Crampton Hodnet by Barbara Pym

While reading Muriel Spark’s Memento Mori last year, I was reminded of the delights of Barbara Pym’s novels, two of which I read in 2016: Excellent Women and No Fond Return of Love. They came as a set of three from The Book People, the third being Crampton Hodnet, which was published posthumously in 1985. In spite of its late publication date, Crampton was actually written in the late 1930s, just after the outbreak of WW2, an event which resulted in Pym’s attention being directed towards her work in the WRNS. When she returned to the novel in the mid-1940s, it seemed to her to be too dated to be publishable at the time, so it sat among her papers until her death in 1980. Viewed from a 21st-century perspective, Crampton doesn’t seem too dated at all. There is a timeless quality to many of the emotions and behaviours on display here, and they remain just as relevant today as they were back in Pym’s heyday.

crampton

Crampton Hodnet is a delightful comedy of manners set in North Oxford in the late 1930s, a familiar Pym world of charming curates, mildly ridiculous academics, romantic students and gossipy women. At the centre of this close community are the redoubtable Miss Doggett and her paid companion, the much younger Miss Morrow, ‘a thin, used-up-looking woman in her middle thirties’ who seems old before her time. In spite of being considered as somewhat ‘unworldly’, Miss Morrow is in fact rather more perceptive than other people realise. She is kind, level-headed and tolerant, especially when it comes to dealing with her demanding employer. Here is a wonderful introduction to the meddling Miss Doggett – some male undergraduates are about to arrive for afternoon tea.

‘Well, hurry up! The young men will be arriving soon,’ said Miss Doggett. She was a large, formidable woman of seventy with thick grey hair. She wore a purple woollen dress and many golden chains round her neck. Her chief work in life was interfering in other people’s business and imposing her strong personality upon those who were weaker than herself. She pushed past Miss Morrow, who was hovering in the doorway, and entered the drawing-room. (pp. 4-5)

Into this community comes a handsome new curate, the charming Stephen Latimer, who soon finds himself moving into Leamington Lodge, the home of Miss Doggett and her companion. One of the most interesting elements of this novel is the relationship that develops between Mr Latimer and Miss Morrow, an easy friendship at least in the first instance.

But Mr Latimer was glad when, by some movement of the crowd, he found himself next to Miss Morrow. If he had analysed his feelings he would have realised that he turned to her with relief, as one does to a person with whom one need not make conversation. But there was no personal quality in his feeling for her. He regarded her simply as a man might regard a comfortable chair by the fire, where he can sit with his slippers on and a pipe in his mouth.

Miss Morrow felt this, but it did not worry her. Inanimate objects were often so much nicer than people, she thought. (p. 38)

Not long after he moves in, Mr Latimer misses evensong after getting delayed during a mildly furtive walk in the country with Miss Morrow, an episode that gives rise to him telling a white lie in the hope of covering his tracks. Meeting the vicar’s wife on his return, Latimer claims he was helping a colleague at another parish in the Cotswolds – in the non-existent village of Crampton Hodnet, hence the novel’s unusual title. Of course the vicar’s wife suspects a budding romance may be developing between the new curate and Miss Doggett’s companion – and perhaps she could be on to something there, as it’s not long before Mr Latimer decides that ‘he might do worse’ than marry Miss Morrow. There are hints of some scandalous entanglements with women in Stephen Latimer’s past, so a sensible wife and helpmeet might just be the answer to the complications that can arise from potential admirers. What follows is a desperate attempt at a half-hearted marriage proposal on the part of Mr Latimer, one which leaves Miss Morrow in no doubt that she must turn it down. Miss Morrow is a bit of a romantic at heart, and it is love she is hoping for, not respect and admiration.

And then, how much more sensible it was to satisfy one’s springlike impulses by buying a new dress in an unaccustomed and thoroughly unsuitable colour than by embarking on a marriage without love. For, after all, respect and esteem were cold, lifeless things – dry bones picked clean of flesh. There was nothing springlike about dry bones, nothing warm and romantic about respect and esteem. (p. 118)

Alongside the Latimer-Morrow storyline, there is another romantic entanglement at play here as Francis Cleveland, a married University tutor in his fifties, loses his head over one of his students, the pretty and intelligent Barbara Bird. Francis, who also happens to be Miss Doggett’s nephew, is treading water in a staid but comfortable marriage to his wife of over twenty years, the efficient and level-headed Margaret. In essence, he feels somewhat marginalised and redundant in his own household. When Miss Doggett spots Francis taking Miss Bird to tea, she is convinced that something untoward is afoot. Even though she is desperate to meddle in her nephew’s affairs, Miss Doggett decides to keep a watching brief on the situation in the hope that it will develop into something even more scandalous in the future.

