Crampton Hodnet by Barbara Pym – a wickedly funny look at the people of North Oxford

Crampton Hodnet: Amazon.co.uk: Pym, Barbara: 9781603811767: Books

 

This is a book which was missed out during the author’s lifetime, but turns out to be wickedly funny. Some characters push the limits of what is expected of them, others despair that life in North Oxford is merely repeating the tea parties and relationships of every year, but what amused me about this book is that “Crampton Hodnet” is actually an imaginary parish. Miss Morrow is the quiet companion of the demanding Miss Doggett, but in her thoughtful way she sees far more than most what is actually going on in the community. An illicit relationship is described, with amused tolerance. Petty jealousies, gossip in the library and of course a confused clergyman dominate this comedy of manners and more as Pym delights with her humorous insights, sometimes sharp but never hurtful. This is a book which reveals in its settings of faded chintz, “dark Oxford dining -rooms” and wet Sunday afternoons, of discoveries in the British Museum, and disturbing things happening in Paris. I thoroughly enjoyed this book with its observations of life and love in an Oxford suburb where “The pattern never varied”. 

 

The book opens with Miss Morrow quietly listening to the radio, the dubious Radio Luxembourg, in the dining room below the room where her employer Miss Doggett is resting in preparation for the tea party which is to come, to which various male undergraduates are invited. Miss Doggett is an avid collector of a certain sort of student, who are impressed by her collection of artistic treasures and who feast on the specific sorts of buns which her oppressed companion Miss Morrow must buy. 

Further excitement is guaranteed when the two women go to Miss Doggett’s nephew’s house, as Francis’s daughter Anthea is discovered in a flirtation with the eligible Simon. Further the vicar and his wife bring news of a curate who is shortly to arrive in the parish, a Mr Latimer, who will be seeking accommodation. As with other ladies in Pym’s novels, a curate is greatly prized, even when he gets involved in a tangled web with an imaginary evensong. Meanwhile, Francis Cleveland is a lecturer and tutors a beautiful student, Barbara Bird, and begins to create a fantasy of a life unlived, of a racy affair, of romantic reputations. Barbara dreams of a spiritual relationship, of life on a higher plain, but is not of the passionate disposition that would go with a great love.

 

This is a book of disappointments, but also of wicked enjoyment of gossip and speculation. It is perhaps not the sophisticated plot or delicate humour of her better known books, but it reflects an earnest attempt to try out the humour of characters who are funny without intention, such as Mr Latimer and his innocent speculation on the need for a wife without passion. Some characters are destined to reappear in later novels under their names here or other guises; certainly the spinster’s obsession with younger curates is a theme, as is the practical wife who knows her husband’s weakness all too well. I am not sure why this book was not published during Pym’s lifetime, whether she felt it was not satisfactory, an exercise in character creation and humour that she would later mine for ideas, or whether the onset of war and war work pushed it out of realistic publication. I enjoyed it, and found it genuinely funny and entertaining with some memorable characters.

 

I am fast “running out” of Pyms to read and review, but will try to find a few more second hand copies of the more obscure books – I will not be tackling the obviously sad books. She is a uniquely comic writer, though I will be looking for someone else who takes quite a light look at life. Maybe D.E. Stevenson? I have “Miss Buncle’s Book” as well as some books from other publishers….Any thoughts?

Less Than Angels by Barbara Pym – Anthropology and London life in the 1950s

Less Than Angels (Virago Modern Classics): Amazon.co.uk: Barbara ...

Less Than Angels by Barbara Pym

 

Some of Pym’s books deal with clergy in all their variation and even absurdity, whereas in this book many of the characters are anthropologists, a strange breed of people in many ways. With their ambitions to be in the “field”, living in Africa, noting obscure behavioural passages, exploring unknown languages, even looking at the arcane rules for land tenure in one case. 

