Another Novel by Barbara Pym: No Fond Return of Love

“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

I recently went on a Barbara Pym bender.

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?

Barbara Pym’s Excellent Women

Like all of us prim-yet-not-so prim bachelor girls of the late 1970s, I used to read The New York Times Book Review cover-to-cover.  I lived above a bookstore, and around the corner from another bookstore, so sometimes I strolled downstairs  and bought the books.  One weekend I was thrilled to read about the revival of a neglected writer Barbara Pym.  Philip Larkin’s praise of her in the TLS  in 1977 had triggered American interest:    in 1978, Dutton simultaneously published two of her novels., Excellent Women and A Quartet in Autumn.

There’s something about spinster lit. I did of course buy both books, and read them in the company of my Siamese cat, a suitable familiar for a spinster.  But during a recent binge rereading of  Pym, I realized that Pym’s heroines are not all spinsters.  They may be spinsters at the beginning, but they are often attractive to men, despite their tweedy clothes, and sometimes they marry, or we learn in a later book that they have married:  for instance,  in An Unsuitable Attachment, we  hear secondhand that the heroine of  Excellent Women has married an anthropologist.

In Excellent Women, first published in 1952, the narrator, Mildred Lathbury, a clergyman’s daughter, works part-time for an organization which helps distressed gentlewomen.  She is astonished that “I should have managed to make a life for myself in London so very much like the life I had lived in a country rectory when my parents were alive.”  As you might expect, she is active in a neighborhood church, St. Mary’s, and is a friend of  Father Mallory and his sister, who live next door.  But she resents being viewed as one of those excellent women who are expected to put others’ interests ahead of their own.  And she is annoyed when one of the churchwardens teases her for watching the furniture movers in front of her house.  “I expect you know all about it.”

She muses,

I suppose an unmarried woman just over thirty, who lives alone and has no apparent ties, must expect to find herself involved or interested in other people’s business, and if she is also a clergyman’s daughter then one might really say that there is no  hope for her.

Her new neighbor, Helena Napier, is the object of Mildred’s curiosity.  She has moved into the flat downstairs, and they will have to share a bathroom.  Helena is an anthropologist whose husband, Rockingham, a naval officer, is still in Italy,  where she claims he has  nothing to do “but be charming to a lot of dreary Wren officers in ill-fitting white uniforms…”  But he will join her in London soon.

The small events of Mildred’s daily life are richly observed.  She is slightly scandalized that Helena stays out late with another anthropologist, Everard Bone, with whom she is writing up their notes from 18 months in Africa.  Helena is out with Everard Bone the evening the charming Rockingham arrives, so Mildred gives Rocky a cup of coffee and soon they are gossiping about their shared love of Victoriana.  In subsequent chapters, Helena admits she is in love with Everard Bone, who does not return her affections. Rockingham is furious after Helena puts down a pan on a valuable wooden table and scorches it.  Helena moves out,  and   Mildred  washes all the dishes she left behind.  And then Everard loiters outside her office and asks her out for lunch.

Then there are parish troubles:  Mrs. Allegra Gray, a clergyman’s widow, moves into the flat in Father Mallory’s house and vamps him.   Before you can blink she is engaged to Father Mallory, and poor Winifred learns Allegra intends to throw her out of the house after the wedding.  She wonders if she could live with Mildred. (It’s not an option.)

Oddly, Mildred becomes the confidant of Rockhingham  and Everard Bone; she also occasionally hears from a school friend’s brother, William Caldicote (he seems to be gay).  And, annoyingly, everyone believes Mildred is in love with Father Mallory.  Surprises lie ahead for all:  when Allegra and Father Mallory break up, and smug Father Mallory approaches Mildred flirtatiously, she is happy to tell him that she was never in love with him.

