Tag Archives: Barbara Pym

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.

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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.

My books of the year 2016 – favourites from a year of reading

Just like its predecessor, 2016 turned out to be another year of great reading for me. I read around 80 books this year (mostly older/backlisted titles) with only a handful of disappointments. Once again I found it very difficult to finalise a shortlist for this post, but I’ve whittled it down to a final thirteen: a baker’s dozen of favourites, plus a few honourable mentions along the way. These are the books I loved, the books that have stayed with me, the ones I’m most likely to revisit one day. I’ve summarised each winner in this post, but in each case you can read the full review by clicking on the appropriate link.

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A Game of Hide and Seek by Elizabeth Taylor

It was a close call between this book and the other Taylor I read this year, At Mrs Lippincote’s – both are excellent. A Game of Hide and Seek is a very poignant story of life’s disappointments, compromises and lost loves, all set against the backdrop of the years preceding and following the Second World War. It is perhaps a more subtle novel than Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont (a book that made my 2015 highlights), but every bit as carefully observed. Just thinking about it now leaves me eager to back to this author as soon as possible.

The Widow by Georges Simenon (tr. John Petrie)

Every bit as dark and disturbing as its wonderful cover suggests (I read the NYRB edition), The Widow is a tense and unsettling noir from one of the masters of psychological fiction, Georges Simenon. Right from the start, there is a palpable sense of foreboding as a young drifter just released from prison washes up at a farmhouse in the Bourbonnais region of France. The Widow is one of the few books by Simenon to feature a strong woman at the heart of the narrative, the tough-as-old-boots widow Tati. This would appeal to fans of James M. Cain’s fiction.

Excellent Women by Barbara Pym

I’m glad to say that my first encounter with Barbara Pym did not disappoint. The novel focuses on Mildred Lathbury, a rather sensible, diplomatic and accommodating woman in her early thirties. In short, Mildred is one of those ‘excellent women’ who can be relied on to offer a kind word or a cup of tea whenever others are in need of support. In many ways, she finds herself getting drawn into other people’s business, particularly as it is assumed that her status a spinster automatically means she has few commitments of her own. This is a wonderful novel, much more than just a comedy of manners, full of small but significant reflections on life as an unmarried woman in the 1950s. (On another day, I might have picked Muriel Spark’s Memento Mori or Brigid Brophy’s The King of a Rainy Country for this slot, both are highly recommended.)

Mr Norris Changes Trains by Christopher Isherwood

I really loved Isherwood’s Mr Norris, a warm and engaging story which charts the somewhat peculiar friendship that develops between two men following a chance encounter on a train. Even though it’s abundantly clear that the rather eccentric Mr Norris is something of a swindler, he is hugely likeable with it. I couldn’t help but feel somewhat protective towards him, a little like William Bradshaw does when he meets him on the train. A hugely enjoyable novel and a wonderful evocation of life in Berlin during the early ‘30s.

Voyage in the Dark by Jean Rhys

Voyage is narrated by an eighteen- year-old girl, Anna Morgan, brought to England from her former home in the West Indies by her stepmother, a selfish woman who all but abandons Anna to survive on her own following the death of the girl’s father. What follows is Anna’s unravelling as she drifts around in a state of depression, moving from one down-at-heel room to another, slipping unconsciously into a state of dependency, turning to drink and sleeping with men in the hope of some much-needed comfort and warmth. A brilliant and devastating book.

The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion

A book that charts Didion’s attempts to make sense of the weeks and months that followed the sudden death of her husband and hospitalisation of her adopted daughter, Quintana – a period that swept away any previous beliefs she had held about illness, death and grief, about probability and luck, about marriage, children and memory, about life itself. It is a deeply personal exploration of these concepts, all written in Didion’s signature style, that of the cool, perceptive, surgically-precise chronicler of our times. She is relentless in her questioning of herself and of others, constantly seeking to understand what was said, what was felt, what might have been. A truly remarkable piece of writing.

Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day by Winifred Watson

Set in London in the 1930s, Watson’s book captures an extraordinary day in the life of Miss Guinevere Pettigrew, a rather timid, down-at-heel spinster who has fallen on hard times. It’s an utterly enchanting take on the Cinderella story as Miss Pettigrew finds herself drawn into a new world, a place of adventure, excitement and new experiences. This is a charming novel, full of warmth, wit and a certain joie de vivre. One to read or revisit if you’re in need of a treat.

The Death of the Heart by Elizabeth Bowen

When both her parents die in fairly quick succession, sixteen-year-old Portia is sent to live with her half-brother Thomas and his wife Anna, neither of whom want her there. Left to her own devices for most of the time, Portia falls in with Eddie is a selfish, uncaring young man with no real sense of integrity or responsibility. What follows is a very subtle exploration of the pain and confusion of adolescence, of how easy it is for an adult to toy with the emotions of a teenager, especially someone as vulnerable and as trusting as Portia. A novel I would love to re-read one day.

The Go-Between by L. P. Hartley

An ideal summer read, The Go-Between is a compelling story of secrets, betrayals and the power of persuasion, all set against the heady backdrop of the English countryside in July. Leo Colston (now in his sixties) recalls a fateful summer he spent at a school friend’s house in Norfolk some fifty years earlier, a trip that marked his life forever. The novel captures the pain of a young boy’s initiation into the workings of the adult world as Leo is caught between the innocence and subservience of childhood and the complexities of life as a grown-up. Fully deserving of its status as a modern classic.

Bonjour Tristesse by Françoise Sagan (tr. Heather Lloyd)

Another quintessential summer read, the Sagan is an irresistible story of love, frivolity and the games a young girl plays with others people’s emotions – only in this case the backdrop is the French Riviera. Seventeen-year-old Cécile is spending the summer on the Cote d’Azur with her father, Raymond, and his latest lover, Elsa. Everything is leisurely and glorious until another player arrives on the scene, the glamorous and sophisticated Anne, whose very presence threatens to disrupt Cécile’s idyllic life with her father. An utterly compelling novel, I’d like to read this again in the Irene Ash translation.

Grand Hotel by Vicki Baum (tr. Basil Creighton)

This engaging novel revolves around the experiences of six central characters as they brush up against one another during their time at a Berlin hotel in the 1920s. There are moments of lightness and significant darkness here as Baum skilfully weaves her story together, moving from one player to another with consummate ease – her sense of characterisation is very strong. At the centre of the novel is the idea that our lives can change direction in surprising ways as a result of our interactions with others. We see fragments of the lives of these people as they come and go from the hotel. Some are on their way up and are altered for the better; others are on their way down and emerge much diminished. A delightful gem.

In a Lonely Place by Dorothy B. Hughes

A superb noir which excels in the creation of atmosphere and mood. As a reader you really feel as though you are walking the streets of the city at night, moving through the fog with only the dim and distant lights of LA to guide you. The focus is on the mindset of the central character, the washed -up ex-pilot Dix Steele, a deeply damaged and vulnerable man who finds himself tormented by events from his past. The storyline is too complex to summarise here, but Hughes maintains the suspense throughout. This novel was a HUGE hit with my book group.

A Girl in Winter by Philip Larkin

Larkin’s second novel, A Girl in Winter, concerns itself with the confusing mix of emotions which characterise a critical period in a young girl’s life: her coming of age. It also captures the deep sense of loneliness and isolation that marks its central character, a woman named Katherine Lind. It’s a quiet, contemplative novel, one that explores the difficulties we face in understanding and interpreting the behaviour of others, especially when we are young and inexperienced and eager to be loved. Larkin’s prose is sublime, equally impressive in its portrayal of the nostalgic atmosphere of an English summer and its evocation of the bitterness of an unforgiving winter. An understated gem. (It was a toss-up between this and Natsume Söseki’s The Gate, another quiet, thoughtful novel I enjoyed this year.)

