11 July 2013

Barbara Pym: Some Tame Gazelle (1950)

My second Barbara Pym novel is in fact her first published, although it took many more years in the making, being begun sixteen years previously in 1934, when she was still at Oxford University. Several of her characters contain elements of people she knew at Oxford, and the main two characters, the confirmed fiftysomething spinsters Belinda and Harriet Bede, are a kind of premonition of Barbara and her sister Harriet's life together: they also lived in a village and were deeply steeped in social rituals revolving around the parish church.

As for some of the other inspirations:

– Archdeacon Henry Hoccleve is inspired by Henry Harvey. Pym met Harvey at Oxford and never forgot him: Belinda had 'loved the Archdeacon when she was twenty and [never] found anyone to replace him since'. The narrator adds 'with the years [Belinda's] passion had mellowed into a comfortable feeling, more like the cosiness of a winter evening by the fire than the uncertain rapture of a spring morning'. She admires his wife Agatha, and seems to prefer this marriage from a distance, by proxy.

– Radmila May notes that John Akenside, who died in a riot in Prague but is only mentioned in relation to Count Bianco, was inspired by her father John Barnicot, who incidentally wasn't killed in Prague, but had a Balkan connection as Akenside does, and whose physical description tallies.

– Count Bianco was inspired by Robert Weiss: May comments that Weiss was famous for unrequited love, and never forgave Pym for the description of Bianco repeatedly asking Harriet to marry him.

Pym's spinster sisters want not to get married far more than they want to get married, although there is something – which is surely deliberate, as if Pym is laughing at herself – ridiculous (partly because paradoxical) in their situation, in their being jealous about men they can't have and don't want. The whole thing seems to be a game that the women win (or at least don't lose), and usually, I think, the men are seen in a more ridiculous light than the women: Nathaniel Mold is upset by Harriet turning him down and resorts to drink; Bishop Theodore Grote is eager to be married, although he seems not too concerned to whom; and Henry delights in talking over people's heads and repeatedly quotes the same lines from Edward Young, as if he were a young schoolboy scoring points in a test of knowledge.

Literary quotations seem to be a prominent feature of Pym's novels, and they are often used to make an important generalising principal. In yet another humorous observation on spinsterhood, the narrator, speaking through Harriet and Belinda's thoughts, concludes:

'[W]ho would change a comfortable life of spinsterhood in a country parish, which always had its pale curate to be cherished, for the unknown trials of matrimony?'
Harriet remembers her sister

'saying something about people preferring to bear those ills they had, rather than flying to others that they knew not of'.

This, of course, is a slight misquotation from one of Hamlet's soliloquies, and is most apt: a more prosaic, proverbial rendering would be 'better the devil you know than the devil you don't.'

One of the oddest paragraphs, and one in which the virtual life of the sisters is again highlighted, is when Agatha is leaving for a holiday abroad on her own and the sisters take up 'their posts' at the window well before she is due to leave. They are obviously not only 'very confirmed spinsters', as Harriet later remarks, but confirmed curtain twitchers who love watching people come and go, and Agatha's leaving is something they have 'looked forward to [...] with an almost childish excitement'. Things of interest to them are the emotions shown on the occasion, what Agatha is wearing, how much luggage she has, etc. Self-parody this certainly is, although aren't such actions bound to evoke pity in the reader rather than amusement? Isn't it taking the proxy world of Belinda and Harriet (and by extension Barbara and Hilary) a little too far? Just a thought.

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