Yesterday I had a lovely Pym-ish morning. Hubby was out power walking in the cold wind. But I was lolling on the sofa in our sun room, cup of tea at my elbow, gazing out the window at the sun sparkling on the water, the receding snow on the lawn, and the ducks waddling around on the ice that, carried by the swift spring current, flowed past our waterfront. I was lolling and rereading Excellent Women, my favourite Barbara Pym novel. All was quiet, except for the rustle of a page or the clink of my cup in the saucer.
I love quiet, gentle books. That might sound odd coming from someone who just wrote a post on books about war, and who loves mysteries and crime fiction; I’ve written several posts on murder and mayhem. But every now and again I need a Pym fix. I need to read quiet, lovely books that make the smallest details of everyday life seem endlessly interesting, and worthy of observation and dissection. Books like those written by Barbara Pym.
Pym’s novels are the very opposite of the sweeping saga, or the shocking blockbuster; they could never be described as “stunningly ambitious” or “jaw-droppingly suspenseful.” They are lovely, gentle, wry tales of unremarkable Vicar’s daughters, and quiet middle-aged spinsters. Pym’s characters live mostly unnoticed by society, always in the background of life, but their skills of observation and ironic sense of humour are… well… stunningly sharp.
I first discovered Barbara Pym when I found a copy of Excellent Women at a used book store back in the 1980’s. I loved her work immediately, but it seemed that no one else I knew had heard of her. So I was delighted when, after mentioning her name to a new colleague a few years later, I arrived at work the next day to find a pile of Pym’s books on my desk. This was when my friend S and I discovered that we were indeed kindred spirits, especially about books.
I read all of my friend’s copies of Pym’s novels, and then went out and bought my own copies. I adore her work. I love the way she writes of the minutiae of everyday life. The church jumble sales, the click of knitting needles, a string bag holding a few bits of shopping and a library book, endless cups of tea. I love it all. Her books never shout, are always calm, and the characters eminently sensible. Too much emotion, one learns, is in poor taste, adversity is to be squarely faced, one’s tears must be dried, one’s shoulders set and then after a cup of strong tea, life must be “got on with.” There’s just something so quietly hopeful, and restorative about reading Barbara Pym’s gentle stories.
And rereading Excellent Women lead me to my other favourite book of the same ilk, Anita Brookner’s Hotel du Lac. Another quiet book about an unassuming writer (and spinster) named Edith Hope who lives on the periphery, makes wry observations about life in general, and other women in particular. I love Edith’s take on what she calls “ultra-feminine” women, those “complacent consumers of men with their complicated but unwritten rules of what is due to them. Treats. Indulgences. Privileges. The right to make illogical fusses. The cult of themselves.” I guess we could all name a few “media darlings” who might fit that profile.
As Mick Brown shows in his excellent piece in The Telegraph, “A Singular Woman,” Brookner, like her characters and those of Barbara Pym, also looks life and adversity squarely in the face. I like that quality. You should read Brown’s interview with Brookner. She is a remarkable woman.
Neither Pym nor Brookner married, remaining spinsters all their lives. And so their seeming preoccupation with unmarried women seems natural. Spinsters have long been relegated to the bottom rung of society… just read Jane Austen. But unlike Austen’s characters, many of Pym’s and Brookner’s heroines choose spinsterhood over marriage. In fact, Brookner’s character, Mildred, in Hotel du Lac chooses spinsterhood twice.
I hadn’t really thought about this until I read Hannah Rosefield’s article in The New Yorker. “Barbara Pym And the New Spinster” looks at “female singleness” and how the spinsters in Pym’s work (and I think in Brookner’s) choose to remain single “in part because marriage does not seem to offer an improvement on their current state.” You can read Rosefield’s article in its entirety here.
In her article, Rosefield also mentions a new book coming out this month. Spinster: Making a Life of One’s Own, written by Kate Bollick, is according to Rosefield, “part memoir part social history.” Rosefield says, “Bollick hopes that ‘spinster’ might become ‘shorthand for holding on to that in you which is independent and self-sufficient, whether you’re single or coupled.'”
Cool. So…in that case, I think… I mean, I’m pretty sure… that despite twenty-five years of marriage… I might still be a spinster? Hmmmm.
Now, I’d better go make myself a cup of tea and think about that. It might even require more lolling on the sofa. And maybe some research. I’ll have to get myself a copy of Kate Bollick’s new book. And of course do more gentle reading. Now where did my copy of my second favourite Barbara Pym novel?
Are you a Barbara Pym or Anita Brookner fan?