 

This is Pym, so there are women who follow these men, or live alongside them, and who only have the slightest idea of what anthropology really is, and what obsesses these men. Even Deirdre, a young student of anthropology, does not seem that interested in the formal study of the subject, preferring to watch those around her in an informal way, wondering about why they behave as they do. Those women who are actually anthropologists are often concerned with the process, the sacred offprints, or the provision of grants. As with all of Pym’s books, the characters feel so real in all their diffidence, their habits, their loves and so much more. The main female characters are younger than many of Pym’s, and their attitude to the men around them are somewhat different. Catherine understands certain men and is not beyond hope of loving one or two of them, whereas Deirdre falls in love quickly and completely. There is gentle humour, both obvious and understated, and I found it enjoyable and memorable in a positive way.

 

Rather like the opening scenes of a film, the book begins with Catherine Oliphant, a young woman looking out of her window, seeing people passing by in a slightly disinterested way. “Her present love, Tom” is an anthropologist, at present in Africa, but his occupation means that she recognises others, making their way to a building. The reader is introduced to “Felix’s Folly” , a new anthropological library and research centre, provided by the largesse of a rich widow, Mrs Minnie Foresight as persuaded by Professor Mainwaring. The view goes onto reveal Miss Clovis and Miss Lydgate, their concerns with the reception they have organised for Mrs Foresight and other notables. The scene highlights some of the students, Mark and Digby, a pair of friends whose dialogue is always entertaining. Deirdre Swann is followed to the suburbs, where she lives with her mother and aunt, whose domestic routines are painfully well known. The neighbours include Alaric Lydgate, who proves to be yet another anthropologist disappointed in his researches, who writes reviews of articles with his favourite phrase “It is a pity that…”. 

 

Just how all these characters become interlinked by love, common obsessions, tragedy and more is at the heart of this clever novel. The relationship between Catherine and Tom is different, ill defined, and becomes changed through the novel. I found this a gently funny book, which introduces and explores characters right until the end. In a way my favourites are Mark and Digby, looking for food, discussing their concerns, expressing views on those around them, worrying in a half hearted way about their possible chances of grants to go into the field.  All the relationships are carefully described, small ambitions examined, meals enjoyed or otherwise. This book is gently and subtly enjoyable, and fits well into Pym’s books about the oddity of people.  

  

So I continue to work my way through Barbara Pym’s books, and trying to find them . I think I have two more left to read after this one. I am so pleased that her books have been reprinted by Virago in their Modern Classics series, home of such middle century writers as Angela Thirkell over the last few years. While not the traditional green Virago covers, they certainly look good and perhaps as importantly are robust. I certainly enjoy collecting them!

No Fond Return of Love by Barbara Pym – Love researched and explored

No Fond Return of Love by Barbara Pym

 

Dulcie is heading towards being an older spinster.  Disappointed in love, she now lives a quiet life in her late parents’ house in an unfashionable, even distant suburb of London. As with many other books, some of whose characters turn up in this novel, there is another woman who feels the sadness of love. These are not tragedies, as Dulcie’s new aquaintance Viola elegantly suffers the frustrations of unrequited love, and Laurel discovers the possibilities. There is an absurd man in the form of Dr Alwyn Forbes, impressed with himself, yet always wondering about the women around him. There is also a clergyman, floating around in a tatty cassock, not quite getting the point. This 1961 novel is full of the light touches of women working within their worlds, but this is a book which goes further afield than some of the others into areas of London that have associations for characters that prove to be otherwise, as well as a further journey of discovery for some, which provide a meeting of plot as well as some of the central people of the story. This is a book of realistic clothes, disappointing meals, indexing and researching, of odd books turning up and paintings which typify life. A gentle book of confusions, embarrassments, and little hints of the lives of women and some men as they contemplate others and their expectations. A book of acute observations and faded lives, this is a slightly sadder novel in Pym’s output, but still captures something of Dulcie’s curiosity about those around her, beyond the indexes.

