I wasn’t intending to join in with Barbara Pym Reading Week, which I’ve seen everywhere around the blogosphere (well done Thomas and Amanda!) and, it seems, I might be late to the party – because I hadn’t spotted that the week ended on a Saturday. Oops. Well, hopefully they’ll let me sneak in as a last minute participant, because I have just finished Some Tame Gazelle (1950) – Pym’s first novel – because I realised Mum had given it to me, and thus it would qualify for Reading Presently too.
This isn’t my first Pym – although it is only my second. The first one I read, back in 2004, was Excellent Women. I’d rather expected to love Barbara Pym devotedly, and was a bit nonplussed by my lukewarm response. I certainly liked it, but it wasn’t quite what I was expecting – it was set in London, for a start, which wasn’t at all what I envisioned Pym being like.
Some Tame Gazelle, at any rate, is set in the countryside. That helped me get in the right frame of mind. It has the same “three or four families in a country village” that Jane Austen recommended as the perfect novelistic topic (for her niece at least, and to many Pym is a figurative niece of Austen) – more emphatically, it reminded me of the close-but-carping rural communities inhabited by Mapp and Lucia in E.F. Benson’s series of novels.
The families in question are really households, I suppose. I shan’t write too much about the plot, because there have been so many reviews of Some Tame Gazelle in the blogosphere this week (scroll through Thomas’s blog to find all Barbara Pym Reading Week links), but I’ll give a brief precis. Belinda and Harriet Bede are eldely sisters living together, and we see most of the goings-on of the village through Belinda’s eyes (although Pym often gives a moment or two from perspective of other characters, which gets a bit dizzying.) Neither are immune from the arrow of Cupid – the title, indeed, derives from the poet Thomas Bayly:
Some tame gazelle, or some gentle dove:
Something to love, oh, something to love!
Harriet develops a love for every curate she sees – a love somewhere between maternal and romantic – while Belinda is more constant in her love. It’s for their local vicar, an Archdeacon, who was with Belinda at university, is unaffectionately married, and gives sermon which were ‘a long string of quotations, joined together by a few explanations’. Indeed, a less lovably man would be difficult to create. He is selfish, snaps at everyone, quotes self-importantly and at length at the drop of a hat, neglects most of his vicarly duties… and yet I get the idea that we are not supposed to think Belinda foolish in her affections. Is he in the same boat as Jean-Benoit Aubrey, Heathcliff, Rochester, and all manner of other literary romantic heroes whose charms entirely pass me by? Belinda, on the other hand, is very lovable – as, indeed, is Harriet, despite one being cautious and the other impetuous.
But I suspect Pym is chiefly read for her tone. As I mentioned, she is frequently mentioned in the same breath as Jane Austen – recently by Thomas himself – and while (from my limited experience of two Pym novels) I would say she has neither Austen’s genius nor her tautness, Pym is certainly a worthy successor to Austen’s love of irony. And now, of course, I can find no examples. But time and again the narrative voice says something which coyly suggests – oh so innocently – that the character is foolish, or doesn’t know as much as they pretend, or in some other is not being honest. This narrator is far too polite to say so outright, and isn’t so common as to wink, but… raises her eyebrows a touch.
As for me? I still like Pym. I liked Some Tame Gazelle rather more than Excellent Women – it was funny, affectionate, moving without being heavy-handed. As the son of a vicar, I relished reading about church families, even while it all seemed rather unlikely from my experience. It even felt like the 1930s novels I love so dearly (although published in 1950, I couldn’t work out when it was meant to be set – everyone has servants, and levels of propriety are decidedly pre-war, but I suppose these things were both true for some 1950 villages). But I still don’t love Pym. I love Jane Austen, and (later) E.F. Benson, E.M. Delafield, and other authors who laid out the blueprint Pym picked up – but I still felt as though I were reading at one remove from the originals. And, of course, even Austen was not an original – if I’d read Pym before I’d read Austen, perhaps I would love Pym more.
If other people did not love Pym so wholeheartedly, then I think I would sound very enthusiastic. I think Pym is a very good writer, and Some Tame Gazelle is a lovely novel – but it will not be on my top ten for this year, I suspect. Perhaps I am still too young? Perhaps I am too familiar with the generation above Pym. When so many people rate her as one of their absolute favourites, even my very-much-liking of Pym feels a little bit like a failure.
What I really do love is the cover, and indeed all the covers of these Virago Pym reprints. But curiously I can’t find any information about the designer or artist on the book jacket – I hope I’m just being dozy, because otherwise very poor show Virago. Very poor show indeed.