Monday, December 9, 2013

Barbara Pym 101--Yet Another Post About Barbara Pym, But This Time We're Celebrating Her Birthday on January 2.

Yes, this is a continuation of my post from last January, "The Pym-iest of Pym posts." Since that post last January, we've increased Barbara Pym awareness dramatically. We brought in as many volumes as were available, and what with our staff rec displays, we went from 6 Barbara Pym books sold in 2012 to 53 in 2013. Hey, I consider that a success.

Featuring the books has uncovered many closeted Pym-philes. And this was another reason that led us to plan Barbara Pym 101, a celebration of her 101st birthday.

There was only one problem--I hadn't read Pym in years! I am not much of a rereader, but in this case, it just seemed like the right thing to do. For one thing, the only two books I haven't yet read was The Barbara Pym Cookbook, and the diaries and letters in A Very Private Eye, and neither one of those books was going to fulfill the the Pym-shaped hole in my heart. (I did, by the way, read Hazel Holt's biography, A Lot to Ask).

Jane, Anne, and I just had an organization meeting for this celebration. We'll have some refreshments, of course, and several folks speaking. Then we're going to open the room for reminiscences from attendees. We want you to share your Barbara Pym memories. In the case of Anne, she recalled visiting the Book Noon in Whitefish Bay in the 1970s, where Beverly first recommended the read. In my previous post, I mentioned being turned on to Pym by my friend Billy when I lived in New York, obsessing enough to buy the special edition E.P. Dutton hardcovers.  Amusingly enough, when these were added to the Ingram database, they seemed so cheap that they were coded as paperbacks.

You know the story, right? Pym published through 1961 and when her next book was rejected, she stopped writing. She started again in 1977 after interest in her work fireballed and that book, Quartet in Autumn, was shortlisted for The Booker Prize. Per Fantastic Fiction, here is her bibliography.

Some Tame Gazelle (1950)
Excellent Women (1952)
Jane and Prudence (1953)
Less Than Angels (1955)
A Glass of Blessings (1958)
No Fond Return of Love (1961)
Quartet in Autumn (1977)
The Sweet Dove Died (1978)
A Few Green Leaves (1980)
An Unsuitable Attachment (1982)
Crampton Hodnet (1985)
An Academic Question (1986)
Civil to Strangers: And Other Writings (1987)

I decided to start with Some Tame Gazelle, Barbara Pym's first-published novel. While Excellent Women is probably best known, and is the only book still published by Penguin, I thought it might be fun to move chronologically. The term "excellent women" came to be associated with that Pym heroine.

Set in small town in England, the focus is on Belinda Bede and her sister Harriet, two fifty-something sisters, rather comfortable but hardly wealthy. Belinda is the quiet and somewhat nervous one, pining away for the town's Archdeacon Henry Hoccleve, who spurned her some thirty years ealier. He's long-married to Agatha, a somewhat pushy woman who to Belinda's mind, doesn't treat Henry very well.

While Belinda is reticent and obsessed with protocol, Harriet is outgoing and flirtatious, obsessed with the latest fashion trends, and fending off proposals from their neighbor, Count Ricardo Bianco. More than anything, she loves coddling the young curates, and she's got a live one in Edgar Donne. Add to that a few other town ladies, plus some male visitors to town (including a Bishop), and you've got something between Jane Austen and a contemporary teenage comedy.

I didn't know how I'd react to Pym after so many years, but within fifty pages I was completely immersed in the Bedes' world, sighing at their setbacks, and giggling with delight at their triumphs and revelations. At one point, Harriet is contemplating the affections of Nathaniel Mold, the Deputy Librarian, and while she has explained away the fact that she spotted him coming out of a public house of all things, in the morning, no less, shes' still concerned.

"How could one possibly know all the things that had to be known about a person at first sight. Belinda had said she believed Mr. Mold had a very nice house, but then poor Belinda was so vague and for all that the house might be semidetached and not at all in an advantageous position."

I don't even know what an advantageous position means, but I can only imagine falling for someone and learning that their house was semi-detached.

Belinda's obsession with the Archbishop drives the heart of the story, just one of several unrequited loves in the plotline. But her loyalty seemingly knows no bounds, and the more that Henry reveals himself to be a pompous and rather lazy bore, the more Belinda makes excuses. Yes, you want to kick her, but really, how bad is this anyway? And so there's a bit of philosophy to the whole thing. What exactly do we want for the sisters? Answer: their happiness of course, but sometimes our expectations of happy endings aren't exactly grounded in reality.

About halfway through Some Tame Gazelle, I had the revelation that this is actually my third time reading this book. At first I was disappointed; I'm positive that there are many Pym novels I've only read once. But then I thought about the folks I know who reread books every year (To Kill a Mockingbird has been mentioned, as has The Lord of the Rings trilogy and the Harry Potter series) and I thought, so I read a book every ten years. Must all my reading be to support and author event?

In addition to the Open Road titles, published earlier this year, three volumes of Pym were released by Coffeetown Press. They are the last three books: Crampton Hodnet, An Academic Question, and Civil to Strangers. Jane is a fan of these covers. 

And then I thought that in a way, this was to support an author event, only without the author. Don't forget, "Barbara Pym 101" is Thursday, January 2, 2014.

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