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Barbara Pym Excellent Women

Barbara Pym Excellent Women

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Published by Cecilia Kennedy
Article on author's Barbara Pym's female characters
Article on author's Barbara Pym's female characters

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Published by: Cecilia Kennedy on Jul 18, 2013
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bered with Much Serving: bara Pym's "Excellent Women"

would anyone want to marry anyone?" asks the narrator of Barbara sixth novel, No Fond Return of Love (1961).1 Why indeed. Why not spinster or bachelor, widow or widower, than suffer all the bother entails? One consideration assuredly is that singlenesshas historically led deprivation and been seen as a negative state, more so for women for men. Why marry at all? Perhaps just to escape the stigma of the



The attitude that singleness equals deviation i~ ~Videntthroughout history, ~,,:cordingto sociologist Jessie Bernard, who relates the increase in the nomenon to industrialization-when the shift from cottage crafts to production left unmarried women at home, dependent and under••lued. Devaluation of spinsters, moreover, is similar in Western and Eastern tultures, even though the latter assumes greater familial or community ...tesponsibility for never-married women. In Women in the Muslim World demographer Nadia Youssef observes marriage to be virtually the only life for women in Muslim societies and notes that "severe comcensure of spinsterhood is the norm." Similarly, even pre-industrial have displayed chronic displeasure with~ingle women. W()rking "the history of British emigration patterns, Julia Spruill in .Wo 1J1 en sLife Work in the Southern Colonies records outrageous maltreatment of in the eighteenth century. Ne~spapersfrequently characterized

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in fact. resourceful as Anna Vorontosov of Sylvia Ashton-Warner's electric novel Spinster (1958) Of as Doris Lessing's enigmatic poet in "Our Friend Judith. In the later novels her extends to contemporary social dilemmas: the welfare of those alone. misanthropic. Bennet finds the prospect of spinster unnerving. "Providence is wonderful kind to plain. with a knack of themselves useful.central to all of Pym's novels but fertile ground for development of her narratives: parish politics. Here. and the popular sensation-novelist Mary Elizabeth Braddon promising. Austen and beyond. or the dotty expatriate of Olivia Manning's The Tree. churchly custom. literary career is not a story of continued success. Rarely is the single woman singleness-as vigorous. In time the male noun tookon meaning until. Escott identifying England as a country enough of leisure. H.. singleness and the correlations linking each to happiness."! My concern in this essay is to account for this through a consideration of the subject matter of Pym's fiction. Mrs. fared less well." Church of England-high or low. Oxford. independent." To be sure. S. codified the word as a sign of it remained for society to establish derogatory connotations. _to denote their the seventeenth century was added "as the proper legal designation of unmarried. Focus narrows in her early novels to an evaluation of and singleness as inherently positive or negative states or to an . peculiar parishioners with right names like Fabian Driver. of marriage and singleness on personality and character. But by the fourteenth ster was "appended to names of women . on one hand.••. harvest festivals to complement the spiritual sustenance . and spinsterdom". the spinster has led a hard fictional life. however. delicious humor and engaging warmth. singleness is suspect. such prejudice exposed the a spinster "was often a dependent and unwanted guest in the married brother or sister. The word spinster.'? Despite such attitudes. a pivotal setting. more likely in the oven and a bemused. but one of initial productivity and popularity (five novels from 1950-61) by a sixteen-year hiatus and then a spectacular come-back-signalled eloquent assessments of her work by Philip Larkin and David Cecil in Literary Supplement in 1977 and culminating in Anna Shapiro's Saturday Review observation that "Today something like Pym-mania the literary world.all contribute to effects. by the thirteenth century. At first the term siznifie or a woman regularly engaged in spinning. Pym received an Honors from St. Pym presents a far-reaching portrayal of a but ignored by researchers in sociology. wives and hell-bent on finding a husband. greedy. garden whist parties. many more powerful examples exist." Statute. Graham Barbara Pym's Fiction 143 them as homely. Hilda's College. the last two posthumously. Sir Denbigh Grote. S~rubsole and Daphne DagneU." 142 Robert J. That it evident in custom and verified by the ample literary and historical the OED su ppl ies: Dickens writing of a Pickwick Cl ub member that' and the spinster aunt established a joint-stock company of fish and historian T. a root word for bachelor. or amatory intrigue. these attacks mirrored society's general unmarried and the belief that everyone had responsibility for population. Spruill declares. in 1934. Always disrespectful times vicious. unsexed maidens paper mill. over the thirty-two years nine more were issued. Daughter of a Shropshire solicitor. ironic ruminating about life's quirky es. and of changing cultural attitudes toward the singlenessissue. psychology and gerontology." * * * vagaries of heterosexual relationships. nit-picking. through her treatment of the never-married woman as she evolves stages in her spinsterhood. or the morbid eccentric of Faulkner's Light in August Absalom!. Finally. the responsibility of traditional institutions toward the elderly. it indicated a knight too merit his own banner. sponsors jumble sales. little spinsters. served as a WREN in England from 1943 to 1946. with t.••• ment of marriage as an imperative to experiencing life fully. and Melville in "The Paradise of Bachelors" and "The Tartarus of contrasts revelling single men with dispirited. the most frequently used words describing have not always had negative connotations. Pym sets in motion a on marriage idyll and spinster myth. idleness. Pym published her first novel in 1950. it appears. The probably alluded to a field laborer. A century later bachelor meant anyone of unmarried although of marriageable age. fish. Writers have drawn her as helpful though benignever at home waiting to serve." All becomes the baleful former-nanny of Joyce's "Clay. while the gloomy. constitute major theme. flattery or gloom for Barbara Pym's spinster. realistic The vicarage. bad-tempered. as in parallel fashion sp named someone who spun yarn. however. on the other. and as an assistant editor of Africa from 1958 her retirement in 1974. however. tyrannical Miss Murdstone of David . the OED curious etymological history for the terms bachelor and spinster and revealing examples of their uneven valuation. Mary Beamish. (1850) emerges as a severe caricature of the single woman. In Prejudice (1813). Baccalaria. a prismatic examination of love." an anachronwhom "nice" is enough. In fiction from through Sterne. or the arcane esthete of Virginia Woolf's of Being". refers to an area of plowed land. Then and to a great extent ever since.

