Saturday, May 16, 2015

Barbara Pym's quote-happy Brits

My wife has taken to constantly rereading Barbara Pym, and sometimes when I grab the Kindle I tool read a few pages. When I did so a few minutes ago, I was struck, again, by Pym's rather sardonic relationship with the English canon. Here is an alter ego of sorts -- a pragmatic, unassuming writer of fiction and nonfiction for women's magazines, pausing over a pinch of high Victorian sentiment:
She imagined women under the drier at the hairdresser’s, turning the pages lazily and coming to ‘The Rose Garden’ by Catherine Oliphant. They would read the first page, the one that had the drawing of a girl standing with a rose in her hand and a man, handsomer than any real man could possibly be, standing behind her with an anguished expression on his face: but would they turn to the back of the magazine, where the continuation and ending were to be found? Catherine wondered gloomily. Dear as remembered kisses after death, she typed idly, but was it likely that her hero would have read Tennyson or quoted the line aloud like that? Not very, she thought, getting up and walking about the room (Less than Angels, Chapter 2).
Not likely...but it will do. This character has Pym's ironic detachment, though not her high aspirations.  Not so the male parsons and academics out of whom she streams endless snippets of Shakespeare, Tennyson, Grey, etc. These minor authority figures do not so much draw on a grand tradition that enriches their lives as resort by reflex to a store of sanctioned sentiments. Quoting the greats establishes their bona fides as pillars of the established order while serving as a substitute for spontaneous thought or expression of feeling.

Pym herself enjoys a more lively engagement with the canon. Several of her novel titles are quotes from it: A Glass of Blessings, No Fond Return of Love, Some Tame Gazelle. Perhaps the joke is that the ordinary people she writes about living mostly tame lives in rather pinched circumstances in postwar Britain are as worthy of literary treatment as the kings and those who populate the canon. It's funny that they're at their least alive while quoting it.

Pym's female characters can be just as conventional as the often priggish and supercilious males -- but as they're usually the ones whose thoughts are narrated, they sometimes rattle the cage. Here's a financially comfortable and rather contented unmarried fifty-something whose life revolves around clergymen:
‘Now, Ricardo, you mustn’t lose hope,’ said Belinda comfortably. ‘I know she is fond of you and even if she will not love you, always remember’— her eyes lighted on the works of Alfred, Lord Tennyson—‘ that it is better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all. I always think those lines are such a great comfort; so many of us have loved and lost.’ She frowned: nobody wanted to be one of many, and she did not like this picture of herself, only one of a great crowd of dreary women. Perhaps Tennyson was rather hackneyed after all (Some Tame Gazelle), Ch. 18).
Perhaps. But Pym isn't

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