Set in Oxford during the 1930s, Crampton Hodnet is for me one of Barbara Pym’s funniest books. Pym finished it during the war but, as she was becoming increasingly involved in her war work, did not send the manuscript to publishers immediately. She later considered it too dated so it remained unpublished during her lifetime. However, I am glad it’s now available to readers as I enjoyed it very much.
The book opens by introducing two characters who also appear in Jane and Prudence: the formidable Miss Doggett and her long-suffering companion, Jessie Morrow, who are giving a tea-party for students on a gloomy Sunday in respectable north Oxford. It was difficult for me to believe that, even in the 1930s, undergraduates would willingly go to the rather stuffy and middle-aged tea-parties described in this novel, but it seems to have been a major part of student social life (perhaps because of the free tea and cake), and it does result in some of the most hilarious scenes in the novel. I particularly liked Michael and Gabriel, a foppish Brideshead-esque pair of students, who often appear to speak in unison and inexplicably worship Miss Doggett. They provide many funny moments – I would love to read more about them.
Miss Morrow is a slightly melancholy figure, who has to endure Miss Doggett’s inconsiderate demands and tactless remarks as part of her job. She listens to gramophone records on wet afternoons, dreaming that she is somewhere else. However, she has an unexpected strength of character which emerges in her occasionally cynical comments on the action going on around her and results in her friendship with Miss Doggett’s new lodger, the curate Stephen Latimer.
Miss Morrow’s life forms only one aspect of the plot, as there is a large cast of characters, mainly students, academics and their families, and the ‘excellent women’ of north Oxford. Another subplot involves professor Francis Cleveland’s affair with one of his students, Barbara Bird. Francis is married but his wife Margaret seems to have grown tired of him long ago. She practically encourages him to spend long hours in his study working on the book he has been writing for the past 28 years (‘it was not yet finished, and there seemed no prospect that it would ever be’) or to go to the Bodleian on the pretext of doing some research, in the hope that he might ‘find a nice young woman working there and take her out to tea’. This casts an unexpected light on Francis’ attraction to Barbara, since, although it causes great outrage among Miss Doggett’s social circle, Margaret is quite unperturbed by the whole matter. As usual, although she writes about people with mainly conventional opinions, Barbara Pym is not quite so conventional herself.
I found the character of Barbara interesting. She is intelligent and attractive, so it’s not difficult to see why Francis becomes smitten with her, but although she is equally drawn to him, she is not really interested in having an affair with anyone. She doesn’t like being kissed by any of her many admirers and feels that ‘there was no need even for their beautiful friendship to be turned into a sordid intrigue’. She is interested in a more idealised, non-sexual kind of love. Barbara is a romantic dreamer but her passion is really more directed towards poetry and history than towards Francis; when he declares his love to her in the British Museum, she is more interested in ‘going into raptures over Milton’s commonplace book’ in the glass case nearby. When I finished the novel, I wondered what would happen to Barbara in the future and whether she would find happiness.
Miss Morrow is another character who has romantic dreams but is equivocal about whether she wants her life to change. There is something sad about how she buys herself beautiful clothes such as the ‘dress of tender leaf green…in her wardrobe among her old, drab things, where it might have to wait many weeks before she had the courage to wear it’. But she does not really make any efforts to escape her life with Miss Doggett and seems to feel a secret contentment with her unobtrusive place as an lady’s companion. Although there is certainly a fair amount of action in Barbara Pym’s novels, at least in terms of people’s relationships, there is also the feeling that some things stay the same and that, in the end, her novels seem to come full circle. She often writes about narrow, mostly uneventful worlds whose characters derive comfort from routine and quiet. The repeating cycle of the academic year and the unchanging social background of Oxford in the 1930s are perfect for this kind of story, even though very soon of course there would be huge change with the coming of the second world war.
Personally I loved reading a novel set in the city I live in, full of details of the Bodleian, the cafes and the Botanical Gardens, but what really makes the setting come to life are the many humorous minor characters, types probably still recognisable among Oxford residents even today. As Miss Morrow strolls through the park on a sunny spring day, she sees:
Dons striding along with walking sticks, wives in Fair Isle jumpers coming low over their hips, nurses with prams, and governesses with intelligent children asking ceaseless questions in their clear, fluty voices. And then there were the clergymen, solitary bearded ones reading books, young earnest ones, like chickens just out of the egg, discussing problems which had nothing to do with the sunshine or the yellow-green leaves uncurling on the trees. There were undergraduates too, and young women with Sweet’s Anglo-Saxon Reader or lecture notebooks under their arms, and lovers, clasping each other’s fingers and trying to find secluded paths where they might kiss. But for Miss Morrow the lovers were only a minor element; the north Oxford and clerical elements were stronger and gave more character to the ballet. She felt that even she and Miss Doggett could be principals in it…