Dr Rey Conquer

Barbara Pym’s Obscurity

Photo by Mayotte Magnus  © Barbara Pym Society.

‘It would be absurd’ Barbara Everett wrote in a review of Pym’s letters and diaries, ‘to make Barbara Pym’s ten novels – light, dry and unpretentious as they are – sound obscure or difficult.’ But obscurity itself was of great interest to Pym. Not the ‘obscurity’, as the Times obituary put it, in which her ‘spinsters toil’; what is distinctive about her novels in any case is how lime-lit such lives are: in Pym, as in life, everyone is their own main character. Nor the other obscurity for which she is famous: her time in the ‘wilderness’, as she put it, the fifteen years when her novels were considered unpublishable, until, in the 1977 anniversary issue of the TLS, she was twice considered ‘underrated’ and subsequently rediscovered. Rather, the obscurity of other people: the great mystery of their inner lives, impossible to understand and almost frightening to imagine.
            Characters in Pym often speak ‘obscurely’. ‘“He seems to expect little and yet much,” said Miss Trapnell obscurely.’ ‘“Strong passions, isn’t it,” she muttered obscurely.’ (This, from Excellent Women, providing the OED with one example of ‘2., With obscurity of meaning, expression, or exposition; not plainly or clearly’.) Meaning is occluded, sometimes out of embarrassment or absent-mindedness and sometimes as a way of brandishing superior knowledge. Often these are moments when a commonplace or placeholder is used so vaguely – ‘“of course things are not as they were,” she added obscurely’; ‘“Catch me doing that,” said Ken obscurely’ – that instead of drawing on some shared stock of human experience, they expose for a vertiginous moment the lie of a shared page, or perhaps hymn-sheet, of social reference. (The reader – as with the vast amount of telling sociological detail in Pym, of food, clothing, interiors, the cleanliness of liturgical objects – is not always in on the joke.)
            Part of the pleasure of Pym is ‘that “shock” of recognition’ which she thought ‘one of the best qualities in novels one admires’: her generosity towards the everyday thought or gesture accurately observed, the small, faintly shameful, movements or desires that characters hope no one will have noticed, or barely notice themselves. (We can, of course, be obscure to ourselves: ‘I felt obscurely flattered’; ‘it was obscurely comforting to let my mind dwell on such things.’). Pym’s genius is in knowing how people misunderstand and mislead, and in drawing such moments from behind the veil of social form – essentially, in violating tact. Belinda Bede in Some Tame Gazelle (1950) hovers outside a churchyard where she has found Archdeacon Hoccleve wandering with affected melancholy. ‘“Oh, good afternoon,” she said, hoping that he had not noticed her obvious reluctance to go home. “You quite startled me. I didn’t see you,” she added, hoping that she might be forgiven or at least not found out, in this obvious lie.’
            Pym’s plots, such as they are, are driven by her characters’ poor estimation of the intentions and capabilities of others – the surprise proposal, the ‘unsuitable attachment’. In what could be a summary of her novelistic programme she has Catherine Oliphant of Less than Angels remark: 

understanding somebody else’s filing system is just about as easy as really getting to know another human being. Just when you think you know everything about them, there’s the impossible happening, the M for Miscellaneous when you naturally assumed it would be under something else.

