This podcast scripts recap from Really Like This Book is a demure and joyous novel that begins by looking up a curate’s trouser legs, Barbara Pym’s first novel, Some Tame Gazelle (1950). The middle-aged Belinda Bede lives with her younger sister Harriet in a comfortable house at the heart of English village and parish life. They are both unmarried, but Harriet’s principal hobby is adopting curates to fuss over, while being proposed to at regular intervals by an Italian count who lives in the village. Belinda is less bustling and outgoing than Harriet, but much sharper and irreverent. The great figures in the village are the Archdeacon, who is their parish vicar, and his wife, who is cleverer, more upper-class and a better manager than anyone else. The trouble is, Belinda has loved Archdeacon Hoccleve for over thirty years, since they were students together at Oxford and he used to read poetry to her. She doesn’t think that she would have been a better archdeaconly wife to him than Agatha Hoccleve, but she thinks, secretly and modestly, that she could have made him happier. However, we the readers can see perfectly well that the Archdeacon is spoiled, selfish, lazy and rather tiresome, and that Belinda is a lot better off not being married to him. She warms herself at the dying fires of remembered love in her heart, but otherwise has a happy life.
Pym began writing this novel when she was in her early 20s, and it took sixteen more years for it to get published, after much polishing. It doesn’t read like a first novel at all, but it does read a little unfinished, with some words or phrases oddly out of key with the rest of the novel, as if some small things had been missed over the years of revisions. There is a sense that some of the characters’ back stories are actually in-jokes between Pym and her friends, since they are never explained, yet are referred to in the story as if we know them. But the maturity and confidence in this novel are remarkable, written as it is about middle-aged women by a much younger woman. Another odd, but not a bad odd, aspect of this novel is its curious undatedness. It really isn’t possible to tell on which side of the Second World War it is set. It might be pre-WW2, because one character refers to her wartime experience in WW1 in the Balkans, as if this was not very long ago, and no-one mentions WW2 at all. At the same time, the luxuriant references to Harriet and Belinda’s clothes, and underwear, are definitely from the 1950s.
The undateableness also applies to people’s behaviour. Belinda has rather unfeasible worries about what people will think if she talks too long with the Archdeacon in the street before lunchtime, or if Harriet entertains a visiting Bishop to tea alone because Belinda is ill upstairs in bed. These are women in their mid-40s, so Belinda’s fears seem to be a caricature of what old maids are supposed to fear, rather than what might be reasonably expected to be risky behaviour. Village gossip is, as we all know, a protean and dangerously irrational thing, but how much censure could there be for 20 minutes of drinking tea?
The village is divided into the gentlefolk; and those who run shops, do the cleaning, come to do the dressmaking, and work in the pub. All the women in the village are territorial about their hereditary parts of the church which they decorate with foliage at church festivals. The gentlefolks are not so much segregated by social class, as would be usual in a novel of this kind – sitting as it does in the category of middlebrow fiction by middle-aged women about the tiny details of modern life – but by university education. To go to Oxford University is a social marker in itself, but it represents a less familiar character trait for fiction of this kind, in that the women of the privileged class are expected to have gone to university, and to pride themselves on their education. However, this being the middle of the century, very few of these women have gone on to do anything after university (unlike Pym herself, who worked as a censor during the war, and in academic publishing afterwards). Those women who do do postgraduate research are regarded by men, especially university men, with faint unease, and by other women with respect, some admiration, and also some resentment for not having got stuck in a dull marriage, and for having got out of having to grind away at a dull job.
The nearest Pym gets in this novel to creating a really stupid woman is Harriet, and she isn’t stupid at all, just not interested (any longer) in things of the mind. She adores men, and clothes, and food, and these make her life very pleasant. Belinda, on the other hand, is quite happy planning things to knit, gardening to do, and takes great pleasure in recalling quotations from poetry to suit all occasions, though her unconscious mind does throw up some odd juxtapositions which make her jump. As I said, she is the sharper of the two sisters, though she hides it behind unbecoming clothes and a faded exterior.
Some of the most delicately funny moments in the story come from oneupwomanship. Agatha Hoccleve never lets anyone forget that she took a First in medieval literature. Harriet’s latest curate is stolen from her, most unexpectedly, by a woman conducting research on a Chaucerian poem. To make the theft more galling, Olivia is not only older than the curate, is Agatha’s niece, but she proposed to him. Belinda and Harriet are fascinated by Agatha’s disclosure of the manner of the proposal, because this means that Agatha undoubtedly proposed to the Archdeacon herself, since she so obviously approved of Olivia’s handling of the affair, which, Harriet insists, defending Belinda’s feelings for the Archdeacon, explains everything. Anyway, Agatha maintains superiority by pointedly referring to her niece’s research prowess, and never misses a chance to drop some medieval scholarship into conversation, just to show how intellectual she is.
It isn’t that Pym is laughing at academic women, or that she disapproves of an over-reliance on poetry as a way of relating to the world: she is a passionate quoter herself, her novels are full of it. But she cannot abide pride, or puffed-up behaviour, and enjoys pricking pomposity in her novels, delicately and subtly. She carries a very sharp authorial pin.
There are probably the same number of men as women in Belinda and Harriet’s circle, but somehow the women are dominant, and the men are merely prizes. They are also all churchmen, with three visitors who arrive in the course of the novel to swell the throng of dog-collars on the village streets. Their visit produces organisational excitement and emotional flutterings. The Archdeacon is most put out, because he sees no reason why strangers should come to stay with him (Agatha did the inviting), and is so outraged at the third visitor that he ensures conditions of deep discomfort in the spare room: old sheets sewn sides to middle, a lumpy mattress, no light-bulb in the bedside light, and unreadable books. I did say he was selfish, but I should also have noted that he was petty.
One of the visitors is an old friend of Belinda’s, now an important Oxford librarian (but not quite as important as he thinks he is), and he brings a colleague, Mr Mold, who is somehow not, well, not quite, as the English used to say. Mold isn’t of the same class as his colleagues, because he doesn’t follow their understanding about suitable subjects of conversation (he talks about lavatories in mixed company), and he drinks in the morning. The third visitor is a Bishop whom Harriet happily boasts about having known in her student days, but he, unfortunately, has no recollection of her, and is convinced that Belinda once knitted him a very nice scarf, which she in turn cannot remember. Two out of these three men make their way to Belinda and Harriet’s house to propose marriage, and when one is rejected, he proposes to the next unmarried spinster he meets.
Village life continues while all this gentle excitement riffles through Belinda and Harriet’s lives. Belinda is very focused on her knitting, and finds herself buying clerical grey wool just in case she feels brave enough to knit a jumper for the Archdeacon, but pretends to the wool shop lady that it will be for a jumper for herself, even though the colour is dull and the wool too thick. When Belinda sees an unwelcome visitor approaching her garden gate, she crouches in the rhododendrons by the front door to as not to be seen. Harriet is the tougher of the two sisters, since she is the one to interview and bargain with the lady who comes to buy cast-off garments from the gentry, and positively enjoys beating up the prices for Belinda’s dresses. But Belinda is the one who worries about the visiting dressmaker’s feelings, and can read the class nuances so precisely that she is in agonies over the caterpillar in the dressmaker’s daintily served cauliflour cheese. I was laughing my head off: clearly I have no sense of proper feeling. I do love this novel, just as I love all of Barbara Pym’s work.