And they are sought after as What they do or do not do in the novels forces things to happen. particularly those of love and marriage. to things as they are. flat figures-even to their unlilting names. Jessica. William Caldicote bolsters his advice by uding: "I always think of you as being so very balanced and sensible. psychological.8 Ready to clean up if necessary. Throughout the novels such women are set socially. . they are physically attractive. finds satisfaction in comparing herself to but Mildred Lathbury of Excellent Women (1952) recognizes "the. too close to the everyday lives of bachelors. Avice. 150). who could not comfortably sit and conversation when she knew that yesterday's unwashed dishes were the sink" (p. they at getting others to do more than a fair share. Like excellence resides in reluctant usefulness and with her they "cumbered" with "much serving" (Luke 10:30). unthreatening company. not in terms of job or profession modest private incomes). to fill in a excellent women prove pleasant. gh the depth and variety of Mildred's discernments and those of heroines in the early novels.' rs and couples to be merely entertaining. characteristically. Their very names awaken curiosity: Agatha. For Belinda else will do. freeing others for more important tasks. Indifferent housekeepers and cooks. the Martha.excellent women are the type a woman's magazine improve. for excellent often intelligent. For example Some Tame Gazelle begins the arrival of a new curate and ends with a glimpse at his replacement.marIf. 67). consciously sets herself tasks of dispassionate scrutiny. And in large measure • err Observations affirm spinsterhood~while casting doubt upon marriage. to serve tea during crisis. Some (1950). excellent women still manage to kar the brunt of introspection and insight with bemused detachment. 189). the satire and the apt or devastating quote from English poetry (excellent women are anthologies) comes an introspective realism edged with hard wit. an Oxford University librarian and a missionary bishop. . the more the merrier . is generated by the arrival of new curates. But the true matter of Pyrn's novels is neither theological nor academic: it ubial. With visits by old friends. myriad personal and domestic talents. Jane. fickle. educated. Archdeacon Hoccleve. Furthermore. Rhoda. an excellent woman. Nor do they deserve such treatment. the raillery. and spirited independence. story line follows two threads: the subtle. my dear Mildred. Ever optimistic. Dulcie=.. Harriet boisterously. Although the phrase "excellent women" does not appear until book by that title. observing the mating >i8d near-mating going on around them. to a "fire brightly" (p. Allegra.144 Robert J.women are not sought as wives. loyal. They are workers. Barbara Pym places Belinda at the beginning those admirable women who clearly reap less than they sow. spinster in me. are the observers of life. vicarages harbor eligible males-or hesitant bachelors. they the mundane. volatile. Here the ooncepts of excellent woman and singleness-as·reservoir-of· " libt>f'tal'powers come together. brings together in high comic fashion two of her chief interests. Mildred. With the caricature. they are the observers. troublesome figures who reap more than formidable women later emerge in her writing as more positive and strong-willed. yet formidable women . but because. "'. eager or skeptical widowers. plain... like the Biblical Martha. Pym fashions a\)mbolic scene in which a former boyfriend recommends that Mildred never . I do pope you're not thinking of getting married? .Ch ih . Graham Barbara Pym 's Fiction 145 drawn from formal church services.inept or capable master one constant anomaly: men. Both Bede sisters are spinsters in their fifties and neither has the idea of marriage. alternately sharpor sullen-and cunning. frivolous they may be. Outsiders. for full participants in life's joys. 7). Overwrought. Mary. ". What such characters observe permits f author to consider the social. What her protagonists think deeply about is the serious matter marriage and singleness. Life centers in the parish for heroines because their devotion is real and the church commun their social needs. gathered about the nature of male-female relationships brush painfully. come to see themselves more as close of life than as participants. characteristicher plots are deceivingly simple. She hasn't talent for observation" (p. . briskly market but still prefers young curates. incidental to love and marriage. Friends their willingness to be inconvenienced. new acquaintances forget their names or fail to recall met them. physical and spiritual aspects n:ale·female attitudes toward marriage and singleness.iounderscoreMildred Lathbury's role in Excellent Women. for ClCellf'nt women do.. even tenor of Belinda's ~u\)mllip with the man she has loved for thirty years and the comic liasons sister Harriet with an odd assortment of pseudosuitors. eminently capable of life's vagaries with but one exception: their relationships with men positive qualities aplenty. Little the excitement beginning and ending Pym's first novel. sensitive. to lend a sympathetic ear. the church counts on the selfless work. •. e. willing for the neighbor's moving van. she consciously expectations to fantasies about his becoming a widower. Let Dora marry if she likes. matters al and academic. despite cooking and housekeepingskiIl. Yet. rited. a spins Less Than Angels (1955).. causing Bel remark that her sister Harriet is "especially given to Clergymen" (p. Others corroborate Mildred's "talent". Pym broadens treatment of her theme. Let other people get married all means. Counterpointing these "excellent women" are Pym's "formidable Initially distinctive. In contrast Belinda thirty-year love for her pastor. but since he is long married. the surface not much seems to happen in Pym's novels.

