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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 underlued. 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

4120$01.50 Mosaic

142 Robert J. Graham Barbara Pym's Fiction 143

them as homely, nit-picking, bad-tempered, greedy, misanthropic, wives and hell-bent on finding a husband. Always disrespectful times vicious, these attacks mirrored society's general unmarried and the belief that everyone had responsibility for population. Finally, Spruill declares, such prejudice exposed the a spinster "was often a dependent and unwanted guest in the married brother or sister,'? Despite such attitudes, the most frequently used words describing have not always had negative connotations; in fact, the OED curious etymological history for the terms bachelor and spinster and revealing examples of their uneven valuation. Baccalaria, a root word for bachelor, refers to an area of plowed land. The probably alluded to a field laborer, as in parallel fashion sp named someone who spun yarn. In time the male noun tookon meaning until, by the thirteenth century, it indicated a knight too merit his own banner. A century later bachelor meant anyone of unmarried although of marriageable age. The word spinster, however, fared less well. At first the term siznifie or a woman regularly engaged in spinning. But by the fourteenth ster was "appended to names of women .. _to denote their the seventeenth century was added "as the proper legal designation of unmarried." Statute, it appears, codified the word as a sign of it remained for society to establish derogatory connotations. 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. H. S. Escott identifying England as a country enough of leisure, idleness, and spinsterdom"; and the popular sensation-novelist Mary Elizabeth Braddon promising, "Providence is wonderful kind to plain, little spinsters, with a knack of themselves useful." To be sure, many more powerful examples exist. In fiction from through Sterne, Austen and beyond, singleness is suspect. In Prejudice (1813), Mrs. Bennet finds the prospect of spinster unnerving, while the gloomy, tyrannical Miss Murdstone of David . (1850) emerges as a severe caricature of the single woman, and Melville in "The Paradise of Bachelors" and "The Tartarus of contrasts revelling single men with dispirited, unsexed maidens paper mill. Then and to a great extent ever since, the spinster has led a hard fictional life. Writers have drawn her as helpful though benignever at home waiting to serve. Rarely is the single woman singleness-as vigorous, independent, resourceful as Anna Vorontosov of Sylvia Ashton-Warner's electric novel Spinster (1958) Of as Doris Lessing's enigmatic poet in "Our Friend Judith." All

becomes the baleful former-nanny of Joyce's "Clay," an anachronwhom "nice" is enough; or the arcane esthete of Virginia Woolf's of Being"; or the morbid eccentric of Faulkner's Light in August Absalom!; or the dotty expatriate of Olivia Manning's The Tree. fish, flattery or gloom for Barbara Pym's spinster, however; more likely in the oven and a bemused, ironic ruminating about life's quirky es. Daughter of a Shropshire solicitor, Pym received an Honors from St. Hilda's College, Oxford, in 1934, served as a WREN in England from 1943 to 1946, and as an assistant editor of Africa from 1958 her retirement in 1974. Pym published her first novel in 1950; over the thirty-two years nine more were issued, the last two posthumously. literary career is not a story of continued success, however, 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,"! My concern in this essay is to account for this through a consideration of the subject matter of Pym's fiction, on one hand, and of changing cultural attitudes toward the singlenessissue, on the other,"

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vagaries of heterosexual relationships, a prismatic examination of love, singleness and the correlations linking each to happiness, constitute major theme. Focus narrows in her early novels to an evaluation of and singleness as inherently positive or negative states or to an .. ment of marriage as an imperative to experiencing life fully. Here, with t, delicious humor and engaging warmth, Pym sets in motion a on marriage idyll and spinster myth. In the later novels her extends to contemporary social dilemmas: the welfare of those alone, the responsibility of traditional institutions toward the elderly, of marriage and singleness on personality and character. through her treatment of the never-married woman as she evolves stages in her spinsterhood, Pym presents a far-reaching portrayal of a but ignored by researchers in sociology, psychology and gerontology," Church of England-high or low- central to all of Pym's novels but fertile ground for development of her narratives: parish politics, or amatory intrigue, churchly custom, peculiar parishioners with right names like Fabian Driver, Sir Denbigh Grote, Mary Beamish, S~rubsole and Daphne DagneU- all contribute to effects, realistic The vicarage, a pivotal setting, sponsors jumble sales, garden whist parties, harvest festivals to complement the spiritual sustenance


