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.

Stonebird has just written a learned article called ‘Some Aspects of Extra-Marital Relations among the Ngumu’. It could be said that Jane Austen makes a specialism of pre-marital relations in her tribe – three or four families in a country village – and Barbara Pym in hers, North-West London bedsitterland, given tenuous structure by its organisation as a parish. But there is a difference, since the categorisations of the modern anthropologist would be alien to Jane Austen, while Barbara Pyrm has one of her characters declare that novel-writing and anthropology can’t be kept apart. ‘Haven’t the novelist and the anthropologist more in common than some people think?’ suggests Everard Bone, yet another professional, who seems to have strayed in from Excellent Women in order to make this observation.

In developing her novelist’s craft in the 1950s, and in working for Africa, Barbara Pyrm was exposed to prevailing ideas of what social anthropology was about. Of these, perhaps the dominant fashion, and certainly the one that seems most clearly reflected in her novels, is functionalism. In an attempt to order the social sciences on similar lines to the physical sciences, the functionalist compared individual human beings to cells or molecules, and saw them interconnected by their social relations to the organic whole which is society at large; social life was the interaction of individuals and of the organised groups to which they belonged. The field-worker studying a community, a real-life Bone or Stonebird, would investigate how its structures and activities functioned, in terms of their effects upon the thoughts, sentiments and actions of individuals. There can’t be much doubt that in her first and by general consent better group of novels, Barbara Pyrm makes use of this hypothesis concerning man in his social relations. An Unsuitable Attachment, seventh and last of the early series, actually looks like a deliberate attempt at a functionalist novel, even if the experiment is leavened with irony.

In acknowledgement that ‘character’ is no longer what it was, the heroine Ianthe Broome is presented in a format that is virtually computer-ready, or at least ready for entering on one of the card-indexes which Ianthe spends her working life compiling. She is catalogued at every appearance by her suitable clothing (classy small-heeled shoes, blue wool dress, for Rome a linen suit), her possessions (the good inherited pieces in her vamped-up Victorian home), her abstemious but carefully orthodox taste in food and drink, her irreproachably tasteful vocabulary and piety to the memory of her mother, the canon’s widow. The people in the novel react to Ianthe wholly in terms of these outward and visible indices. Rupert Stonebird wants to marry her, rather than Penny, because her outfit is always an ensemble (i.e. she has better clothes, and more clothes), while rival Penny wears a lopsided beehive hairdo, a borrowed dress that comes apart at the seams and footwear at odds with the dress. Another of Ianthe’s unlucky suitors, the librarian Mervyn Cantrell, wants to marry her because her house contains a Pembroke table. In possession of her genteel house, table and person, Mervyn in his fantasies redefines himself as a man who has completed his escape from his origins in Croydon.

This is all rather like Elizabeth Bennet’s joke when she is asked how she began to love Mr Darcy: ‘I believe I must date it from my first seeing his beautiful grounds at Pemberley.’ But in Jane Austen’s moral world, a heroine would not in all earnestness attempt a kind of auctioneer’s valuation of a marital partner, as the sum of all his worldly goods. Barbara Pym’s heroine assesses her suitors by such signs, and they her. Characters are identified in the first instance by the jobs they do, though women – acknowledged subordinates – are also defined by the support they give voluntarily to the parish, by running tea parties, opening bazaars and visiting the sick. All the leading women are named somewhere in terms of their relationship to socially more significant men – Canon’s daughter, vet’s sister, vicar’s wife, vicar’s wife’s sister.

Functionalists saw themselves as students of the psychological aspects of culture – this must have been the attraction of the approach for Pym – since they wanted to know about individuals and the way in which individuals were moulded by, and adjusted to, social life. But they could also come under fire for taking an unsympathetic, highhanded view of people: the task was too often to build the intellectual model, rather than respond sensitively to feelings and experience from the inside, in the language of the people themselves. Barbara Pym is sufficiently true to the rigorous aspirations of her parent discipline to give an unusually restricted account of consciousness. Her characters, deeply constrained by their social roles, focus for preference on practical matters such as where to eat lunch or whether to visit a sick friend. Really private sensations, or accidentals – gaiety, hunger, lust – would presumably be irrelevant, and are not dealt with. Ianthe is established in terms of her day, a programme of actions determined by her role (librarian) and by her desire to live up to her social status (lady). Her behaviour distinguishes her as much as her clothes, a point made by continuous comparison with the doings of the vulgar:

  So Ianthe’s day passed, punctuated by cups of tea and a lunch of welsh rarebit and trifle at a café run by gentlewomen. It was not much different from other days. At five minutes to five, Shirley, the typist who had been helping Ianthe to file some cards, covered up her typewriter, put on the black imitation leather coat she had just bought, and hurried away singing. Ianthe herself stayed until nearly six o’clock to avoid the rush-hour crowds.