' If women cannot be regarded as intellectual equals. So intellectual companionship. when Catherine Oliphant feels stifled by just a weeks of family life.someone with "similar academic and literary interests. In No Fond Return of Love. 8). this excellent woman is too hard on herself. In the first instance.?" That head.the author's ten hovels. she thinks. For instance. . childish. nor does a single male match excellent women's passion for literature. No man sees there an advantage. Research into the attitudes of never-married women toward Pym's characterization of male frailty. phrase.as well as interesting intellectuallyare homosexuals. the assistaru in mind begins with typing and ends with proofreading. the well-married heroine of A Glass . initially." Heilbrun cites male dominthroughout society and within conventional marriage structures. a which encourages women to abandon personal inclinations "as the of wifehood. those excellent women whose training extends beyond kitchen and assign priority to the work of their men." (p. the tendency toward a one-sided acquiescence or which neutralizes personalities and sends excellent women refuge in singleness. Demonstr the most imaginative and creative men in Pyrn's fiction . Mildred thinks of heras "mousy and rather plain" (p. With Pym's earlier excellent women.. 13).. as sustainer of husband whose primary orientation is with the larger world. in Less Than Angels finds one suitor to be no more than a child and another needing men . "abandonment of personality. . Heterosexual or not. unassertive.>liet~Sa full life.iYAccommodation is not.nothing. a woman stronger than himself. 28). 7). Women like her. ."? Nor does Pym ascribe to the commonly held notion that companionship is another mutual advantage married couples may single persons. a condievolving from woman's role as secondary in marriage. 242). she is not and acts intelligently. and the comfort of the daily round in cosy apartment frame her life. Tom Mallow in Less Than Angels wonders if can type his thesis since the woman he is living with seems too bus y. she discovers. 238). -~ t·.c. makes and wives "grow to be like each other" (p. a range of experience to single women? Observation proves otherwise: when Jane the protagonist of Jane and Prudence (1953). throughout the novel. lives alone. has "no apparent ties" (p." fearful of competition.. suffers from "desire unformulated" (p. One feisty British spinster surveyed by sociologist Jeremy claimed: "She does not respect men much . with effect. coupled with her unmarried .. finally they have one head.: like herself .given a modicum of companionship and freedom. whom he expects to marry. Few men in Pym's novels are truly intellectual. M. Marriage. the numerous facets of the married-singleness to this conclusion fall into two areas: the value of mutuality and ences necessary to a full life. is shared responsibility. communicate. this respect Belinda suggests recurring social and psychological atticlosely allied to an ancient Yiddish folk-saying: "when a husband and sleep on one pillow. expect "very little . [his 1 fa the small boy.. for behind . Faithful attendance at church. Belinda Bede remarks. 36). Pym's archetypal spinster. Again and again. . The problem is washing up. 219). in short. however. she has noticed. "You don't know what it is to lose y you love" (p. is nuntster's daughter. it is not the presence of marital tension that Pym's heroines but the absence. studies by Elmer ~jJl'-'H~' Lawrence E. enrichment. in Return of Love. . Further. Attracted to a ten years his junior. they can at in men'swork. . freighted with imperfections glossed over by willing women. "'. when Wilmet. is invariably male. part-time charity work for poverished gentlewomen" (p. the expected deference. Dulcie foresees his unnamed love to be sorucou his own age. which she feels to be a duplicate ofthe one had lived with her parents in a country rectory. would be a union erodes a woman's individuality. work tacitly acknowledged by excellent women important than their own. when a forty-seven-year-old literary scholar intention to remarry. the most fully-delineated characl~ . pologists and other academic men repeatedly patronize women-o~ them-so that none of the literate and articulate protagonists is her mind. Inter never-married women suggest that many have found men lacking perception. what Mildred Lathbury has in mind: she . the ego-boosting: in Pym's are inherently inferior. claims Heilbrun in Reinventing Womanhood. 68). mostPym protagonists perceive marriage to be The foremost horror. she men to be fickle. "thornless. Just past thirty.Barbara Pym's Fiction 146 147 Robert J. Pym's j ~ shouldn't marriage offer the mutual joy of being with and looking other? Bu t in the experience of inany Pym protagonists men seem the more looking after. Riley-and others+ indicate single men are inferior in occupation and income to their female counterparts and not nearly as women at creating a fulfilling lifestyle for themselves. Quoting E. Russell Ward has shown to be better adjusted than single men.. sometimes "spinsterish useless" (p. Graham Collectively. Ironically..which. t" (p. for exa Mainwaring suffers abiding disappointment from what she believes natural weakness of men."!' The only solution. 145) and yearns to Thus despite the attitude typified by the widow in Less Than who snaps at her spinster sister. she argues.the evidence of their their dependence on women. could not one find opportunity for growth. uncertain of himself" (p. makes certain her involvement in others' lives. and displaying modest abilities are not attracted to thinking women. cannot manage and a literary career. He then declares his fondness for Dulcie's guished nineteen-year-old niece. :s (1958).

