Thursday, August 25, 2005

"The Wiles of Nice Women in a Civilised Society"

Just read Barbara Pym's An Unsuitable Attachment, which was about the lightest thing to hand--I got it at the library last week (NO MORE LIBRARY BOOKS ALLOWED TILL AFTER THE MOVE). I read some of her novels as a teenager, didn't like them much, but my attention was arrested by Barbara Everett's TLS piece on the unexpected affinities between Pym and Philip Larkin, who was her champion and wrote a preface to this particular novel, which was unpublished in her lifetime. (Here are some interesting further excerpts from and comments on the Everett essay.)

It's a reasonably enjoyable read, but there's something impossible dreary and mean-spirited about it at the same time--though the dreariness of middle-class mores in England in the 50s is generally not to be underestimated, by all accounts; no wonder there are all these depressing little novels about that milieu. The author seems to have found some of these characters charming (or is she writing a kind of satire in which it doesn't matter that the people are so unattractive? I can't see this being the case), but from my standpoint they're pretty much altogether offputting, without exception. Too self-aware, not enough warmth, and without the kind of intellectual or intuitive force to make up for that lack.

Larkin's preface is interesting, though: he tells the story of the book's rejection ("To have one's seventh book turned down by a publisher who has seemed perfectly happy with the previous six is a peculiarly wounding experience, and she felt it as such"--Larkin channeling Pym channeling Austen), then reflects on its strengths and weaknesses. Here's the paragraph that particularly caught my attention, given recent discussions about the term "self-indulgent" and its place or lack thereof in the reviewer's arsenal:

"[I]t is a somewhat self-indulgent book, full of echoes. Sophia and her sister Penelope recall Jane and Prudence, or even Dulcie and Viola from No Fond Return of Love; Sister Dew resembles Sister Blatt from Excellent Women; but other parallels are even more explicit. Barbara Pym was always given to reintroducing characters she had used before, and sometimes this is fully justified (the conversation between Wilmet and Rowena in A Glass of Blessings about Rocky Napier is only fully meaningful if we have met him in Excellent Women), but the concluding chapters of An Unsuitable Attachment are a real omnium gatherum: Esther Clovis and Digby Fox from Less Than Angels, Everard Bone from Excellent Women, Wilf Bason from A Glass of Blessings, and perhaps most extravagantly of all an older but otherwise unchanged Harriet Bede (complete with curate) from Some Tame Gazelle. It is all rather like the finale of a musical comedy."

It's an infelicitous passage for Larkin, I'd say; it's too campy (in a bad way) to assume everyone knows all of these characters, bad enough when people (I myself have been known to fall into this unfortunate habit) talk like that about Austen's. (I am so familiar with Austen's novels that I genuinely find it shocking to think that this is not the case for everyone I talk to. I suppose it is possible that Larkin feels the same about Pym, but from the reader's point of view, it sounds rather affected--I think he really loses me with the rather arch italicized omnium gatherum.) But it's an interesting observation--shelving for the moment the question of whether "self-indulgent" can ever be used fairly, you can see that Larkin singles out two related things for his mild disapproval, characters with different names but similar properties appearing in successive novels (on the one hand) and the same character appearing by name in a different novel. Neither of these things seems to me in itself problematic--after all, the first applies to everyone from Charles Dickens to Philip Roth; and the second is something you see very often too, in many novels that I like a lot. (Madeleine L'Engle did it all the time.)