‘I do not think it is really our business,’ said Miss Doggett. ‘We will let the matter drop,’ she added, having no intention of doing anything of the kind. It was quite possible that there would be further incidents in the story. It would be much more interesting to wait. It was really not her duty to tell Margaret about last week, but it might very well be to confront her with a complete and convincing story of her husband’s unfaithfulness. (pp. 75-76)

This element of the story gives rises to several priceless scenes as Francis starts behaving like a love-struck teenager, declaring his passion for Barbara in the middle of the British Museum, an outburst that causes the young girl to pause and think again. In spite of her romantic tendencies, Barbara knows that her love is a wild, school-girl crush, not something deep and meaningful to be acted upon or taken seriously. If that were to be the case, who knows what might happen?

How could she explain to him what her love was like? That although it was a love stronger than death, it wasn’t the kind of love one did anything about? On the contrary, doing nothing about it was one of its chief characteristics, because if one did anything it would be different – it might even disappear altogether. (p.126)

Other calamities soon follow including a slightly unfortunate trip along the river and a romantic adventure that doesn’t quite go according to plan. There is also space in this novel for a third romance, the blossoming of young love between Francis and Margaret’s attractive young daughter, Anthea Cleveland, and the ambitious young undergrad, Simon Beddoes.

All in all, Crampton Hodnet is a thoroughly charming and engaging social comedy. In fact, I think it’s the funniest of the three Pyms I’ve read to date. While Crampton does not necessarily have as much depth as Excellent Women, it is an extremely enjoyable novel, all the more so for its pin-sharp characterisation and multitude of hilarious developments. In some ways, the book seems to be saying that wild, passionate, ‘romantic’ love is rather idealised and troublesome, whereas a love that is lasting and fulfilling is much harder to find. Irrespective of the central message, the scenes in this novel are so brilliantly observed, underscored as they are with Pym’s trademark insight and wit – even the little details are spot-on. I couldn’t resist this final quote about Mrs Doggett and her hat (Pym is marvellous when it comes to capturing a character through their dress or hat).

Miss Doggett and Miss Morrow were sitting side by side on the sofa. Miss Doggett was wearing a terrifying new hat trimmed with a whole covey of cyclamen-coloured birds, but Miss Morrow was her usual drably comforting self. (p. 248)

As the story draws to a close, there is a sense that life in North Oxford will continue as before from one academic year to the next; it is only some of the people who will change.

Crampton Hodnet is published by Virago Modern Classics; personal copy.

46 thoughts on “Crampton Hodnet by Barbara Pym

    1. JacquiWine Post author

      That’s great to hear. She has turned out to be one of my best discoveries in recent years. As you say, so funny and incisive with it – Crampton was an absolute hoot!

      Reply
  1. Lady Fancifull

    I think I should revisit, and new visit Pym. I read No Fond Return Of Love, and really appreciated it. It may be the library didn’t have more when it was in my mind to search for her. I can certainly picture that hat now!

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Oh, please do. Much as I enjoyed No Fond Return, I would definitely place Crampton ahead of it in the Pym pecking order. It’s both sharper and funnier, plus the storyline feels tighter too. I think she’s got a keen eye for detail, those little extra touches that help the reader to visualise her characters. It’s something I’ve also noticed in Elizabeth Taylor’s writing.

      Reply
  2. Brian Joseph

    Great review as always Jacqui.

    It is interesting that this was considered to be dated in the 1940s, yet folks can read, enjoy and get something out of it today. This goes to show that a good story is a good story. Great fiction is timeless.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, Brian. Yes, indeed. The foibles of human nature are pretty much the same today as they were back in the 1930s and ’40s, so the core of the story still feels relevant today – while the context will have changed, the emotions are ones we can all recognise. Looking back at that time, I suspect Pym must have felt that the world had moved on after the war and everything, hence her decision to put it aside. Luckily for us, it was rescued from her papers following her death – phew!

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I couldn’t help but be attracted to the title too. She seems to have a thing with funny names, characters like Viola Dace, Everard Bone and Dr Aylwin Forbes. Crampton Hodnet is quintessential Pym, in both title and content. I think you would enjoy it a great deal.

      Reply
  3. Melissa Beck

    I’ve read Our Spoons Came from Woolworths from Pym and loved it. It was sad at points but her sense of humor still came through. I will have to give this one a try as well!

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Oh, that’s a different Barbara: Barbara Comyns. It’s easy to get them mixed up with one another as they’re both published by Virago (at least they are over here in the UK). Funnily enough, Spoons is on my Classics Club list, so I’m due to read it at some point. Glad to hear you enjoyed it!

