I have recently read several books by Barbara Pym, whose 1950s novels can always be relied on to make me laugh and keep me absorbed all the way through. My favourite of the ones I’ve read so far is Jane and Prudence, I think because the characters are her most sympathetic (although still observed in the same sharp and perceptive way). Reading it is a completely light-hearted and comforting experience. I then read The Sweet Dove Died, in which the (anti-)heroine, Leonora, is perhaps an older, more critically drawn version of the glamorous Prudence. In this novel, the sadness and loneliness of being unloved were much more apparent, since Leonora lacked Prudence’s affairs and adventures, and in fact was made miserable by her attraction to a much younger man.
The way in which Pym writes about relationships is very distinctive. Many of the characters in her books are ‘spinsters’ or slightly bored wives, who throw their energies into the church or simply interfering in the lives of their friends and neighbours. Often, beneath their apparently sensible and reserved exteriors, they are very romantic and idealistic and given to quoting nineteenth-century poetry. A recurrent theme in Pym’s novels is the idea that women need someone to love and look after, perhaps more than they need to be loved themselves, and her women characters often end up being infatuated with some unsuitable or unworthy man. A lot of the sadness in her novels comes from the way in which women don’t find anyone who appreciates their care and affection, and their desire to be useful, to be needed, goes to waste.
The next Pym novel I read was A Glass of Blessings, in which the heroine Wilmet falls for her friend’s brother Piers (who of course turns out to be not only uninterested but unavailable in every possible way). In this book, I felt that there was a greater distance between Pym and her protagonist, and as the story progresses, the reader gradually becomes aware of Wilmet’s flaws, her snobbishness and narrow-mindedness. She is so absorbed in her relationship with Piers that she doesn’t notice her husband almost having an affair, and is unaware of the developments in her other friends’ and relations’ lives. She is still a sympathetic character however and is very believable. I like the way in which Pym observes the fleeting thoughts that people have about others, but which usually go unnoticed and unrecorded. I find that her books give me the pleasure of recognition. They also revel in many of the absurd moments in life, especially in her descriptions of the church life and clergy. I would recommend her books to anyone who likes comedy that comes from slightly ridiculous dialogue and an acute observation of everyday life.
The final Pym book I’ve read (so far) is called No Fond Return of Love. I enjoyed the setting of the book (in academia and publishing, especially amidst the people who do the more mundane and unappreciated tasks), and the author’s very funny descriptions of the kind of characters who populate this world. I also liked the comic way in which the main character, Dulcie, ‘researches’ (in reality, virtually stalks) not only the man she’s fascinated by but various relatives of his as well. I would love to know what Barbara Pym would have thought of Google and Facebook! I felt that with her deep interest in people, bordering on voyeurism, Dulcie was rather like a novelist herself.
As well as all the enjoyable comedy, there is certainly a melancholy feeling about some of the books at times. Some of the humour and wistfulness of the books comes from the idea of all these single women who seemed compelled, once they reached a certain age, to start wearing dowdy tweed and doing good works in the parish. The world in which Pym characters live is restricted even for its time and is depicted as such within the novels, but their interactions and clashes with the world outside their immediate social circles are part of what make the books interesting and funny, and in fact these unexpected encounters tend to open up new lives and hope for the characters.