So there we are. Thank you to everyone who has read, shared or commented on my posts over the last year, I really do appreciate it. Wishing you all the best for the festive season and the year ahead, may they be filled with many wonderful books!

High Rising by Angela Thirkell

I can’t quite recall where I first heard of Angela Thirkell’s cosy novels set in Anthony Trollope’s fictional county of Barsetshire, but it was somewhere on the blogosphere. Even though they sounded a little fluffier than my usual fare, comparisons with Barbara Pym piqued my interest, so I bought a couple to try. (Well, they were going cheap in one of the local charity shops.)

After a false start earlier in the summer, High Rising – the first in Thirkell’s sequence of social comedies – proved to be an absolute delight. Yes, the world she creates here is unashamedly comfy and twee, but it’s also very charming and entertaining. I turned to High Rising for a bit of escapism at the end of a long week, and it fitted the bill perfectly.

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The novel revolves around the life of Laura Morland, an independent and capable middle-class widow, who divides her time between her main residence in High Rising and her flat in London. As the book opens, Laura is collecting her youngest son, Tony, from school for the Christmas holidays which they plan to spend in their country home. While Tony is a much-loved child, his capacity to exasperate his mother is seemingly endless as he gabbles away non-stop on the finer details of his train set, which carriages he should acquire next, and so on and so forth. In fact, a substantial portion of the novel’s charm comes from Tony’s incessant chatter with the other characters around him, more of whom in a little while. Here’s Laura as she reflects on her irrepressible young son.

She fondly hoped that after a term or two at school he would find his own level, and be clouted over the head by his unappreciative contemporaries. But not at all. He returned from school rather more self-centred than before, talking even more, and, if possible, less interestingly. Why the other boys hadn’t killed him, his doting mother couldn’t conceive. There seemed to be some peculiar power in youngest sons which made them more resilient to all outside disapproval. When he was checked in his flow of speech, he merely took breath, waited for an opening and began again. Laura could only hope that this tenacity of purpose would serve him in after life. It would either do that, or alienate all his friends completely. (p. 22)

Alongside her role as the mother of four boys, Laura has carved out a decent living for herself as a moderately successful writer of middlebrow page-turners, a skill she developed to support her family following the death of her husband some years earlier.

The story gets going in earnest when we are introduced to Laura’s dear friend and fellow writer, George Knox. George, a widower himself, lives with his twenty-year-old daughter, Sybil, in the nearby settlement of Low Rising. Life in the Risings is relatively gentle and settled, but all this changes with the arrival of George’s new live-in secretary, the rather attractive and confident Miss Grey. Thirkell is a delightful observer of social situations, an ability which I hope comes across in this next passage. In this scene, Laura is meeting Miss Grey (the newcomer) for the first time.

‘You must excuse me,’ said the newcomer. ‘I believe you are Mrs Morland. Miss Knox told me you were coming today. Mr Knox is very busy, but he is coming down, just for tea.’

‘Certainly I’ll excuse you,’ said Laura, ‘though I haven’t the faintest idea what for. You are Miss Grey, of course.’

‘Has Miss Knox been telling you about me?’ asked Miss Grey.

‘Oh, yes, and Dr Ford, and my devoted maid, Stoker. We gossip very quickly here, Miss Grey, and I’ve been looking forward to meeting you.’

She held out her hand, without getting up. Miss Grey hesitated, then touched it without enthusiasm and moved away to the tea-table.

I’m ashamed of myself, thought Laura, for nearly being rude at sight. But I won’t be patronised by a chit in George’s house. And why should she ask if Sybil has been talking about her? Why should she think that anyone wants to talk about her? Impertinence. (p. 46)

It soon becomes apparent that Miss Grey is a bit of a schemer. She has firm designs on George Knox, virtually sidelining his rather sensitive daughter, Sybil, in the family home as she goes about her business. No-one else is allowed to get too close to George, especially Laura whom Miss Grey considers a potential rival for George’s affections. Laura, on the other hand, has no particular desire to marry George; nevertheless, she is very fond of him, so much so that she keeps a close eye on developments at Low Rising as the weeks and months slip by.

