Some Tame Gazelle is Barbara Pym’s first novel (published in 1950) and I think it’s one of her best as it’s so funny and charming. I’d already read most of her other novels and enjoyed them very much, so I wasn’t surprised to finish this one in only a couple of days. Barbara Pym began writing it when she was 21, imagining herself and her older sister Hilary as ‘spinsters’ of fifty. This resulted in the wonderful creations of Miss Belinda and Miss Harriet Bede, two sisters who live together and are involved in their parish church, dutifully helping out with garden parties, village fetes and harvest festivals.
The sisters have quite different characters; Harriet is more outgoing, cheerful and fashionable, while Belinda is thoughtful, somewhat melancholy and modest, but they are very fond of one another despite their occasional misunderstandings. Although neither of them have ever married, they do have some romance in their lives. Harriet is devoted to the succession of young curates who are posted to the church, and is constantly offering them homemade jam and hand-knitted socks or inviting them round for dinner. Meanwhile, Ricardo, an Italian count who has somehow ended up in the village, regularly proposes marriage to Harriet but she always refuses him; somehow they remain the best of friends in spite of this. Belinda on the other hand has been in love with Archdeacon Hoccleve for thirty years but unfortunately for her he is married to the capable and bossy Agatha. The novel follows the relationships of all these characters as well as various eccentric visitors to the village: the two librarians, Mr Parnell and Mr Mold, and a bishop from Africa, Theodore Grote.
One of the comic aspects of this novel is the way that the women lavish so much attention on the clergy, for example always wondering whether they are eating enough. In fact food plays a large part in the novel (in a comical way) and it seems to be the main way that people show affection to one another, apart from knitting various items of clothing. At one point Belinda wants to knit the Archdeacon a jumper, but after thinking about everything that could go wrong with it and how ‘unsuitable’ it would be for her to give such a present to a married man, she concludes that ‘the enterprise was too fraught with dangers to be attempted’. This is one of the most realistic and humorous things about Barbara Pym’s writing, the small things that appear so important and take up so much mental energy.
One thing I liked about this book was the range of characters – there is a large cast but they are all well-developed and very comical. There are some lovely scenes where they are all brought together at a dinner party or wedding. Belinda is a very likeable character. Even though her self-effacing nature and lack of courage in expressing her feelings could be frustrating, this is only because I wanted her to be happy and for other people to realise that there is more to her than her image as a respectable, worthy spinster. It’s also interesting that it’s implied that she had a lucky escape by not marrying Henry (the Archdeacon) and that she’s been able to live quite a contented life alone, while her ongoing love for him has become ‘like a warm, comfortable garment, bedsocks, perhaps, or even woollen combinations; certainly something without glamour or romance’.
Henry himself is a very amusing character – handsome and distinguished, but essentially lazy and regularly trying to delegate his parish duties to other people so he can have a lie-in or wander alone in the churchyard brooding on higher matters: ‘he fancied himself to be rather like one of those eighteenth-century clergymen suffering from the spleen.’ At the same time, he is always complaining bad-temperedly about his heavy workload and blaming his wife for neglecting her domestic duties. Belinda is extremely loyal but even she recognises he has his faults.
I know Barbara Pym is often compared to Jane Austen and I would especially recommend this novel to Jane Austen fans. Like an Austen novel, it concentrates on the romances and everyday life of a small community, it is full of entertaining observations and is very perceptive about people’s characters. There are some scenes that echo moments in Austen’s novels but I won’t give away the plot by telling you about them! Now I’m looking forward to finding the Pym novels I still have left to read.