 

The novel begins with three characters all slightly out of their comfort zone. Dulcie is attending a conference of those who work in publishing, but not those who have the glamour of racy bestselling novels, but rather the mechanics of indexes, of editing and small bits of research. She meets the languid Viola, an admirer of Alwyn, possibly affecting even his marriage to the disappointing Marjorie, whose interest in the conference centred around his scheduled lecture, “Some problems of an editor”. It is notable that more than one of the lectures is entitled “Some Problems of…”, as if the important but unexciting topics of indexes and editing are apologetically handled. The evening meal, as many of the carefully described meals throughout the book, is colourless and unexciting, even though Dulcie and to an extent Viola have some hopes of it.

 

The relationships as established at the conference go forwards into the rest of the novel, as other characters are discovered rather than firmly laid down, and is propelled by Dulcie’s gentle researches and accidental discoveries. Her hopes for her young niece Laurel’s influence on her rather quiet home do not come to pass in the way she expected, whereas her unexpected lodger becomes a vague partner in her unusual researches into the life and times of a man for whom a small stone squirrel  becomes a talisman of a past time and attraction. The set pieces of Dulcie’s unwilling witnessing of a sort of confrontation, of a shy florist who takes surprising action, and a dinner party which brings together some strange friends all contribute to a life where a particular form of love will not be returned, but nothing is impossible. 

 

This is a Pym that Husband acquired because I couldn’t find any more on my double banked and tough to access books. As I mentioned before, I’m struggling to access A – H because of my daughter’s house contents being shoved in that room. The limited space for the letter P is stuffed rather full with Ellis Peters (especially Brother Cadfael) Elizabeth Peters (Amelia Peabody) and Jean Plaidy (many, many historical novels) . I am still searching for Pym – maybe they are being shy and retiring….?

Some Tame Gazelle by Barbara Pym – Sisters, clergy and village life

Some Tame Gazelle

 

Belinda and Harriet are the Bede sisters, unmarried but comfortable, living together but somehow different from each other, working in the garden, employing a servant, and caring for the clergy. Belinda has been quietly devoted to the Archdeacon Henry Hochleve for thirty years, despite his capable wife, despite his expressions of exhaustion, despite his continuous quotations of obscure literary sources. Harriet, an older woman who still fascinates, at least her point of view, cherishes curates, collects and cares for them. She has a suitor who probably has other loves, but nevertheless reliably proposes to her on a regular basis. The two sisters are the centre of Pym’s first novel of 1950, being creations of admirable ladies as will people many of her later books. This is life in an English village with the gossip, small dinner parties and scandals of safety. The plot is slight, the humour gentle, but always the characters chatter and move in a world where concerns about clothes, food and appearances dominate and make up a totally satisfactory world.

 

This book opens with the sisters discussing the new curate in the parish, the latest young man who will actually do the work which the Archdeacon is always claiming as his burden. Belinda is quietly contemplating the intellectual treats dispensed by the archdeacon, as she remembers the poems and bits of texts from her college experience. Harriet has given up on the intellectual side of life and sermons, prefering to think about the foods and treats that she can offer the latest in the continuous supply of young men, and the clothes which reflect her glamour, despite the study corsets which she has to continually ‘strengthen’ and conceal from unexpected visitors.  The set piece of the Vicarage garden party with its garden produce stall is a marvellous demonstration of the politics of the community. Agatha, the Archdeacon’s wife, is determined that things are done her way, even if that means redoing the efforts of others. She establishes her rule with the correct way to wrap the best marrows for the wealthy customer, she revels in the minor martyrdom of a late or non existent tea. She jealousy guards access to her husband until he becomes able to defend and dominate himself, with his loud complaints about her housewifely duties. Thus Belinda is allowed snatches of the Archdeacon’s attention and his grumbles, and she comforts herself with memories of their youth. As the story moves on,the Archdeacon will preach unintelligibly, and Belinda will make excuses for him. There will be visitors who challenge the status quo and those who upset the comfortable expectations of the village, but all will be dealt with, and nothing will be allowed to threaten.