Or, as Wilmet Forsyth of A Glass of Blessings (1958) exclaims, ‘but how can one be sure what goes on in a person’s head?’ A Glass of Blessings is exemplary: its plot consists in the sudden visibility of the inner lives of various characters around Wilmet, its likeable but self-absorbed narrator. Thinking that a young priest’s main worry is whether or not to ‘go over to Rome’, it comes as a surprise to Wilmet when he proposes to a parishioner; hoping that Piers, a friend’s brother, is in love with her she lets herself not notice that he is gay. A friend’s husband turns out to have ‘a bit of a thing about’ her; her own husband turns out to have had an affair. Wilmet is not unable to read other people’s intentions; it is that she, like many of Pym’s characters, finds her own version of them more congenial than any other. Her sympathetic imagination is limited to those exactly like herself in gender, class, taste, age. She is surprised when that same parishioner, Mary Beamish (unselfish, uninterested in clothes – that is, unlike Wilmet) joins a religious community; and surprised when, having tested her vocation, Mary sees the religious life is not for her. When Wilmet suggests Piers mightn’t have much in common with his boyfriend Keith, a catalogue model from the Midlands, he replies, ‘This having things in common […] how overrated it is! Long dreary intellectual conversations, capping each other’s obscure quotations – it’s so exhausting.’ As her admirer John Bayley remarked, Pym can be ‘read as either optimist or pessimist, cheerful do-gooder or secret and bitter misanthrope’, and we might see the incomprehensibility of others, the way her characters are unable or unwilling to think past themselves, or else take refuge in detachment, as part of her deep pessimism for the possibility of ‘making contact’ (a favourite, ironic, phrase in the late work). As she wrote to a friend in 1967: ‘Trying to understand people and leaving them alone and being “unselfish” and all that jazz has only the bleakest of rewards – precisely nothing!’
            All along, we realise, the many small noticings of Pym’s mode hid a deeper sense that no amount of observation, of cultural notation, will bring us to know what is, in fact, going on in others’ heads. This idea underpins the comic use of anthropologists, who appear in almost all of her novels. It is also the theme of her lightly metafictional sixth novel, No Fond Return of Love (1961). In the previous novels, characters filter their lives through literature: they experience the world through quotations of ‘the obscurer seventeenth-century poets’, they liken each other to heroines from the novels of Elizabeth Bowen or Henry James. In No Fond Return of Love this ironic gesture becomes an anxious scrutinising of the morality of novel-writing itself, a game of self-accusation. Pym makes a cameo as a woman in a hotel, ‘ordinary-looking and unaccompanied’, whom no one knows to be a novelist; and when one character tells another that she might ‘have the gift for observing people and getting them down on paper’, she responds ‘distastefully’: ‘Oh, it won’t be that kind of a novel’. Wilmet and Keith from A Glass of Blessings turn up and are judged ‘odd’, ‘like characters in a novel’. Dulcie Mainwaring, the heroine, is disappointed in a new friend, ‘as if she had created her and that she had not come up to expectations, like a character in a book who had failed to come alive’; it seems to Dulcie ‘so much safer and more comfortable to live in the lives of other people – to observe their joys and sorrows with detachment as if one were watching a film or a play’.

Churches around Oxfordshire.

            Even less than in previous novels does the ostensible emotional drama of romantic relationships seem to be the point: the novel is mostly about Dulcie’s ‘investigation – some might have said prying – into the lives of other people’, ‘the kind of work that involved poring over reference books, and street and telephone directories’, but also tailing people, prowling around suburbs, visiting churches they are connected to, a West Country hotel their mother owns; and it is about the discomfort and danger involved, the sense that ‘one’s subjects – or perhaps victims is a better word’ are ‘somehow degraded by one’s probings’.

‘Perhaps other people’s lives are a kind of refuge,’ – Dulcie suggests – ‘One can enjoy the cosiness of them.’ 
‘But they aren’t always cosy,’ said Miss Foy.
‘No, and then one finds oneself looking at the horror or misery in them with detachment, and that in itself is horrifying.’

