It’s amazing the bargains I can find sometimes – three Barbara Pym novels in the local charity shop for a pound being only my latest. Barbara Pym isn’t someone I read on a regular basis, but her books did come recommended to me when I was looking for something easy to read. And on that count, I can’t get them on the trades descriptions. I do most of my reading on my commute home (about an hour and twenty minutes) and in that time, I can get through a hundred pages with relative ease.
I was trying to describe her first novel, Some Tame Gazelle, to a friend of mine and the best I could come up with was a cross between Cranford and Mapp & Lucia, but set in the 1950s. I still don’t think that’s doing it justice. The main characters are two middle aged sisters, neither of whom have married, but each of whom have “crushes” (for want of a better word) on members of the clergy – neither of whom reciprocate. They clearly have independent means as they have a maid and cook, although do a little cooking themselves, and regularly have people round to finish their upholstery or make clothes, and such like. The cast are hilarious. I especially love Miss Prior, the tartly bitchy seamstress – her backhanded compliments are delicious.
The second novel, Excellent Women, is (essentially) more of the same – life in a country village where the spinsters of a certain age involve themselves in Good Causes and get on each other’s nerves. They are comedies of manners, much like Jane Austen – I can see Emma Woodhouse fitting in very nicely – but with modern touches, such as professional women, motor cars and railways and, of course, the telephone. I don’t doubt that there are still people who live like this, but they are very much a dying breed and part of me thinks that’s a great shame.
The third one, Jane and Prudence, I haven’t read yet, but I’m reliably informed it’s very much like the others.
Barbara Pym isn’t for everyone, I’m the first to admit that. Her silly spinsters fawning over curates half their age can get annoying after a while – but it’s meant to. It’s meant to be silly. It’s meant to hold a mirror up to them and show their little foibles. That’s why it’s entertaining. I’m not sure I’ll read any more, but I’m pleased I’ve read these three and at a time when I was feeling a little burned out, they were the perfect easy reading on the train home.