Robert J. Graham

Barbara Pym 's Fiction


drawn from formal church services. Life centers in the parish for heroines because their devotion is real and the church commun their social needs. Furthermore, vicarages harbor eligible males-or hesitant bachelors, eager or skeptical widowers. Little the excitement beginning and ending Pym's first novel, Some (1950), is generated by the arrival of new curates, causing Bel remark that her sister Harriet is "especially given to Clergymen" (p. 7). Both Bede sisters are spinsters in their fifties and neither has the idea of marriage. Ever optimistic, Harriet boisterously, briskly market but still prefers young curates. In contrast Belinda thirty-year love for her pastor, Archdeacon Hoccleve, to a "fire brightly" (p. 189); but since he is long married, she consciously expectations to fantasies about his becoming a widower. For Belinda else will do. Although the phrase "excellent women" does not appear until book by that title, Barbara Pym places Belinda at the beginning those admirable women who clearly reap less than they sow. plain, flat figures-even to their unlilting names, Mildred, Jane, Mary, Dulcie=- excellent women are the type a woman's magazine improve. They are workers, not in terms of job or profession modest private incomes), but because, like the Biblical Martha, they the mundane, freeing others for more important tasks. Like excellence resides in reluctant usefulness and with her they "cumbered" with "much serving" (Luke 10:30). Rhoda, a spins Less Than Angels (1955), finds satisfaction in comparing herself to but Mildred Lathbury of Excellent Women (1952) recognizes "the, spinster in me, the Martha, who could not comfortably sit and conversation when she knew that yesterday's unwashed dishes were the sink" (p. 150).8 Ready to clean up if necessary, to lend a sympathetic ear, willing for the neighbor's moving van, to serve tea during crisis, to fill in a excellent women prove pleasant, unthreatening company. Friends their willingness to be inconvenienced; the church counts on the selfless work; new acquaintances forget their names or fail to recall met them. Nor do they deserve such treatment, for excellent often intelligent, educated, sensitive, loyal, eminently capable of life's vagaries with but one exception: their relationships with men positive qualities aplenty, myriad personal and domestic talents, and spirited independence, despite cooking and housekeepingskiIl, .women are not sought as wives. Outsiders, they are the observers, incidental to love and marriage. Counterpointing these "excellent women" are Pym's "formidable Initially distinctive, troublesome figures who reap more than formidable women later emerge in her writing as more positive

and strong-willed. Their very names awaken curiosity: Agatha, . Allegra, Jessica, Avice. Throughout the novels such women are set socially; they are physically attractive, volatile, alternately sharpor sullen-and cunning. Indifferent housekeepers and cooks, they at getting others to do more than a fair share. Overwrought, fickle, rited, frivolous they may be, yet formidable women - inept or capable master one constant anomaly: men. And they are sought after as What they do or do not do in the novels forces things to happen, for full participants in life's joys, particularly those of love and marriage. the surface not much seems to happen in Pym's novels; characteristicher plots are deceivingly simple. For example Some Tame Gazelle begins the arrival of a new curate and ends with a glimpse at his replacement. story line follows two threads: the subtle, 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. With visits by old friends, an Oxford University librarian and a missionary bishop, brings together in high comic fashion two of her chief interests, matters al and academic. But the true matter of Pyrn's novels is neither theological nor academic: it ubial. What her protagonists think deeply about is the serious matter marriage and singleness. With the caricature, the raillery, the satire and the apt or devastating quote from English poetry (excellent women are anthologies) comes an introspective realism edged with hard wit. gathered about the nature of male-female relationships brush painfully. to things as they are, too close to the everyday lives of bachelors, ",' rs and couples to be merely entertaining. Yet, observing the mating >i8d near-mating going on around them, excellent women still manage to kar the brunt of introspection and insight with bemused detachment. "';iounderscoreMildred Lathbury's role in Excellent Women, Pym fashions a\)mbolic scene in which a former boyfriend recommends that Mildred never .marIf. Here the ooncepts of excellent woman and singleness-asreservoir-of " libt>f'tal'powers come together. William Caldicote bolsters his advice by uding: "I always think of you as being so very balanced and sensible, an excellent woman. I do pope you're not thinking of getting married? ... . e. my dear Mildred, are the observers of life. Let other people get married all means, the more the merrier .... Let Dora marry if she likes. She hasn't talent for observation" (p. 67). Others corroborate Mildred's "talent"; consciously sets herself tasks of dispassionate scrutiny. gh the depth and variety of Mildred's discernments and those of heroines in the early novels, Pym broadens treatment of her theme, for ClCellf'nt women do, characteristically, come to see themselves more as close of life than as participants. What such characters observe permits f author to consider the social, psychological, physical and spiritual aspects n:alefemale attitudes toward marriage and singleness. And in large measure err Observations affirm spinsterhood~while casting doubt upon marriage.