In Less than Angels (1955) the detachment of anthropologists – who form its main cast – and that of the fiction writer are compared, and this similarity was one Pym often remarked on (she was employed as the assistant editor of an anthropological journal for most of her working life). Of the many things they have in common one is that, while they both may observe and describe, neither is in the business of really getting to know another person. In a letter Pym described a difficult situation at work as ‘a rich subject for fiction if one can look at it with a novelist’s cruelly dispassionate eye, as I fear I sometimes can.’
            Even so, it is disconcerting to discover quite how much of the seeming exaggeration of Dulcie’s detective work is taken from life. For a few years in the 1950s, Pym kept a detailed, daily, if not hourly, ‘log’ of her neighbours in Barnes, a gay couple. In the backs of the little notebooks she used to record observations and ideas for novels – and shopping lists, expenses, her outfits for the season – she noted down when her neighbours left the house and when they returned, what they were wearing, whether they walked the dog, of people they talked to and which car they used. She gave them a number of nicknames, followed them to work; she visited the cemeteries in which their relatives were buried, a hotel in Devon owned by one neighbour’s mother. Like Dulcie, she lost track of what she knew through legitimate means and what she knew through ‘prying’. She enlisted others in these exercises of ‘finding out’, as Hazel Holt, a friend and colleague at the International African Institute, describes in her biography of Pym (A Lot to Ask, 1990) and in the preface to a selection of diary extracts and letters edited by Holt and Pym’s sister Hilary, A Very Private Eye (1984). Holt calls the whole thing ‘a lovely saga, meticulously plotted’, and suggests that ‘her powers of observation and research were certainly of great benefit to her as a novelist.’ In a new biography, The Adventures of Miss Barbara Pym (2021), Paula Byrne repeats this line: Pym ‘had the excuse of being a novelist’, her obsessive interest in the outward details of other people’s lives was ‘what made her such an observant writer’, despite also describing it with performed distaste as ‘stalking’ –  
‘(there can be no other word)’.
            Dulcie, like Belinda Bede before her (‘Some tame gazelle, or some gentle dove: |
Something to love, oh, something to love!’), speaks of ‘people from whom one asks no return of love, if you see what I mean. Just to be allowed to love them is enough’. In a column in the Times in 1978, an age ‘where people would rather discuss the decline of the novel than actually read one’, Pym defends the novel – all novels, not just ‘those disturbing novels that we feel we ought to read’ – as respectable reading because of the view they give of ‘all kinds of life’, or, quoting Jane Austen, ‘the most thorough knowledge of human nature’. Byrne sees Pym, in her anthropological exactness, as providing such a knowledge, presenting Pym as ‘one of the great writers of the human heart’. But the human heart in Pym is sick and solipsistic, and the greatest passions in the novels are often of women for men they don’t know or don’t respect, whom they can’t have or have essentially invented from observation and imagination (a character in An Unsuitable Attachment is interested in a man ‘mainly because she had not seen him again and had therefore been able to build up a more satisfactory picture of him than if she had been able to check with reality’). This too was taken from life. Both Byrne and Holt describe Pym’s own habit of forming romantic attachments to men who were obviously unsuitable in some way – whether married, gay, or simply not that into her (or indeed committed National Socialists) – without giving much suggestion that this is a very odd and unsatisfactory sort of love indeed.

Pym at St Hilda's College, Oxford, 1934
© Barbara Pym Society.

            The paradox of Pym – to borrow again from John Bayley – is that she is hiding in plain sight, far more present in her novels than would seem possible of ‘Miss Pym’ the genteel spinster, ‘indispensable in the parish’ (a parish she only joined because her neighbour played the organ there, a fact discovered by tailing him secretly in a hired car). This uneasy indistinguishability of fiction and life pre-existed the published writer and continued throughout her life. As an undergraduate she had adopted personae (she gave herself the name Sandra, the avatar of her ‘faster’, more glamorous self, for instance, and once pretended to be a Finnish student called Vikki). At the International African Institute, she spent hours of empty office afternoons chatting with Holt about the characters in her novels as if they were real people, ‘so that’, as Holt reports, ‘the world of the novels soon became as much a part of our lives as the real world’. Many of her friendships – including, most famously, with Philip Larkin – were conducted in the ‘benign self-inventing atmosphere of letters’, in Janet Malcolm’s phrase. And Pym’s letters, as well as her diaries, were often written in the third person, from early pastiches of Stevie Smith and Ivy Compton-Burnett, which her friends found ‘hilarious’, but also ‘crazy’, to the fragmentary notebooks of the 60s and 70s where she places observations into the mouths of characters, and one can never tell where Pym ends and her novels begin. ‘She (Leonora?) thinks – perhaps this is the kind of love I’ve always wanted because absolutely nothing can be done about it!’.
            Leonora will become the heroine of The Sweet Dove Died (1978): an older woman who falls in love with a younger, bisexual, man. The novel was based on Pym’s friendship with Richard Roberts, an antiques dealer, to whom she wrote letters dramatising their often overwrought relationship:

It was only much later, in the watches of the night, one could have said – that the other occasion came back to her, the one for which she really needed to be forgiven. Would he, she wondered, put it down to her anthropologist’s ‘enquiring mind’? That seemed too generous to be expected even of him. Perhaps it had been a desperate attempt to break down the awkwardness and loss of rapport she had felt between them, rather than a feminine desire for a scene with carefully thought-out bitter dialogue. (Enjoyable to write, though, she couldn’t help feeling with the detached part of the mind that watches us behaving in situations …).

‘Yes, detachment is a good thing’, she has one of her anthropologists suggest – apropos of English houses – ‘But one can be too detached, perhaps?’. For Pym, certainly the younger Pym, her self-fashioning as a romantic figure, and as a writer, often seems more important than any actual romantic relation; the idea of writing preceded all feeling rather than being its record. Reflecting on her ‘rather self-conscious and cultivated’ habit of keeping ‘relics’ of men she had been in love with, she wrote ‘I could write a lovely metaphysical poem about the relics of love in a box.’
            Poetry for Pym is double-edged. On the one hand its obliqueness offers comic potential – the sermon with too many quotations which the parishioners do not understand, the lines of verse inscribed on a box that lend themselves to easy misreading. Quoting poetry functions as a paradigm case of speaking ‘obscurely’: to understand the words, even to recognise the poem is not necessarily to know what the person means by speaking it. Because of this it can be wielded as a tool of humiliation; the young academic Ned in The Sweet Dove Died (the greatest, perhaps only, villain in Pym), Leonora’s rival for romantic control of James, is writing a thesis on ‘some of Keats’s minor poems’:

Ned passed his cup and went on with the verse, his voice lingering over the words and giving them a curious emphasis.
‘O, what could it grieve for? Its feet were tied,
With a single thread of my own hand’s weaving.’
‘You must go and see Keats’s house in Hampstead,’ Leonora said, agitation rising in her, for now the harmless little poem seemed almost to have some obscure and unpleasant meaning. But that was fanciful and ridiculous, surely.

On the other hand, poetry offers the privacy of non-expressive interiority. Poetry is ‘a precious thing to be kept to oneself’, thinks Ianthe Broome of An Unsuitable Attachment; ‘one did not talk about poetry with chance acquaintances.’ And so, when there are moments of communication, this privacy is threatened:

There is a wind where the rose was;
Cold rain where sweet grass was ...
she quoted in a low clear voice, looking at me rather intently.
I felt horribly embarrassed. I remembered the poem and a later line about ‘tears, tears, where my heart was’, and although I did not imagine it could have any personal significance for Mary, I felt I could not bear to be invited to a womanly sharing of confidences. (A Glass of Blessings)

In Pym’s correspondence with Larkin she wonders over a ‘rather puzzling line’ of his, ‘but poets are not to be asked to explain why and how’, and later, ‘who can say what anyone, let alone a poet, might have meant when he wrote that particular line?’; ‘it is often better not to know things.’ In her diary she envies him: ‘Wish I were a poet.’

© Barbara Pym Society.