Pym  is often compared to Jane Austen, but that is not quite accurate. The marriage plot, such as it is in Pym, is different, important, but not the be-all and end-all. And Pym’s gentle, whimsical humor falls somewhere between the spiky wit of Austen, the offbeat hilarity of Nancy Mitford, and the gentle charm of Dodie Smith. Pym is subtle and offhand in a droll way that always makes me smile.  And Pym is the only writer who can make me burst out laughing with the use of the words “anthropologist”  and “indexer.”   Even “researcher” can cause a chuckle.

I love Pym’s books, and Excellent Women is a gem.  More on the  Pym binge later.

Five Links: Refunds for Go Set a Watchman, Pharos Editions, Barbara Pym Film, Willa Cather Memorial Prairie Night Viewing, & a History of Vampires

There’s always a lot of book news, so here are five literary links!

Harper Lee Go Set a Watchman A1rBZedGc0L1.  Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman was the most pre-ordered book in HarperCollins’ history.

But Peter Makin, the owner of Brilliant Books, an independent bookstore in Traverse, Michigan, is offering refunds.

After a customer explained that To Kill a Mockingbird was her favorite book, and she had only become aware of the controversial nature of Go Set a Watchman a few days before its publication, Makin gave her a refund.

He decided to offer refunds to other customers, too.

Here is an excerpt from his statement.

It is disappointing and frankly shameful to see our noble industry parade and celebrate this as “Harper Lee’s New Novel”. This is pure exploitation of both literary fans and a beloved American classic (which we hope has not been irrevocably tainted.) We therefore encourage you to view Go Set A Watchman with intellectual curiosity and careful consideration; a rough beginning for a classic, but only that.

2. Are you familiar with Pharos Editions, a publisher of gorgeously designed “out-of-print, lost or rare books of distinction”?  Check out their website.  I am looking forward to reading  Raymond Mungo’s Total Loss Farm: A Year in the Life, the story of a “back-to-the-land hippie commune in late 60’s rural Vermont.”

Total Loss Farm 51V1miysWyL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_

3.  Are you a Barbara Pym fan?  Watch Miss Pym’s Day Out, a film at Youtube starring Patricia Routledge as Barbara Pym.

Miss-Pyms-day-Out

4. The Willa Cather Foundation is sponsoring a Prairie Night Sky Viewing  and dinner on the Willa Cather Memorial Prairie, five miles from Red Cloud, Nebraska, on Friday, August 14, 2015, 6:30pm to 11:00pm. The price: $35.

Willa-Cather-Memorial-Prairie5. Readers of vampire books will enjoy Jon Foro’s article, “On the (Un)Natural History of Vampires,” at the Amazon Review.  The excuse is a new novel by Ben Tripp, The Fifth House of the Heart, but this article on the history of the vampire in literature and film goes way beyond that.

bram stoker dracula capuchin dracula-website

Bookishness: Barbara Pym’s Quartet in Autumn & A Giveaway of Margaret Kennedy & D. E. Stevenson

THE GIVEAWAY.  No sooner have I washed the dust off from the Planned Parenthood Book Sale–and there is a lot of dust on old books, as you can imagine– than I’ve discovered I have duplicates of three of them.   If you would like Margaret Kennedy’s Together and Apart (Virago), Margaret Kennedy’s The Ladies of Lyndon (Virago), or D. E. Stevenson’s Celia’s House  (a VERY used ex-library book), leave a comment.

Pym Quartet in AutumnCATCHING UP ON MY READING JOURNAL.  I have read some short books this week because I have been immobile with a cold/flu thing.  Barbara Pym’s classics are perfect when one is sick.  They are light, the writing is elegant, and her understated humor is original and diverting.  Characters are always drinking Ovaltine, sorting out clothes for jumble sales, and getting to know the curate.  A good flirtation with a curate:  that’s what we need!   Only do we have curates in the U.S?

