Keeping up with Jane Austen

Marilyn Butler

  • An Unsuitable Attachment by Barbara Pym
    Macmillan, 256 pp, £6.95, February 1982, ISBN 0 333 32654 7

Barbara Pym’s posthumous novel, An Unsuitable Attachment, begins with an echo of Pride and Prejudice. Rupert Stonebird, an eligible bachelor, has just moved into a middle-class neighbourhood. Two of its women walk past his house to size him up. Perhaps he will make a suitable husband for the vicar’s wife’s sister, Penny, or perhaps for the faded librarian Ianthe Broome. The parish of St Basil, on the fringe of North Kensington in NW London, may not be classic Austen country, but the principal characters, all off-spring of deceased Anglican clergymen, might be the equivalents of Jane herself. Like any Austen novel, An Unsuitable Attachment makes a cluster of courtships an occasion to uncover the lives of genteel and near-genteel friends and neighbours.

As matchmaker in chief, the part of a Mrs Bennet or an Emma, Sophia Ainger the vicar’s wife does her best to manoeuvre Rupert Stone-bird into the arms of sister Penelope. Her expedients include a dinner party at the vicarage, the Christmas bazaar, an excursion to Rome after Easter for the parish stalwarts. Stonebird proves as impervious as his name, or rather begins to develop instead a low-key passion for Ianthe Broome, while Penny fails to get her man through too much stage-management and too much trying, rather in the style of Harriet Smith or Mary Bennet.

Sometimes the debt to Austen is verbal and explicit: ‘The day comes in the life of every single man living alone when he must give a dinner party.’ Minor characters are almost recognisable. Sister Dew, good-hearted parish helper, is the equivalent of Mrs Jennings or Miss Bates. The mean Lady (Muriel) Selvedge, who comes to open the Church bazaar and lunches en route near Victoria for 3s 9d, might be based on the entrepreneurial Lady Denham in Sanditon. Ianthe’s aunt, Bertha, married to the rector of a fashionable Mayfair parish, blends the hypochondria of Sanditon’s Diana Parker with the injudicious high living of Dr Grant in Mansfield Park.

‘Bertha’s health,’ says her husband Randolph regretfully,

‘wouldn’t have stood any district but W1 or SW1. Anything near the Harrow Road, or the canal, or Kensal Green cemetery had to be avoided at all costs. My particular cross is to be a “fashionable preacher”, as they say. Bertha is quite right when she says that somebody must minister to the rich.’

  ‘Of course,’ said Ianthe. ‘And you have some very nice people in your congregation,’ she added consolingly.

  ‘Yes, both my church wardens are titled men,’ said Randolph simply. He stood with the carving implements poised over the ruined saddle. ‘Let me give you some more mutton, my dear.’

  ‘No, thank you, uncle – I’ve had plenty.’

  ‘You aren’t a great meat-eater, are you, dear,’ said Bertha,‘so the approach of Lent won’t be so much of a hardship for you.’

  Ianthe murmured noncommittally.

  ‘I have to eat meat, unfortunately – doctor’s orders,’ Bertha went on. ‘He has forbidden me to fast or even keep the days of abstinence. “You are not to think of making do with a collation on Ash Wednesday,” he said to me. “You must have a full meal with meat.” ’

The mystery then is why Miss Pym is not really like Miss Austen at all, why Austen readers could find her thoroughly disturbing.

Jane Austen and her contemporaries had a frank curiosity about one another’s personalities and lives which often at the time came under fire as vulgar prying. A passion for gossip at all levels made the early 19th century an age of biography, and flowed into other literary forms in abundance, taking over the novel of Scott, Dickens and Thackeray, the poetry of Browning. The same curiosity about people and their relationships, possessions and environment is an academic subject now, called social anthropology.

For the older reader and indeed the older critic, time has stood still as far as the literature of character is concerned. The 19th-century novel, according to this unreconstructed view, gives us something closer to life than any other art form; realism gives us reality and naturalism nature. It is precisely this kind of reader and this kind of critic who most firmly believes in Barbara Pym as a latterday Jane Austen, a novelist in the great 19th-century tradition involved in the transparent reproduction of familiar localised life. Which is odd, because Barbara Pym, far from being an old-style characteriser, seems bent on a reappraisal of technique that ends by making the familiar very strange.

In some Pym novels – Excellent Women, for example, and now An Unsuitable Attachment – the Anglican parish is invaded by a professional anthropologist: here it is the eligible bachelor himself, Rupert Stonebird. When the women of St Basil’s come to view him, Rupert reciprocates their interest, ‘for as an anthropologist he knew that men and women may observe each other as warily as wild animals hidden in long grass.’ The image is a joke, and perhaps the proposition too. Barbara Pym’s men, whether anthropologists, vicars or vets, don’t relate well to others and don’t notice detail; their professional status earns them cachet in the world of her novels, but their skills remain theoretical, and comically outstripped by the amateurish curiosity of women. Still, it seems significant that while Jane Austen led the life of a vicar’s daughter, Barbara Pym worked as Assistant Editor of the anthropological journal Africa.

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