The Sweet Dove Died by Barbara Pym

The Sweet Dove DiedIt 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.

16 thoughts on “The Sweet Dove Died by Barbara Pym

  • June 29, 2015 at 4:18 am
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    I’ve read a few of her books. Not this one. I wouldn’t have been drawn to it by the title! As you say her handling of human nature is the thing that shines through her books.

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    • June 29, 2015 at 10:42 pm
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      It really is special, and yet you can see why it went overlooked for years.

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  • June 29, 2015 at 8:04 am
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    I’m a huge fan, and have been among those who were surprised that you didn’t like Pym more. But I know she’s not for everyone. I’ve never read her for the plot, so it was interesting to see your comment about ‘how being too overbearing can damage a relationship’ — I’d never think to analyse Pym in those terms. I read her for the intense pleasure of the characterisation, and above all for those moments of humour which can have me chuckling aloud, so much so that I have to avoid reading her in public places.

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    • June 29, 2015 at 10:43 pm
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      The pleasure of the characterisation, and the humour, are definitely the best things in Pym. This one was lighter on humour, but there was still plenty of moments in there.

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  • June 29, 2015 at 9:56 am
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    I loved the early books of hers I read, but I dropped out of the readalong half way through. I felt that Pym wasn’t actually developing a huge amount and though I love her prose and observation, the plots were not holding me. Having said that, I may well return to her work one day!

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    • June 29, 2015 at 10:43 pm
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      I do get the feeling that a lot in a row might be rather samey – perhaps she is better spread out?

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  • June 29, 2015 at 11:30 am
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    Oh Simon, how can you not like Barbara Pym! I love her characterisation, and her humour, and the way she focuses on small, everyday things. and her portrayal of middle-class life, and the play of relationships between people. And why don’t you like books set in London? I seem to remember you liked Patricia Brent, Spinster, and that’s set in London, And I’m sure there are lots of others you’ve raved about that are set in the city, but I can’t think of them right now!

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    • June 29, 2015 at 10:44 pm
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      But I do, Christine! I think you panicked after my first line :) I really liked this novel, and agree with what you say.

      As for London – there are plenty of exceptions in both directions, but I’d always rather novels were set in the countryside – because it is so much more appropriate for the sort of everyone-knows-everyone gossipy novels I love best.

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  • June 29, 2015 at 9:12 pm
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    I love Barbara Pym, The Sweet Dove Died is one held in high affection by many Pym readers I belive – though I have read it twice it isn’t a favourite but I do like it very much. I too enjoy Pym’s observations, and her eye for the absurdity of the everyday.

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    • June 29, 2015 at 10:45 pm
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      I didn’t realise that, Ali – I thought perhaps it would find less favour with Pym fans, as I know some people prefer her older books. Good to know!

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  • June 29, 2015 at 10:37 pm
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    Finished this myself recently and felt that it lacked the humour of the earlier novels. I couldn’t stand Leonora, which didn’t help. But now I’m reading Crampton Hodnet, which is much more to my taste, subtly funny and with the Pymian cast of curates and spinsters. It is set in North Oxford, though, unlike you, I prefer her London based novels. A Few Green Leaves is set in a country village and is amusing, too. Do keep trying her!

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    • June 29, 2015 at 10:47 pm
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      Leonora is appalling, but in a way I enjoyed reading about! I hadn’t remembered that she set something in North Oxford, so that will be fun to read. And I haven’t even heard of A Few Green Leaves, so that’s one for me to seek out – thanks Cindy!

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      • July 17, 2015 at 12:45 pm
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        Definitely you need to read Crampton Hodnet, Simon. Hilarious, absurb, and with some brilliant library scenes.

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    • July 17, 2015 at 12:48 pm
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      Cindy, Crampton Hodnet, probably my favourite Pym. Exquisitely absurd moments in it, eg. the two male students prancing and spying in the park and the eavesdropping in the library moment.

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  • June 30, 2015 at 4:59 pm
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    No Fond Return of Love is the one that stands out for me. It’s been years since I read it but it made me laugh out loud several times. Keep it in mind!

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  • July 1, 2015 at 3:25 am
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    Simon, I don’t think you could fail to like her, do read ‘Civil to Strangers’. As others have pointed out, her characterisation and her gentle humour are a joy to read.

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