Quartet in Autumn is not what I’d call a typical Barbara Pym. Shortlisted for the Booker in 1977, it is a dark comedy about two men and two women who work in an office.  Retirement is imminent for these characters in their sixties, and their future will be determined to a large extent by their living arrangements.  Letty, a sympathetic spinster, lives in a bedsitter, always has a library book going, and will not buy dyed carnations.  Edwin, a cheerful widower and a homeowner, needn’t live on his salary, is conventionally religious, and spends his leisure attending church services and events  Norman, an odd, cranky man,  lives in a bedsitter, goes to the library to sit but not to read, and dislikes travel but enjoys travel brochures.  Marcia, the most peculiar of the lot, doesn’t throw away rubbish, keeps her milk bottles in a shed in the back yard, and is visited by a volunteer social worker, whom she scorns.

Working in an office is a strange way of life, and what one does can be obscure.  When I worked in an office, we spent much of the time chatting, and were only really busy one week out of every month.  Pym’s description of the work world fills me with mirth.  The office life revolves around shared rituals like drinking instant coffee or tea, chatting about hypothermia, and going to the library on the lunch hour.  No one in the building knows exactly what work this quartet does, and it is understood that their jobs will be phased out and they will be replaced by computers.

Barbara Pym at the International African Institute

Barbara Pym at the International African Institute

Living alone can be dicey in old age, and, oddly, various churches both help and hinder their plans.  Letty had planned to retire to a village with an old friend, Marjorie, a widow, but when Marjorie gets engaged to the new vicar who is 20 years her junior, that is the end of that.  What, Letty wonders, has she done to end up alone?  Why has no one ever wanted to marry her?  And yet stasis is impossible:  she must make a change even if she stays in London, because her landlady has sold  the house to a boisterous Nigerian priest of a Christian sect, and Letty is no longer comfortable there.  Edwin, through his  church connections, finds Letty a room in the house of a cantankerous woman in her 80s, Mrs. Pope.  Letty stays in her room and reads library books, but they sometimes watch TV together in the evenings.

One of the few characters outside the quartet is Janice Brabner, the social worker.  Confronting Marcia in her dusty house is disconcerting, but Janice keeps visiting.

You’ll be retiring,’ Janice Brabner had said.  “Have you thought at all about what you’re going to do?”…

Marcia had never revealed what exactly her job was but Janice guessed that it hadn’t been particularly exciting.  After all, what kind of job could somebody like Marcia do?  She wished she wouldn’t keep staring at her in that unnerving way, as if she had no idea what what was meant by Janice asking what she was going to do when she retired.

“A woman can always find plenty to occupy her time,” Marcia said at last.  “It isn’t like a man retiring, you know.  I have my house to see to.”

After Letty and Marcia retire, heir disappearance into retirement activities is fascinating.  This is not a hopeless book–Pym’s never are–but it is unsettling and at times acerbic.  The quartet comes together again, and the ending is surprising.

The Barbara Pym Centenary & An Academic Question

Barbara Pym at the International African Institute

Barbara Pym working at the International African Institute

It is the centenary of Barbara Pym’s birth.

I devoured Pym’s books in graduate school. In 1977  in the TLS she was named by Philip Larkin and Lord David Cecil “the most underrated novelist of the century.” Then she was “rediscovered” in the UK and published in the U.S.  I picked up a copy of Excellent Women at a used bookstore and was hooked.  I wasn’t the only one who liked Pym:  a comp lit professor and I chatted about her on smoking breaks.  The library was so dreary–no windows above the second floor–that I frequently bounded down to the smoking lounge (though I didn’t smoke), which was all windows, for a chat or a good read of a new novel.

One cannot read too much Pym.  Her writing is charming, humorous, and wry.  I read An Academic Question this week, but it’s not the only Pym I’ve read this year.

On Feb. 11, I wrote about her witty, beautifully-crafted first novel, Some Tame Gazelle. The fiftysomething heroine, Belinda Bede, muses endlessly about clothes, to my delight:  I muse more than I buy.  Though she wears “suitable” dresses and sensible shoes, her younger sister Harriet reads Vogue and insists that Miss Prior, the village seamstress, make her fashionable dresses with the latest sleeves.  They live next door to the vicarage and are constantly planning what to wear to church functions.  And, yes, their names are puns:  Bede and Prior.