Barbara Pym's Fiction



Robert J. Graham

Collectively, 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. In the first instance, 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. Further, in Less Than Angels finds one suitor to be no more than a child and another needing men ... a woman stronger than himself, for behind ... [his 1 fa the small boy, uncertain of himself" (p. 242). The problem is washing up, the expected deference, the ego-boosting: in Pym's are inherently inferior. In No Fond Return of Love, for exa Mainwaring suffers abiding disappointment from what she believes natural weakness of men. With Pym's earlier excellent women, she men to be fickle, childish, "thornless," fearful of competition, communicate; in short, freighted with imperfections glossed over by willing women. Research into the attitudes of never-married women toward Pym's characterization of male frailty. Russell Ward has shown to be better adjusted than single men; studies by Elmer ~jJl'-'H~' Lawrence E. 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. Inter never-married women suggest that many have found men lacking perception. One feisty British spinster surveyed by sociologist Jeremy claimed: "She does not respect men much - the evidence of their their dependence on women,"? Nor does Pym ascribe to the commonly held notion that companionship is another mutual advantage married couples may single persons. Few men in Pym's novels are truly intellectual, and displaying modest abilities are not attracted to thinking women. Demonstr the most imaginative and creative men in Pyrn's fiction - as well as interesting intellectuallyare homosexuals. Heterosexual or not, pologists and other academic men repeatedly patronize women-o~ them-so that none of the literate and articulate protagonists is her mind. No man sees there an advantage, nor does a single male match excellent women's passion for literature. For instance, in Return of Love, when a forty-seven-year-old literary scholar intention to remarry, Dulcie foresees his unnamed love to be sorucou his own age.someone with "similar academic and literary interests..: like herself .. ." (p. 219). He then declares his fondness for Dulcie's guished nineteen-year-old niece, whom he expects to marry. So intellectual companionship. ' If women cannot be regarded as intellectual equals, they can at in men'swork, work tacitly acknowledged by excellent women important than their own. Again and again, however, the assistaru

in mind begins with typing and ends with proofreading.

Attracted to a ten years his junior, Tom Mallow in Less Than Angels wonders if can type his thesis since the woman he is living with seems too bus y. those excellent women whose training extends beyond kitchen and

assign priority to the work of their men. ,given a modicum of companionship and freedom, could not one find opportunity for growth, enrichment, a range of experience to single women? Observation proves otherwise: when Jane the protagonist of Jane and Prudence (1953), cannot manage and a literary career; when Catherine Oliphant feels stifled by just a weeks of family life; when Wilmet, the well-married heroine of A Glass . :s (1958), suffers from "desire unformulated" (p. 145) and yearns to Thus despite the attitude typified by the widow in Less Than who snaps at her spinster sister, "You don't know what it is to lose y you love" (p. 238), mostPym protagonists perceive marriage to be The foremost horror, Belinda Bede remarks, would be a union erodes a woman's individuality. Marriage, she has noticed, makes and wives "grow to be like each other" (p. 68). , this respect Belinda suggests recurring social and psychological atticlosely allied to an ancient Yiddish folk-saying: "when a husband and sleep on one pillow, finally they have one head.?" That head, claims Heilbrun in Reinventing Womanhood, is invariably male, a condievolving from woman's role as secondary in marriage, as sustainer of husband whose primary orientation is with the larger world. Quoting E. M. phrase, "abandonment of personality," Heilbrun cites male dominthroughout society and within conventional marriage structures, a which encourages women to abandon personal inclinations "as the of wifehood."!' The only solution, she argues, is shared responsibility. Ironically, it is not the presence of marital tension that Pym's heroines but the absence, the tendency toward a one-sided acquiescence or which neutralizes personalities and sends excellent women refuge in singleness. "';iYAccommodation is not, initially, what Mildred Lathbury has in mind: she ,c,>liet~Sa full life. Pym's archetypal spinster, the most fully-delineated characl~ .the author's ten hovels, lives alone, has "no apparent ties" (p. 7), is nuntster's daughter, .which, she discovers, coupled with her unmarried , makes certain her involvement in others' lives. Mildred thinks of heras "mousy and rather plain" (p. 8), unassertive, sometimes "spinsterish useless" (p. 28). Women like her, she thinks, expect "very little - nothing, t" (p, 36). Faithful attendance at church, part-time charity work for poverished gentlewomen" (p. 13), and the comfort of the daily round in cosy apartment frame her life, which she feels to be a duplicate ofthe one had lived with her parents in a country rectory. . this excellent woman is too hard on herself. Just past thirty, she is not and acts intelligently, with effect, throughout the novel.



