Ladies

John Bayley

  • An Academic Question by Barbara Pym
    Macmillan, 182 pp, £9.95, July 1986, ISBN 0 333 41843 3
  • A Misalliance by Anita Brookner
    Cape, 191 pp, £9.95, August 1986, ISBN 0 224 02403 5

‘Old people were rather in fashion at the time. Every week one or the other of the quality Sunday papers included a feature on the elderly, and if it could be shown that they were being ill-treated or neglected so much the better.’ Yes, that’s authentic Pym, with the true depth of exuberance in it: what Philip Larkin accurately called her ‘innocent irony’ – innocent because not just seemingly innocent. In another writer it might be malicious or mechanical or just for show. In Evelyn Waugh or Muriel Spark the same kind of observation would have about it a routine conscientiousness, a reminding of the reader what things are like, and a reassurance that the author’s outlook and style are perfectly fitted to do them justice. Pym is not like that. In 1970, after seven years of silence and exile imposed by her publishers, and with another seven years to go before the evil spell was broken by two rescuing princes in the TLS, she started to write what she called her ‘Academic Novel’. She had had an operation for breast cancer and was beginning to think of retiring from her job as Assistant Editor of Africa.

She was anxious to write a novel in the contemporary style ‘to which people are now turning’, as publishers had told her. But personality is what matters, and hers was not so easily metamorphosed. No doubt she knew this, because she felt her new effort was unlikely to get into print, and she hoped ‘my immediate circle of friends will like to read it.’ The ‘I’ of the story is at once and reassuringly familiar, although she is a departmental wife with a small daughter and a not very satisfactory lecturer husband. She is the slightly sharper sister of Mildred and Wilmet in the earlier novels: as lively as they are, as enigmatically unfulfilled (unlike Pym, they did not write novels), and, like the Brookner heroine in Look at me, taking the same involuntary pleasure in the dreary little comedies of daily routine. Pym was a bit despondent about this. ‘It was supposed to be a sort of Margaret Drabble effort,’ she wrote to Philip Larkin, ‘but of course it hasn’t turned out like that at all.’ She tried to recast it in the third person, then abandoned both versions on completion and began to think about the novel that was to become Quartet in Autumn. Her sister Hilary and Hazel Holt have skilfully married the two manuscripts into a novel as readable and characteristic as any in the Pym canon.

As in the other posthumous novel, Crampton Hodnet, which dates from an earlier period, and all the previously published ones, there are passages of no particular account which make one laugh until helpless. The heroine is taken on for part-time work in an academic library, and, after the coffee problem has been solved, a woman friend of hers who works there is instructed to tell her what to do. ‘She moved her hands among the papers and cards on her table, enjoying the importance of her position.’ Again, this might be malicious in another novelist: but Mrs Armitage is very nice; she and the heroine get on excellently; it is just that we are all like that at work. The heroine is given some labels, already written out, and instructed to stick them on the books. ‘I stuck on one of the labels, slightly crooked.’

Humorists like P.G. Wodehouse can be something of a trial to read because the humour is part of their professional equipment – their patter, as it were. This is not the case with Pym. It is embarrassing to record one’s delight in her things, because those who feel the same will be impatient, and so will those who don’t. Yet the spontaneity of the humour is fundamental to this novelist’s unique marriage of art and life. Other novelists have a professional dependence on how piercing their insights are: they have to take things hard, and significantly, in ways that Pym does not. The Pym moral reflexes are so just and so spontaneous (like the humour) that she shows us without effort or comment how terribly shaken and upset the heroine is by a casual one-off infidelity on her husband’s part. ‘I lay stiffly on my side of the bed, so near to the edge that I was in danger of falling out.’

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