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Kindly Words and Spectacles: The Art of Barbara Pym

By (September 1, 2011) 4 Comments

In 1977, London’s Times Literary Supplement polled prominent British writers to find the most underrated novelists of the century. Lord David Cecil and Phillip Larkin both cited the 64-year old Barbara Pym, whose last novel had been published 16 years earlier. The double endorsement prompted the British publisher Macmillan to re-release her Excellent Women (1953)—and a new Pym novel, Quartet in Autumn, which was soon after shortlisted for the Booker Prize.

In the U.S., E.P. Dutton printed the same volumes in handsome thematic “wallpaper” dust jackets, designed by Jacqueline Schuman, that would distinguish every subsequent Pym volume over the next several years. Becoming a Pym fan became not only emotionally satisfying, but aesthetically pleasing, too.

When the New York Times favorably reviewed both books in a single Sunday Book Review article, I bought them the next day. A few pages into Excellent Women, I found a unique voice and vision—vinegary, unsentimental, deeply humane, and wonderfully, dryly comic—that made me an instant fan. Her explorations into the lives of British middle-class lives—academics, clergymen, housewives, spinsters—create indelible portraits of lives that are no less poignant and comic for their drabness and lack of distinction.

John Updike weighed in with praise in The New Yorker. Shirley Hazzard, and other critics likened her to a 20th-century Jane Austen. (Hazzard: “Comic, heartbreaking, brave; in short, like life itself.”) Dutton continued to release her books over the next several years, not only those that were long out of print, but also An Unsuitable Attachment, which had been rejected by some 20 publishers in 1963. (She was told she was too hopelessly old-fashioned for the “modern” reader.) Pym lived another three years after her renaissance, enough time to finish two more books, and even better to enjoy the critical and popular adulation that had escaped her for more than 15 years.

What she missed—and who knows what the famously private and self-effacing Pym might have thought of these—was a biography by her friend Hazel Holt; A Very Private Eye, an “autobiography in diaries and letters”; the publication of Civil to Strangers, consisting of an unfinished novel and a handful of shorter pieces; and even The Barbara Pym Cookbook, a quirky little collection that includes recipes for foods mentioned in her books. Recipes range from reasonable (French Onion Tart) to questionable (Cod Fillets with Cheese) to unintentionally hilarious (something called Rabbit with Forcemeat Balls).

The books have won her a fervent audience. Like Trollope, Austen, and Conan Doyle, Pym has inspired her own society (a small one, to be sure), whose members meet regularly in Oxford, England and Cambridge, Massachusetts. Always fond of skewering the “learned conferences” attended dutifully and usually joylessly by her characters, Pym would undoubtedly be bemused by society members discussing analytical papers on “What Barbara Pym Read,” “Communal Rites: Tea, Wine and Milton in Barbara Pym Novels,” and “Fashion in A Glass of Blessings.”

That there is a sameness to Pym’s work is by no means a disparagement; like Austen, and so many other British greats—E.F. Benson, Angela Thirkell, Nancy Mitford, and Agatha Christie in her Marple mode—she worked with a small brush on a small canvas. Most of Pym’s characters exist in the enclosed worlds of English villages, stuffy city offices, church meetings, and academic institutions. She never strayed far from her own world. Born in Oswestry, Shropshire in 1913, she attended St. Hilda’s at Oxford, where she studied English Literature, joined the Women’s Royal Naval Service during World War II, and later toiled for years at the International African Institute, an anthropological society, as an assistant editor for their journal. She never married and lived most of her later life with her sister, but her diaries and letters tell of several romances, usually unrequited or short-lived. All of these experiences—including her lifelong dedication to the Church of England—fed her literary imagination, and would later resurface, artfully dissected, in her work.

Hers was a universe of whist drives, jumble sales, old clothes salvaged for “distressed gentlewomen,” flower arranging at the altar, and endless hours fretting on what to serve for tea. “Excellent women” are a Pym mainstay—redoubtable, sturdy souls, usually unmarried, who put their energies into serving the church, helping the poor, heading committees, and prying relentlessly into the lives of others.