      Reply
  4. MarinaSofia

    Oh, yippee! This is a Barbara Pym I haven’t read, how delightful that there is something left for me to read. And you rate it above No Fond Return! Now to get my hands on it, as I’m sure they won’t have it at the local library…

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Wonderful – you have such a treat to look forward with this! And yes, I would put it ahead of No Fond Return in my order of preference. Much as I loved Dulcie and all that hilarious stalking business in No Fond Return, I thought the storyline lost its way a little in the second half of the book. Crampton, on the other hand, seems tighter, more focused – plus it’s simply hilarious. I’d love to hear what you make of it.

      Reply
  5. Guy Savage

    I was so delighted to find this one on a shelf some years back. I thought I’d read all of Pym and was floored to find that here was another gem waiting for me. BTW I love the title

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Oh, I can imagine – what joy! She is definitely one of my favourites ‘discoveries’ in recent years. Now I just want to read everything she’s ever written.

      Reply
  6. buriedinprint

    The new covers seem so bright and lively…but then I think that Pym should be presented in all-things-bright-and-lively. I’ve been conditioned by the stately and pastel-ly cloth and paper editions of the ’60s and ’70s. Time to bring her up-to-date for sure. So happy to read along with your Pym discoveries; she is one of my MRE (MustReadEverything) authors. And her diaries are great too, BTW.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I’m with you on the bright-and-lively look as it certainly suits her style. The VMC covers can be a bit hit-or-miss, but these seem to capture something of the fun of Pym’s novels, the comedy-of-manners element that seems to run through much of her work. I think she’s on my ‘read everything’ list too, along with Elizabeth Taylor and one or two other women writers from roughly the same era. I wasn’t aware of the diaries, so thank you for mentioning them – definitely something to investigate further.

      Reply
      1. buriedinprint

        I wasn’t at home when I left my previous comment, but I was able to check the title: A Very Private Eye. I discovered them about 3 or 4 Pym’s into reading as well and felt they secured my commitment to reading all of her books! (Quartet in Autumn is a real favourite, though different in tone.)

        Reply
        1. JacquiWine Post author

          Oh, that’s great. I shall look out for it – thank you. I have a copy of Quartet in Autumn, which I might save for a year or two – something to look forward to once I’ve finished working my way through her pre-wilderness novels.

          Reply
  7. TJ @ MyBookStrings

    I’m glad you said it’s a comedy, because the title alone is funny. I would have felt bad if I had laughed at the title only to find out it’s a sad story. But everything you say and quote sounds delightful. I’m hoping to start my reading of Pym with Excellent Women, which is the only one I own.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Isn’t it just? I was saying earlier that she seems to have a penchant for funny names, particularly when it comes to her characters. There’s a Viola Dace in No Fond Return, a Rocky Napier in Excellent Women, and a chap called Everard Bone too. EW would make a great entry point for Pym. It’s where I started with her, and I’ve never looked back since. Enjoy!

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks. Yes, it does have a quintessential feel. A most enjoyable read. It was interesting to read about the novel’s history in the introduction. Thank goodness it was rescued from her belongings all those years later.

      Reply
  8. 1streading

    Pym is often mentioned in reference to Muriel Spark, whom I love, but I can’t help but feel she might be too ‘cuddly’ for me. Spark is funny, but arguably misanthropic (or certainly indifferent) – do you think Pym would be possibly too charming for my tastes? (Not being English I don’t have that automatic attraction to the nostalgia of it).

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Well, based on my experience so far, I’d say Spark’s brand of humour is darker than Pym’s (more acerbic, for want of a better description). That said, I do think there are some similarities between the two. For instance, the social comedy elements of Memento Mori are very reminiscent of Pym’s novels (or vice versa depending on which came first). I really think you should give her a try just to see for yourself – either this one or Excellent Women, whichever you prefer. You might get a bit annoyed with No Fond Return of Love as the second half of the story gets a little silly, so best to avoid that one!

      Reply
  9. bookbii

    This sounds like a great read, very sharp from those quotes you’ve posted. I’ve only read Excellent Women by Pym, and that was extremely good, but this sounds even better. I’m very impressed with Pym’s ability to form such distinctive characters with so few works. An insightful writer. Great review Jacqui.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, Belinda. Yes, I think she shares that quality with Elizabeth Taylor, a knack for capturing a character in just a few finely-honed sentences. It’s quite a skill. Crampton is terrific and I would definitely recommend it to you given your enjoyment of Excellent Women. It’s definitely funnier and possibly sharper too. All in all, a most enjoyable read.

