Sunday, July 7, 2013

Barbara Pym: a Re-appreciation

It's interesting (to me at least) how certain authors start bubbling back up in my mind, putting claims on my time.  While I have a fairly set agenda for the moment, tackling both some of the really daunting classics of 19th and 20th European fiction -- and some shorter one-offs that I can clear out of the boxes in my basement -- some of the lesser known works by female authors (being reprinted by Virago Press) are also asking for some "equal time."  So I did borrow an early novel by Barbara Comyns and am midway through it already (I really appreciate the fact that most of her novels are so short!).  Anyway, Barbara Pym is an interesting case where she isn't exactly obscure, but she is on the neglected side (though there have been some Pym reading groups inspired by Virago Press bringing out most, though not all, of her works again).  Unlike Molly Keane (also reprinted by Virago) who voluntarily stopped writing for decades, Pym was more or less dropped by her regular publisher who rejected An Unsuitable Attachment (despite Philip Larkin advocating for its publication).  She simply couldn't get published after 1963, though she did keep writing.

Then in the late 70s there was a wave of appreciation for her (at least in part spear-headed by Larkin) and suddenly she was publishable again and Quartet in Autumn and The Sweet Dove Died came out.  Unfortunately, she didn't have that long to appreciate this renewed interest, as she passed away in Jan. 1980.  A Few Green Leaves probably would have benefited from a bit more back and forth with her editor(s).  Quite a few works came out after her death and it isn't entirely clear if she would have made changes or indeed withheld them from publication (particularly true in the case of An Academic Question).

Anyway, this should be her complete works in order of composition:
Civil to Strangers (written 1936, published posthumously 1989)
Crampton Hodnet (completed circa 1940, published posthumously 1985)
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)
An Unsuitable Attachment (written 1963, published posthumously 1982)
An Academic Question (written 1970-72, published posthumously 1986)
Quartet in Autumn (1977)
The Sweet Dove Died (1978)
A Few Green Leaves (1980)

I did read all of these works back in the early 90s (it's possible I might have missed one), though I am not entirely sure I read them in the "proper" order.  I recall that while they were enjoyable, many of the novels do sort of blend into each other, especially Some Tame Gazelle through A Glass of Blessings.  However, I suspect this is a case (like the major Austen novels) where they are better appreciated by a slightly more mature reader.  So I am definitely considering giving them another go.  I probably will skip the first two -- as well as A Few Green Leaves, which is generally not considered a terribly successful novel.  However, I do have a special fondness for An Academic Question (ironically this is generally considered the least Pym-like of all her novels and one actually cobbled together by her literary executor).  I suspect I will like (or at least appreciate) her "autumnal" novels Quartet in Autumn and The Sweet Dove Died more on the second go-around, and maybe still more when I hit my 60s.

I guess I don't have anything particularly profound to say about Pym at the moment.  I'll probably use this space to keep track of my efforts to reread her novels (so in this case Rr will stand for having re-read one of her novels).  Another book that I plan on re-reading -- and actually sent off to a cousin in the meantime -- is J.F. Powers' Morte d'Urban.  His work is almost the flip-side of Pym's where she writes about how women sort of fall in love with curates, and in some cases actually catch them (one major difference between the Anglican and Catholic role in village life*).  And Powers writes from the perspective of Roman Catholics priests, with his greatest creation being Father Urban -- a worldly priest sent into rural Minnesota who slowly finds his calling again in this alien environment. (Powers was Catholic, but not a priest himself.)  I might tackle Morte d'Urban after Pym's Less than Angels, and if I feel particularly inspired after that, then intersperse his short stories and his other novel with her later novels.

* On the surface, Anglican priests can cause more "mischief," since they are actually marriageable men and thus can cause more of an upheaval among unmarried, "churchy" women.  At the same time, they reinforce the idea that the married couple is the natural unit in society, particularly village life.  In contrast, Roman Catholic priests, no matter how kindly, are slightly alien** and above family concerns.  They may live among their flock (though more likely they live in rooms attached to the church) but are apart from them and have fewer worldly concerns.  This separation is a direct consequence from centuries of elevating the priesthood above the laity. In other words, a design feature and not a flaw...  The flipside is that the more "democratic" religions (to some extent even including Anglican/Episcopal sects) don't aim for such a clear separation between spiritual leaders and followers.  They find it more genuinely inspiring for spiritual leaders to be more closely aligned with the parishioners and to have a greater stake in their day-to-day struggles.  I can't take credit for this idea, as it was relayed quite well in a video op-ed on MSNBC here.  The key proponent was Father Alberto Cuti√©, a former Catholic priest who became an Episcopalian in order to marry the woman he fell in love while remaining a priest.  He is quite convincing (of course to someone sympathetic to his ideas) and charismatic.  However, he comes from the New World (Puerto Rico, Cuba and Miami) and not an English parish, as I had remembered the bit (conflating this with Pym's world in my mind).  The video piece is definitely worth a view, though it is certainly stacked against "stodgy" Catholic practices...

** In a really well-done story or novel, a Catholic priest might even be a bit of a free-radical -- a term (borrowed from chemistry actually) sometimes associated with Shakespeare's Puck, i.e. a character who isn't particularly grounded and who sets off reactions among the other couples but doesn't himself (or herself) end up in a relationship.  Just as with the role of married priests in the village, this is not an original idea of my own.  I'm quite sorry that I can't seem to track down the source, as it really was quite a clever theory,.

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