Pym made a habit of telling interviewers that her two great comforts were English Literature and the Church of England. What they have in common is the comfort of privacy, in which people remain opaque to one another while coming together around shared acts, a mode of non-individual utterance, common speech with private meaning. It is often noted that despite Pym’s overt and committed Christian faith she rarely discussed what that meant to her in any personal sense. Possibly her best and most characteristic comment on religion is from a notebook of 1961: ‘The new Archbishop of Canterbury has a lovely lap for a cat.’ When we are allowed to overhear the thoughts of characters at prayer they are comically trivial (Wilmet wondering who is the cause of the ringing telephone during Mass, Miss Doggett imagining the vicar slicing bacon in Crampton Hodnet) or obscure (when Rupert Stonebird, the anthropologist in An Unsuitable Attachment, regains his childhood faith it is ‘an uncomfortable and disturbing sensation’; and of the probably lesbian couple who have converted to Catholicism in Excellent Women ‘their reasons appeared to be hardly adequate; no doubt there had been other and deeper ones, but I could not expect to be told about those’).
            Belief and unbelief, the interior movements of faith, are, like poetry, not a subject for polite conversation. ‘Of course Miss Lee never had doubts! And if she ever had, she was much too well-bred ever to dream of troubling the rector with such a thing.’ In the vignettes of her notebooks of the 1950s and 60s Pym is interested in the unbelief of others. ‘After the party in Clapham on the long walk back to the station, she tells me that as a girl she had “questioned religion” when nobody else seemed to.’ ‘(Solemn) Evensong and Benediction in a N. London church, rather sparsely attended. The young man in the college scarf looking for he knows not what and fleeing when he is offered tea in the Church Hall afterwards, or an older man who has lost his faith coming out of nostalgia and perhaps the memory of a beautiful server or acolyte.’ But mostly, in the notebooks as in the novels, the emphasis is on liturgy, on common acts of worship, their forms and familiarity: the hymns, the appropriateness of a particular prayer, the length of the Athanasian creed on a hot day, the vestments, the calendar and its ‘obscure saints’ days’, the desire for a summer festival ‘so that we can have an evening mass with lots of incense, all doors open and hymns with soppy words and Romish tunes’.
            Pym’s first six novels were published during the period of post-war renewal within the Church of England, particularly, as her novels suggest, within Anglo-Catholicism (‘It took courage,’ an older anthropologist tells a group of students in Less than Angels, ‘not perhaps of the very highest order, but courage nonetheless, to proclaim oneself a Rationalist. Now, it seems more courageous to be a Baptist or a Methodist. There is something chic is there not, about Roman and Anglo-Catholicism?’). And, then, her ‘wilderness years’ coincided with a decade of religious crisis and decline. The loss, over the 1960s, was in numbers – baptisms, confirmations, ordinations – but also in stability for those who remained, with the ground of doctrine and liturgy and confessional no longer certain. A loss of familiarity, the comfort not only of habit, but of those habits being safe from question, being able to remain – outside of the liturgy and other shared formulations – unspoken. Pym described 1963 as ‘a year of violence, death and blows’, and made a list of these blows, which included novel rejections, the theft of her typewriter, the Beeching report, bad weather, and three books: The Naked Lunch, Tropic of Cancer and ‘The Bishop of Woolwich’s book Honest to God’. This last – a book which unexpectedly made doctrine a matter for the Sunday papers – put forward a Christianity without ‘religion’, without ‘God “out there”’, as necessary for a modern, secular world. It announced not a loss of faith but the altering of its bounds, changing the understanding of what a respectable, ‘mature’ Christian could, or even ought to believe.
            Pym treats religion for the most part anthropologically; and so from her first novels to her last the markedness of belief switches. In Jane and Prudence (1953) the idea that the window-cleaner might be not Roman nor Chapel but ‘nothing’ is, to the vicar’s wife, ‘a frightening thought, like seeing into the dark chasm of his mind’. Atheism and agnosticism are matters of fashion or tribal belonging (for instance among academic anthropologists). Tensions are, for the most part, between ‘high’ and ‘low’ Anglicanism; threat or temptation comes from Rome. By Quartet in Autumn (1977), it is Edwin’s church attendance that is seen as an eccentric hobby, and Letty – who nonetheless considers herself a Christian – attends the Stations of the Cross in order to ‘discover what church-going held for people, apart from habit and convention’: ‘Did people then only go for the light and warmth, coffee after the Sunday morning service and a friendly word from the vicar?’ Letty has moved out of her bedsitter because the landlady sold the house to a Nigerian Aladura priest who holds loud, joyful services in the basement; when she goes to complain about being disturbed by the noise, the priest, sincere if a little self-satisfied, replies, ‘Christianity is disturbing.’