 

This first novel shows some of the characteristics that will reappear in later books. The woman who dresses for comfort and practical reasons, compared with the other who always considers the effect her ensemble would have on others. The clergy are frequently absurd in their sermons and pronouncements, but are usually well intentioned. Romance is dispassionate and a habit rather than full of emotion, men are easily led and accept alternatives. This is an engaging and enjoyable book, full of a soothing perception of English village life in the mid twentieth century, sketched with piercing and humourous detail with affection and clear insight.

 

This latest book  by Pym to emerge from my fiction collection is a wonderful read; I’m not sure that I feel strong enough to tackle her “Quartet” as it is apparently quite sad. I shall see what else I can find! I am tempted to track down some E Benson, but accessing those shelves could be bit of a challenge. I have plenty of more recent books to tackle, anyway!

 

 

Jane and Prudence by Barbara Pym – A character driven novel with much gentle humour

Jane And Prudence (VMC) (Virago Modern Classics): Amazon.co.uk ...

 

Jane is married to a vicar. Prudence works with an academic. When both women meet up at an Oxford reunion they resolve to meet up, especially as Jane and her husband are due to move to a new parish. Prudence is known for her “love affairs” which is suggested by her fashionable appearance. Both women have more difficulty with their lives than they would admit to strangers. Jane was an academic, but now finds herself living in a Vicarage which she cannot afford to furnish, heat or enjoy. Prudence works as an assistant to an Arthur Grampian, who is married and does not really know of her devotion. Having said this, there is a great deal of gentle humour in this book, as both women acknowledge that they are not ideally placed, and in Jane’s case struggles to fulfil expectations of a vicar’s wife of the time. As with Pym’s writing generally, she revels in the details of  the setting of the stories, the shabby vicarage rooms, the Regency style furniture Prudence favours which is stylish but uncomfortable. However it is the characters in their absurdity which really create the humour, especially in this novel, Fabian Driver, widower and self appointed ladies man. This is not so much a novel of plot and narrative drive, as much as characters and set pieces of meetings, events and daily life.

 

Jane has a daughter, Flora, who over the years has gained experience of silently coping with Jane’s domestic limitations. So she cooks, and provides for visitors without comment. Nicholas, Jane’s husband, is resigned to her lack of interest in cooking, and has a depressing attitude to her saying the “wrong” thing. Flora is set for Oxford, which reminds Jane of her one time ambitions as well as the romance of being a student once more. Prudence likes to give the impression that she is extremely attractive to men, but really lives on past “affairs” especially during her time at Oxford. As Jane moves into the new parish, she runs a near silent commentary on her impressions of the parishioners, especially the church ladies of whom she is slightly nervous. When she meets Fabian she immediately jumps to thinking of Prudence, as he portrays himself as the handsome sorrowing widower who in fact had very little interest in his late wife and had many affairs. He duly expresses an interest in Prudence, but not everything goes quite to plan. Jane meanwhile gets caught up in the petty politics of the parish, and speculates in the differences between the those who favour Low and High anglicanism, while usually misunderstanding the situation.

 

It is really difficult to convey the humour and pathos of this book, the small details and the habits which make it so funny. Jane is a particularly appealing character in her honesty and acceptance of her less than successful appearance, abilities and much more. Described as wearing a coat “That looks as if she was going to feed chickens in”, she is a down to earth character who tries to see the best in people. Prudence has her dreams and  tries to convey an appearance of success in love, which is outweighed by her actual loneliness. This is an appealing book which I really enjoyed, and it certainly bears reading and rereading. 

 

I found this book delightful and very much of its time (1953). I particularly enjoyed the church references and the comments about those in the parish; as a Vicar’s wife in the twenty first century I can still find some recognisable elements! This is a lovely book full of little insights and ideas that are so appealing, and I am confident that every time I read it I notice new attractions.

 

Meanwhile this is a very strange Easter for many of us, not seeing family, not cooking a big meal (or at least shopping for it) or going to church. I hope that you too have managed chocolate and cake, or whatever it is you prefer at this time of year. Maybe just a book or two…

A Glass of Blessings by Barbara Pym – a gentle comedy of manners from 1950s Britain

A Glass Of Blessings (Virago Modern Classics): Amazon.co.uk ...

