Barbara Pym | Critical Essay by Mason Cooley

This literature criticism consists of approximately 14 pages of analysis & critique of Barbara Pym.
This section contains 3,917 words
(approx. 14 pages at 300 words per page)
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Critical Essay by Mason Cooley

SOURCE: "The Sweet Dove Died: The Sexual Politics of Narcissism," in Twentieth Century Literature, Vol. 32, No. 1, Spring, 1986, pp. 40-9.

In the following essay, Cooley contends that The Sweet Dove Died is among Pym's most effective literary creations. According to Cooley, "The book is a triumph of artistic consistency and economy, yet it is the coldest and most unforgiving of Barbara Pym's novels."

Considered from a purely aesthetic point of view, The Sweet Dove Died is the most brilliant success of Barbara Pym's career. It lacks the geniality and fun of her earlier work, but it is written with a tense economy that generates greater force than the rather relaxed storytelling of its immediate predecessors, A Glass of Blessings and An Unsuitable Attachment. During the years of silence, Barbara Pym worked on The Sweet Dove Died, cutting, polishing, and recasting with a passion for perfection apparently deepened by her inability to find a publisher. She was never a slack or a casual writer, but after she began publishing in 1950, she wrote quickly and easily enough to bring out a novel every other year for the next decade. When her troubles with publishers began in 1961, she apparently responded in part by adopting a more severe and self-critical artistic standard. The results are The Sweet Dove Died and Quartet in Autumn, both masterpieces of condensation and lucidity—two qualities that do not often go together. Built on a series of love triangles, the plot of The Sweet Dove Died represents tangled and mismatched loves with great conciseness and richness of implication.

The greatest achievement of all in The Sweet Dove Died is its remarkable heroine: cold, elegant Leonora Eyre, incapable of passion but capable of heartbreak, strong-willed but finally miserable and helpless in her self-absorption. The exploration of Leonora's character so dominates the book that it might well have been titled Portrait of a Lady. Indeed, Leonora shares with James's lady, Isabel Archer, a distaste for sexual relations and disruptive emotion, and like Isabel she mistakes a rather decadent interest in collecting for an aesthetic passion. She is perhaps the Hermione of D. H. Lawrence's Women in Love as seen by a woman, and she has similarities to the mother in James's Spoils of Poynton, with her invincible love of beautiful possessions, and her subordination of human relations to them.

The book is a triumph of artistic consistency and economy, yet it is also the coldest and most unforgiving of Barbara Pym's novels. The irony is always verging on the sardonic, and the geniality and high spirits of Pym's earlier work are nowhere in evidence. The mood is one of carefully restrained bitterness, and the portrayal of character bites deeper and reveals more ambivalence than ever before. Not one of the characters is truly likable, yet every one of them except Ned, the American, forces the reader to extend a certain sympathy. Their suffering and self-discontent are just as real as their selfishness.

These qualities are particularly evident in the portrayal of the heroine, Leonora Eyre. Despite her last name, Leonora is almost the reverse of the plain, passionate, and adventurous Jane Eyre who shares her surname. Jane Eyre has a commonplace exterior, underneath which is a fiery imagination and a full heart. Leonora, on the other hand, is an aging beauty of exquisite refinement; the exterior is still beautiful, impeccable, a triumph of taste. The interior, however, is one of emotional poverty, tedious self-absorption, and cautious avoidance of experience.

In her age and situation in life, if not in moral quality, Leonora is similar to other Pym heroines. She is a single woman of good education living on her own as she approaches middle age. She has a private income, so that she does not have to work. And in the course of the book she experiences an unrequited passion for a man. Unlike other Pym heroines, though, she has no contact at all with the Church or, for that matter, with any institution. She seems to be tied to the world only by shopping and by the perfect clothes and furniture that are the fruit of that shopping.

