I don’t think I’ve ever read this Barbara Pym before, yet it’s been sitting in my bookselves for at least nine years, because I know when I bought it. I call that irresponsible book-buying. It is a very good one, one of her 1950s London office worker novels with added anthropology. It’s also about selfish men, and women who choose, or do not choose, to be doormats.
Tim Mallow is a handsome young anthropologist writing his PhD rather slowly. He lives with Catherine, who writes romantic fiction and women’s page articles for a living. She is very fond of him, but also a bit older, and can decide to tell him to leave when she spots him holding hands with another woman in a restaurant. He moves in with male student friends, and his first thought on waking in his new, rather small, room, is that Catty won’t be bringing him his cup of tea.
Deirdre is a first-year anthropology student, unsure about whether she really wants to study this rather dull subject, but she is dutiful, and works at the Institute library. She is in love with Tom, to the extent that she kisses her letters to him, and rereads his letters to her so often that they’re coming to pieces. She likes Catherine too. She is bored by Bernard, who insists on taking her out to dull modern plays that she chooses out of bravado.
Esther Clovis is a formidable handmaid to Professor Mainwaring, who airily makes vague remarks to her about funding prospects, while she does all the work for the anthropology research centre. He has hopes of persuading the centre’s wealthy lady patron to fund some anthropology research grants, but Esther is mortified to find that her flatmate, Miss Lydgate, even grittier and more formidable than she is, may have inadvertently redirected those funds elsewhere, to an equally selfish, male Professor.
Mabel is a widow, living with her adult children near the river, and with her spinster sister Rhoda. She really prefers to cook, and doesn’t care so much about table settings or linen, but Rhoda makes sure that the breakfast things are set out correctly every night, to the extent of creeping downstairs to check after Mabel has gone to bed at night.
The men in this novel are nice enough, or maddening enough, to fit neatly in Pym’s settings and plots, but I do think this novel has more interesting women characters than Pym’s other novels. Even the women in the background, trapped in the deb world of dances and dogs, waiting around for the man they love to come to the point, have an untold story that gives depth to their background roles. Catherine, in particular, is fascinating: a deeply satisfying creation, emotionally complete, insecure and competent and self-appraising and quite normal, as well as being a self-supporting writer and a thoroughly independent woman who chooses to share her flat with a younger man because she wants to, not because she is hopelessly in love with him. We see the 1950s world’s responses to her conduct in the stifling atmosphere of Tom’s county home, and his scandalised aunt’s nervous visit to Catherine to examine his surroundings.
We also see Catherine decide to move on, and to take up with the most difficult character in the book, Miss Lydgate’s distinguished and awkward brother. He’s difficult because he has an attic of field notes that must be written up, and he can’t bring himself to begin. Only Catherine, independent of the crushing weight of academic expectation, has the solution to free him from this burden, and the anthropologosts won’t like it. We too, so cunningly conditioned have we been to accept the anthropologists’ perspective, are shocked, but realising that Catherine is right gives us an equal shock of relief, that we don’t have to do what the tedious old men tell us. We too can run around the garden in African masks celebrating – what?