arguments exist for si life by remaining unmarried. they reason. therefore. 106). Finding advantages in spinsterhood becomes increasingly difficult for D~!Cie Mainwaring. love.1OS). She values but does not cherish her independence. Mary's. usel toward compromise. In a complex world.?" Furthermore. Helena. however. because society has not . candid. "and somehow I do not think we ever imagined the husbands to :I\ :. At one point Mildred is about singleness as "a positive rather than a negative state" (p. heroines without family-are attracted to marriage as a means of "~ . She recognizes that excellent women. Again the machinations of marriage shape the testing ground for a spinster's speculations abou relative merits of matrimony and singleness. the answer would seem to be yes. marriage or not. but though excellent women often enjoy living alone and emphasize features of single life they find pleasing. That society may be mistaken is the conclusion of P. they also admit the pleasure to maintain. As evidence against marriage builds. retirement brings more adjustment problems . eavesdrops. children as the only certain route fora to contentment and a full experience of life? Presumably. most spinsters. "Even in a world that offered such a variety. she cautions. . however. HaVing recently suffered a broken engagement-someone younger than she bad found himself unworthy of so excellent a woman -'. ' at least. the less. cooking and cleaning-presumed services. considering the altemativ to marriage available to women since the 1960s.. 176). she conceals a wry wittiness by her sharpest comments to herself. they conclude. Graham Furthermore. They endure the Barbara Pym 's Fiction 149 strutiny for the ring on the left hand. when reviewing the inherent limitations of a serious relationship with a scholarly man to whom she is Jllildly attracted. not over-sympathetic. Stein's rather positive study which discovers that many unmarrieds have satisfying lifestyles free of the limits marriage places on independell~ mobility and cross-sexual friendships. Unlike Belinda she has not suffered requited love. A less-cluttered existence and increased freedom notwithstanding. "Was any man worth this burden?" she asks at the novel's end (p. In the second narrative sequence. a tendency toward an uYimate detachment. empty. " (p.. This inclination toward leads her to regard change as dangerous. For her. in the second stage of her publication will Pym include physical sex and its consequences in her narrative. she says. Although research within the social sciences has given little attention to -'--"J never-married women. home from World War II naval service. fOmfort. Furthermore. are ever forced to be on the defensive: presumed in crises to tea-makers and dish-washers. insulates one from hurt and humiliation. personal growth may be sacrificed. a formidable successful anthropologist just back from field work in Africa and with her husband.Dulcie moves beyond Pym heroines in a negative direction: she is closer to shutting out life than to finding shelter in spinsterhood. presumed busybodies 'because presumed to have been unable to attract a man.. Moreover. in fact she responds bluntly to the Given to laconic self-deprecation.re more isolated than those who are married". the presumptive chores she sees accruing to her include indexing and proofreading. 237). there is the suspicion that life cannot be realized fully without romance. much of ". Mildred's church-life-and social center-suffers disruption through another female catalyst. Ieremy Tunstall has found older never-marrieds to be a vulnerable group in tish communities. Her voyeurism becomesa reliance on vicarious sensation. Dulcie-unlike other Pym protagonists-researches. even though independence. She is sorry to miss the experience marriage or even that of a lost love. 1. Lathbury still questions the viability of spinsterhood. Scanning her classmates at an alumni \\-eekend. British studies verify that "single older persons 'i. Mildred-feeling alone. becomes a reluctant intermediary. outspoken..Jessie Bernard observes in the 1980s non-marriage is more respectable than it was formerly.. she enJoys her work but feels most useful when aiding men with their work. capable-though a conventional wife or housekeeper-soon fall out and separate. and too Mildred is sought as mediator."rrl~~2:~\ seems drab routine and the superiority society assigns it over appears decidedly unfounded. Mildred possesses numerous admirable qualities: she and displays independence and dignity. not The Sweet Dove Died (1978). Yet. The wife.to the never-married than to the married. she just has not loved deeply nor been loved and longs to .. Mildred's placid domestic shaken by the arrival of new neighbors. she fears . follows. what of romance. No mere observer. who is vivacious." At heart.that the aging unmarried can become the unwanted. withholding information finds tedious or inappropriate to the topic of marriage versus single In the first of two narrative strands. Grey entraps the bachelor vicar of St. all does not go well. 12 Similarly. Since Mildred accepts the editing tasks. the preferred type of relationship [in a 1978 study 1 was the egalitarian . thinks. knowing they will lead to the domestic ones.. Mildred becomes unexpectedly practical.148 Robert J. she retains a strong authorial control. It is.. Catherine Tom in Less Than Angels are sharing more than her flat. Mildred acknowledges that what counts is having a husband be he . accepting spinsterhood. other Pym heroines she values independence and acts to preserve it. family. With him. meddles. "so much safer and more comfortable live in the lives of other people .be quite so uninteresting as they probably were" (p. she is loyal and judicious consoler of many and much put-upon in the excellent woman tradition.Jiable in later life. a who is as manipulative as formidable women get in Pym's fiction. strong-willed. provided institutional or ideological support "being single becomes less . spies. Mildred is a romantic. and links in an endless chain.t\-er so dull. the intensity of loss. not unexpectedly. Although Pym lets Mildred tell story.

