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Critical Essay by Eleanor B. Wymard
SOURCE: "Characters in Search of Order and Ceremony: Secular Faith of Barbara Pym," in Commonweal, January 13, 1984, pp. 19-21.
In the following essay, Wymard considers commonplace gatherings and planned activities in Pym's novels as attempts to impose order on chaos and to alleviate loneliness of modern life.
Most critics of Barbara Pym call attention to the fact that after having written six successful novels between 1950 and 1961, her seventh, An Unsuitable Attachment, was rejected by publishers in 1963. Pym was rescued from oblivion only when Philip Larkin and David Cecil named her, in a 1975 anniversary issue of the Times Literary Supplement, as the most underrated English novelist of the twentieth century. Before her death in 1980, Pym resumed her career with Quartet in Autumn (1977), The Sweet Dove Died (1978), and A Few Green Leaves (1980). But her ten novels, now available in England and the United States, are embraced, unfortunately, as well-crafted entertainments when, indeed, they share affinities with the existentialist mood of modern fiction.
At first, the world of Barbara Pym is strangely insular. The diminutive scale of English village life with the humdrum experiences of spinsters, rectors, and vicars' wives appears to camouflage any serious definition of the human condition. Pym's essential questions are further disguised by the tone of high comedy, for her characters are often ambivalent about learning the true meaning of their lives. In an early novel, Jane and Prudence (1953), Jane Cleveland, a vicar's wife, ruminates, for example, that "one's life followed a kind of pattern, with the same things cropping up again and again, but it seemed to [her], floundering among the books, that the question was not one that could be lightly dismissed now. 'No, thank you, I was just looking around,' was what one usually said. Just looking round the Anglican Church, from one extreme to the other, perhaps climbing higher and higher, peeping over the top to have a look at Rome on the other side, and then quickly drawing back."
Similar to Jane, Pym's characters consistently surprise themselves with questions from which they tentatively withdraw, as if to probe them would almost mean too much. Pym notes that Alaric Lydgate, one of the many anthropologists throughout her novels, "often avoided looking into peoples' eyes when he spoke to them, fearful of what he might see there, for life was very terrible whatever sort of front one might put on it."
But ultimately, the characters in the situational microcosm of Pym's country village neither escape nor endure their experience. Rather, they become more human by trying to live with it, affirming their lot in private ritualized gestures or formal ceremonies. Pym's essential subject is thus the incommunicable uniqueness of each ordinary person: "After all, life was like that … for most of us [life is] the small unpleasantness rather than the great tragedies, the little useless languages rather than the great renunciations and dramatic love affairs of history or fiction." From this perspective, stated by Catherine Oliphant in Less Than Angels (1955), Pym thus accentuates the commonplace, even the banal. While her characters do not confront irrevocable decisions, they do shape their lives through very personal choices. Moreover, they celebrate themselves in ceremonies which have private, sometimes communal, significance.
The act of writing is itself a ceremonial act for Pym. In No Fond Return of Love (1961), she acknowledged both the novelist and the sociologist for perceiving those moments which are "very near to the heart of reality." But Emma Howick, the social anthropologist in Pym's last novel, A Few Green Leaves, gradually forsakes accumulating data on the "Social Patterns of the West Oxfordshire Community" to write a novel using the same setting. According to Pym, the novelist who involves the emotions of readers in the rhythm of everyday living invites their participation in the very continuity of being. Since "we all came to the same thing in the end—dust and/or ashes, however you liked to think of it," it is the writer—neither the anthropologist nor the historian—who can preserve "a few green leaves" for future generations.
Tom Dagnall, the village vicar in A Few Green Leaves, is particularly aware of historic time. His goal is to discover the ruins of a deserted medieval village in the woods of Oxfordshire. On the first Sunday after Easter, he also rallies the villagers to participate in a walk in the park and the woods surrounding the ancient manor and mausoleum on the fringe of town, a variation on an annual rite dating from the seventeenth century. Preoccupied with local history, he keeps a record of his own daily life: "What was he to write about the events of the morning? 'My sister Daphne made a gooseling tart …?' Could that possibly be of interest to readers of the next century?" Life, for Pym, is a social enterprise. Natural ceremonies must be preserved if one is to live fully in the present. Funerals, marriages, christenings "gave a kind of continuity to village life, like the seasons—the cutting and harvesting of the crops, then the new sowing and the springing up again." Such affirmation risks sentimentality, for it may seem that Pym is yearning for more simple times. Her sense of ritual, the most important organizing principle of her fiction, reveals, in fact, the evolving complexity of her work and brings us closer to its significance.