Much of the action in High Rising revolves around Laura’s attempts to temper Miss Grey’s hold over the Knox household. Given that the Risings is one of those close-knit communities where everyone knows everyone else’s business, several of Laura’s friends and colleagues also play their part in winkling out Miss Grey, aka ‘The Incubus.’ First, there is Anne Todd, Laura’s resourceful yet vulnerable secretary, a woman who will have to face up to an uncertain future once her frail mother passes away. Then we have Laura’s publisher, the rather charming Adrian Coates, smitten as he is with George’s lovely daughter, Sybil. And finally, there is Amy Birkett, the headmaster’s wife who happens to know something about Miss Grey that might just turn out to be of some significance to the story. There are a few other players too, most notably Laura’s gossipy housekeeper, Stoker, and Dr Ford, the local doctor who has his sights set on Anne Todd, if only she would yield to him. It all makes for a very entertaining mix.

High Rising is a delightfully engaging read, the bookish equivalent of comfort food, something light and frivolous to enjoy every now and again – not the sort of book I would read every day, but rather delicious as an occasional treat. While Thirkell’s brand of humour isn’t quite as sharp or as dry as Barbara Pym’s, there’s still plenty to enjoy here. Much of the dialogue is hilarious in a somewhat farcical sense – intentionally so, I think. (There are a few pointed racial slurs which reflect the attitudes of the day, but unfortunately this seems to be par for the course in many novels from the 1930s.) Equally, some of the situations and set-pieces are most amusing in a theatrical way.

As a central character, Laura is very easy to like. In spite of her trials and tribulations with young Tony, Laura is an intelligent, sympathetic and compassionate woman trying to do the best for her close friends and family. She knows her books aren’t terribly literary, but then again she’s not aiming for that sector. Her readers are the everyday women of Britain, just like Laura and her friends.

I’ll finish with a passage from one of the novel’s early scenes where Laura is reflecting on her first meeting with the publisher, Adrian Coates, back in the days when she was just starting out as a writer. I wondered if Thirkell was thinking of herself (or some of her contemporaries) when she wrote these lines. Either way, I am looking forward to reading more of her in the future.

‘If you are really writing a book I would very much like to see it when it is ready,’ he said.

‘You mightn’t like it,’ said Laura, in her deep voice. ‘It’s not highbrow. I’ve just got to work, that’s all. You see my husband was nothing but an expense to me when he was alive, and naturally he is no help to me now he’s dead, though, of course, less expensive, so I thought if I could write some rather good bad books, it would help with the boys’ education.’

‘Good bad books?’

‘Yes. Not very good books, you know, but good of a second-rate kind. That’s all I could do,’ she said gravely.

So in time her first story went to Adrian, who recognising in it a touch of good badness almost amounting to genius, gave her a contract for two more. (p. 30)

Several other bloggers have reviewed High Rising – here are links to a couple of positive reviews by Ali and Jane. BookerTalk’s post is also well worth reading, particularly as she offers an alternative perspective on the novel.

High Rising is published by Virago Modern Classics.

The Very Dead of Winter by Mary Hocking

Like many other bloggers and readers, I first discovered Mary Hocking through Ali’s sterling efforts in championing her work over the past couple of years. While she seems very much her own writer, Hocking shares something in common with some of her forerunners and contemporaries – fellow British authors such as Barbara Pym and Elizabeth Taylor (possibly Beryl Bainbridge too, although I’m still relatively new to her work). In The Very Dead of Winter, she demonstrates a keen eye for social situations, especially those which highlight the tensions and mismatches that often emerge in family life. There is so much black humour in this novel too, but I’ll come back to that point a little later in my review.