a woman just turnCorner into spinsterdom. acknowledged as full life. Mildred and Belinda have their parish duties and a spinster in dotes excessively on her cat.?" Rather. precious little of the latter exists in the male-female dramatizes.cell"nt women. an appropriate verb for a common attitude.-.. Jane Cleveland man who would appreciate poetry. . these Ilmtagonists do experience intimate relationships. research into the importance of home for never-married women Pym's sense of the spinster's attachment to place has authentic corollaries. is the less painful approach to human ships that may go nowhere.!l. settles for "something to love" .\Jllterpointedin the narrative by the Prudence of the title. Linking the blossoms and her romantic she determines that neither has any permanence. For Mildred and 0 women who value intensely their homes and domestic sometimes react to emotional upsets with a flurry of household ritualization provides affirmation. Most recognize such love to be an ideal and in time that it is mutual love rather than the formal institution of marriage that . the major figures in these works. certainly something without or romance" (p. and Prudence the heroine has been married over twenty years and is i]. IS Jane Cleveland. lively single woman. and most heroines without men are able to find one or tive outlets for their affection.whether turtle or gazelle. Love is more problematical. beyond taking her cue from Thomas Bayley's ~. a few . What remains for Pym's women is a longing for love and -~.Barbara Pym 'sFiction 150 Robert J. With a possible demurral from Catherine who mentions wanting' excellent women appear to endure rather than enjoy children. however unsatisfactory. Catherine and Ianthe Broome. like a sensitive infolds to protect herself and withdraws to become a detached Detachment. A male friend transitory nature and Mildred replies: "I know the fluffiness but it's so lovely while it does" (p. Wilmet envies "really wicked (p. . Mildred chases a bunch of mimosa from a street barrow. Others.. 73). Heroines from Pym's first novel to her last find compensations for the that would ordinarily come from lover or husband but does not. in all the novels only one heroine is . most excellent women value even the unreciprocated experience as a full life. few men in the novels act toward women -wives or not-and none expresses love in the thoughtful ways these women desire. Church. U!LL_. or even woolen combinations. Pyrn's spinsters are serious about this matter and their responses range from Belinda's her loss. Other heroines wish to be loved just to know what it is like to be in an undefined special way by men. when home becomes clearly something beyond dwelling. Juxtaposing two characters. as the saying goes. nevertheless. "home has varying environmental and pyschological mffit. However. she that "Mimosa does lose its first freshness too quickly to be worth I must not allow myself to have feelings. Jane finds this irritating. she concludes.all meet the reciprocal need and offer satisfaction of some sort. endures the affronts. Dulcie izes that her own acts of love are important even when love is not frequently in the novels is another nagging question: is it better loved and lost than never . instead of and ending the narrative without a male companion. Ultimately.. however. J.* * * all novels written in the first stage of Barbara Pym's career contribute colloquy. as has been shown. Pym is then able to pursue her debate from a different perspective. At times the fondness they home-rituals functions as a substitute for social exchange and' the central question for Pym's spinsters remains the necessity loved by a man. finds that romantic evenings her anticipation of them. 158). of course. to Prudence's collecting lost loves as if they were trophies. . serves while others stand and wait." equates love with "a warm comfortable garment.l'n feeling the absence of lost love to be in itself a deprivation.she also draws warmth from her long unrequited love. However. Like Mildred Lathbury they want to be first in someone's eyes. it contributes to a sense of controlling one's environment often associated with psychological change. Less Than Angels and UnsuitableAttachment-gain an additional dimension through variations the author's usual mode of characterization. are indeed C'l. It is. men. but must only observe other people's" (p. Much thought about and desired by excellent women becomes more a theoretical matter than an actuality. bedperhaps. three novels-lane and prudence. a woman friend. finding she is "now lcontented spinster. Graham 151 establishing one. overt love-displacement in Pym's more actively linked to home and garden than to causes or pets. In a revealing scene well into Excellent Women. Through each variation portrayed.migh t agree with Belinda who. Horowitz and J. even an attractive. each in her way exhibits the identifying traits. But. one single and permits the author a close comparative study of the issues involved. one part of singleness colloquy which holds infinite mystery.~:. found. To single people living alone. without oflostlove-and mindful of the Ovaltine and water-bottle rituals ever for Pym spinsters. Mildred Lathbury would agree.)' and does not seem to depend upon traditional family structure for ing. 146) because they at least have something to dream about.i] Wilmet's friend in A Glass of Blessings promises not to "inflict" on her. 69).

. Some Tame Gazelle. marues. as the Causingthe affront which . PerhapsAn Unsuitable Attachment was merely wife who enhances their culturally conditioned self-image or m . 169).~UItablefor the times. and to keep the ship of state on an even keel"... coronation and helped foster a nostalgic hope for a new Elizabethan Era prosper is due. Churchill presided at the woman larger by far than her circumstances. and retain newly independent African countries junior. . excitement. and is five Into the Common Market. In 'Stability and pre-eminence were short-lived. Attachment (completed in 1963 but not published till 1982). most importantly. climbing unemployment and taxes.. unruffled and able. is neither her social nor her financial equal. Ianthe Broome extends the accommodation expected Less Than Angels-Harold Macmillan. Jane and Prudence.FcUowing Anthony Eden's year at Downing Street . bring Britain question. Belinda market because "many males in their active courting roles tend to Harriet Bede grown old.. finds him "boring and irritating" (p.. novels steeped More directly linked tothe recurrent concern Pym's heroines ex in fradition and notable for the very Englishness found appealing under the what is unquestionably "suitable" is her seventh novel.. a time independent single woman and those of the married state accrue to a . Excellent Women.. You're so beauty in the spinster's life than in Jane's=-despite the latter's marriag~ 1XI01 and collected and I'm sure a man would have to be almost perfect to a congenial man. Winston Churchill returned to an unconventional setting.. social position or income often operate to prevent Profumo scandal. especially in the works of . 193) and she hopes Prudence . "vihich might preserve the exalted tradition of British pre-eminence'?' less significant than Catherine's recognizing how closely their During the years of Churchill's final administration. an approach which her to probe one of the many kinds of behavior her other * * * "unsuitable. commenting on what constitutes a suitable marriage. however.the time Pym pu blished prospects. Prudence finds her life to be "rich and promise" (p. in 1952.. indepenaence. readers and associates that women with superior traits are rejected on the other concerns than parish politics. Elmer Spreitzer and Lawrence Riley.:t)'S that "it doesn't concern anybody but the woman herself She is the In Less Than Angels Pym depicts a live-in arrangement between a one who must know in her heart whether he is suitable or not " (p. perceptive. once more.Nevertheless.. fulfillment missing in conventional relationships might not year after Pym's first novel appeared.Miss Pym was nearing fifty in 1963 when she completed An Unsuitable Finally. Macmillan'sre-election in 1959under the campaign slogan "You never had it To depict Ianthe challenging social and pyschological SO good. motivation for Ianthe's actions is grounded in tiachrnent. that superior enS1S. dominance. .:10 in a Pym novel. A Glass of Blessings marrying a man society considers unsuitable. eligible men.<. Pym had published resembles a dull marriage. it is atlastlove. the ~\'orldWar 1. novel ends. In this regard she is further moved by a friend who Inevitably. the 1963 education. Pym-consciously or and No Fond Return of Love appeared. against singleness dramatized throughout Pym's fiction.• ten "the main concern seemed to be to lift restrictions for the worker and through such an alliance? If ever a woman deserves to have it all Catherine Oliphant does: she is a feisty. the promise remains with the spinster._"'.\~ith the crumbling of Britain's fortunes in the early 1960s-the sterling Bernard. Evidence exists.. resourceful exce~~m~'jl the burdened housewife.• surgeof passion that prompt Ianthe to marry-the only protagonist to do better than she. however.the year Elizabeth succeeded her father. for the second half every book the adjective-with or without its negative prefix-rl"o. to the man's lack of maturity and insight. is to determine whether the love.came women from considering blue-collar workers or laborers as hus ~ntraditional solutions and changing attitudes. and although neither woman has achieved a full life ". the well-bred librarian makes a choice clearly uncharacteristic as membersof the Commonwealth -added to his domestic successes-merited mildly risky. social groups. 171). Ultimately. To Jane marriage means loving a man even though come up to your standards" (p. this excellent woman agrees with a more enlightenedfriend who. racial unrest. a weak trade balance. there appears to be more romance.152 Robert J." During the calming years of his government. Further. further de-colonization pressures. romance. man and a free-lance writer slightly older than he. abrogated the usual course. domestic events or. contributed to her remaining unpublished for so recognizes her need to surmount loneliness and to overcome the way . SinceJohn Challow. In contrast. iftsists "it's difficult to imagine you falling in love with anybody . s. Graham Barbara Pym's Fiction 153 stcreotypes spinsters.His early attempts to resolve Cold War tensions. the dalliance of librarians. When Harold Wilson's 1964 intriguing counterbalance to these findings is the suggestion by Leo bour administration brought the end to a thirteen-year Tory rule. 83). might not the advantages office to usher in what one historian calls the quiet epilogue years. began in 1956 excellent women into new realms when she seeks a quite improper the longest continuous tenure achieved by a Prime Minister since before compromise frowned upon in earlier novels. An Unsu newmonarch.-riMl"· of the decade brought the Suez conflict and the Hungarian national revolt. no doubt. the manuscript that would be rejected by Jonathan Cape." Her intention. That this liaison do ." 19 ".

