Earlier in the year, I had a lot of fun with Barbara Pym’s much-loved novel, Excellent Women (1952). It came as part of a set of three Pym novels from The Book People, so when Simon reviewed No Fond Return of Love (also included in my purchase), this sounded like the ideal follow-on read.
The protagonist in No Fond Return (1961) is Dulcie Mainwaring, a thirty-something-year-old spinster who works as an indexer and proof-reader from her home in the London suburbs. As the novel opens, Dulcie has just arrived at a ‘learned conference’ for indexers and suchlike, a gathering she hopes will give her an opportunity to meet some new people and to observe something of the lives of others, even if it’s only for a day or two. (A few months earlier, Dulcie had broken up with her former fiancé, Maurice, a separation that has left her feeling rejected and mindful of her position as a somewhat lonely spinster; hence her decision to come to the meeting in the hope of experiencing something a little different.)
On the first evening of the conference, Dulcie meets Viola Dace, a fellow indexer who happens to be staying in the room next door. At first sight, the two women present quite a contrast to one another – Dulcie looks rather dowdy in her tweed suit and brogues while Viola appears more confident with her black dress and rather unruly hair. As the two women get talking, it becomes clear that Viola knows one of the speakers at the conference, the rather handsome editor, Dr Aylwin Forbes. Here’s a short excerpt from their conversation – it’s a beautifully observed scene, characteristic of Pym’s ability to convey so much during a brief exchange.
Viola named the journal which Aylwin Forbes edited. ‘I happen to know him rather well,’ she added.
‘He and I were once…’ Viola hesitated, teasing out the fringe of her black and silver stole.
‘I see,’ Dulcie said, but of course she did not see. What was it they were once, or had been once to each other? Lovers? Colleagues? Editor and assistant editor? Or had he merely seized her in his arms in some dusty library in a convenient corner by the card index catalogues one afternoon in spring? Impossible to tell, from Viola’s guarded hint. How irritating it sometimes was, the delicacy of women!
‘Is he married?’ asked Dulcie stoutly.
‘Oh, of course – in a sense, that is,’ said Viola impatiently.
Dulcie nodded. People usually were married, and how often it was ‘in a sense’. (pg. 7)
It turns out that Viola has a bit of history with Aylwin, having fallen for him while she was working on the index for one of his books at some point in the not-too-distant past. Even though very little actually happened between the two of them, Aylwin’s wife, Marjorie, must have found out about Viola as she ended up leaving her husband to move back in with her mother. With Aylwin effectively separated from Marjorie, Viola hopes to rekindle the relationship; Aylwin, on the other hand, seems more intent on avoiding Viola as far as possible.
When she realises that Aylwin may not be terribly keen to get involved with her again, Viola turns to Dulcie for moral support. Like Mildred in Excellent Women, Dulcie is one of those reliable types who can be called upon in moments of distress, often putting the needs of others before her own, especially when it comes to matters of the heart.
Somehow these two rather mismatched women end up staying in touch with one another after the conference, a connection that Viola is keen to utilise when she needs a new place to live. In this scene, Dulcie has taken a call from Viola asking if she can stay with her for a few weeks, just until she finds a new place to live. Even though deep down she knows she is being used, Dulcie cannot help feeling flattered and recognised in some way when Viola makes her approach.
Dulcie came away from the telephone with mixed feelings. She realised dimly that Viola was making use of her, yet it was flattering to feel that she had been chosen, even to be made use of. Though perhaps she had been approached only as a very last resort – ‘that big house, plenty of room, but in the suburbs…a woman I met at the conference in August – rather dreary but a good-natured soul…’ (pg. 57)
A few days later, Viola moves in with Dulcie and her eighteen-year-old niece, Laurel, who has come to stay with her aunt while she takes a course at secretarial college.
Dulcie, for her part, is also attracted to Aylwin; after all, he is rather good looking, even if he is in his late forties. She is somewhat fascinated by this rather handsome academic; and so, putting her research skills to good use, she embarks on a sort of quest to discover everything she can about him and his family. (In effect, this interest in others offers Dulcie some kind of excitement and light relief from the mundane nature of her everyday life.) Through a sequence of bizarre coincidences and lucky breaks, Dulcie’s natural sense of curiosity brings both her and Viola into contact with several members of Aylwin’s extended family. There is Aylwin’s wife, the rather dreary Marjorie, and her mother, Mrs Williton; Alywin’s brother, Neville, a vicar with woman troubles of his own; and the boys’ mother, the rather formidable Mrs Forbes, owner of the Eagle House Hotel in Taviscombe. (The actual plot is more than a little far-fetched, but I suspect that’s all part of the fun in a Pym novel!)
Alongside the main characters, there is a large cast of secondary characters, most notably Dulcie’s next-door neighbour, Mrs Beltane, and her blue-rinsed poodle, Felix, the beady-eyed dog with a penchant for petit fours. Like Excellent Women, No Fond Return contains a number of rather comical set-pieces, all played out in this familiar Pym world of afternoon tea, jumble sales, church gatherings and various learned organisations. As one might expect, each scene is very keenly observed.
Threaded through the novel are Dulcie’s observations and reflections on the nature of relationships, particularly those between men and women. On two or three occasions, she thinks back to her time with Maurice and wonders if it is sadder to have loved someone unworthy of her affection than never to have loved at all. (Maurice had not wanted to marry Dulcie, or as he put it ‘he was not worthy of her love’.) With the benefit of hindsight, she can now see that the marriage would have been a mistake.
If I had married Maurice, she thought doubtfully, I might have had a child, but the picture of herself as a mother did not become real. It was Maurice who had been the child. Theirs would have been one of those rather dreadful marriages, with the wife a little older and a little taller and a great deal more intelligent than the husband. Yet, although she was laughing, there was a small ache in her heart as she remembered him. (pgs. 51-52)
The suitability (or not) of various ‘matches’ is a key theme. When Dulcie meets Aylwin’s wife, Marjorie, she finds her rather dull and drab. Surely Aylwin would be better suited to someone who could support him and help him with his work? Someone like Dulcie, perhaps. (To complicate matters further, Aylwin has taken a fancy to Laurel, Dulcie’s young niece – and that relationship, should it ever become serious, would most certainly not be considered an appropriate match!) As the novel draws to a close, Dulcie begins to wonder whether all loving relationships have a touch of the ridiculous about them. Perhaps there aren’t any ‘perfect’ matches in life after all?
At times, there is a sense that Dulcie finds it more comfortable to live vicariously through the lives of others rather than attempting to change her own. (There are a number of references to how characters might behave and how scenes might play out if they were in a novel.) Nevertheless, she remains open to new experiences and somewhat hopeful for the future; maybe, just maybe, there is a chance that love will be returned fondly after all.
No Fond Return of Love is published by Virago Modern Classics; personal copy.