Most thoughts and actions are determined by social pressures: Pym people lead anything but a rich inner life. By comparison, the degree of free will Jane Austen allows her characters, the element of moral education in the experience of her principals, seems very heartening, even if a study of Pym suggests that it is not anthropology, and perhaps not reality either.

If characters are strangely and bleakly transformed in the Pym world, so, too, are institutions. Her anthropological colleagues begin with the premise that society functions as an organic whole, but this raises the possibility that it may not function: it may fragment, its institutions having lost their original purpose. Barbara Pym’s subject is the Church of England at parish level, a fact which seems to have made her name synonymous, for some readers, with nostalgia and quiet charm, beeswax, pot-pourri and incense. At a very superficial reading, she could just be made into a proselytiser for the Anglican way. St Basil’s is led from its Victorian vicarage by Mark, who is glad to have a working parish rather than the more fashionable St Ermin’s, after which his wife Sophia hankers. Mark has chosen an appropriate patron saint, it would seem, since the original St Basil, an early Christian father, was a famous preacher, a believer in a community life of shared work, an advocate of taking religion into the city rather than privately out into desert places. So the original function of the Church as an institution is cunningly brought into play, but it is very clear that Barbara Pym sees few signs of its purposeful operation at the present time.

Mansfield Park, most ecclesiastical of the Austen canon, may criticise the way in which the Church is sometimes served by individuals, but does not question its local importance as the cornerstone of the village community, nor doubt its national role. It is not nearly so obvious, in a Pym novel, what is holding England together. When Lady Selvedge comes to St Basil’s to open the fête, she struggles to find the parish as though searching for an alien country, and travellers from Mayfair or Woldingham complain of the same difficulty. Nor does the parish hold together: West Indians live within its boundaries, but are not seen in church. On the rare occasions when religious idealism comes directly into view, it is wryly contrasted with mundanity. ‘We dare not ask for the grace of humility, but perhaps we don’t need to when it is so often thrust upon us, thought Sophia, knowing that her cake would not rise as high as Sister Dew’s.’

Barbara Pym’s portrait of the Anglican way in London NW cannot in the end seem anything but critical. Mark and Sophia are, for example, commented on, even parodied, by their next-door neighbours, the veterinary surgeon Edwin Pettigrew and his sister Daisy. Where Mark and especially Sophia, childless, lavish too much kindness on their cat Faustina, the Pettigrews outdo them by running an entire cattery in their basement. While the Aingers have the edge aesthetically, the Pettigrews are more generally useful, a point enforced by the similarities in their ritual possessions. The statues and icons of the High Church Aingers have their counterpart in the gallery of photographs which adorn the Pettigrews’ waiting-room, of pets they have saved.

Mark and Edwin are moreover comically alike as priests of their respective orders. Their professional lives take them almost wholly among women, with whom neither is naturally equipped to deal. Edwin is ‘an expert at calming and reassuring the agitated and often hysterical women who brought their animals to see him’, but he could not focus on his own wife, and she has long since left him. Mark struggles to pay enough attention to Sophia. When the parish group sets out for Rome, Mark and Edwin, its only two men (‘Two men and five women’ – ‘Aren’t most parties made up like that?’) behave very similarly. Mark abstractedly studies the confessionals in St Peter’s, Edwin the distended tail glands of an Aberdeen terrier spotted in the Via Botteghe Oscure. In the amphitheatre at Ostia Antica, both are briefly called upon to show their professional paces, which they do with characteristic ineffectuality. ‘My friends, many of you have no doubt stood in the amphitheatre at Ostia, marvelling,’ declaims Mark in self-parody, for his sermons are always pitched over the heads of his parishioners. Sister Dew, eagerly scrambling upwards to test the acoustics, falls and has to be tended by Edwin. ‘In his veterinary practice he specialised in the treatment of small animals, and the sheer bulkiness of Sister Dew reminded him that his work had been with cats and pet dogs rather than with horses and cows, but he examined her ankle as best he could.’