148 Robert J. Graham

Furthermore, Mildred possesses numerous admirable qualities: she and displays independence and dignity; she is loyal and judicious consoler of many and much put-upon in the excellent woman tradition; candid, not over-sympathetic, in fact she responds bluntly to the Given to laconic self-deprecation, she conceals a wry wittiness by her sharpest comments to herself. Although Pym lets Mildred tell story, she retains a strong authorial control, withholding information finds tedious or inappropriate to the topic of marriage versus single In the first of two narrative strands, Mildred's placid domestic shaken by the arrival of new neighbors. The wife, a formidable successful anthropologist just back from field work in Africa and with her husband, home from World War II naval service. Helena, who is vivacious, outspoken, strong-willed, capable-though a conventional wife or housekeeper-soon fall out and separate. becomes a reluctant intermediary. In the second narrative sequence, Mildred's church-life-and social center-suffers disruption through another female catalyst, a who is as manipulative as formidable women get in Pym's fiction. Grey entraps the bachelor vicar of St. Mary's; all does not go well, and too Mildred is sought as mediator. Again the machinations of marriage shape the testing ground for a spinster's speculations abou relative merits of matrimony and singleness. At one point Mildred is about singleness as "a positive rather than a negative state" (p. 176). other Pym heroines she values independence and acts to preserve it; but though excellent women often enjoy living alone and emphasize features of single life they find pleasing, they also admit the pleasure to maintain. In a complex world, they reason, arguments exist for si life by remaining unmarried. Furthermore, they conclude, much of ","rrl~~2:~\ seems drab routine and the superiority society assigns it over appears decidedly unfounded. That society may be mistaken is the conclusion of P. 1. 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. 12 Similarly, considering the altemativ to marriage available to women since the 1960s,Jessie Bernard observes in the 1980s non-marriage is more respectable than it was formerly. the less, she cautions, "Even in a world that offered such a variety, the preferred type of relationship [in a 1978 study 1 was the egalitarian . A less-cluttered existence and increased freedom notwithstanding, Lathbury still questions the viability of spinsterhood. As evidence against marriage builds, Mildred-feeling alone, empty, usel toward compromise. She recognizes that excellent women, most spinsters, are ever forced to be on the defensive: presumed in crises to tea-makers and dish-washers; presumed busybodies 'because presumed to have been unable to attract a man. They endure the

