It always comes as something of a surprise to me (and to those who know my reading tastes) that I’ve read so few Pym novels. I read Excellent Women in 2004, and liked it but not quite as much as I’d hoped (largely because it’s set in London); a couple of years ago I read Some Tame Gazelle and loved it rather more. The Sweet Dove Died (1978)… fell rather in the middle.
Firstly, I’m not a big fan of the title – which, like Some Tame Gazelle, is from a poem; the poem, by Keats, is referenced within the text, but until that point, an ignoramus like myself is left wondering when the blessed dove is going to turn up. Instead, we start the novel with Leonora – who bumps into Humphrey and his nephew James at an antiques auction. Since the novel is set in London (sigh) and the only way to meet people outside one’s set is by unlikely coincidences, this is catalyst for a lasting friendship between the three. The men vie silently and politely for Leonora’s attention; perhaps neither exactly want a relationship with her, but they certainly want the attention – and she is more than willing to bestow it on James, so much her younger. To the world, she is charming and gracious – but the reader sees her selfish, unkind side.
Pym’s narrative floats in and out of all the characters’ minds as the novel progresses, and so we are seldom at a loss to understand a character’s motivations; it is all done very cleverly and thoroughly. To the three already mentioned is added two more people James has relationships with, and Leonora’s rather pathetic friend Meg. (Incidentally, the reader gradually realises how similar Leonora and Meg actually are, when not seen exclusively from Leonora’s perspective.) In fact, it was a description of Meg that I noted down to quote:
Leonora was her usual few minutes late, though not as late as she would have been if meeting a man. Meg was one of those women who are always too early and can be seen waiting outside Swan and Edgar’s, with anxious peering faces ready to break into smiles when the person awaited turns up.
Moments like this are extremely common in Pym’s writing – by which I mean, delicious moments of observation about small details of human behaviour. The plot of The Sweet Dove Died is slight, and even the theme – how being too overbearing can damage a relationship – isn’t ground-breaking, but line by line, Pym builds up fascinatingly real characters, and sheds constant light upon the minutiae of people’s lives. Her subtlety is brilliant, and the balance and perception of her sentences show why she is so often compared to Jane Austen.
I don’t really know how The Sweet Dove Died is held among Pym aficionados. I preferred the comedy of Some Tame Gazelle, probably, but this felt a more mature and sophisticated novel. It demonstrates what an excellent writer Pym was, and how sharp her knowledge of human nature could be. But I do wish it had been set in the countryside.