Some Tame Gazelle by Barbara Pym

Barbara Pym began writing Some Tame Gazelle back in 1934 when she was just twenty-one, an impressive feat considering that the novel’s main protagonists – Belinda Bede and her sister Harriet – are both in their fifties. The characters are loosely based on Barbara herself and her elder sister, Hilary. In essence, she imagines what their lives might be like in another thirty years, both sisters unmarried and living together in a house in a quiet little village in the countryside. In this early novel, Pym begins to map out her territory, creating a world populated by unassuming gentlewomen, impressionable young curates, slightly fusty academics, and one or two more spiky characters – often women. This is a world where the most pressing concerns are what to serve the Archdeacon and other notable guests at supper and what to wear to the forthcoming church fete. Naturally, everything is beautifully observed in typical Pym fashion; she has a wonderful eye for social comedy, tempered with touches of poignancy here and there, qualities which give the reader much to enjoy.

The novel’s set-up is fairly straightforward yet rather delightful. Belinda and Harriet Bede are both spinsters in their fifties, living together in a quintessentially English village at some point in the 1930s or ‘40s. Their lives revolve around the day-to-day business of the community, most notably those activities connected with the church.

Belinda has been in love with the Archdeacon Hoccleve for the past thirty years, a man she first met and dated in college where they enjoyed a mutual appreciation of the English poets; but now that the Archdeacon is married to the formidable and efficient Agatha, Belinda must remain content with worshiping him from a safe distance, fantasising over whether he still retains some affection for her after all these years. On the other hand, Belinda’s sister Harriet is more preoccupied with the sequence of curates – all young, pale and undernourished – who pass through the parish on a regular basis. She lavishes her attention on them, inviting them for supper and afternoon tea whenever the opportunity arises – this in spite of the fact that she has received several proposals of marriage from the charming Count Bianco, a somewhat melancholy Italian gentleman who remains faithfully devoted to her in spite of a string of gentle refusals over the years.

In short, both sisters take comfort from having someone to cherish – which brings us to the novel’s title, a quote from a verse by the English poet Thomas Haynes Bayly.

Some tame gazelle, or some gentle dove:

Something to love, oh, something to love! (p. 11)

On the surface, very little appears to happen plot-wise in the first third of this novel, but as ever with Barbara Pym, the devil is in the detail. The characterisation is spot-on, often deeper and more subtle than it appears at first sight.

Belinda is the main focus here, and in some ways, she is almost a forerunner to Mildred, the central protagonist in Pym’s follow-on novel Excellent Women. Belinda is a hugely sympathetic but slightly meek woman who often puts the needs of others before her own desires. Guided by the social conventions of the day, she is forever conscious of doing and saying the ‘right’ thing, especially when in the company of others. Nevertheless, deep down, Belinda longs for a slightly more fulfilling life, one where she could share a few more moments with the Archdeacon, if only Agatha were not in the way. I love this next quote, one that conveys so much about Belinda as a character – and Pym as a writer, concerned as she is with the little details that reveal so much about the trials and tribulations of day-to-day life.

When we grow older we lack the fine courage of youth, and even an ordinary task like making a pullover for somebody we love or used to love seems too dangerous to be undertaken. Then Agatha might get to hear of it; that was something else to be considered. Her long, thin fingers might pick at it critically and detect a mistake in the ribbing at the Vee neck; there was often some difficultly there. Agatha was not much of a knitter herself, but she would have an unfailing eye for Belinda’s little mistakes. And then the pullover might be too small, or the neck opening too tight, so that he wouldn’t be able to get his heard through it. Belinda went hot and cold, imagining her humiliation. She would have to practice on Harriet, whose head was fully as big as the Archdeacon’s. And yet, in a way, it would be better if Harriet didn’t know about it, she might so easily blurt out something…Obviously the enterprise was too fraught with dangers to be attempted… (pp. 78-79)

By contrast, Harriet is much more flamboyant and outgoing than her sister, her personality coming through loud and clear in this next quote on her choice of outfit – Mr Donne, the new curate, has just arrived at the Bede’s for dinner.

Fortunately at this moment, for the conversational going was heavy, a firm step was heard on the stairs and Harriet came into the room, radiant in flowered voile. Tropical flowers rioted over her plump body. The background was the green of the jungle, the blossoms were crimson and mauve, of an unknown species. Harriet was still attractive in fat a Teutonic way. She did not wear her pince-nez when curates came to supper. (p. 6)

The Archdeacon too is another delight, a rather pompous man prone to quoting lines from obscure poems and works of literature in his sermons, much to the bemusement of most of his parishioners. A bit of a martyr at heart, the Archdeacon is forever complaining about the amount of work he has to do in his job, despite the assistance of his curate and the little coterie of diligent church helpers. Heaven knows what Belinda actually sees in him, but there must be something there – perhaps it’s a sense of comfort and familiarity, akin to the attachment to a favourite pair of slippers?