Barbara Pym 's Fiction


strutiny for the ring on the left hand. Scanning her classmates at an alumni \\-eekend, Mildred acknowledges that what counts is having a husband be he ,t\-er so dull, "and somehow I do not think we ever imagined the husbands to :I\ quite so uninteresting as they probably were" (p. 106). Moreover, she fears ..that the aging unmarried can become the unwanted. Although research within the social sciences has given little attention to -'--"J never-married women, British studies verify that "single older persons ' more isolated than those who are married"; because society has not ,,., provided institutional or ideological support "being single becomes less ,..Jiable in later life.?" Furthermore, retirement brings more adjustment problems ;to the never-married than to the married; not unexpectedly, therefore, Ieremy Tunstall has found older never-marrieds to be a vulnerable group in tish communities." At heart, however, Mildred is a romantic. She is sorry to miss the experience marriage or even that of a lost love. Unlike Belinda she has not suffered requited love; she just has not loved deeply nor been loved and longs to , ' at least, the intensity of loss. For her, there is the suspicion that life cannot be realized fully without romance. Yet, when reviewing the inherent limitations of a serious relationship with a scholarly man to whom she is Jllildly attracted, Mildred becomes unexpectedly practical. With him, the presumptive chores she sees accruing to her include indexing and proofreading, cooking and cleaning-presumed services, marriage or not, and links in an endless chain. "Was any man worth this burden?" she asks at the novel's end (p. 237). Since Mildred accepts the editing tasks, knowing they will lead to the domestic ones, the answer would seem to be yes, even though independence, fOmfort, personal growth may be sacrificed. Finding advantages in spinsterhood becomes increasingly difficult for D~!Cie Mainwaring. She values but does not cherish her independence; she enJoys her work but feels most useful when aiding men with their work. HaVing recently suffered a broken engagement-someone younger than she bad found himself unworthy of so excellent a woman -'- Dulcie moves beyond Pym heroines in a negative direction: she is closer to shutting out life than to finding shelter in spinsterhood. No mere observer, Dulcie-unlike other Pym protagonists-researches, meddles, spies, follows, eavesdrops. Her voyeurism becomesa reliance on vicarious sensation, a tendency toward an uYimate detachment. It is, she says, "so much safer and more comfortable live in the lives of other people ... " (p.1OS). This inclination toward leads her to regard change as dangerous; accepting spinsterhood, thinks, insulates one from hurt and humiliation. . what of romance, love, family, children as the only certain route fora to contentment and a full experience of life? Presumably, Catherine Tom in Less Than Angels are sharing more than her flat; however, not The Sweet Dove Died (1978), in the second stage of her publication will Pym include physical sex and its consequences in her narrative. heroines without family-are attracted to marriage as a means of

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establishing one; nevertheless, in all the novels only one heroine is . With a possible demurral from Catherine who mentions wanting' excellent women appear to endure rather than enjoy children.i] Wilmet's friend in A Glass of Blessings promises not to "inflict" on her, an appropriate verb for a common attitude. What remains for Pym's women is a longing for love and -~- -- ~:; precious little of the latter exists in the male-female dramatizes. Much thought about and desired by excellent women becomes more a theoretical matter than an actuality, one part of singleness colloquy which holds infinite mystery. Jane Cleveland man who would appreciate poetry; Wilmet envies "really wicked (p. 146) because they at least have something to dream about; even an attractive, lively single woman, finds that romantic evenings her anticipation of them. Mildred Lathbury would agree. In a revealing scene well into Excellent Women, Mildred chases a bunch of mimosa from a street barrow. A male friend transitory nature and Mildred replies: "I know the fluffiness but it's so lovely while it does" (p. 69). Ultimately, however, she that "Mimosa does lose its first freshness too quickly to be worth I must not allow myself to have feelings, but must only observe other people's" (p. 73). Linking the blossoms and her romantic she determines that neither has any permanence; like a sensitive infolds to protect herself and withdraws to become a detached Detachment, she concludes, is the less painful approach to human ships that may go nowhere. Love is more problematical. It is, of course, acknowledged as full life, and most heroines without men are able to find one or tive outlets for their affection. Church, a woman friend, a few - all meet the reciprocal need and offer satisfaction of some sort. Mildred and Belinda have their parish duties and a spinster in dotes excessively on her cat, overt love-displacement in Pym's more actively linked to home and garden than to causes or pets. research into the importance of home for never-married women Pym's sense of the spinster's attachment to place has authentic corollaries. To single people living alone, J. Horowitz and J. found, "home has varying environmental and pyschological mffit;!l;)' and does not seem to depend upon traditional family structure for ing.?" Rather, when home becomes clearly something beyond dwelling, it contributes to a sense of controlling one's environment often associated with psychological change. 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. 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. Most recognize such love to be an ideal and in time that it is mutual love rather than the formal institution of marriage that . Other heroines wish to be loved just to know what it is like to be in an undefined special way by men. Like Mildred Lathbury they want to be first in someone's eyes. However, few men in the novels act toward women -wives or not-and none expresses love in the thoughtful ways these women desire. Jane finds this irritating; 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 ... as the saying goes. Pyrn's spinsters are serious about this matter and their responses range from Belinda's her loss, to Prudence's collecting lost loves as if they were trophies, U!LL_..l'n feeling the absence of lost love to be in itself a deprivation. most excellent women value even the unreciprocated experience as a full life. Heroines from Pym's first novel to her last find compensations for the that would ordinarily come from lover or husband but does not. , as has been shown, settles for "something to love" - whether turtle or gazelle. However, beyond taking her cue from Thomas Bayley's ~.she also draws warmth from her long unrequited love. Others, without oflostlove-and mindful of the Ovaltine and water-bottle rituals ever for Pym spinsters- migh t agree with Belinda who, finding she is "now lcontented spinster," equates love with "a warm comfortable garment, bedperhaps, or even woolen combinations, certainly something without or romance" (p. 158).