The early novels, Some Tame Gazelle (1950), Excellent Women (1952), and Jane and Prudence (1953), are grounded in unquestioned values. Jane Cleveland, now forty-one and a former English tutor at Oxford, had once "taken great pleasure in imagining herself as a clergyman's wife … but she has been quickly disillusioned." Nonetheless, she grows in personal identity to the point of being able to confide in her husband: "We can only go blundering along in that state of life unto which it shall please God to call us … I was going to be such a splendid clergyman's wife when I married you, but somehow it hasn't turned out like The Daisy Chain or The Lost Chronicles of Barset." But by continuing to carry out the ritual duties expected of her role, she restores herself: "'I wanted some little books suitable for confirmation candidates,' said Jane in a surprisingly firm and thoughtful tone. 'Not too High, you know' … By now it was almost teatime, [but] she would go without [it] as a kind of penance for all the times she had failed as a vicar's wife."
In Excellent Women, Mildred Lathbury, the "just over thirty" unmarried daughter of a country clergyman, is drawn to worship at St. Mary's Church, "on the wrong side of Victoria Station," because it is relatively "High." This mild rebellion against the wishes of her dead parents involves Mildred in the lives of Father Julian Malory, his sister Winifred, and their boarder, Mrs. Allegra Gray, who has romantic designs on the unmarried rector. Mildred has more opportunities than most of the "excellent women" of the parish to involve herself with men and the possibility of marriage. But she exercises a firm sense of choice, clarified for her through simple domestic ritual: "As I moved about the kitchen getting china and cutlery, I thought, not for the first time, how pleasant it was to be living alone … I might be going to have a 'full life' after all."
Although Pym's early characters are not moved to profound meditation, they experience the joy of making quiet decisions about their own lives in the presence of ordinary human reality. A young anthropology student, Deidre Swan, in Less Than Angels (1956) draws insight for us: "Yes, I suppose it's comforting to see people going about their humdrum business … At home her mother would be laying the breakfast and later her aunt would creep down to see if she had done it correctly. And they would probably go on doing this all of their lives." Pym keeps faith with life itself, even its trivialities.
One never hears the actual sound of terror in Pym's early novels. Her first heroine, Belinda Bede in Some Tame Gazelle only suggests unspoken depths by ruminating, "If only one could clear out one's mind and heart as ruthlessly as one did one's wardrobe." But two later heroines, Letty Crowe in Quartet in Autumn and Leonora Eyre in The Sweet Dove Died do encounter "nothingness" and the "horror of being." The quartet in autumn are lonely government clerks—Letty, Marcia, Norman and Edwin—who have worked together many years in an airless London office, but have shared very little of themselves. When facing retirement, Letty awakens from a dream about her youth: "All gone, that time, those people … [she] lay for some time meditating on the strangeness of life slipping away like this." At the office retirement party for herself and Marcia Ivory, the host does not even know what their jobs were, only that he has no reason to replace them. At this point, Letty experiences utter helplessness: "It seemed to Letty that what cannot now be justified has perhaps never existed, and it gave her the feeling that she and Marcia had been swept away as if they had never been. With this sensation of nothingness she entered the library."
The quartet hesitantly tries to redefine itself when Norman and Edwin plan a reunion luncheon. Shortly after, when Marcia, the most eccentric of the group, dies, the three survivors follow her to the crematorium and afterward share their second meal. Returning that night to her eighty-one-year-old landlady, Letty is renewed with another cup of tea: "There was something to be said for tea and a comfortable chat about crematoria." At the end of the novel, she looks forward to a day in the country with Edwin, Norman, and Marjorie, her only sustaining friend. Planning such a day "made one realize that life still held infinite possibilities for change." To rescue herself from emotional deprivation, Letty must find significant forms and ceremonies. Pym insists that rituals preserve one from experiencing chaos, but such actions must spring from the ability of the character to assent to the realities of her own existence. Letty's picnic is thus an affirmation of life, a free act of faith.