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As the novel opens, Florence and her grown-up daughter, Anita, are driving to a fairly isolated country cottage where they will be joining the rest of their family to spend Christmas in the snow. The cottage has been in the family for several years and is now owned by Sophia, Florence’s sister – the two sisters have rarely spoken to one another in the last thirty years, a point that becomes quite significant as their story unfolds. Also present at the cottage are Florence’s husband, Konrad, and the couple’s son, Nicholas. Konrad has been ill for some time, and it is clear from the start of the novel that he has only a few days left to live.

Florence and Anita are both rather self-centred; they attack one another at every opportunity and give very little thought to Konrad as he lies in bed upstairs. Florence, a domineering and manipulative woman at the best of times, seems unable to face up to the fact that her husband is dying. All her life she has occupied a central position in the family – first as a daughter and then as a wife and mother. Now she is fearful of a future on the margins, the lonely existence of a widow cut adrift from the activity of life. Sophia, on the other hand, is very different to Florence; a more insightful and sensitive woman than her sister, Sophia is much more attuned to Konrad’s needs, tending to him as passes through the final phase of his life. As the story moves forward, old grudges, resentments and family secrets come tumbling out of the closet, all of which add to the tension within the cottage.

As she looked at her sister, Florence was aware of anger always simmering inside her, an anger which sometimes boiled up unaccountably. Ever since she could remember, Sophia had looked as if she had started late for an appointment the purpose of which she had already forgotten. It astonished Florence that despite this she had never actually come to grief. […]

And yet, they were not unalike. There were times, brief flashes rather than occasions, when Florence was aware that at some level they understood each other perfectly. This was not a comforting insight. (pg. 102)

In truth, Florence has shown very little interest in her husband’s life over the past thirty years. As a young boy, Konrad had arrived in England as a refugee from Germany, an experience that left him somewhat scarred for life. As an adult with a talent for languages, Konrad had joined the BBC World Service, but in spite of this achievement, he remained something of a disappointment to his wife. With an eye on the glamour of placements in exotic locations, Florence had hoped that her husband would join the Diplomatic Service, but alas this was not to be – as far as Florence was concerned, he had simply let the opportunity slip through his fingers. Moreover, Florence has paid very little attention to Konrad’s interest in painting over the course of their marriage, an activity he enjoyed during weekends away from the family and all the accompanying tensions at home.

The characters and set-up in The Very Dead of Winter provide Hocking with a plenty of opportunities for a macabre style of comedy. There are several acerbic exchanges between Florence and her daughter, Anita, a Child Psychologist who shows very little in the way of empathy or sympathy for other people, especially children. Anita also comes to the fore when her brother shows an interest in Frances, a young neighbour of Sophia’s whom the two siblings visit during their stay. Nicholas is a geologist, forever thinking of his next expedition to a faraway land. By nature he is something of a loner, wary of getting entangled with other people, both their lives in general and their emotions.

‘Cocoa will do nicely,’ Nicholas said.

Anita looked at him pityingly. What did he think he was going to get out of this – the thrill of entering a forbidden temple? As Frances heated  milk on the stove, Anita studied her, making mental jottings – unusually composed for her age: although she is nervous she doesn’t allow herself to be hustled; emotionally reserved, but she can still look at Nicholas as if she is making a votive offering of this bloody cocoa; sexually unfulfilled, neither child nor woman. I wouldn’t want to deal with her and Nicholas certainly shouldn’t be allowed to. (pg. 27)

The novel comes complete will a raft of darkly comic scenes in which members of this dysfunctional family rub up against one another in this time of heightened emotions.

Alongside the humour, there are quieter moments too, insightful reflections on the nature of life and the challenges of adapting to change and loss especially as one grows older. In the passage below, Sophia’s neighbour, Thomas, contemplates his own situation. Florence has taken rather a shine to this gentle widower, viewing him as a potential partner once Konrad has passed away. For his part, Thomas is still mourning the loss of his own wife and son, the latter from a tragic act that has left a deep mark. The aforementioned Frances lives with Thomas – a relative by marriage, she takes care of Thomas and his young grandson, Andrew. Both Frances and Thomas are rather vulnerable in their individual ways. Nevertheless, Thomas knows the time will come when Frances must be encouraged to leave the nest, however painful that experience might turn out to be.