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all novels written in the first stage of Barbara Pym's career contribute colloquy, three novels-lane and prudence, Less Than Angels and UnsuitableAttachment-gain an additional dimension through variations the author's usual mode of characterization. IS Jane Cleveland, Catherine and Ianthe Broome, the major figures in these works, are indeed C'l.cell"nt women; each in her way exhibits the identifying traits, endures the affronts, serves while others stand and wait. But, instead of and ending the narrative without a male companion, these Ilmtagonists do experience intimate relationships, however unsatisfactory, men. Through each variation portrayed, Pym is then able to pursue her debate from a different perspective. and Prudence the heroine has been married over twenty years and is i].\Jllterpointedin the narrative by the Prudence of the title, a woman just turnCorner into spinsterdom. Juxtaposing two characters, one single and permits the author a close comparative study of the issues involved.

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stcreotypes spinsters. In this regard she is further moved by a friend who Inevitably, there appears to be more romance, excitement, indepenaence, iftsists "it's difficult to imagine you falling in love with anybody .... 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. To Jane marriage means loving a man even though come up to your standards" (p. 169).Nevertheless, it is atlastlove, romance, finds him "boring and irritating" (p. 193) and she hopes Prudence ,<, .. surgeof passion that prompt Ianthe to marry-the only protagonist to do better than she. In contrast, Prudence finds her life to be "rich and promise" (p. 83); and although neither woman has achieved a full life ",._"'. ;:10 in a Pym novel. Ultimately, this excellent woman agrees with a more enlightenedfriend who, commenting on what constitutes a suitable marriage, novel ends, the promise remains with the spinster. s.: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. 171). man and a free-lance writer slightly older than he, an approach which her to probe one of the many kinds of behavior her other * * * "unsuitable." Her intention, no doubt, is to determine whether the love, fulfillment missing in conventional relationships might not year after Pym's first novel appeared, Winston Churchill returned to an unconventional setting. Further, might not the advantages office to usher in what one historian calls the quiet epilogue years, a time independent single woman and those of the married state accrue to a . 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, perceptive, resourceful exce~~m~'jl the burdened housewife, and to keep the ship of state on an even keel"; in 1952,the year Elizabeth succeeded her father, Churchill presided at the woman larger by far than her circumstances. That this liaison do ... coronation and helped foster a nostalgic hope for a new Elizabethan Era prosper is due, once more, to the man's lack of maturity and insight, "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, Pym had published resembles a dull marriage. Some Tame Gazelle, Excellent Women, Jane and Prudence, 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, An Unsu newmonarch. Attachment (completed in 1963 but not published till 1982). In 'Stability and pre-eminence were short-lived, however, for the second half every book the adjective-with or without its negative prefix-rl"o..-riMl" of the decade brought the Suez conflict and the Hungarian national revolt. eligible men, social groups; domestic events or, most importantly, marues.FcUowing Anthony Eden's year at Downing Street - the time Pym pu blished prospects. Ianthe Broome extends the accommodation expected Less Than Angels-Harold Macmillan, unruffled and able, 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. SinceJohn Challow, the ~\'orldWar 1.His early attempts to resolve Cold War tensions, bring Britain question, is neither her social nor her financial equal, and is five Into the Common Market, and retain newly independent African countries junior, the well-bred librarian makes a choice clearly uncharacteristic as membersof the Commonwealth -added to his domestic successes-merited mildly risky. Macmillan'sre-election in 1959under the campaign slogan "You never had it To depict Ianthe challenging social and pyschological SO good." During the calming years of his government, A Glass of Blessings marrying a man society considers unsuitable, Pym-consciously or and No Fond Return of Love appeared. abrogated the usual course. Evidence exists, especially in the works of .\~ith the crumbling of Britain's fortunes in the early 1960s-the sterling Bernard, Elmer Spreitzer and Lawrence Riley, that superior enS1S, climbing unemployment and taxes, a weak trade balance, the 1963 education, social position or income often operate to prevent Profumo scandal, racial unrest, further de-colonization pressures- came women from considering blue-collar workers or laborers as hus ~ntraditional solutions and changing attitudes. 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, readers and associates that women with superior traits are rejected on the other concerns than parish politics, the dalliance of librarians, Belinda market because "many males in their active courting roles tend to Harriet Bede grown old. PerhapsAn Unsuitable Attachment was merely wife who enhances their culturally conditioned self-image or m .~UItablefor the times. dominance." 19 ",Miss Pym was nearing fifty in 1963 when she completed An Unsuitable Finally, however, motivation for Ianthe's actions is grounded in tiachrnent, the manuscript that would be rejected by Jonathan Cape, against singleness dramatized throughout Pym's fiction, as the Causingthe affront which ..... contributed to her remaining unpublished for so recognizes her need to surmount loneliness and to overcome the way