One of Pym's most complex heroines, Leonora Eyre (A Sweet Dove Died) is unappealingly selfish and snobbish. A collector of Victoriana, she admits to insulating herself against disagreeable realities: "Life is only tolerable if one takes a romantic view of it … And yet it's wicked, really, when there's all this misery and that sort of thing, but one feels so helpless—I mean, what can one do?" Approaching fifty, Leonora rejects a wealthy antique dealer, Humphrey Boyce, in favor of his twenty-four-year-old bisexual nephew, James, whom she loses to a malicious homosexual. James feels that Leonora would have been able to deal with his relationship with Ned had she the ability to lose her perfect control and "been just a little angry." But unknown to James, Leonora does experience disintegration. She enters into a cycle of despair, suffering migraines and sleeping fitfully. Her first crisis occurs in a Knightsbridge tearoom where she is conscious of belonging "with the sad jewelry and the old woman and the air of things that had seen better days." Among the "cast off crusts, the ruined cream cakes and the cigarette ends," Leonora feels "debased, diminished, crushed and trodden into the ground, indeed brought to a certain point of dilapidation. I am utterly alone, she thought."
Later, she humiliates herself further by sobbing uncontrollably in front of Meg, a younger friend who has been tormented in her love for a homosexual man. Until now, Leonora has offered her little comfort. During these two crises, Leonora creates new meaning for herself, however, by relinquishing her false pride and dignity; shallow refinements, at the beginning of the novel, now deepen into a kind of courage. But, even though Leonora grows in sympathy and sensitivity, Pym still does not claim too much for her. After all, the mode of The Sweet Dove Died is essentially ironic. Yet, for Pym, style is a way of coping with modern pressures, even if it cannot resolve them.
Other characters, too, relieve their isolation by discovering their own private ceremonies, for contemporary life, according to Pym's later fiction, is very unfestive. Even in a world of structured social effort, the individual is more isolated than ever. For example, the social worker assigned to Marcia Ivory (Quartet in Autumn) has little insight into the old woman's profound loneliness, let alone her peculiar habit of collecting, washing, and stacking discarded milk bottles. The gerontologist's mother-in-law in A Few Green Leaves finds more comfort participating in parish coffees than by adhering to diet charts and exercise schedules. In comparison to the present, the past is rich with natural rituals which provide assurance and connection.
If Pym's characters are in search of order and ceremony, it is ironic, indeed, that the Anglican Church, so pervasive in her novels, is never the source of inspiration for renewing one's faith. Even though Catherine Oliphant in Less Than Angels (1955) and Rupert Stonebird in An Unsuitable Attachment (1963) want to return to church, it offers little for them except the comfort of nostalgia. After her retirement, Letty Crowe tries "to discover what church-going held for people, apart from habit and convention, wondering if it would hold anything for her and if so what form this would take." Attending Stations of the Cross, she hears the litany, "'From pain to pain, from woe to woe' … but Letty's thoughts had been on herself and how she should arrange the rest of her life." The remaining trio in Quartet in Autumn finds redemption in the hope of Letty's picnic, not the celebration of liturgical ritual. Even within the church, Pym's characters are left to discover their own rites of affirmation.
In Pym's view of the modern world, only the resiliency of human nature generates the rebirth of a dead soul. But celebration will, in fact, occur, if only with a cup of tea and a "comfortable chat about crematoria." Acknowledging that "life bruises one," Wilmet Forsyth, for example, elevates her own life "in a glass of blessings," (1958) and looks forward to dinner with "Sybil and Arnold, a happy and suitable ending to a good day."
Such ordinary characters are at home in the literary imagination of Barbara Pym. To minimize this tone of her high comedy would be to deny the core of Pym's vision. But one must also admit that Pym's fiction shares in the existential temper of the modern novel. Her canon evolves toward the certainty that an individual can rescue herself from chaos, can affirm herself in a leap of faith which springs from a willingness to confront the terms of her own life. That life which Catherine Oliphant describes as "comic and sad and indefinite—dull, sometimes, but seldom really tragic or deliriously happy, except when one's very young."
This section contains 2,484 words
(approx. 9 pages at 300 words per page)