Pym is also very astute when it comes to observing the small slights in life, those casual little put-downs that can have an impact on a person’s feelings, especially someone as sensitive as Belinda. In this scene, Belinda is wo-manning the vegetable stall at the church garden party. With only newspapers at her disposal, she has chosen The Times as the most suitable wrapping for Lady Clara’s marrows, a decision which is soon overturned when Agatha Hoccleve appears on the scene.

‘What’s this?’ asked Agatha sharply, pointing to the Times-shrouded parcel which Belinda had put into a corner.

‘Oh, that’s Lady Clara’s marrows,’ Belinda explained.

‘Wrapped in newspaper?’ Agatha’s tone was expressive. ‘I’m afraid that won’t do at all.’ She produced some blue tissue paper from a secret hiding place and began to undo Belinda’s parcel.

‘Oh, dear. I’m so sorry, I didn’t know there was any other paper,’ said Belinda in confusion. ‘I saw them lying there and I thought perhaps they ought to be wrapped up and put aside in case anybody sold them by mistake.’

‘I don’t think anybody would be so stupid as to do that,’ said Agatha evenly. ‘They were the two finest marrows on the stall, I chose them myself.’

‘Oh well…’ Belinda gave a weak little laugh. All this fuss about two marrows. But it might go deeper than that, although it did not do to think so. (pp. 29-30)

Belinda dislikes Agatha but feels rather guilty and ashamed of herself for doing so. After all, everyone has their individual flaws and shortcomings, even Belinda herself.

Then, just as we think that nothing of any consequence will happen in this sleepy community, a sequence of events come together to unsettle the lives of the Bede sisters. Firstly, Agatha goes away on her own for as few weeks to enjoy the waters at a European spa, leaving the way clear for Belinda to see a little more of the Archdeacon on his own should she so wish. Then Nicholas Parnell, a University Librarian and old friend of Belinda’s, arrives in the village with his assistant, the dashing Mr Mold – a bit of a ladies’ man by all accounts – a development that puts Harriet in a bit of a spin. And finally, a Bishop from Africa, who turns out to be a former curate of the parish, comes to visit the Archdeacon, a trip that results in surprising developments for more than one lady in the village.

By the end of this charming, beautifully observed novel, a number of marriage proposals will have been issued, but how many (if any at all) will have been accepted? After all, as one of the Bede sisters reflects on her personal situation, ‘who would change a comfortable life of spinsterhood in a country parish, which always had its pale urate to be cherished, for the unknown trials of matrimony?’ Who indeed.

Some Tame Gazelle is published by Virago Books; personal copy.

65 thoughts on “Some Tame Gazelle by Barbara Pym

    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Marvellous, aren’t they? Such a wonderful combination of tones. It’s one of the things I like most about her writing, the way she can move seamlessly from one note to another.

      Reply
  1. Maureen Murphy

    “She would have to practice on Harriet, whose head was fully as big as the Archdeacon’s.”

    I think that one quote ensures Miss. Pym’s [as I always call her] literary immortality!

    I wonder if anywhere in the deepest recesses of her characters’ minds there was ever a dark urge to ensure Harriet was indeed gotten “out of the way”? Maybe an afternoon of tea and church tours under the malign influence of Agatha Christie might have pushed them over the edge! : )

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Ha, yes – I wonder! Belinda would certainly like to get the Archdeacon’s wife out of the way, even though she does feel terribly guilty for having such unchristian thoughts. I was secretly hoping that she might hit Agatha over the head with one of those marrows, or stuff it where the sun doesn’t shine. That would be very Agatha Christie. “It was Ms Bede in the garden with a marrow,” Cluedo style!

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, she’s great. The only one I was very slightly disappointed with was No Fond Return of Love, which started brilliantly but descended into slight silliness towards the end. It just felt a little too long and drawn out compared to the others I’ve read. Mind you, that’s still a fairly minor criticism in the scheme of things. Even a slightly-less-than-stellar Pym is a damn sight better than many other things.

      Reply
  2. Brian Joseph

    Great review as always Jacqui.

    I agree that the age of Pym when she wrote this is surprising. I even find it striking. At 29 I could not imagine being 30 years older. Such a gulf of time seemed unimaginable. Furthermore, it sounds like the author did a really good job in her imaginings.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, Brian. Yes, it’s quite a feat to pull off. I don’t how she managed to imagine this world (and all the different characters contained within it) in such convincing detail. Maybe she was able to observe older relatives at close hand, complete with all their various quirks and idiosyncrasies. Who knows?