154 Robert}. Graham

long. With the revival of her work has come speculation about the Surrounding her withdrawal. Philip Larkin has revealed his with Pym and various editors regarding the matter; her reconstructed the history of the refusal; readers' reports have Undoubtedly, Larkin, closest to the situation, accurately sums reaction: "It was the blank rejection, the implication that all previously written stood for nothing, that hurt,'?' Occasionally, have found weaknesses in the novel- a slight plot, an overly esthetic out-dated theme. The last point is nearest the mark. If it had not vanished fully by 1963, a world where subtlety jumble sales matter, where women worry about marrying ben stations, was soon to wane, submerged in an enlarged political arena. Cape had received Pym's manuscript nine months Kennedy's death, a symbolic event in a decade edging toward c problems, Vietnam, armament controversy, colonial unrest; a when women increasingly adopted a wider range of lifestyles commonly portrayed in Pym's fiction. Ironically, in 1955 Pym had been ahead of her time in creating Oliphant, a free-spirit who loves her "bohemian" flat, defies living openly, unmarried, with a younger man whom she appears to Daring, for 1955; commonplace by the mid-sixties, 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, Run (1960) and ended with Philip Roth's Portnoy (1969) may not have been the time for spinsters to make tea during crises; nor, if London publishers were correct, for readers to care suitability of a marriage match.

Barbara Pym s Fiction


one suspects Miss Pym regained attention and entered the phase of her career because her novels are anchored by tradition, goodness, unshakable optimism-all clothed in a monumental bespeaking wit, eccentricity and the unfailing good sense to to laugh at oneself. suffered an extended period without publication, then rediscovery year, Barbara Pym inaugurated the second phase of her career with Quartet in Autumn (1977), her most notable accomplishThe Sweet Dove Died appeared the following year and, shortly after ,A Few Green Leaves (1980). three last novels, written after a traumatic rejection of her seventh, replicate and extend Pym's earlier treatment of the married-singleness In The Sweet Dove Died a spinster nearing fifty meets Humphrey, a antiques dealer nearing sixty, and his nephew James, age twentyand the two men value the beautiful, the artful, of which antiques one symbolization. To make one's life a thing of beauty-the novel's from Keats-is Leonora's philosophy. With her considerable indepenmeans, she is able to live well: grace and taste surround her every act. it is soon apparent that for her as for Humphrey, youth is the genuine this end Leonora considersJ ames a prized possession, not unlike a rare figurine. She becomes his companion, confidante, advisor, and she to think of him as her creation. In time James's homosexual tendencies attraction to a young girl interfere; he also comes to regard Leonora as fact, as antique Victoriana. Losing James, Leonora settles for a to "the pleasure of being alone which she had enjoyed before she met (p.181). this novel Pym ventures into Bond Street and Kensington-a world perfect flowers, gracious luncheons and Siamese cat shows. Here she ft.plores the beautiful life as compensation for spinsterhood, ultimately .tfirrning singleness and praising self-sufficiency. Such a resolution provides II1arp counterpoint to the starkness mirrored in Quartet in Autumn where ~re are few compensations for her lonely protagonists. .. ~ In numerous ways Quartet in Autumn signifies the winding down of Pym's Ittlgleness theme as if time has run out on excellent women. Furthermore, ,,,,~re is the heightened intensity of a new-found realism, a tragic level not \:~;%~ent in her first-stage work. Since marriage is no longer a viable option for elderly protagonists, the foremost question becomes how to survive while aging. Shall I marry? has been replaced by should I have married? didn't I marry? would it now be different if I had ... ? This onslaught of r""~iminations is further complicated by the inhospitable nature of conlife: faceless bureaucracies, meddling social workers, congested racial tension, the uncaring young, the demanding elderly. . in this milieu, two spinsters, Marcia and Letty, and Norman and ,EdWlll, a bachelor and widower-all working in the same unidentifiable