      Reply
  10. Jonathan

    Oh, I love that quote: ‘Inanimate objects were often so much nicer than people, she thought.’

    I haven’t read any Pym but I’ll probably start with Quartet in Autumn as it appeals to me and it’s at my local library.

    But ugh!! what a horriblehorrible cover! Are all the Virago covers done in that style now?

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      It’s a great quote, isn’t it? So indicative of Miss Morrow’s rather unassuming character. Pym’s novels are full of these insights into human nature, little gems just dropped in here and there.

      As for the covers – yes, all the VMC editions of her novels carry the same style of artwork. I know they might not be to everyone’s tastes, but they do capture something of the fun and charm of her books. (Personally, I prefer the Muriel Spark VMC covers with the animated characters, but you can’t have everything in life). Quartet in Autumn is published by another press (Picador, I think) , and the cover is very different, more stylish. Looking forward to seeing what you make of it.

      Reply
  11. Caroline

    You really make me want to read her again. Unfortunately, I don’t own this one. It sounds wonderful and funny. I’ve got a big book with three of her novels inside. Excellent Women, Some Tame Gazelle and a third one.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Oh, that’s great. Excellent Women was my starting point with Pym, and I’ve never looked back since. It’s full of little reflections on life as an unmarried woman in her early thirties along with the attitudes of the day (the early 1950s if my memory serves me correctly). I’d love to hear your thoughts on it.

      Reply
  12. Emma

    What would be British literature without clumsy marriage proposals, I wonder.
    I love the sound of this and I’ve never read Pym. Another one on the pile!

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I know! I couldn’t help but think of Pride and Prejudice as I was reading it. Pym has been likened to Jane Austen, so it’s interesting to observe the similarities here and there. I hope you get a chance to try her one day. Crampton wouldn’t be a bad place to start especially if you like the sound of it.

      Reply
  13. Scott W

    I had to laugh above at Grant’s anxiety that Pym might be too “cuddly” for his tastes, since I had a similar fear about her and thus let the one Pym novel I’d acquired – A Glass of Blessings – sit unread on the shelf for years. Reading it at last came as something of a shock. Pym’s little English communities, her ordinary people, religious clerics hovering on the periphery – none of this seemed on the surface particularly appealing. But what a formidable writer, able to wring out of the ordinary such potent observations, and with such wry, deeply wise wit. Based on that one book, I prefer her to Spark. I’m ashamed that I’ve not yet read another of her books, but I will – I most certainly will.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Excellent! Well, I hope Grant sees your comment as it might help persuade him to give Pym a try. She is such a wonderful writer. As you say, her books are full of insightful observations, all conveyed with her trademark brand of dry humour, She is turning out to be quite the discovery for me. As far as Spark is concerned, I need to persevere to get a better handle on her style. I loved Memento Mori when I read it towards the back end of last year, but it’s fair to say that my earlier encounters with her had been rather mixed – The Comforters in particular had me completely bemused!

      Reply
  14. Pingback: A-Z Index of Book Reviews (listed by author) | JacquiWine's Journal

  15. Pingback: My Reading List for The Classics Club | JacquiWine's Journal

  16. Max Cairnduff

    I rather like the cover. It looks like a classic Wodehouse cover to me which I suspect is what they were going for.

    Anyway, I had the impression this was a good but lesser Pym, but it sounds like that may have been incorrect. Perhaps not Excellent Women but better than No Fond Return of Love (my tolerance for silly is variable at best).

    Like Grant I had the cuddly impression and like Scott read A Glass of Blessings, which was terribly good. Based admittedly on only one Pym and three Spark at the moment I’m leaning more toward Pym. Not sure they’re that similar though. Spark is much more interested in form I’d say and the humour is vastly darker. Still, exactly as Scott says, based on that one book I prefer her to Spark.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      The covers are great, aren’t they? Very in keeping with the tone of the books.

      I really loved this one. It might lack some of the depth of Excellent Women, but it certainly delivers on the humour front – chapter for chapter it’s definitely funnier. (No Fond Return of Love is very pleasant, but rather silly and too drawn out – not her tightest in my humble opinion.)

      I’m still relatively new to Spark, but on the strength of what I’ve experienced so far I would probably lean more towards Pym too. She’s more sympathetic towards her characters, more compassionate – or maybe less acerbic would be a better way of putting it. That said, I’m not giving up on Spark just yet! I still have a little stack of her books on the shelves — purchased as part of a set — so I’ll see how I fare.

      Reply

Leave a comment or reply - I'd love to hear your thoughts

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s