      Reply
      1. Maureen Murphy

        Brian and Jacqui, that is a fascinating question. It reminds me a bit of the reference by Keats to “negative capability.” Something in her makeup, a combination of preternatural observational skills, and an ability to inhabit other human beings in a very egoless way. A consummate novelist at work. Just love these types of musings.

        Pardon the personal reference, but I have been working for several years on a murder mystery that takes place among the Etruscans. I am enjoying digging among what little we know of these people, and attempting to imagine how they would view the world and the happenings in their village, while trying to avoid anachronisms as much as possible. I actually emailed a scholar to ask her about the significance of the sacrifice of an infant, and she noted that the life of one infant would not have been considered much of a sacrifice at that time, as it is likely the male head of household’s total power of life and death over “his house” would be a given, as invisible as the air the people breathed. This required me to revamp a large piece of my manuscript to rethink the characters’ motivations and conflicts. May also explain why the process of writing this thing is taking years, rather than months! : )

        Cheers!

        Maureen M.

        Reply
        1. JacquiWine Post author

          “Something in her makeup, a combination of preternatural observational skills, and an ability to inhabit other human beings in a very egoless way. A consummate novelist at work.” I love that – very well put!

          Your research into the Etruscans sounds fascinating. It just shows how the social and cultural significance of various aspects of life can change so much from one era to another (or from one community or to the next).

          Reply
  3. buriedinprint

    I have reread the first chapter of this a few times, when I just need “a hit” of Barbara Pym and am not wanting to reread anovel entirely. She captures these women so concisely: a true pleasure!

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Wonderful – I think I might try that myself at some point in the future! She’s very good when it comes to openings. It’s something I’ve noticed in a few of her books, this ability to mark out her territory in the first chapter or two. Crampton Hodnet is another one that starts very strongly (if my memory serves me correctly).

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Great, isn’t it? She’s so good on the little details, especially when it comes to clothing and hats –
      not to mention the various mannerisms her characters exhibit. They seem to capture these women to a T.

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      She’s terrific on dialogue, very sharp and astute. That’s a great point about the potential for a TV adaptation – her books would have been ideal material for one of those 1970s sitcoms on the BBC. There’s a touch of the Keeping Up Appearances about some of these stories, quintessentially English as they are.

      Reply
  4. heavenali

    Oh I love this book, Harriet and Belinda are brilliantly drawn. You’re right about Pym’s ability to write social comedy. She is spot on with this one, and I always forget how young she was when she wrote it.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      So glad to hear that you love this one too! It’s one of my favourites so far (along with Crampton Hodnet, another of her early novels although it was only published posthumously). What I particularly like about this is the sense of sympathy Pym brings to her portrait of Belinda – it’s very subtle and finely judged. All in all, a lovely novel.

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, Trollope is a good comparison. I’ve only read some of his short stories, but I can see some similarities in the characters and the social situations he creates. Glad to hear you enjoyed this one too.

      Reply
        1. Maureen Murphy

          St. Patrick’s Fall Fish Dinner/Fundraiser pitted two passionate cooks against each other. Pat Riley was a cornmeal crust man, Tom Dugan went the beer, cornstarch, and flour route. After near fisticuffs and more TROLLOPEAN misadventures, Monsignor Ryan knocked their two hard heads together, and kicked them both in the behinds, roaring

          “Back to the kitchen, Jugheads! There’s fish to fry!”

          A marvelous time was had by all, in spite Mrs. O’Neill’s most-unfortunate, beer-crust induced bout of gas, which cleared out several tables next to the concession stand.

          Reply
  5. shawnmooneyinjapan

    This is one of the best book reviews I’ve ever read on a book blog anywhere anytime! Gazelle is my favorite of Pym’s works so far; I’ve been reading them in sequence for the last year or so and next up for me is A Glass of Blessings. Again, wonderful review!

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thank you! That’s very kind of you to say. This is my 4th Pym and it’s definitely one of my favourites so far. (I loved Crampton Hodnet too, primarily for the sheer comedy value – it was such a hoot.) I think I’m going to try to read them in order from now on, so Jane and Prudence will be my next Pym. A Glass of Blessings sounds excellent, too – I’ve heard some great things about it.

      Reply
  6. Caroline

    Sounds delightful and once again you remind me that I should really read her again. I’m glad this one of those I have.
    I’m so surprised to learn she was so young when she wrote this.
    I don’t know anything about her life but I don’t suppose she ended up living with her sister when she was older.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      It’s wonderful and I’m sure you’ll enjoy it. Funnily enough, after her retirement, Pym moved into a cottage in Oxfordshire with her sister, Hilary. (She never got married.) So, the lives she had imagined for this novel turned out to be pretty accurate!