 

This novel is a comedy of manners, full of hints and rules, assumptions and secret questions about what constitutes correct behaviour in post war England. Originally published in 1958, the book is narrated by Wilmet Forsyth, a young married woman with time on her hands. Her husband Rodney is a good if distant husband, working solidly in the mysterious Ministry. She lives with him in his mother, Sybil’s, house. At a loose end during the day, she becomes fascinated by the local Anglo Catholic church, or more specifically the clergy and others who are associated with it. Her best friend Rowena Talbolt’s brother, Piers Longridge, also becomes a source of fascination for the rather bored Wilmet. This is a gentle comedy, full of Wilmet’s rather funny musings on the church, Portugese, relationships, clothes and much else. Wilmet’s discussions with herself form a classic continuous commentary on her life, with all its small dramas, concerns and humour. This is a really good read as a distraction as it is an easy read, yet revealing much about women’s lives at the time.

 

As the novel opens, Wilmet is in church, surprised by a phone ringing clearly through the building, and also the presence of Piers. As someone who has just started attending the rather high Anglican church, she is fascinated by the priests, including the venerable Father Thames and the ineffective Father Bode. The clergy house is also a subject of speculation for several of the women, especially as the current housekeeper is leaving. When Wilmet is instrumental in finding the officious Mr Bason to replace her, she is surprised by his plans to cook such delicacies as octopus for the priests unable to eat meat in Lent. As cassocks are coveted, retreats organised and the living arrangements of the priests are noted by Wilmet, there are many in jokes and concerned questions about those associated with the church. There are set pieces such as the church social to negotiate, as well as ongoing questions about the correct etiquette and clothes for certain social events. Wilmet becomes fascinated by Piers, and ponders possible outings and meetings with him. She must also cope with the interested Harry and the distant Rodney, the adventurous Sybil and the rather dowdy Mary. 

 

This is a book full of gentle humour and minor concerns, of speculations and questions, of social life and discoveries. Nothing very dramatic happens, and life changing decisions are carefully made. There are minor scandals, but this is the territory of domestic dramas on a small scale. In the tradition of classics such as “The Diary of a Provincial Lady”, this book features a woman’s gentle dilemmas rather than mystery and danger. A subtle book, it has much to say about the lifestyle of young women with sufficient money but little ambition, contemplating wartime service as the best time, when they experienced romance and adventure. I enjoyed this story of a woman who has a somewhat aimless existence, but who makes some very clever observations of those around her, especially the clergymen. The small details of clothes are fascinating for anyone interested in the fashion of the time. The settings of cafes, homes and a restaurant that provides huge portions of meat conveys much about a Britain recovering from rationing and shortages. Altogether this is very much a novel of its time, and yet has something to say about the human condition at all times. 

 

While I am enjoying reviewing the new books that come my way, I also like to review books that have been around for sometime, preferably those which are easy to get hold of or may already be lurking in collections which are accessible  even in these strange times. This is one of several Pym books that I have acquired over the years, thanks to Virago Modern Classics and similar publishers. Virago have also been instrumental in making quite a collection of Angela Thirkell’s books available in paperback, for which I am very grateful. Three more paperbacks are due to become available of AT’s books in August, all being well!   

Some more excellent women-far away from the Frozen North

Your Frozen North weather report: Still Frozen. Activities include, sitting in a pub in front of a roaring fire watching icicles drip outside the window. The weather is freezing (literally) and although we haven’t had any more snow for the last few days, it is still about a foot deep outside. Everywhere is made narrower and more inaccessible by piles and mounts of snow everywhere. So, still cabin feverish, but beginning to get out more now.  Thank you wonderful local library for renewing all my books. While running out of books in this house is not imminent, we are not getting postal deliveries so buying books online isn’t really working. And any dedicated bibliophile knows that it’s all about getting your hands on different books, no matter how many you have already lying around.My book clubs have been postponed so storing up great thoughts about great books!