On Feb. 13 I wrote about her 1978 novel, The Sweet Dove Died.  The heroine, Lenora Eyre, becomes involved with two antique dealers, an uncle and nephew, when she faints at an auction after buying a book about the language of flowers. The one is perhaps too old, the other too young:  whom should she love?

An Academic Question PymAn Academic Question, published posthumously, was edited by Hazel Holt from two drafts.  It is not quite as elegant as her other books, but it is very funny.   It was, according to a letter Pym wrote to Philip Larkin, “supposed to be a sort of Margaret Drabble effort but of course it hasn’t turned out like that at all.”

IPym’s tone is more whimsical and wry than Drabble’s, though this book is a bit like Drabble’s early comedies:  Pym, too, is writing about a woman’s facing the widespread changes of the 1960s. The narrator, Caroline Grimstone, a  28-year-old housewife married to a university lecturer, is very bored.  She knows she should get a job, but work strikes her as meaningless.  Her husband, Alan, suggests she work at the library, but she would prefer to assist her her friend Dolly at her second-hand book and junk shop.  Alan masterfully tells her that’s impossible with her education.

Caroline’s best friend, Coco, Dolly’s brother, a handsome 42-year-old man with a research fellowship in Caribbean Studies and an interest in fashion, is closer to Caroline than her sister. He has his own idea about what bored Caroline should do.  He suggests that she take a lover.

The dialogue between them is hilarious.

That’s what people do,” he said, as if I had no knowledge of the world.

“Yes, of course,” I agreed.  “But who, or whom, come to that–who is there in a place like this?”

Coco became vague.  He had nobody definite in mind and I certainly wouldn’t be satisfied with just anybody.  A distinguished writer or artist, even a member of a noble family or an exiled royal–perhaps there was no one such living in the town…

“But an exiled royal would probably be decayed and moth-eaten,” I protested, “and I want better than that.”

She takes Dolly’s more practical suggestion to volunteer to read aloud at an old people’s home.

This becomes a hilarious opportunity for her husband to steal papers from the distinguished scholar Caroline reads to.  He writes an article that becomes an object of contention between him and another scholar.

It is such a funny, funny book:  I did laugh aloud.  But it also touches on issues of the ’60s and ’70s:  the students at the university protest, and Caroline’s sister has an abortion.

By the way, if you are in Manchester in the UK, October 7, 7:30 p.m., you can attend “An Excellent Woman: A Celebration of Barbara Pym” with Louis de Bernieres, Paul Binding and Donna Coonan at The Manchester Literature Festival

Alas, I won’t be there.

Barbara Pym & Unsuitable Fashions: I Go to the Joslyn Art Museum

some-tame-gazelle pymI read Barbara Pym on the way to Omaha.  It’s not a very long trip.  Bounce into the car at 9 a.m., open your copy of Pym’s first novel, Some Tame Gazelle,  and a few hours later you look up and find yourself in the city.

You probably know nothing about Omaha.  It is actually a very nice city, as we discovered when we moved to this area.  Right now there is a wonderful exhibition at the Joslyn Art Museum, “Ten Masterworks from the Whitney Museum,” and if you don’t live in New York, as we don’t, it is a great opportunity to see modernist paintings  by Robert Henri, Georgia O’Keefe, John Sloan, Thomas Hart Benton, Max Weber, Reginald Marsh, Gerald Murphy, William J. Glackens, John Steuart Curry, and Maurice Prendergast.

Robert Henri's portrait of Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney, founder of the Whitney Museum

Robert Henri’s portrait of Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney, founder of the Whitney Museum

I especially admired Robert Henri’s portrait of Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney, the founder of the Whitney Museum of American art. Her husband thought her pants so outrageous that he refused to hang the painting in their mansion.