Leonora is a recognizable member of the family of Pym heroines, but she is drawn in much darker colors. The earlier heroines are often prim and excessively concerned with propriety, but they are warm-hearted, generous, and gallant. Leonora is a worshiper of perfection in objects and in people—not moral perfection but perfection of style and appearance, the unflawed vase, the unlined face. Other Pym heroines are alone in the world, and their aloneness impairs their happiness, but not their humanity. Leonora's aloneness is the result of her disdainful indifference to the rest of mankind and her distaste for physical lovemaking. She thinks of herself primarily as someone who wins admiration, but even those who admire her scarcely arouse her liking.

Leonora, then, is a chill-hearted narcissist, and this novel is about the sexual politics of narcissism. The theme is chiefly realized through the character of the heroine, but Leonora's lover James and his subsequent lover Ned are also variations on the theme of narcissism. Determined to live without suffering or strong emotion, Leonora keeps experience at a distance. She dines with elderly admirers who have been trained to look but not touch. She spends her days drifting through antique stores and auction rooms. She sends her friend Humphrey flowers of sympathy when his antique shop is robbed of a few valuable objects, as if someone had died.

The portrait of Leonora is sharpened by a group of surrounding minor characters who serve as foils to the heroine—parallels, contrasts, implicit commentaries. Each of the female characters, simply by being what she is, casts a revealing light on Leonora. The dowdy, middle-aged friend Meg has an abiding maternal love for a gay young man named Colin, who comes to her between lovers and disappears when he is involved with someone. When he is there, she is happy, and when he is away she grieves. When he comes back, she has his favorite Riesling waiting in the fridge, and forgives him. She knows that she needs to love someone, and Colin is her choice, so that she imposes no condition of faithfulness on her love. Leonora coolly turns James away when he returns after just such an escapade; she returns to her first love, her own inviolate self, with some regret that she had permitted James to ruffle her life so disagreeably.

James's girlfriend, Phoebe Sharpe, is a vague, badly dressed young woman who lives in a country village and does literary research. Her house is a jumble of cheap objects, her sink is full of dishes, and a cat appears to live on top of her radio. But she feels a quick sexual passion for James, and despite her timidity, finds the courage to act on it at once. Leonora, all self-command and impeccable taste, is amazed that James could take up with such a tawdry young woman, missing, as usual, whatever might be sexual and human rather than tasteful and suitable.

Leonora's neighbor Liz, after a bitter divorce, spends her time (and her love) on her Siamese cats, which she breeds for competition. She is an angry and disappointed woman whose attachment to life has shrunk down to her cats, but they have the advantage over Leonora's objects and furniture of being alive.

After being abandoned by James, Leonora goes to visit her friend Joan in the country. The visit is less than a success. Joan is immersed in her family, in the party she is giving in the evening, in the gossip and jokes of her busy world. Leonora is stiff and contemptuous and overdressed at the party, where she has a miserable time out of her London element and the very special conditions she requires. There is no one there to admire her, only an obnoxious woman named Ba, who tells Leonora that she should do some volunteer work.

Leonora is more intelligent and more self-aware than any of these women characters, but intelligence and self-awareness are of little avail. The other women love something living: a gay boy, a Siamese cat, a pipe-smoking husband and noisy children. All Leonora has is a few memories of youthful flirtations in the great gardens of Europe, flirtations that somehow came to nothing. In large measure by her choice, her inner world is mausoleum-like, though by no means free of waves of anxiety.

Into this unoccupied life comes an elderly antique dealer, Humphrey Boyce, and his sexually ambiguous young nephew James. The opening scene is a book auction. Leonora has been bidding for a pretty Victorian flower book, one made for a love-token. Appropriately, Leonora plans to make it a present to herself. Overcome by the excitement of bidding, the bad air, and the crowded room, Leonora almost faints. The uncle and nephew rescue the distressed lady, and the three go off for lunch at a good restaurant. The pickup has been executed quickly and efficiently, but within the rules of Edwardian gentility. The delicacy of the lady and the gallantry of the gentlemen have made the contact easy rather than difficult, because the players know the rules and how to use them. They have no need to resort to the uncertainties of spontaneous reactions.