Thomas, washing up the coffee cups, reflected that not the least of the things she [Frances] had done for him was to save him from such as Florence. He was a proud man whose independence was important to him. The possibility that Frances might go – indeed should be encouraged to go whenever the time was right for her – leaving him to become the object of pity and calculation was more than distasteful, it was frightening. There was Andrew to consider. He had known several men who had made disastrous second marriages for the sake of their children. For a moment, as he dried the cups and trod in Jasper’s lunch bowl, he felt threatened as never before. (pgs. 107-108)

While I didn’t love this novel quite as much as the Taylors and Pyms I’ve read to date, I did enjoy it a great deal. There is plenty of wicked fun to be had in the company of these rather fractured characters, all of whom are painted with sufficient depth and insight to make them feel lifelike (even if some of them are a little grotesque). The novel has a dark quality, almost like a macabre fairy tale, and there are several references to this genre throughout the story. Hocking’s charming descriptions of the snowy landscapes add to the novel’s atmosphere. I couldn’t help but wonder if the images of gnarled and twisted tree trunks devastated by the hurricane of 1987 were a kind of metaphor for these rather damaged individuals and their broken lives.

My thanks to Ali for the copy of this novel which I won in a giveaway – you can read her review here. Caroline has also reviewed it here. This copy was issued by Virago, but Bello will be publishing a lovely new edition on 14th July (one of another 12 novels by Hocking). The new covers are rather beautiful.

No Fond Return of Love by Barbara Pym

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.

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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.

‘Oh?’

‘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.

Excellent Women by Barbara Pym

Like Elizabeth Taylor (whose Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont and A Game of Hide and Seek I reviewed fairly recently), Barbara Pym is another of those English novelists I’ve been meaning to try for some time. First published in 1952, Excellent Women was her second novel, and I believe many readers consider it to be one of her best.

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The novel is narrated by Mildred Lathbury, an unmarried woman in her early thirties, living alone in a flat in a down-at-heel part of London, ‘so very much the ‘wrong’ side of Victoria Station’. Mildred is very sensible, diplomatic and accommodating; in short, she is one of those ‘excellent women’ who can be relied on to offer a kind word or a cup of tea whenever others are in need of support. In many ways, she finds herself getting drawn into other people’s business, particularly as it is assumed that her status a spinster automatically means she has few commitments or worries of her own.

I suppose an unmarried woman just over thirty, who lives alone and has no apparent ties, must expect to find herself involved or interested in other people’s business, and if she is also a clergyman’s daughter then one might really say that there is no hope for her. (pg. 1)

As the daughter of a clergyman, Mildred is closely involved with the local Anglo-Catholic church where she helps the pastor, Julian Malory, and his sister, Winifred, with various activities (jumble sales, church bazaars and suchlike). Having never married, Julian and Winifred share a home at the vicarage – they are Mildred’s closest friends.

Into Mildred’s unexciting but fairly settled life come Helena and Rocky Napier, a rather intriguing married couple who have spent the past few years living apart from one another. Helena, an anthropologist by profession, arrives first, moving into the flat below Mildred’s where she seems to spend many an evening entertaining her colleague, the rather standoffish Everard Bone. At first Mildred isn’t sure if she likes Helena, but she does her best to be polite and neighbourly. Rocky appears a few weeks later having just returned to England following an extended stint in the Navy.

It soon becomes apparent that relations between Helena and Rocky are somewhat strained; consequently, Mildred’s skills as an excellent woman come in very handy as she attempts to mediate between the couple. Even though it is hard for her to take sides in this situation, Mildred finds Rocky particularly easy to talk to. He is attractive and charming, and Mildred is clearly brightened by his company.

Matters are further complicated when the attractive widow, Allegra Gray, moves into the room at the top of the Malorys’ rectory. At first, everything is sweetness and light. As the former wife of a clergyman, Mrs Gray ought to be ideally suited to life at the vicarage. That said, it is not long before she upsets the balance at the Malorys’. Julian is clearly smitten with her…and when developments have a knock-on effect on Winifred, Mildred is called on for support.