Here a group of women in Jane and Prudence (1953) gather to sort through the closets of a recently deceased neighbor—as a favor to her widower—to discern which clothes might be donated to the less fortunate:

“On what principle,” [said Miss Morrow], “are we to sort out these things? Distressed gentlewomen and jumble? Or should there be more and subtler distinctions?”

“No, I think that is what Mr. Driver would wish, and what poor Constance herself would have wished,” said Miss Doggett, opening the wardrobe. “Oh dear, here is her musquash coat! She never had it remodeled, though I often suggested to her that she should. Mr. Rose could have done it for her as he did my cape.” She stroked the strands of skunk which still hung from her shoulders, for the room had not yet warmed up in spite of the flaring and popping gas-fire.

“I can just see her in that coat,” said Jessie, looking at the long brown coat with its narrow shoulders and old-fashioned roll collar. She remembered Constance’s long, pale face with the worried grey eyes and the fair, wispy hair drawn back into a rather meagre little knot on the nape of her neck. “And oh dear, here are all her shoes, long and narrow and of such good leather. Just the thing for the gentlewomen.”

Jane and Prudence was Pym’s fourth novel (but the third to be published), and in the way that it distills her drawing-room preoccupations and enveloping style is one of the best starting points for the uninitiated. Its title characters met at Oxford as tutor and pupil, and have remained friends, despite a decades-plus difference in age and the divergent paths of their lives. Jane has settled into mundane domesticity with her husband Nicholas, a clergyman newly appointed to a small-town vicarage; Prudence works a tedious office job in London (described by the narrator, in the only description we’re given, as “the vague cultural organization where she worked”) and endures a series of fleeting and unsatisfying affairs with men, a list she often catalogs in her mind, as if she fears losing her memories.

Prudence is lovely and fashionable, but at 29 “is at an age that is often rather desperate for a woman who has not yet married.” Jane, seemingly enviable for her marriage, has not found the happiness she thought she might from stories read in Trollope and other Victorians. Despite having a daughter, now a student at Oxford, she feels a failure: literary clergymen’s wives had large families, “like those in the novels of Miss Charlotte M. Yonge.” (Similar literary allusions abound in Pym, some obscure enough to require a glossary.) Furthermore, Jane has little in common with the older gentlewomen and spinsters—excellent women all—who populate church society: she is often outspoken and maladroit, and her sense of style, as Prudence notes, is “terrible.”

A train trip to London to visit Prudence includes a run-in with Miss Doggett, who informs Jane that her “underskirt is showing a little.”

“It’s this wretched locknit,” said Jane, rather too loudly and gaily, so that Miss Doggett recoiled a little; “it does sag so. Still, there’s nothing I can do about it now. The train’s coming.”

They got into an empty carriage together and sat rather stiffly on opposite sides by the window. Miss Doggett produced a safety pin from her bag.

“You should take it up at the shoulder, perhaps,” she suggested, offering the pin.

“Thank you,” said Jane, who had no intention of doing something about her sagging slip. “I suppose I ought to do something, especially as I am going to London. People might notice,” she added unconvincingly, for who among the many millions—six, was it, or eight?—would notice that a country vicar’s wife had half an inch of underskirt showing on the left side?

“Well, it is feeling right oneself that’s the important thing,” said Miss Doggett, stroking her musquash coat. “I am going to my dressmaker for a fitting.”

“How grand that sounds, having clothes specially fitted so that they are exactly your shape and nobody else’s,” said Jane impetuously.

Miss Doggett, whose figure was rather an odd shape, known to dressmakers as ‘difficult’, seemed as if she did not quite know how to take Jane’s remark, but she must have decided that she was obviously much too unworldly to mean any offence, so decided not to take umbrage.

