“There are various ways of mending a broken heart, but perhaps going to a learned conference is one of the more unusual.”–Barbara Pym’s No Fond Return of Love
Last spring I binged on Anita Brookner; this year it is Barbara Pym. Do they have anything in common? Their voices and themes are very different, but both are stereotyped as spinsters writing about spinsters. As I happily reread Brookner’s dramas and Pym’s comedies, I was surprised to find their perspectives much more varied than they are given credit for.
Pym’s novels are a delight. I love her whimsical humor, especially concerning anthropologists and indexers: as I’ve said before, she is the only writer who can make me burst out laughing at the mere mention of these professions. In No Fond Return of Love (1961), the Oxford-educated heroine, Dulcie Mainwaring, is an indexer, not a scholar (typical for women of the ’60s). When her younger fiance, Maurice, breaks off their engagement, she philosophically decides to attend a conference, and while not looking forward to talks on “Some problems of an indexer,” it provides a change.
In the dorm, she introduces herself to Viola Dace, who regards Dulcie with horror as “already halfway to being a dim English spinster.”
Every line of dialogue reflects Dulcie’s wry humor and perspicaciousness. Snobbish Viola is horrified by Dulcie’s tweeds, and regards her black dress as the mark of a bohemian. Dulcie, on the other hand, is skeptical of Viola’s claim to have been involved with one of the lecturers.
“It’s an unusual idea having a conference of people like us,” said Dulcie. “Do we all correct proofs, make bibliographies and indexes, and do all the rather humdrum thankless tasks for people more brilliant than ourselves?”
Viola does not like this description at all.
“Oh, my life isn’t at all like that,” she said quickly. “I’ve been doing research of my own and I’ve already started a novel. I’ve really come here because I know one of the lecturers and…”
Love doesn’t conquer all, but it certainly can make a fool of us. Viola has a crush on Aylwin Forbes, the editor of a literary journal, who is speaking on “some problems of an editor.” Other women have crushes on him, too: one older women with low expectations of the conference jokes that he’s “so good-looking, and that always helps.” Dulcie is stunned by his beauty, but when he faints during the lecture, she is the knight in armor who comes to the rescue with smelling salts.
Pym writes from different points of view: although Dulcie is my favorite, we also have glimpses into the characters of Viola and Aylwin. Viola is neurotic and restless, living in a very messy bed-sitter; and selfish, egotistical Alywin is disturbed because his wife Marjorie has left him, and his mother-in-law calls him a “libertine.”
Dulcie hilariously becomes mildly obsessed with Aylwin. She methodically looks him up at the library. But her quiet life is disrupted when her 18-year-old niece Laurel (taking a secretarial course in London) and Viola move in with her. Dulcie and Viola chat about Aylwin (Viola is doing his index for free), and when Dulcie’s library research reveals that Aylwin’s brother Neville is a clergyman, they attend a service at his church but learn he has gone home to Mother (who owns a hotel) to escape the attentions of a female parishioner.
Are Dulcie and Viola really in love? Well, they are smitten, in an adolescent way. They invite Aylwin to a small dinner party, after he gives flowers to Viola, but does he love either of them? No, he is smitten by teenage Laurel (who finds him very old).
The two women mischievously spend a weekend at Aylwin’s mother’s hotel, and find solutions to the mysteries of Aylwin’s relationships.
And love proves more unpredictable than their fantasies. Don’t feel sorry for Dulcie and Viola: men have noticed them by the end of the book. The ending is not neatly tied up, but their expectations become more realistic. Even Aylwin is not romantic once you get to know him.
The whole book is extremely funny!
Note: Some Goodreads reviewers misread No Fond Return of Love as a comic novel about a stalker! Trust me, no reviewer in 1961, or in 1982, when it was published in the U.S., considered gentle Dulcie a stalker. She is not pursuing a quarry stealthily, hunting an animal, or walking stiffly and angrily. Isn’t it typical that in the age of obsessive Googling someone would think Dulcie is a stalker?