The first scene of the novel introduces us to a world where the artifice prevails over nature. The characters speak and act for effect—to project an image, to negotiate some kind of emotional deal. Seldom do any of the central characters do anything merely from impulse or conviction, except when surprised into it by sexual passion. Here are the first paragraphs of the novel:

"The sale room is no place for a woman," declared Humphrey Boyce, as he and his nephew James sat having lunch with the attractive stranger they had picked up at a Bond Street sale room half an hour ago.

"Now you're scolding me," said Leonora, with mock humility. "I know it was stupid of me, but I suppose it was the excitement of bidding—for the first time in my life—and then getting that dear little book. It was just too overwhelming."

"And the room was so hot," James suggested, trying to take his part in the conversation, for after all it was he who had noticed the woman in black sway sideways and almost collapse at her moment of triumph, when she had challenged the auctioneer's rather bored "Twenty pounds at the table?" with a cry of "Twenty-five!" Between them James and Humphrey had supported her out of the sale room and after that it seemed the natural thing for the three of them to be having lunch together.

These three characters have just taken an initiative very much against the conventions of British decorum. They have violated the rule implied by one of an Englishman's proudest remarks, "I keep myself to myself." They have made a public pickup of a stranger. In the subsequent conversation each falls back on a conventional posture that reassuringly obliterates the unconventional nature of what has just taken place. Humphrey says, in a heavy, old-fashioned, masculine way, "The sale room is no place for a woman." Courtly and pompous, kind but more than a little condescending, he is the old-fashioned Edwardian gentleman who knows how to treat a lady.

Leonora's girlish trill responds appropriately to his basso. When she says, "Now you're scolding me," she is playing at submission as he is playing at masterfulness. The two middle-aged people fall into a stylized pattern of flirtation, long sanctioned by tradition. The man plays the rescuer and the mentor; the woman plays the adorable but fragile little woman. This stereotyped erotic play is one of the ironies of the novel: in the ensuing power struggles Leonora has a certain ruthless competence in pursuing her erotic goal of capturing young James, and Humphrey stands by comparatively helpless. By her speech Leonora also gives us a foretaste of her collector's passion for ownership of beautiful objects, her delight in admiration, her physical fragility, her ostentatious "sensibility," and her tough ability to manage situations.

Young James has no period style to fall back on, and no imagination to tell him what to do. All he can contribute to the situation is his extreme good looks and a flat statement of fact, "And the room was so hot." As he is to be the cipher over whom others contend, he is appropriately passive and untalkative.

This first incident sets up a triangle in which none of the attractions match. Humphrey is attracted to Leonora, who cultivates him in order to get at his nephew. Leonora is attracted to James as a flirtatious son whom she can captivate with comforts and attentions. James likes Leonora well enough, but he will also sneak off to his sexual lovers, first a woman, then a man. The erotic merry-go-round of Viennese bedroom farce is adapted to the more restrained conditions of British high comedy; the comedy of opening and closing bedroom and closet doors is replaced by the mental acrobatics of lovers who spend much of their time waiting and watching one another.

None of these attractions is predominantly sexual; the motives have to do more with possession and display than with genital love. Humphrey likes Leonora because she is someone elegant to be seen with at the opera and in fashionable restaurants. Leonora likes James, because he is so handsome and so seemingly easy to manipulate, and because he does not make any of the sexual demands that she dreads. James likes Leonora because she uses all her taste and tact to flatter him and serve him. Of the three, only Leonora feels something close to passion, and even she never comes close to self-abandonment, or even to an active desire for sexual union. Only in one outburst of weeping does she ever venture outside the fortress-prison of her self-control.

