Some tame gazelle, or some gentle dove;
Something to love, oh! something to love.
Thomas Haynes Bayly
This book was to become my initiation into the warm & witty world of Barbara Pym, whose endearing characters consists of ageing spinsters, young innocent curates, elderly bishops & deacons, gossipy villagers, etc. Her characters are unassuming people leading unremarkable lives, and Pym is the chronicler of these quiet lives.
Most people would consider Excellent Women to be Pym’s best work, and I am looking forward to finding that out for myself. But I am really glad to have started with Some Tame Gazelle, her first novel written when she was only 22, after obtaining her degree in English Literature from Oxford. Interestingly, this story was actually a projection of how Pym imagines herself and her elder sister, Hilary, would be as ‘spinsters of fiftyish.’
Another reason for me picking this as my first Pym was also because it was Thomas at My Porch‘s favourite Pym, and this book was actually a prize I had won from his blog during the Virago Modern Classics reading Week last year. Besides, I do find the story of how two middle-aged sisters go about their lives as ‘spinsters’ in a village parish, rather appealing.
Harriet and Belinda, the two said sisters, are together and yet alone in journeying through their lives in the village parish. Harriet, the more flamboyant sister, likes nothing better than fussing over new curates, while being secured in the knowledge of possessing the long-standing unrequited love of an Italian count, who never fails to ask for her hand in marriage on a regular basis. Belinda, on the other hand, is more circumspect and cares little for fashion. Unlike her sister who is the object of an unrequited love, Belinda is the one who has been harbouring an unrequited love for the Archdeacon for the past thirty years.
What I love about the book is how observant Pym is in portraying her characters, especially Belinda’s, so well and with such sensitivity and nuance, that you can’t help but feel how real and human these beings are. And how much we can see of ourselves being reflected from those pages. As how Anne Tyler puts it, Pym ‘reminds us of the heartbreaking silliness of everyday life’.
She noticed how splendidly the aubretias had done; they were spreading so much that they would soon have to be divided. Belinda remembered when she had put them in as little cuttings. They had had a particularly hard winter that year, so that she had been afraid the frost would kill them. But they had all lived and flourished. How wonderful it was, when one came to think of it, what a lot of hardships plants could stand!
And people too. Here Belinda realised how well her own heart, broken at twenty five, had mended with the passing of the years. Perhaps the slave had grown to love its chains, or whatever it was that the dear Earl of Rochester had said on that subject. Belinda was sure that our greater English poets had written much about unhappy lovers not dying of grief, although it was of course more romantic when they did. But there was always hope springing eternal in the human breast, which kept one alive, often unhappily….
It is rather interesting to also note how characters in books and movies somehow always tend to find themselves pining for those they can’t have, while attracting the affections of those they won’t have. Guess a fair bit of this happens in real life too.
Belinda had been forced to mention the fact that the chrysanthemums he had sent her were still lasting very well. She almost wished that they might die, and noticed with relief when she got home that some of the foliage was tinged with brown. Suddenly she took them out of their vase and, although it was dark, went out with them to the dustbin. They were dead really and one did not like to feel that flowers from the wrong person might be everlasting.
It is gems like these that has completely won me over to Pym’s writing. And I fully agree with what Mavis Cheek has to say, that “….. Pym makes me smile, laugh out loud, consider my own foibles and fantasies, and above all, suffer real regret when I reach the final page. Of how many authors can you honestly say that?”
Yes, how many, indeed.