You may wonder what Gertrude’s unsuitable pants have to do with the novelist Barbara Pym.  She was nothing like Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney, as you can see from the photo of Pym below.  While Gertrude, a wealthy sculptor and lover of modern art, lounged in a beautiful blue silk embroidered jacket and teal pajama pants, Barbara wears a down-to-earth print vest and skirt that no cat’s claws will pill.

Barbara Pym

Barbara Pym

But Pym is obsessed with fashion in her books.

In life she was also besotted by fashion, according to many entries in A Very Private Eye:  An Autobiography in Diaries and Letters by Barbara Pym and edited by Hazel Holt and Hilary Pym.

In her witty, beautifully-crafted first novel, Some Tame Gazelle, the fiftysomething heroine, Belinda Bede, muses endlessly about clothes.  Belinda wears “suitable” dresses and sensible shoes, while her younger sister Harriet reads Vogue and insists that Miss Prior, the village seamstress, make her fashionable dresses with the latest sleeves.  The Bede sisters live next door to the vicarage, and since their lives revolve around the church, they are always planning what to wear to church functions:  garden parties, concerts, and lectures.

Pym SomeTameGazelle- open roadBut all is not perfect in this seemingly rather asexual world. Belinda is in love with the Archdeacon, her old boyfriend at Oxford, whom she lost to a snobbish medievalist, Agatha, now his suitable wife;  Harriet is obsessed with whoever the curate is of the moment, and entertains the very young Mr. Donne with meals of boiled chicken and pudding. Even Harriet’s quasi-romance is imperiled:  there is a possibility that Mr. Donne is in love with an older woman, a medievalist at Oxford.

Belinda has frequent clashes with Agatha.  When Belinda hangs green festoons around a stall for the vicarage garden party, Agatha takes them down and redoes them.  Agatha is threatened by her rival Belinda’s seemingly endless ability to listen to the Archdeacon quote poetry.

But back to clothes:  before the vicarage garden party, Belinda is sewing.  She knows she will wear a crepe de Chine dress and coatee with sensible shoes that are a little too heavy for the dress.  But what will the others wear?

“Agatha Hoccleve would of course wear a nice suitable dress, but nothing extreme or daring.  As the wife of an archdeacon she always had very good clothes, which seemed somehow to emphasize the fact that her father had been a bishop.  Then there was Edith Liversidge, who would look odd in the familiar old-fashioned grey costume, whose unfashionably narrow shoulders combined with Edith’s broad hips made her look rather like a lighthouse.  Her relation, Miss Aspinall, would wear a fluttering blue or grey dress with a great many scarves and draperies, and she would, as always, carry that mysterious little beaded bag without which she was never seen anywhere.”

Harriet, who wears high heels to the garden party, though Belinda wondered if they were comfortable, buys Vogue patterns a size or two too small so she can just squeeze into her tight-fitting clothes.  Sensible Belinda believes that she and Harriet should be beyond fashion at their age, but Harriet debates whether she should wear her white fur cape or a gold lame jacket to a church concert.  In the end she goes with the cape.  Unlike Belinda, Harriet has suitors:  an Italian count who lives in the village courts her.

Sewing and knitting are constant activities.  The women are always letting out seams, knitting pullovers, and darning sock. When Miss Prior, the seamstress, comes to the Bedes to sew clothes, chair covers, and bathroom curtains, you would expect her to be stylish, but “her dress was drab and dateless.”  Important though she is in village life, her status is surprisingly low.  Belinda wants to give her a good lunch, but Harriet insists on feeding Miss Prior cauliflower cheese and saving the meat for dinner for the curate, Mr. Dunne.  When the caterpillar cheese has a caterpillar in it, Belinda is even more embarrassed, and suggests that Miss Prior must get better meals at the Archdeacon’s.  But Miss Prior, giggling, confides that the food is terrible there.

This brilliant first novel, published in 1950, is utterly charming.   I very much enjoyed Pym’s descriptions of what people wear as well as who they all are, and, yes, this novel actually is Austen-ish, unlike many of the novels described so.