Vietnam. age twentyand the two men value the beautiful. obtuse relatives and salespeople.. church.%~ent in her first-stage work. of which antiques one symbolization. Furthermore. Ironically. this novel Pym ventures into Bond Street and Kensington-a world perfect flowers... often gratuitous in contemporary novels and films." Just as fortuitously. . gracious luncheons and Siamese cat shows. from chronic mean-spirited self-absorption. ? This onslaught of r""~iminations is further complicated by the inhospitable nature of conlife: faceless bureaucracies. reaction to explicit sex. advisor. the foremost question becomes how to survive while aging. Losing James. have found weaknesses in the novel. confidante. congested racial tension. To make one's life a thing of beauty-the novel's from Keats-is Leonora's philosophy. the demanding elderly. into the civili order which always undergird Pym's narratives. a tragic level not \:~. it is soon apparent that for her as for Humphrey. in the everyday detritus that fills up the spaces between public acts. accurately sums reaction: "It was the blank rejection. tiny defeats. and a yearning for a simpler _ addition to some exceptionally fine writing that will hold its own in era-have placed BarbaraPym "triumphantly back in the mainstream Further.. with job.'?' Occasionally.a: . a world where subtlety jumble sales matter. which got their early momentum in London.A Few Green Leaves (1980). Marcia and Letty. submerged in an enlarged political arena. goodness. if London publishers were correct. Instead of L"'! ponderous pseudo-events. for readers to care suitability of a marriage match. With the revival of her work has come speculation about the Surrounding her withdrawal. replicate and extend Pym's earlier treatment of the married-singleness In The Sweet Dove Died a spinster nearing fifty meets Humphrey. eccentricity and the unfailing good sense to to laugh at oneself. The last point is nearest the mark. Run (1960) and ended with Philip Roth's Portnoy (1969) may not have been the time for spinsters to make tea during crises.154 Robert}. More importar readers could simply be attracted to a writer who offers an escape disorder. two spinsters. What interests Pym battles we have with ourselves. Here she ft. Barbara Pym s Fiction 155 one suspects Miss Pym regained attention and entered the phase of her career because her novels are anchored by tradition. in 1955 Pym had been ahead of her time in creating Oliphant. the quieter post-Vie years. as antique Victoriana. Graham long. Leonora settles for a to "the pleasure of being alone which she had enjoyed before she met (p. she is able to live well: grace and taste surround her every act. armament controversy. where women worry about marrying ben stations. a antiques dealer nearing sixty. struggles that result in small victories.~re is the heightened intensity of a new-found realism. As Martha Duffy "The Swinging Sixties..tfirrning singleness and praising self-sufficiency. written after a traumatic rejection of her seventh. an overly esthetic out-dated theme... unshakable optimism-all clothed in a monumental bespeaking wit.. not unlike a rare figurine. With her considerable indepenmeans. was soon to wane.. If it had not vanished fully by 1963. her reconstructed the history of the refusal. and she to think of him as her creation. the artful. ~ In numerous ways Quartet in Autumn signifies the winding down of Pym's Ittlgleness theme as if time has run out on excellent women. Cape had received Pym's manuscript nine months Kennedy's death.EdWlll. shortly after .181). youth is the genuine this end Leonora considersJ ames a prized possession. Shall I marry? has been replaced by should I have married? didn't I marry? would it now be different if I had . In so doing she illuminates the quirks which render human and make each life a stOry all its own. three last novels. it seems. Larkin. a bachelor and widower-all working in the same unidentifiable s It follows then that the same factors leading to Pym's lack of appeal 1960s would attract readers in the late seventies. readers' reports have Undoubtedly. a symbolic event in a decade edging toward c problems. commonplace by the mid-sixties. . . a free-spirit who loves her "bohemian" flat. the uncaring young. a return to traditional values. suffered an extended period without publication. for 1955. and his nephew James. closest to the situation. . and Norman and . nor. she locates the inane and Iu commonplace.plores the beautiful life as compensation for spinsterhood. In time James's homosexual tendencies attraction to a young girl interfere. when Pym was still to publish An Unsuitable Attachment and had soon to contend' rejection of The Sweet Dove Died. The decade that began Updike's Rabbit. with a younger man whom she appears to Daring. then rediscovery year. the implication that all previously written stood for nothing. defies living openly. her out of style. Philip Larkin has revealed his with Pym and various editors regarding the matter. unmarried. meddling social workers. colonial unrest. her most notable accomplishThe Sweet Dove Died appeared the following year and. ultimately . that hurt. Such a resolution provides II1arp counterpoint to the starkness mirrored in Quartet in Autumn where ~re are few compensations for her lonely protagonists.: .:. a when women increasingly adopted a wider range of lifestyles commonly portrayed in Pym's fiction. in this milieu. Barbara Pym inaugurated the second phase of her career with Quartet in Autumn (1977). Since marriage is no longer a viable option for elderly protagonists. successive accommodations that comprise daily life. She becomes his companion. may also have aided Pym's revival.. he also comes to regard Leonora as fact.a slight plot.