While Mildred is interested in the emotional lives of those around her, she values her own independence and does not feel the need to throw herself into relationships simply in the hope of finding a suitable husband. There are times when she feels she may have missed out on certain experiences in life, but in many ways she takes comfort from the fact that her current position as a spinster is familiar and uncomplicated. By contrast, other people around her seem intent on trying to do a spot of matchmaking. There are a number of occasions when Mildred’s friends and acquaintances seem to think they know what’s best for her (irrespective of Mildred’s own wishes). Take this example as Helena, Rocky and Mildred are travelling home after a night out with Everard Bone – the Napiers even go so far as to start talking about Mildred as if she were not present at the time.

‘You and Everard seemed to be having an interesting conversation,’ said Helena at last. ‘Was he declaring himself or something?’ Her tone was rather light and cruel as if it were the most impossible thing in the world.

‘He was telling me about his new flat,’ I said lamely.

‘Actually he might do very well for Mildred,’ said Rocky. Had we thought of that? Obviously, we must find her a good husband.’

[…]

We were rather far from our own door, and just as we were walking past the parish hall, Teddy Lemon and a group of lads came out, laughing and talking in their rough voices. My heart warmed towards them, so good and simple with uncomplicated lives. If only I had come straight home after the paper. This was Julian’s boys’ club night and I could have been there serving in the canteen – much more in my line than the sort of evening I had just spent. (pgs. 109-110)

There are other men in Mildred’s life too; most notably the rather finickity William Caldicote, the brother of an old school friend, whom Mildred meets once a year for lunch, and Julian Malory, whom many consider her ideal (and possibly rightful) partner.

Marriage is a central theme in this novel. Set as it is in a period when society placed a great deal of value on the institution of marriage, the story explores the idea of whether it is possible for a woman like Mildred to live ‘a full life’ if she remains unmarried. When she considers the stresses and strains of the Napiers’ marriage (not to mention the nature of developments between Julian Malory and Allegra Gray), Mildred is not at all convinced that she should marry. She does, however, value friendship and companionship in her life and hopes for more of these things in the future.

Excellent Women is my first experience of Barbara Pym’s work, and I hope it won’t be my last. I really enjoyed this story – it is beautifully observed, full of small but significant reflections on life in the 1950s. In many ways, the plot is secondary to other aspects of the novel as much of the focus falls on Mildred’s thoughts, feelings and observations. One of the things I liked most is Pym’s tendency to treat her characters with sympathy. She has a way of conveying humour alongside the difficulties that touch the everyday lives of these people, and yet there is a sense of insight and understanding in her writing, too.

The novel includes several humorous scenes with much of the dry wit coming from the interactions between the characters. There is plenty of gossiping and friendly bickering amongst the volunteers as they organise the parish jumble sale and hold meetings to discuss forthcoming events. All in all, I found it a charming and engaging story.

I’ll finish with a quote from one of the early chapters of the novel, partly because I think it illustrates a little of the humour in the story, Pym’s eye for dry comedy in the small tragedies of everyday life. In this scene, Mildred has joined the Malorys for dinner at the vicarage.

I sat down at the table without any very high hopes, for both Julian and Winifred, as is often the way with good, unworldly people, hardly noticed what they ate or drank, so that a meal with them was a doubtful pleasure. Mrs Jubb, who might have been quite a good cook with any encouragement, must have lost heart long ago. Tonight she set before us a pale macaroni cheese and a dish of boiled potatoes, and I noticed a blancmange or ‘shape’, also of an indeterminate colour, in a glass dish on the sideboard.

Not enough salt, or perhaps no salt, I thought, as I ate the macaroni. And not really enough cheese. (pg. 12)

For other perspectives on this book, here are links to posts by KaggsyAliVictoriaJane and Alex.

Excellent Women is published by Virago Modern Classics. Source: personal copy.