reread Jane and Prudence and to acquire as soon as possible Excellent Women and Less Than Angels (at a minimum).
But the sneaky thing about Felicity & Barbara Pym is that Pym herself (as Solow acknowledges in her Preface) is not exactly the real subject of the book: instead, she’s a device for allowing Mallory — or Solow — to critique academic approaches to literature she thinks are limited and limiting. Pym’s lack of academic currency (and really, how likely is it that anyone would offer or take an entire seminar on her novels?) makes her useful for this project: “she is such an antithesis to the prevailing attitude.”
It’s a project that could, like Pym, seem “outmoded.” Mallory speaks with nostalgia of a time when universities “were sacred to the pursuit of education, whereas now, for the most part, they are desultorily engaged in the dispensing of narrow expertise.” Her position is not exactly anti-theory: there’s even a theory primer of sorts near the end, which, though brisk and tendentious, is not inaccurate and includes the full URL of a real website at Brock University for “some rather more practical assistance,” perhaps even enlightenment. I might sum it up as a “pre-theory” position: Mallory feels that the literary conversation, particularly but not exclusively in the academy, needs to start with what Solow calls “the context of the civilisation of literature itself” — not just the big picture but the really big picture. “We do not read, after all, as a species,” Solow says in her Preface,
in order that we may deconstruct and dissect. People buy books and borrow books from libraries because they like them. They read, re-read, recommend, learn from, incorporate values from, live by, study, and take to bed at night, books they like; books they appreciate; books they find meaningful. Appreciation is not perhaps what the university requests of its students today. But it is what writers … deserve.
As Felicity’s tutor, Mallory keeps broadening, rather than narrowing, the field of inquiry, the scope of questions. The ultimate goal, though, is not to ignore the range of theory, interpretation, and scholarship available but to arrive at it equipped with as rich an “appreciation” as possible, so that you can figure out its worth for your reading (and writing) with some independence. “I hope you will not ignore all of these critics,” exhorts Mallory, “for, among the labyrinths of nonsense, there is great, great worth. But that is for you to discover . . . ”
To some extent I sympathize with Mallory’s skepticism and impatience with the “labyrinths of nonsense,” and I certainly embrace the idea of appreciation, which is something I often pitch to my own classes as our goal (as opposed to, say, “liking”). The kind of appreciation Mallory endorses is also, crucially, not an anti-intellectual kind. There’s even a paragraph in the book that is eerily like a speech I have given more than once:
I want you to feel — and feel deeply about literature. But I also want you to know why and how these emotions are engendered by the writer, the text (apart from the writer), the words (apart from the text) as well as the relationship between the reader and all of the above. I also want you to be able to take that emotion out of any equation when it is necessary to do so. Otherwise, we could all take courses in “My Favourite Books” and spend endless and idle time in groups resembling your friend’s therapy session “sharing” our feelings about why we just love Gone with the Wind and how cool Harry Potter is. Not that there is anything wrong with that, intrinsically. But it’s not what we do in academic literary studies. If that’s what you want to do, join a book club.
Yet there are aspects of Mallory’s approach, and even more of her tone, that seemed a bit 1990s-culture-wars-ish to me, and I wondered how important it was that Felicity & Barbara Pym is epistolary fiction, rather than a straightforward first-person treatise or polemic: is Mallory herself being ironized even as she’s the vehicle for Felicity’s (re)education? Is her rather prim tone and affected manner a way of placing her at a safe distance? Are we meant to embrace her nostalgia, or to see her as embodying another among the list of theoretical approaches, one that purports to speak for the universal value of literature but that, in doing so, reveals its own limitations? (The book is actually, Solow says, “both fiction and non-fiction”; there are clear biographical parallels, but it’s also clear that we aren’t meant to assume a direct identification of author with speaker.)
Felicity & Barbara Pym, then, provokes as well as amuses. It had lots of connections, sometimes unexpected, to my own adventures in re-thinking literary criticism (speaking of “why we just love Gone with the Wind“!). I would recommend Jane Smiley’s 13 Ways of Looking at the Novel over Francine Prose’s Reading Like A Writer, and I didn’t much care for Elif Batuman’s The Possessed, but these are hardly irreconcilable differences to have with a book so lively and ingenious.
Full disclosure: Harrison Solow and I follow each other on Twitter and have had more than one friendly exchange. I first learned about Felicity & Barbara Pym as a result of this contact — and I’m glad I did.