An Unsuitable Attachment is Barbara Pym’s seventh novel. She sent it to her usual publisher, Jonathan Cape, in February 1963, and to her embarrassment and distress they rejected it, and her, as being too behind the times, no longer likely to sell. Her confidant Philip Larkin was as annoyed as she was, but she wouldn’t let him send the novel to his own publisher: she preferred to keep writing and perhaps improve, as the modern market seemed to require her to do this.
In 1977 Larkin helped to rejuvenate her reputation by listing her as one of the century’s most underrated living authors, in an article in the Times Literary Supplement. The literary critic Lord David Cecil also listed her in his contribution to the same article, and Barbara Pym was rediscovered by a shamefaced publishing industry. Journalists and publishers came calling, and before she died, a few years later, she’d been the subject of a TV film, all her unpublished novels had finally been published, and many of her earlier novels had been reissued. More recently, Virago reissued most of her novels in covers using very unsuitable splodgy poster-paint artwork: I much prefer the understated 1960s and 1970s covers for their more delicate approach, that matches Pym’s style.
An Unsuitable Attachment is about barring oneself off from experiences, about obeying habitual rules and worrying about breaking the codes one has been brought up to. Class expectations are inescapable, but so are professional codes. Sophia the vicar’s wife is quite aware that she has married out of her class, though she is perfectly happy, but she sees instantly that Ianthe Broome’s choice is really not the sort of man one marries. Ianthe is a librarian, and is enjoying living on her own, in her own home, for the first time. She’s a canon’s daughter, who had lived unhappily with her mother in an oppressive flat behind Westminster Cathedral. Now that she’s free to live on her own terms, she is very conscious of the requirements her upbringing have given her, and of the censorious eyes of her aunt and uncle in their very rich Mayfair parish. And then she falls in love, with an unsuitable man.
The charm of this novel is in people-watching, and spotting the oddnesses of normal human relations. Pym’s great skill is in finding the exact phrase to delineate a whole personality, and her humour – desperately subtle and low-key – is based on the ludicrousness of people. The great set-pieces in this novel are (in no particular order):
- Ianthe’s unexpected ordeal in being taken out to dinner by her manager at the library, because he has realised that their junior colleague is interested in her (and in her lovely house, and her beautiful Pembroke table), so he wants to propose to her first.
- Ianthe being grilled at the anthropologists’ garden-party by the formidable Esther Clovis, who can’t quite make out why Ianthe is there as Rupert Stonebird’s guest: is she perhaps a sociologist? or an economist?
- Mervyn’s petulant fury at the announcement of Ianthe’s engagement and his immediate threat to deprive her and husband of a salary.
- Ianthe’s beautiful and always suitable clothes.
- Daisy’s secret mission to feed all the stray cats in Rome by smuggling cat food in the plane on a parish trip to the Vatican.
- Ianthe’s disillisionment with her visit to Sophia’s rather odd aunt in the south of Italy, because her room is not spotlessly clean, and the visiting Dottore may have a closer relationship with the aunt than is quite seemly.
- Sophia’s masterly handling of the visit by Ianthe’s outraged aunt and uncle, which reduces their appalled rejection of Ianthe’s engagement to a limp agreement that her affianced being a librarian is acceptable.
- Penelope’s epiphany of comprehension as she realises that the very attractive Basil is the kind of man who expects all women to fall in love with him.
- Lady Selvedge’s breath-taking rudeness during her trip to open the bazaar in Sophia’s husband’s church.
- Mervyn’s delicious packed lunches, and Sister Dew’s perfectly risen sponge cakes.
- Faustina the shockingly spoiled vicarage cat, who predates on unwanted lobster patties, and leaves her hairs on even the altar cloth.
There aren’t as many Anglo-Catholic shenanigans in this novel as in A Glass of Blessings, for example, but several characters from that fine novel appear in An Unsuitable Attachment, as do some from Some Tame Gazelle, since they inhabit the same world. Sophia’s beatnik sister Penelope has the same dissatisfaction with her life and her lack of success with men as Prudence, of Jane and Prudence, but with worse dress sense and more gaucheness. This is a London novel, an office lives novel, and a close study of minor pinpricks on the path to true love. At least, we hope very much that Ianthe has found true love, since she certainly deserves it, but there is something indefinably unsuitable about whom she marries ….