"'~. is embodied often the expressions and actions of the parish vicar or other friends of each r-protagonist. Not only is the office work never revealed but the firm is not named. estab for the married-singleness issue central to the narrative. as we have seen in studies by 1. Pym's protagonists find especially unnerving. Thus they ever ready to tidy up. Still. These weaknesses and more. 8). Graham Pettifer. Letty questions the value of a life that has left no mark. 20) but soon i~ interested in village life and her relationships with the inhabitants' in her research project. but not affect professional or occupational judgments. quicker to make appropriate allowances. Here. custom is the weight of traditions unicated by sets of assumptions about single women. "Did I once love this man?" (p. Graham office-face retirement with outward calm but inner misgiving. too. as first priority. :<-l¥i'}'lllatidowed college teacher. utter thoughtlessness "-- Barbara Pym's Fictioll 157 Emma. friends. Letty-in the tradition of the excellent women before herbecause it still holds "infinite possibilities for change" (p. As an appropriate coda to Barbara Pym's writing. troubled about being unmarried-Emma is observer of life. she realizes. particularly. They are projected through protagonists themselves as well as other characters and groups. single women feel less feminine for . the latter reflects' loss of status and confidence as single persons age: "The data suggest definite bias against the older person who is unmarried . the author is how bad things can get. love. tend plants. fruitless and expendable. their office and jobs will be eliminated. mending his becoming sad when he returns to his wife.. perhaps the "meaningone her mother would like to arrange for her. marriage and spinsterhood is projected Ihr~ugh ~hecharacters of suitors. For example. asking in fact. Unlike heroines. who in Pyrn's novels no sane counsellors. learned mentors or wise friends.. practices.one's relationship to men. co-workers protagonists remain vague. In this vein. patronizing. domestics and. With all personal matters held except as those awesome levelers retirement and death intervene. Pym ends on a hopeful note. Again.'?' Small wonder then do single people in contemporary society. On this score Emma's conscience is uneasy.. . A Few Green repeats her main ideas about spinsters and marriage from a fresh point. exemplifying attitudes. Emma recognizes. ambiguities of time abound. she perseveres. loutish. prepare meals. belongs only to the protagonists. it seems.•Participating in the colloquy underlying the plots of Barbara Pym's novels the voices of custom. Tunstall and Ward. that living is always lonely and. had married and borne Emma. what it is they do" After they retire.i!t:tllilldesires. Weathering the initial trauma of ment. Spinsters are. through lntenor monologues of the protagonists themselves. those qualities that involve social or interpersonal areas _. a relationship with a man. interruption ever welcome. It is assumed single women of a certain age instinctively know men and their work to be more important to society than women and their occupations. The ministers of . she "could a novel and even . voice of reason. Here.. a voice founded upon detached observation as well as analysis. specks in a continuum.. In Emma's view her mother. quick to serve. The of custom." The voice of emotion. That retiremen t creates particular problems for the elderly been documented. embark on a love affair which need not necessarily an unhappy one" (p. ungratefulone who is.dowdy. had at least "fulfilled herself as a woman" that is. and could then turn to her studies "with a conscience" (p. 250) . wants something bappen and it does. therefore. who is Pym's means of examining a profession as compensation aining unmarried. it is thought. She . it these lives. through the woods with casseroles. single women the need to nurture men caught in crises. But in the excellent woman tradition she ends up after a man who is overbearing. it is DreSumedthat single women have abundant free time. symbolic of their lives. a company representative" "nobody knows exactly or has ever known exactly. presumpabound: single women prefer to marry and are always looking. doing his shopping. in her thirties but not yet a hopeless spinster. All this Pym renders with remarkable objectivity wrought by flawless tone and a precise measuring of intensity." now rekindled in a casual. She f':'. bachelor or WIdowerin need of mended cuff or tea and cakes. expected to ute~d a hand at every church function and help every sick relative. Here. the surface ship of the quartet is never penetrated." There are the usual attempts at _ thoughtful gestureson the part of the woman. anthropology is not a life-fulfilling experience. At a retirement ceremony for the women. Emma has had "a brief affair. For excellent women the retirees' constitutes the final horror: after a life of encumbrance and serviceAnd yet. A fairly typical excellent woman . the first heroine professionally trained. since all rs long for romance and a mate. How closely Pym's Quartet in Autumn characterizations mirror is all the more striking considering recent demographic and research: the former reveals the importance of income level and a place to relative adjustment at retirement time. unimpassioned way. but at s end the characteristic optimism of an excellent woman returns ". rituals. domestic or professional.""~11 Emma foresees staying on in the village. 176). . ~nmarried women automatically qualify as Biblical Marthas. In all Pym's narratives.156 Roberti. have no fixed locus in human retirement. "the necessity of being on the outside looking in" (p. that since they are uninvolved they enjoy mediating lovers' quarrels. Emma. Emma Howick is an anthropologist squirrelled away in an village working on research notes.without a man and are sympathetic to men left on their own. the instinctual response of individual feelings about :$elf. emotion and reason. though readers have found Quartet in Autumn a novel. The re-appearance of a former lover. 131).

