Last weekend I read Barbara Pym’s first novel, Some Tame Gazelle. I think I’ve read two other books by her but I honestly cannot remember. But I know I’ve at least read her Excellent Women which made me an instant Barbara Pym fan.
Some Tame Gazelle is typically set in an English village, sometime during the 1950s. The two spinster sister Belinda and Harriet Bede are like all Pym’s ‘excellent’ women, and help a lot in the parish. Belinda has been in love with the village’s eccentric married archdeacon Henry Hoccleave, while Harriet regularly refuses proposals of marriage from an Italian gentleman and focuses her attention on the village’s newest curate. Visits from a librarian and an African bishop disturb their lives.
This first novel is as wonderful as the excellent Excellent Women, but much funnier and less bittersweet. And while the story may appear simply charming and quaint at first, Pym has a wicked sense of humor, which made me read the whole thing in one afternoon.
Belinda and Harriet are very different. While Belinda is reserved and proper, Harriet is plump, fashionable and cheerful. Belinda also shares a love for 18th century poetry and sermons with the archdeacons and she often rummages around the house humming hymns. Of course, being a spinster in the 1950s may often have been only marginally more fun than in the late 19th century, but Pym presents the sisters as happy and far from lacking in romance. Belinda’s love for the archdeacon might have made her extremely happy, had it not become “like a warm, comfortable garment, bedsocks, perhaps, or even woollen combinations; certainly something without glamour or romance”. Indeed, the more we learn of Henry, the more we sympathize with his wife Agatha and come to feel that Belinda has actually been lucky.
The other villagers are also quite funny and even though they are types, they are somehow still believable. One of my favorite parts is when the congregation is listening to one of the elaborate and fear-inducing sermon of the archdeacon about the coming of judgement day, and their thoughts about not wanting to feel that could be tomorrow, or that scientists had proven that it wouldn’t happen!
Pym observes their ‘small’ lives with its pains and pleasures, and her commentary is wicked and yet not mean. I’m pretty sure Pym novels are the type of books that many people feel lack action and real plot (probably not many of my readers though), but there is so much going on, it just happens on a smaller scale, which does not make it any less important or true.
Some of my favorite passages:
“On the threshold of sixty,’ mused Dr. Parnell. ‘That’s a good age for a man to marry. He needs a woman to help him into the grave.”
“Of course it’s alright for librarians to smell of drink.”
“Belinda waited. She doubted now whether it would be possible to be back for tea at four o’clock. She could hardly break away when the Archdeacon was about to deliver an address on the mortality of man.”
“But surely liking the same things for dinner is one of the deepest and most lasting things you could possibly have in common with anyone,’ argued Dr. Parnell. ‘After all, the emotions of the heart are very transitory, or so I believe; I should think it makes one much happier to be well-fed than well-loved.”
“The trouble was that Miss Prior wasn’t entirely the meek person one expected a little sewing woman to be. Belinda had two feelings about her- Pity and Fear, like Aristotle’s Poetics, she thought confusedly.”
“…the sermon was at an end. There was quite a stir in the congregation, for some of them had been dreaming gay dreams most of the morning, although many of them had given the sermon a chance, and had only allowed their thoughts to wander when it had passed beyond their comprehension.”
Have you reviewed this book? Let me know and I’ll add a link!