Until meeting James, Leonora has never gone beyond mild courtships. She has reached middle age without getting past a virginal playing at love, coquetting in a perfectly ladylike way with decorous suitors. James rouses her as no one ever has. Past forty, she finds his youth magical, and she is enchanted to be a combination of mother and glamorous older woman respectfully adored by a perfect son-lover-friend. James receives her love offerings with detachment and slight surprise, a response he generally accords to the love offerings inspired by his good looks. With the almost innocent egotism of youth, James finds nothing remarkable about Leonora's lavish attentions. Both are relieved that no physical relationship is expected, and they are free to play at "adoring" one another. Leonora is delighted by James's humdrum conversation, and her delight makes him feel, a little uncertainly, that he may indeed be more interesting than he had imagined.

Driven by her desire for secure possession of James, Leonora becomes both less idle and more ruthless. Finding that James plans to move from his present flat, Leonora decides to drive out the elderly tenant from the upstairs flat of her house and redecorate it for James. Miss Foxe, the elderly gentlewoman, was, as it turns out, already planning to move, so that Leonora does not need to put her out. This is a typical Barbara Pym development. In her novels, the worst that happens is that someone forms a wicked intention. But usually events take a turn that prevents the wicked intention from being carried out or, if the plans are carried out, the result is not as bad as might be expected. So there are villainous intentions but few villainous deeds in Barbara Pym. Her morally deficient characters suffer enough from their selfishness and emptiness; the author avoids adding the burden of guilt for real misdeeds. The suffering consequent on being what they are is sufficient for Barbara Pym's comic purposes. Extremes of badness and goodness have no place in her measured and middling world. Thus Leonora is perfectly willing to play the wicked landlady, but circumstances prevent her from acting on her intentions.

When Leonora discovers that James has a girlfriend, Phoebe Sharpe, to whom he has loaned some furniture while he is traveling in Europe, she uses Humphrey to force the return of the furniture. She succeeds in driving James's young woman away, but the job is easy because James's attachment is a feeble one, and vague, uncertain Phoebe is no match for Leonora. Indeed, Phoebe is a perfect foil for Leonora. She is very young, badly dressed, housed in a messy overgrown cottage, eager to make love, undefended against her emotions, too unfocused to scheme or manipulate. She doesn't have a chance in a contest with Leonora, yet the vague, vulnerable way she wanders through life has a certain emotional reality that is lacking in the chill existence of Leonora.

Having driven out her tenant, defeated James's girlfriend, and most important of all, gained possession of the furniture, Leonora turns her upstairs flat into a place of perfect comfort and taste for James. James is again a little surprised, but accepts the tribute with perfect equanimity, as part of the general tendency of life to take care of him. For a time, they play a game of loving housemates, ideal friends, imaginary parent and child.

The flimsy nature of this arrangement promptly becomes evident when James is seduced by a sexually accomplished young American named Ned, on sabbatical leave in England. Leonora is a sentimental narcissist, and James is a passive one. The narcissism of Ned, however, is a cold and clear-eyed drive for power. For him, the chief interest of getting involved with James is to separate him from Leonora, just to show that he can do it. Without much difficulty, Ned persuades James to move out of Leonora's house. Leonora is bereft:

The days seemed long and hopeless and Leonora began to wish she had not given up working, for a routine job would at least have filled the greater part of the day. Yet she lacked the energy and initiative to find herself an occupation; she remembered the dreadful woman she had met at the Murray's party and the impertinent suggestion she had made about the useful voluntary work one could do. But when Leonora came to consider them each had something wrong with it: how could she do church work when she never went near a church, or work for old people when she found them boring and physically repellent, or with handicapped children when the very thought of them was too upsetting.

The solution to her loneliness is her possessions:

She had always cared as much for inanimate objects as for people and now spent hours looking after her possessions, washing the china and cleaning the silver obsessively and rearranging them in her rooms. The shock of finding James had taken the fruitwood mirror upset her quite disproportionately….