""'5"'511115 fictional colloquy extracts varied conclusions from each of the protagoi While posing many questions. None of these addresses the married-singleness issues.. -: . 156-59. J5J Tunstall. Catherine.." even when she is not fussing about Jeremy Tunstall.elceptions include: Philip Larkin. 1978). The Sociology of Housework (Bath.b self-centered or imperceptive. p. pp. Excellent Women (Middlesex. See also. J." Saturday Review. Russell A. July-August 1983. 39.r- 158 Roberti. IV (1971). the individual responses sustain a thematic colloquy that throughout Pym's fiction and. resents this comparison. Elmer Spreitzer and Lawrence E. connections with others in ways that bring a sense of usefulness and is. An early appreciation of pym's writing exists in Robert Smith. 34 (1979).Middlesex.533-42. that though there are living alone can be satisfying. "Out of the Swim with Barbara Pyrn. 1980). she grumbles. Women:S Life and Work in the Southern Colonies (1938. only rational voices. in our way. or something in-between? While the question is for all. 1QM\.. p. Cliffs. Womanhood (New York. But if. 1980): Quartet in Autumn (London. 237]). . 1981). a handicap. facing the assumptions. ~Spinster. the slimmest chance. the humor becomes priceless and the recognition painful. TognoJi. Belinda. 1980): Jane Pmde (London. A Glass of Blessings nce '. 36 (1974). 1979).63-68. "Single: An Examination of Two Stereotypes. what is lost may be those without mates and children. critical writing about Barbara Pyrn's work has thus far appeared in reviews. 1980)... Women in : Tradition and Transition in the Middle East (New York. Youssef. a very human problem.No Fond Return of Love (London. Ward. 1960-75. face the need to love and be loved. 1979). "Factors Associated with Singlehood. N. 1979). 141. Unhappily. "The Resurrection 1971 ed. that men are often weak. like Mildred consider relinquishing independence for marriage. 138. Hi Ward. For the few women who. this conclusion partly stems from the woeful dearth of men in society at large. "The Role of Home in Adult Development: Men and Women LIVIngAlone Describe Their Residential Histories. colleagues. we all seek happiness. p." The American Scholar. In this role the voice of reason counteracts traditional assu the self-centered expectations of others. An Unsuitable Attachment (London. after all.t) (1981). as a result. Stein. When the object of her a." The Compact Edition of the Oxford English Dictionary. well-founded or flawed.~orowilz and 1. Less Than Angels (New York. remains the task of the women themselves. that it takes a effort to maintain one's dignity as a single person. does singleness a boon. Maneuvered into tidying-up her neighbor's kitchen. l{l! Isaac Bashevis Singer. the voice of the excellent is tinged with resignation.863.. A Glass 0/ Blessings presents a variation without much reference to singleness. In Less Than Angels Mabel Swan thinks of her spinster sister Rhoda as a "Martha. but there is the chance. Heilbrun. p. 1982). 1978). as she whispers her qualified yes. 175.. " (p. "Status and Fertility Patterns. that the economy as structured places a premium work and minimizes married or single women's.in the restricted settingsdramatized . Reinventing IlJ Peter 1. pp. perhaps without family of without career or distinction. 1980). pp. Where there is tragedy in Pyrn's is linked to what might have been. Single (Englewood III Bernard. 1966)' p. 29. Mildred. 1972). Barbara Pym 's Fiction 159 8arl>ara pym. Lois and Nikki Keddie (Cambridge. "How Pleasant to Know Miss Pym.335. and Jessie " The Female World (New York. 861-69and Leonard Cargan. Mass. 78. Perhaps it is this that puts the Gioconda Mildred's face at the end of Excellent Women: the prospect of life to Everard Bone may be better than a life with the vicar (symbolically. Anna Shapiro. p. See also Naila Minai. Old and Alone: A Sociological Study of Old People (London." in Women in the Muslim World. p. Notable . "The World of Barbara Pym . more often than not. excellent remain overlooked or submerged. 2. 159. 187-94." Ariel: A Review of International English Literature. requiring more lookirll! than women do." Journal of Marriage and the Family. New York. 31 (1982). was only one degree better than the glowing functional which I had gazed with Julian" [p.ttention leads her to his homosexual friends. Ann Oakley. 260 and (sa Kapp. "The Unseen. of Barbara Pym. 1974) contains a useful interpretation of the psychological and sociological factors involved when those living alone use household as a means of structuring large expanses of time." in Gimpel the Fool and Other Stories (1957. Pym responds so be it. 861. Riley. friends. 11' Carolyn G. 1981)." Family Relations. Hearing the coun tervailing voices. 1(9). The Sweet Dove Died (London. 1977. work out for themselves the truths of spinsterhood as learned observation and experience: that romantic love is a fundamental need which does not lessen with age. New York. it is the only novel focused entirely on a married protagonist.377-85 comment upon the scarcity of research material on the unmarried despite increases in the never-married population in Britain and the United States. To sort out illusion from reality.. Men may be flawed through through." TLS.p. 52 (1983)' 237-42. in Mildred's mind in marriage she may discover the complementary side of the single Finally. "Martha's back must have ached too .149. p. bemused the only attitude possible. 150). H." Journal of Gerontology. ed. "The Never-Married in Later Life. The original publication date off other pym novels will similarly be provided in the text and the editions used will be as ws: Some Tame Gazelle (London. Mar. Graham these stories are more in need of counsel than able to supply it." Family Relations. the narratives nevertheless arrive overriding query significant to each excellent woman in her specific circumstance: as. . that society does women as second-class citizens yet uses them when their very independ is a community asset. If all this reflects merely a crazy-quilt society where men and marry-or not-for reasons outlandish or muddled or unknown themselves.J.a Woman vaguely discontented and courting an extra-marital affair. pp. 64·85. even a luxury. Julia Cherry Spruill. of an anomaly in Pyrn's work. . 1976). A Few Green Leaves (New York. "Gas-fire . affirms single essentially good and nominally fulfilling.

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