In the novel’s short time span, the women’s quotidian existences—interrupted by visits they make to each other’s homes—are precisely portrayed. Prudence’s latest love is her employer, Dr. Arthur Grampian, the kind of pompous academic Pym delights in sending up. He’s married and depressingly indifferent to Prudence’s longing looks, fueled solely by her memory of his having grasped her hand in the office one evening and sighing, “Ah, Prudence . . .”:

And so she had gone through these last months with nothing more than this “Ah, Prudence. . .” to hug to her heart and take out and brood over numerous times a day. For nothing had happened since and he had never again even called her by her Christian name.

And while Prudence has romanticized him to herself and others beyond all reason, in Jane’s eyes he is entirely unprepossessing:

So this was Arthur Grampian. He was of middle size, almost short, and gave an impression of greyness in his clothes and face and in the pebble-like eyes behind his spectacles. Whatever did Prue see in him?, she wondered, conscious as she asked herself of the futility of her question. . . . this insignificant little man. Oh, but it was splendid the things women were doing for men all the time, thought Jane, making them feel, perhaps, sometimes by no more than a casual glance, that they were loved and admired and desired when they were worthy of none of these things.

Jane feels for Prudence and her solitary existence, while at the same time regretting her own lost passion, not only for her sweet, dull, bespectacled husband, but also for her once promising career as a scholar.

In one touching reverie, she reflects on what she has lost:

Mild, kindly looks and spectacles, thought Jane; this is what it all came to in the end. The passion of those early days, the fragments of Donne and Marvell and Jane’s obscurer seventeenth-century poets, the objects of her abortive research, all these faded away into mild, kindly words and spectacles. There came a day when one didn’t quote poetry to one’s husband any more. When had that day been? Could she have noted it and mourned it if she had been more observant?

‘What doth my she-advowsen fly

she murmured. Unsuitable, of course, but she loved the lines.

It’s easy to empathize with Jane’s regrets; Nicholas’s hobbies include growing his own tobacco (he dries it by hanging it from the kitchen ceiling) and collecting animals carved in soap. In one scene, (very mild) hilarity ensues when the former vicar pays a call and mistakenly chooses a piece from the collection to wash his hands.

As for Nicholas, he has his own moments of marital doubt. “She would never learn not to speak, he thought, with rather less affectionate tolerance than usual, Not for the first time he began to consider that there was, after all, something to be said for the celibacy of the clergy.”

The plot, such as it is, is driven by a character aptly named. Fabian Driver is a handsome, vain, womanizing widower from Prudence’s village to whom Prudence develops a powerful attraction. (He’s described as good-looking in “a rather used-up Byronic kind of way.”) Despite his flaws, Jane thinks him a “suitable” match for her friend, and in Pym’s world (as in Austen’s) there is no higher compliment. “Suitability” is a consummation devoutly to be wished, and one of Pym’s most frequently used adjectives. Is it ‘suitable’ for a clergyman to have a study upstairs? To serve a visitor something from a can for tea? For Jane to be seen reading the poems of Coventry Patmore in public? Her characters live under a proscribed, stultifying social code that threatens to suffocate them, and Pym deftly exploits all of their foibles.

The precise formality of their lives extends to their speech. Her characters speak often in the third person impersonal, a middle-class convention undoubtedly drawn from the royal family playbook: “One manages,” said Fabian, “one has to, of course.” About which Jane thinks, “The use of the third person seemed to add pathos, which was perhaps just what he intended.”

Scare-quotes are another of Pym stylistic tics, isolating words that are colloquial or ironic. Prudence is said to be “carefully ‘groomed’”; she was wearing “a ‘best’ summer dress”; Jane “has ‘dropped off’ as she frequently did on a Sunday afternoon.”