The new triangle of Ned, James, and Leonora replaces the triangle of Phoebe, James, and Leonora. In this match it is Leonora who is the losing player. After having defeated Phoebe, she is in turn defeated. Her genteel strategies are no match for the steely expertise of Ned in erotic intrigues. Her only resource is to try to maintain her stoicism so that Ned cannot see, directly at least, the extent of her suffering.

Ned makes others suffer, as he admits with an unconvincing display of regret. If someone is to suffer a narcissistic wound, he will make sure it will not be himself. When he senses a slight restiveness on James's part, Ned determines to reject James before James rejects him. Ned quickly finds a series of other lovers, and then, announcing that his mother needs him, returns to America. Before he leaves, he shamelessly calls on Leonora and offers to send James back. She coolly declines. At this point Ned and Leonora are roughly equal antagonists. James, the prize over whom they have struggled, is so inept even in his efforts to keep his various loves hidden from one another, that he scarcely qualifies as a player.

The Ned-James-Leonora episode of the book has a heartless brilliance, wit, and perversity that suggest Restoration comedy with its rakes and dissolute ladies in their dancelike changes of partners and their delight in deception. Restoration comedy suggests that all these intrigues, though doubtless brutal and immoral, are highly entertaining. The Sweet Dove Died presents this triangle as filled with a fascinating and amusing perversity, but it also renders the suffering and aching feeling of loss beneath the surface of the love intrigue. Comedy usually keeps suffering in the background, but this comedy is shot through with Leonora's anguish. She turns out to be more adept at suffering than at love.

With the departure of Ned, the original triangle of James-Leonora-Humphrey is reestablished. After waiting so patiently for Leonora's infatuation with James to end, Humphrey wins, whatever winning may mean when Leonora is the prize. After an unsatisfactory meeting with James, Leonora finds herself weary of her position as admirer and decides to go back to her old, comfortable, undemanding position as the one who is courted and admired. Here is the last paragraph of the novel:

The sight of Humphrey with the peonies reminded her that he was taking her to the Chelsea Flower Show tomorrow. It was the kind of thing one liked to go to, and the sight of such large and faultless blooms, so exquisite in colour, so absolutely correct in all their finer points, was a comfort and satisfaction to one who loved perfection as she did. Yet, when one came to think of it, the only flowers that were really perfect were those, like the peonies that went so well with one's charming room, that possessed the added grace of having been presented to oneself.

The Sweet Dove Died is the least lovable of Barbara Pym's books, but it is also her most perfect work of art. Like Jane Austen's Emma, it has a heroine whom most people dislike. Leonora is fascinating but unsympathetic; indeed none of the characters offer much of an opening to sympathy. The self-satisfied doltishness of the men makes us keep our distance from them, and even Leonora's courage in her love-sufferings has something repellent about it. Driven back from sympathy, we are forced to deal with this book through our intelligence. Emotion held in check, we contemplate this picture of a skittish, anxious world of attenuated passions and faithless relationships, a world in which no one finally connects with anyone else and no emotion completes itself. The protagonist is left alone at her mirror with an empty heart, and that is the picture of chill unhappiness that stays with the reader.

The Sweet Dove Died may not have lovable characters, but as a whole it has a power and beauty that increase on rereading. The novel itself provides an emblem of its artistic character: the small Japanese toggles called netsuke. Humphrey sells them in his antique shop; James and Leonora admire them. Their dentist collects them. Netsuke are bits of wood, ivory, or metal with realistic, fiercely energetic little figures carved into them. Small as they are, they give an impression of power and completeness, a life that is about to burst out of the confines of these little objects that are attached to kimono sashes. They resemble that "little bit of ivory, two inches wide," on which Jane Austen described herself as working. Barbara Pym powerfully inscribes her unyielding message within the confines of a short comic novel. Compact, intense with life, complete—that is the essence of The Sweet Dove Died.

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