Tuesday, March 17, 2015

No Fond Return of Love by Barbara Pym

Cover image by amazon, from Moyer Bell 2002 edition

British novelist Barbara Pym died in 1980, but her comic spirit lives on. Indeed she is now the subject of the Barbara Pym Society, which meets annually at St. Hilda's College, Oxford. In 2002 Moyer Bell reissued this 1961 novel and some of her others.

The story centres around a woman working on the "seedier fringes of the academic world." Dulcie Mainwaring attends an editing conference to distract herself from a broken engagement.

When Aylwin Forbes, a handsome middle-aged academic, faints in the midst of his keynote address on "Some problems of editors," Dulcie stands ready to help.

Soon, she begins to fantasize about him. She also meets Viola, an editor who informs her that she happens "to know him rather well." Viola is doing an index for a book Aylwin has written on an extremely obscure poet. She informs Dulcie that he is married, but only "in a sense," revealing that Marjorie, his much younger wife, has gone home to her mother.

Aylwin Forbes is hopelessly immature. Yet although Dulcie sees his flaws, she cannot stop her sympathetic heart from warming to him. Viola, too has ideas about him. However, he makes a point of avoiding her, even when she offers to do his index for free.

Dulcie's young niece Laurel comes to stay with her aunt, and later, Viola too moves in with Dulcie. The two older ladies begin to spy on Aylwin Forbes, and eventually Dulcie finds a reason to ask him to dinner. Instead of showing appropriate interest in either of the academic women, Forbes takes a fancy to the nineteen-year-old niece. Laurel finds it amusing but ridiculous when he pursues her and eventually proposes, particularly as he is still married to Marjorie.

Much of the hilarity of this novel concerns the stultifying behavioural rules. However, Dulcie breaks some of these. When she meets Aylwin while strolling on the beach, she surprises herself by accusing him of always wanting "such unsuitable wives." Aylwin defends himself lightly, but Dulcie presses the point: it's time he made a sensible marriage. She is horrified by the thought that she might be "putting herself forward as a possible candidate," which of course she is.

Aylwin is stopped in his tracks by this sincerity, thinking that "nice Miss Mainwaring" may have "hidden depths." In fact he realizes he is "almost afraid of her."

Dulcie, on the other hand, wonders "how we could ever carry on everyday life" if people said what they really thought. She sits "humbly" in the beach shelter, unsure of "what could have made her talk to Aywin Forbes like that."

Pym spoofs the rigidity and insincerity of social intercourse in many brilliant lines. She refers to the housekeeper's "off-hand tone" as "a sure indication of umbrage having been taken." On one occasion, the sympathetic Dulcie wonders why Aylwin is "talking in this odd pseudo-Henry-Jamesian way." Is it "an affectation, the outcome of his sojourn in Italy," or does it "indicate real uncertainty of mind?"

Aylwin himself, upon learning that Laurel is now his neighbour, "decides against a chance encounter at the bus stop" but wonders "whether a chance evening encounter might not be arranged." When he contrives to meet her alone, he murmurs "romantic phrases" and moves his hands "with practised skill." Instead of claiming that his wife doesn't understand him, he tells Laurel that he doesn't understand his wife, which she perceives as "a new line and rather effective."

In Pym's world, even thoughts are conventional. For those who live behind the "thickets of net curtains," there's a "perfunctory tone" to invitations. Women dress with "uncompromising dowdiness" or exhibit "frowsty bohemianism."  At a seaside hotel, Dulcie sadly observes the "hopeless resignation that people on holiday so often seem to have."

This is a society where "change is a bad thing." The "absence of Sunday papers is deeply felt," and the fact of Viola wears red canvas shoes makes her appear "eccentric or even unhinged." In his hotel room, Aylwin puts the gin bottle in the cupboard because it does not look right on the dressing table.

Sadly, "weeds grow, even in a religious community." Dulcie encounters the handsome Neville Forbes, Aylwin's vicar brother, wandering around his mother's country hotel in his cassock, where he had fled a woman parishioner who made a scene. Dulcie observes that this "white-toothed blue-rinsed clergyman," is "unable even to wait tables." She also reflects that non-churchgoers often accuse those who attend church of "uncharitableness."

Fortunately things look brighter near the end the book. When Viola gets engaged to a Viennese businessman, we learn that "The sight of a foaming champagne bottle can produce laughter and gaiety even in a suburban drawing room."

The novel closes on a note of hope. Dulcie Mainwaring is blessed, after all, with money, a house and an education (even though her housekeeper disapprovingly wonders what it will lead to). The final lines suggest that Miss Mainwaring may be about to get over her notion that it is "safer to live in the lives of other people," and begin to occupy her own life.

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