Barbara Pym’s Hymn

Karl Miller

Several authors have died in the course of Britain’s current and by now customary hard winter. V.S. Pritchett writes, nearby, about one of them, and I would like to write about another – the novelist, Barbara Pym. To think of her in relation to a literary world, with its apparatus of publicity and reward, gives a sense of incongruity, but, of course, there’s a tale that hangs on the connection – the story of how this world turned from her in middle age, after her work of the Fifties, which was indeed ‘of the Fifties’ to a degree that was barely understood at the time. In the altered climate of the following decade she lapsed from book pages and publishers’ lists, but rose again, to fame, when readers were alerted to her fiction by the commendations of two admirers, Philip Larkin and David Cecil. Having been out, she became ‘the in-thing to read’, and reviewers rushed to praise the late novel Quartet in Autumn – now in paperback – as if it were a match for her early work.[*]

Meanwhile her early work has been reissued, including Jane and Prudence (1953) and No Fond Return of Love (1961).[†] The first displays the prime of Miss Barbara Pym. It is a novel about what is expected, and the note, the theme, is sounded at the start: ‘some kind of an economist or historian’ is held to write ‘the, kind of books that nobody could be expected to read’. We know just the kind of book that is meant; many of them have been reviewed in the nine numbers there have been of the London Review of Books. In one sense, expectation rules, with a rod of iron, the country life portrayed in the novel. People do what is expected of them. ‘Not the sort of garment a vicar’s wife could be expected to possess.’ In another sense, there is little to expect from life, and little, for the single women for whom she chiefly speaks, to expect from men, who are portrayed as vain, complacent and demanding. Such is the message of the Barbara Pym whose characters, in Jane and Prudence, are for ever noticing, where they are not filling, hot-water bottles and addressing themselves to cups of tea and Ovaltine, and who proposed, on Desert Island Discs, to take with her as a castaway the recording of a hymn. What hymn? ‘In the Bleak Mid-Winter’. The heroine of No Fond Return behaves like a kind of private detective, spying – on the otherness of the male, on vicars’ stipends, editors’ cardigans – out of her loneliness and slight expectations. She visits another spinster for a meal and ‘perhaps it was not surprising that Viola had said “It won’t be much,” when it was apparently to be nothing.’ But this spinster, like many in the novels, is bent on managing, coping. The early novels have in them, and in the ‘excellent women’ hymned there, a resilience, a springy independence of mind, which pushes hard against the expected.

Hymns are invoked in a scene in Jane and Prudence where certain of the female characters, most of them far from fecund, meet amid the largesse assembled in church for a harvest festival:

there was a confusion of fruit, vegetables and flowers everywhere. Dahlias and chrysanthemums blossomed in unlikely corners, marrows tumbled off window ledges, spiked arrangements of carrots and parsnips flaunted themselves against stained glass.

   ‘I hope we shall have Let us with a gladsome mind,’ said Jane. ‘It is such a fine hymn. In many ways one dislikes Milton, of course; his treatment of women was not all that it should have been.’

   ‘Well, they did not have quite the same standards in the old days,’ said Miss Doggett, frowning. ‘Of course we shall have the usual harvest hymns, I imagine. We plough the fields and scatter,’ she declared in a firm tone, almost challenging anyone to deny her.

Presently along comes a good-looking man with a ‘magnificent’ marrow in his arms.

   Mr Driver moved forward and presented the marrow to Miss Doggett with something of a flourish.

   Jane felt as if she were assisting at some primitive kind of ritual at whose significance she hardly dared to guess.

Jane is the vicar’s tactless wife, and they are new to the parish: her husband is more at home with such parishioners than she is, ‘but perhaps that was to be expected.’ Soon she is eyeing them in church, where the collection, ‘deferential yet expectant’, puts her in a panic of shyness – she is only able to muster a threepenny bit and two pennies. She feels ‘it is to be expected’ that the marrow-bearer, a widower, will remarry. Miss Doggett remarks: ‘They say, though, that men only want one thing – that’s the truth of the matter.’ But she looks puzzled: ‘it was as if she had heard that men only wanted one thing, but had forgotten for the moment what it was’. Later, she remembers, but it is not a thing that can readily explain the widower’s eventual remarriage. Barbara Pym’s books are comedies of marriage, and of churchgoing – stony ground for comedy as the latter has long been. The pains of marriage, of its achievement, postponement and impossibility, are her one thing, among others. Jane is married, a touch disappointingly. Her painted girlfriend, of the several disappointing affairs, finally approaches the altar. Perhaps.

The Times obituary scornfully suggested that it would be nonsense to compare her with Jane Austen: but it would be nonsense not to. This writer, who jokes about the worship of the orphan to which the orphans of her storms in a teacup, her distressed gentlefolk, are inclined, belongs to a tradition, two hundred years old, which greatly depends upon a consciousness of distress. It is a tradition which mingles a submission to romance with a suspicion of it, in which, in the same work, marriage and romance can be both contrasted and combined. The tradition can be seen to admit, in all their ambivalence, with all their shrewd eye for an affected misery, both Austen and Pym, and when D.W. Harding enables us to see that Jane Austen’s respect for the ideals of romantic love is linked to her ‘concern with the survival of the sensitive and penetrating individual in a society of conforming mediocrity’, he is guiding us, too, towards the practice of Barbara Pym. She makes us sympathise with her surviving single women, and yet her highly traditional preoccupation with isolation and suffering contains a refusal of all the consolations which the tradition notoriously comprehends: bed-sitter fantasies of the redeeming male are for the most part, though not entirely, smiled at. For some of her excellent women, creature comforts are about the most they can hope for. Others again are queens. Few of them are self-deceivers.

A doctor wrote stridently to the Observer, not long ago, to complain that the paper had been strident in warning of the danger to pregnancy of the drug Debendox. Because of this, he had had his ‘Sunday disturbed by a lengthy visit to an acutely hysterical young pregnant mother’ who had been given it. The letter preceded another from a woman who had taken this (and no other) drug during pregnancy, and whose daughter was then born without thumbs. The doctor’s complaint accords with what some people sometimes think about doctors, but it also accords with what some women, and with what the narrators of Barbara Pym’s novels, gentle and humorous as they are in their scepticism, often think about men. There is nothing phobic in any of this, so far as Barbara Pym is concerned. Quietly and comically, her novels tell us the truth that male treatment of women has not been all that it should have been.

[*] Quartet in Autumn. Panther, 1980. £1.25.

[†] Jane and Prudence. Cape, 222 pp., £4.95, 25 October 1979, 0 224 01768 3.
No Fond Return of Love. Cape, 254 pp., £4.95, 25 October 1979, 0 224 01769 1.