By story’s end, Prudence has been bested by an unlikely rival in her attempts to win Fabian’s heart. In one of the novel’s most effective scenes, during a visit to Jane’s home, she first realizes that she is losing Fabian’s affections. Here Pym allows Prudence to acknowledge her pain, but keeps bathos at bay with her typically ironic eye:

After she had changed her dress, she sat in the drawing room, hoping that perhaps Fabian would telephone or call. But then she realized that he too would be at Evensong. A melancholy Sunday summer evening is a thing known to many women in love, she thought, seeing herself as rather ill-used, left alone in the big, untidy vicarage kitchen, opening a tin of soup and preparing things to go with spaghetti. Jane didn’t even have any long spaghetti, she thought, the tears coming into her eyes, only horrid little broken-up bits. Oh, my Love, she said to herself, sitting down at the scrubbed kitchen table, thoughts of Fabian and Arthur Grampian and others, Philip, Henry and Laurence from the distant past, coming into her mind. . . . A sense of the sadness of life in general came over her, so that she almost forgot about Fabian refusing to walk with her in the twilight in case it should prejudice his chances of being elected to the Parochial Church Council. When Jane and Nicholas came back from Evensong, they found her crouching on the floor in the dining-room, delving in the dark sideboard cupboard among the empty biscuit barrels and tarnished cruets for the sherry decanter.

And yet, soon after:

It appeared that Prudence had forgotten Fabian to the same extent as she had forgotten Philip, Henry, Laurence, and the others. That is to say he had been given a place in the shrine of her past loves; the urn containing his ashes had been ceremonially deposited in the niche where it would always remain. Philip, Henry, Laurence, Peter, Fabian and who could tell how many others there might be?

Indeed. She has begun to take a second look at Gilbert, a pallid co-worker who earlier had been deemed suspicious for his habit of making his own Nescafe at tea—and keeping it locked in his cupboard—not to mention his seeming impertinence upon discovering her taste in poetry:

“Ah, Coventry Patmore. Just your cup of tea, I should think, [said Gilbert].

My heart was dead,
Dead of devotion and tired memory . . .

Prudence remained rooted to the spot; really, there was no way to describe it. That he should even have heard of Coventry Patmore! And then to quote those lines, those telling lines. . . . What exactly did he mean by that?

There are also hints of a newly-ignited spark with the dismal Dr. Grampian and the possible attentions of the local MP in Jane’s district. With so many possibilities in her future, Prudence, like a number of Pym’s characters, “is suddenly overwhelmed by the richness of her life.” Pym’s generous optimism on behalf of her characters is evocative of Chekhov, making her among the most humane of satirists.

As for Jane, she too comes to a reconciliation, if not a state of bliss. The passions of youth may have faded, but there is compensation in the comforts of stability and easy companionship, not to mention her growing satisfaction with carrying out the ongoing duties of a vicar’s wife.

The flurry of attention Pym received in the ‘80s has all but disappeared. Most of her books are still in print, but not widely distributed. Even a decade ago, when I sought to gather her entire canon as a wedding present for another fan, I had to search used bookstores and e-bay to find them in good condition.) There are no Masterpiece Theater adaptations to boost sales, undoubtedly because there is so little drama to be mined. Another measure, albeit unofficial: I named my golden retriever Pym and promised myself to give a dollar to any and all who recognized the source. The most common response—”you mean, like the drink, you know, Pimm’s Cup?”—I don’t run the risk of bankruptcy any time soon.

Another revival is overdue. I return to her books regularly, receiving as much solid pleasure as ever. Her wit is ever-fresh, and often so subtly embedded in the prose that it surfaces only after multiple readings. Pym generously peppers her prose with observations that both sting and tickle: “Prudence’s flat was in the kind of block where Jane imagined people might be found dead, though she had never said this to Prudence herself; it seemed rather a macabre fancy and not one to be confided to an unmarried woman living alone.”

I’m not fanatic enough to join the Society (although I own a BP mug), but I find, three decades later, that I relate more and more to the “pathos and nobility” (her words) of living alone without a current suitable attachment. She speaks to the inner spinster in all of us.

Barbara Pym, c’est moi? One could do worse.

Michael Adams is a writer and editor living in New York City. He holds a PhD from Northwestern University in Performance Studies. His doctoral dissertation examined the lyrics of Stephen Sondheim.