            Quartet in Autumn, in which four office workers approach retirement, is, on the face of it, the most disturbing of Pym’s novels, treating the madness and death of one of its central characters with morbid irreverence, full of racial anxiety and fear of bodily decay that is both mocked and meant. Yet it is far more optimistic than the earlier work – and far more ‘Christian’ – in its sense that there is something new that could yet happen. Retirement marks the point at which habits must, by necessity, change, and as such it confronts the characters with the obligation to choose. Marcia chooses privacy, taken to its solipsistic extreme, death; yet in her resolute obscurity, pushing away all attempts to ‘get through to’ her, she gains a kind of dignity. And through Marcia’s death, Letty – easily discouraged, who feels it improper, even upsetting, to imagine other people’s inner lives, to imagine their lives at all – comes finally to the realisation that ‘life still held infinite possibilities for change’. A line given with irony to the voluntary social worker Janice Brabner echoes sincerely: ‘One must respect people as individuals—her acquaintance with Marcia had taught Janice that, if nothing else’. Quartet models, perhaps for the first time in Pym’s work, the rewards of ‘trying to understand people and leaving them alone’.
            In A Few Green Leaves, Adam Prince, the gourmet food writer and former Anglican priest converted to Catholicism after doubting the validity of Anglican Orders, suffers a series of ‘disagreeable, even disquieting experiences’: a sub par high tea in a motorway café, a stay in a modern, anonymous motel. ‘But his desire for human contact, wasn’t that the most disquieting thing of all? Could it be that he was getting old?’. A Few Green Leaves, published after Pym’s death in 1980, is, like Quartet in Autumn, a novel of ageing; but it is also a novel of doubt, and of conversion. The rector, Tom Dagnall, is confronted by a florist, and presumes he is on strike. But no: the florist is there to tell Tom that now that he has lost his faith he will no longer be able to ‘do’ the mausoleum. Tom wonders, looking at elaborate memorial tablets, if the age has become ‘more embarrassed’ or ‘less insincere’; ‘he would not have liked to say which, for “sincerity” was disproportionately valued today’. Tom wonders later about the strength of faith of a Miss Lee, ‘if, when rubbing up the brass head of the eagle lectern, she had ever wondered whether the whole business wasn’t an elaborate fiction and asked herself what she was doing here, Sunday after Sunday and even some weekdays, subscribing to something she wasn’t sure about.’ The figure for the village’s agnosticism is the doctor’s surgery, which, as several characters note, has replaced the confessional or the rector’s study as a source of consolation, of a guide to life and its point. The doctor likes to believe himself ‘frank’ – ‘it was no good trying to hide things from an intelligent person’ – but the reward for this is a frankness in return from a patient who asks if he believes in life after death. ‘For a moment he had been stunned into silence, indignant at such a question. Then of course he had realised that he couldn’t be expected to answer things like that – it was the rector’s business.’
            At the novel’s centre is Emma Howick, an unmarried anthropologist, writing up her research in her mother’s house, idly making notes on the villagers, turning their habits into material. She is obscurely drawn to Tom, begins to attend church, finds Evensong ‘more “restful”, even more “meaningful”’ than the morning family service. ‘God did still move in a mysterious way, even in this day and age’, Tom thinks, adding, ‘or at this “moment in time”, as some of his parishioners might have said’, bringing together the old sincerity of the well-known hymn and the new sincerity of the fashionable phrase. Emma’s conversion is not obviously to church-going: her decision is to stay in the village, and as her attraction to Tom dawns on her – the most hopeful in all of Pym, the most obviously shared – she begins also to decide against anthropology, against cool detachment. ‘She could write a novel and even, as she was beginning to realise, embark on a love affair which need not necessarily be an unhappy one.’