      Reply
  7. bookbii

    Lovely review, Jacqui. Barbara Pym seems to have a lovely sharp eye for character and the skill to skewer it into vivid life in a few words. Thematically it sounds not hugely dissimilar to Excellent Women, but as Excellent Women is an excellent book it’s not really surprising that this is too. And how lovely that she wrote it so young and was still yet able to so vividly imagine a middle-aged spinsterhood, lives that are so little written about or taken seriously. I will have to read some more Pym soon.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, Belinda. Yes, there are some connections with Excellent Women – in particular, the character of Belinda who reminded me so much of Mildred from EW. Even though Tame Gazelle has more humour than EW, the two books are recognisably the work of the same writer for sure. I hope you get a chance to try some more Pym in the future – she’s such a delight.

      Reply
  8. TJ @ MyBookStrings

    When I started reading, I was reminded of Gaskell’s Cranford. All those women with “nothing” to do. :) Pym is already firmly on my TBR, but if she weren’t, your excellent review would put her there. I’m thinking that her books would probably be something I’d enjoy on audio. Perfect for winter, when the commute is dark and dreary.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Ah, yes – I recall your review of the Gaskell! All those women worrying about which bonnet to wear to church and what to serve at tea. Oh, for a return to simpler times when life seemed more straightforward and less stressful (although I’m sure they had other, very testing, hardships to deal with).

      I think Pym would be the perfect antidote to the dreariness of winter, just the thing to give you a lift when the mornings are murky and nights are drawing in. Audio could be a good option too, as long as the narrator manages to strike the right note – it’s all in the tone with Pym. :)

      Reply
  9. Jonathan

    I loved Quartet in Autumn so if her other books are anywhere near as good as that one then they’ll be worth reading. I’d have to find copies that don’t have those godawful covers that are on the Virago books these days though.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I think Quartet in Autumn is a little darker than her pre-wilderness novels. More poignant, perhaps? That said, I would definitely encourage you to try one or two of the early books as they’re so brilliantly observed. Either this one or Crampton Hodnet would be a great place to start.

      The covers are rather quirky, aren’t they? Even though I quite like them — they do match the books very well — I’m not sure they do her many favours with new readers, especially men or young women in their twenties or thirties. (As a slight aside, I think this is an issue with a lot of the current Virago covers per se, not just those for Pym.) Happy hunting for some old editions!

      Reply
  10. 1streading

    I was just re-reading the end of Ballad of Peckham Rye today when Dixie, newly married, says she feels like she’s been married for twenty years: “He though this a pity for a girl of eighteen” – my thoughts exactly when I read that Pym had written this at twenty-one!

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Ha! There is a sense (from her novels) that Pym was a little old before her time – and I mean that in a charming way. Maybe ‘wise beyond her years’ is a better way of putting it. She demonstrates such an uncanny ability to capture these characters, complete with all their foibles and feelings. It’s pretty impressive stuff for a woman of twenty-one!

      By the way, I’m trying to make my way through more of Spark’s fiction. No Ballad of Peckham Rye yet, but it’s on the list. I guess you’ve been covering it with your students…

      Reply
        1. JacquiWine Post author

          No, I didn’t. Well that’s certainly a good excuse for me to acquire few more. Out of interest, how are your students finding Spark? Are they getting a lot out of her work?

          Reply
              1. Maureen Murphy

                Jacqui, what would you think of another “Event” (similar to Rhys Reading Week) for Muriel Spark? That was so much fun!

                Reply
                1. JacquiWine Post author

                  That’s a nice idea, but I’m definitely not the right person to host it! The Rhys event was a lot fun and very rewarding, but it took quite a lot of work (both in advance and during the event itself). I’m afraid I just can’t commit to running anything like again in the foreseeable future – sorry! Maybe someone else could take a turn at hosting one? :)

  11. Elena

    As usual with your wonderful reviews, Jacqui, Barbara Pym has been on my radar for some years now. She comes recommended by women of all ages as a comfort reading that has been undervalued for its ‘chick-lit’ themes. Maybe it is the perfect reading for a lazy Christmas morning?

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, Pym would be a good choice for any lazy morning or holiday, not just for Christmas. :) Her canvasses may be small but the things she writes about are fairly universal. I think we can all relate to some of the emotions she captures here!

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Lovely. I have a copy of Quartet in Autumn to look forward to. Funnily enough, I picked up my copy of Gazelle from a charity shop too. It was sitting there along with three or four of her other novels, all in pristine condition. Someone must have been having a clearout…

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

    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Indeed. In the hands of a lesser writer it could all be so terribly twee. Anyway, you don’t need me to persuade you of Pym’s talents – you’ve experienced them for yourself! I hope you enjoy Excellent Women. It was where I started with Pym and I’ve never looked back since.

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

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