Today’s two books are both by Barbara Pym, who wrote Excellent Women that I posted on some months ago. Jane and Prudence, and A Glass of Blessings are both as good in their way, the idiosyncratic style of describing women and their lives being an acquired taste.

These books are both set in the 1950s, they feature women who live undramatic lives, and no great events challenge the follow of the narrative. So far, so Austen? These do remind me of Austen inasmuch that I cannot easily say what happens in a hugely dramatic way, and indeed in many ways are less significant than Austen in terms of the protagonists carrying on with their lives at the end of the novels more or less as they began.

To see these books in a negative light is too easy and not really fair. They are cleverly written intense perspectives on the lives of women. They are financially well off, but there is something essentially missing in their lives. Easily the most painfully accurate characterisation ( at least in my eyes) is Jane. She is a vicar’s wife with no ability to cook, no dress sense and not really very effective with the parishioners. Ouch! Happily she has a daughter who knows where the kitchen is,  a’woman who obliges’, and her husband  seems blissfully ignorant of the domestic  world collapsing around him. It’s only when she tries to matchmake her Oxford friend that confusion breaks out. Prudence is twenty nine and sorely in need of help. The problem is that Vicar’s wives in this generation were not necessarily the best at romantic assistance. This is very enjoyable for those who revel in nuance, detail, setting, clothing and all those small things that make this writing memorable. I found it painfully funny, not in a laugh out loud way but gently amusing and not challenging.

Equally A Glassful of Blessings is a careful, gentle portrait of a bored wife, Wilmet. She has no money worries, her husband is generous to a fault, even her home and social life is organised for her. She becomes attracted by the clergy and people of a local Anglo-Catholic church, and gets embroiled in their concerns and lives. She also becomes involved with Piers, brother of a friend, and what he is really involved in. I found this an interesting, if rather slow moving book, nicely detailed and perceptive of motives. Wilmet is an unsympathetic character but means well, and her innocent observations are gently amusing. I think that this book is for the Pym devotee, rather than someone new to the author. I like these books, but I’m not convinced that they have dated well. Jane and Prudence is the more interesting but both are ideal for something a bit different and quite restful.

Excellent Women…and post watershed tv

Following my previous post about coffee morning antics, I thought I would mention two very alternative views of the church of England. The first is “Rev.” on BBC 2 (and therefore iplayer). This series, part written by its leading actor, the lovely Tom Hollander, fondly remembered in this house for “The Cambridge Spies”, began high in fruity language and innuendo but now seems to have settled into its more realistic stride.  I just like the truthful depiction of the normal confusion which reigns in the vicarage, with the doorbell going and the undrinkable coffee (sorry everyone that knows me…). My clergy spy has never worked quite so inner city, but the situations that Adam finds himself in are not so far from daily experience. Not sure that the long suffering wife is so accurate, but, there, I would say that, wouldn’t I?

The other view of Anglican life is far away from the days of women bishops, even women priests. Excellent Women, by Barbara Pym is a picture of an excellent woman, Mildred, a clergy daughter with a fondness for the vicar in  post war London. Her settled existence of helping with jumble sales and doing good works is rudely interrupted by the arrival of a new couple to share her house and herincreasing involvement with their exotic lives and friends.The arrival of  an attractive widow in the parish means romantic entanglements get even more complicated. All is resolved in the end, but not without some tense moments for all concerned.

This is not a novel to be read for  earth shattering events, of which there are none, but more the funny and fascinating descriptions of people and buildings caught up in a landscape affected by war, shortages and acceptance, but also staging their own demonstrations that they exist and matter. Anthropology, obsessions with killing birds, the influence of strong religion on the previously unquestioning soul all mean that life is so painfully revealed, yet kindly treated. This is a bit of a novel of manners rather than plot, but none the worse for that. After all, quite a few people are mildly interested in every single  word that a certain Miss Austen wrote…

So, two very different views of life in the vicarage…