In Italy the peculiarities of the parish of St Basil are even accentuated. Daisy Pettigrew behaves more battily than at home, pursuing the lean ubiquitous Roman cats with tins of catfood, while Sophia pines obsessively for Faustina. Pym uses Italy in a schematic way reminiscent of Forster, though not, alas, Forster at his most engaging: some of her characters find love there, but on the whole the unfamiliar taste of libido is not so much releasing as guilty and unpleasant. Otherwise what they meet is a grotesque version of what they knew before. The toothy Italian film stars in the restaurant are burlesques of the pet portraits in the surgery, and thus at second remove of the church full of saints in faraway NW. ‘Basil’ crops up in all kinds of ways, none as highminded as at home. It is the name of the herb in the spaghetti they learn to like, and the name of an effete English clergyman, Basil Branche, whom Sophia hopes will court Ianthe. The Italian for Holy Spirit (subject of the best-known work of the real St Basil) flashes out over Rome in neon lights, but only as the name of a bank. Ianthe muses that one takes comfort from chance signs, including those which mean to say something else. This may express a sincere, rare perception by Barbara Pym herself about the private aspect of religion, but the subject of her novel is its institutional working, and here the sense of comic futility is unmistakable.

In his brief introduction, Philip Larkin recounts how this seventh Pym novel was rejected in 1963 by the publisher of the first six, Cape, not apparently because it would not sell but because the publisher’s readers just did not like it. Perhaps they disliked the boldness with which the anthropological Miss Pym has imposed her meaning externally: where there’s enough extraneous commentary to be noticed, there’s usually too much to be assimilated, and that’s probably the case with An Unsuitable Attachment. Perhaps they noticed how often Pym’s ingenious sociology leads her into impasses in psychology. Philip Larkin complains that there is not enough of Ianthe falling in love, and in fact there is never enough of characters’ feelings for one another. In theory, Barbara Pym is not exclusive about this, for she promises much when she first gets her principals gathered together. ‘A rather strange collection of men and women, thought Rupert with an anthropologist’s detachment, none of whom really know each other but between whom waves and currents of feelings are already beginning to pass.’ There isn’t enough evidence, and indeed one powerful current of feeling which in real life would be strong in such a world, that between the novel’s many women, finds no direct expression at all. Instead, keeping up with Jane Austen traps Barbara Pym into a conventional plot, a network of courtship rituals which by 1960 belong almost wholly to literature and not to real life. Whatever Pride and Prejudice may pretend, marriage does not mean as much to a woman now as it is made to mean for Penny, nor her own work as little.

Jane Austen’s novels are liked by a very wide range of readers, which surely includes most mature literate men. (It is an oddity, on the face of it, that she should be so much admired by the cohort from which she took General Tilney, Sir Thomas Bertram, Mr Woodhouse and Sir Walter Elliot.) Is Barbara Pym, too, a novelist for older men? Certainly they have so far been more gallant and vociferous than women in championing her. Lord David Cecil, John Bayley and Philip Larkin have paid her tribute as a superb observer of comic detail, and as the delineator of a world, the Anglican parish, which has a Betjemanesque charm. The article which can perhaps claim to have ‘discovered’ her, by Robert Smith in Ariel in 1970, was called ‘How pleasant to know Miss Pym’, and that is the note that is commonly hit in appreciations of her. Philip Larkin in the present introduction gives more attention to the woman than to the artist, and sketches a portrait which might be that of Ianthe Broome when he describes the ‘unassuming modesty’ with which Pym received her eventual success, and the ‘innocent irony’ characteristic of her letters.

In an age of feminist consciousness, this is not much of a bid for the woman reader’s vote. And in fact every woman reader of Barbara Pym that I know has found her charm resistible. Perhaps it is because her heroines so emphatically fall short of heroic stature, with their insistence on being led, their pain at the thought of sisters ‘thrusting their aggressive shopping baskets at defenceless men’. Yet she surely should not be read thus unironically, as though she invited us to sympathise with her characters, instead of inducing us to see them, as she does, from a lair in the long grass.

Philip Larkin writes of the ‘undiminished high spirits’ of the early Pym novels, this one included, but he is surely mistaken: again, the meekness of her art seems singularly deceptive. It was a coup to borrow the insights of functionalism, out of the stable that was to give us structuralism, and, without the faintest surface hint of the nouveau roman, nevertheless challenge the comfortable clichés through which the naturalistic novelist underwrites a certain view of reality. She lived to see her reputation made by admirers who on the whole emphasised her continuity with tradition. Of this fame, Philip Larkin says briefly that ‘the irony of the situation was not lost on her.’ Maybe not, but it’s growing only slowly on everyone else.