It follows then that the same factors leading to Pym's lack of appeal 1960s would attract readers in the late seventies. As Martha Duffy "The Swinging Sixties, which got their early momentum in London, her out of style." Just as fortuitously, it seems, the quieter post-Vie years, a return to traditional values, 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, reaction to explicit sex, often gratuitous in contemporary novels and films, may also have aided Pym's revival. More importar readers could simply be attracted to a writer who offers an escape disorder, from chronic mean-spirited self-absorption, into the civili order which always undergird Pym's narratives. What interests Pym battles we have with ourselves, with job, church, obtuse relatives and salespeople, struggles that result in small victories, tiny defeats,a: .. successive accommodations that comprise daily life. Instead of L"'! ponderous pseudo-events, she locates the inane and Iu commonplace, in the everyday detritus that fills up the spaces between public acts. In so doing she illuminates the quirks which render human and make each life a stOry all its own.

156 Roberti. Graham

office-face retirement with outward calm but inner misgiving. At a retirement ceremony for the women, a company representative" "nobody knows exactly or has ever known exactly, what it is they do" After they retire, it seems, their office and jobs will be eliminated, symbolic of their lives, fruitless and expendable. Not only is the office work never revealed but the firm is not named, co-workers protagonists remain vague, ambiguities of time abound, the surface ship of the quartet is never penetrated. With all personal matters held except as those awesome levelers retirement and death intervene, it these lives, specks in a continuum, have no fixed locus in human retirement, Letty questions the value of a life that has left no mark. All this Pym renders with remarkable objectivity wrought by flawless tone and a precise measuring of intensity. Here, the author is how bad things can get. For excellent women the retirees' constitutes the final horror: after a life of encumbrance and serviceAnd yet, though readers have found Quartet in Autumn a novel, Pym ends on a hopeful note. Weathering the initial trauma of ment, Letty-in the tradition of the excellent women before herbecause it still holds "infinite possibilities for change" (p. 176). That retiremen t creates particular problems for the elderly been documented, as we have seen in studies by 1. Tunstall and Ward. 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; the latter reflects' loss of status and confidence as single persons age: "The data suggest definite bias against the older person who is unmarried ... those qualities that involve social or interpersonal areas _.. but not affect professional or occupational judgments,'?' Small wonder then do single people in contemporary society, Pym's protagonists find especially unnerving. As an appropriate coda to Barbara Pym's writing, A Few Green repeats her main ideas about spinsters and marriage from a fresh point. Emma Howick is an anthropologist squirrelled away in an village working on research notes. A fairly typical excellent woman - dowdy, quick to serve, troubled about being unmarried-Emma is observer of life, the first heroine professionally trained. She . "the necessity of being on the outside looking in" (p. 20) but soon i~ interested in village life and her relationships with the inhabitants' in her research project. The re-appearance of a former lover, Graham Pettifer, estab for the married-singleness issue central to the narrative. Unlike heroines, Emma has had "a brief affair," now rekindled in a casual, unimpassioned way." There are the usual attempts at _ thoughtful gestureson the part of the woman, utter thoughtlessness "--

Barbara Pym's Fictioll


Emma, in her thirties but not yet a hopeless spinster, wants something bappen and it does. But in the excellent woman tradition she ends up after a man who is overbearing, patronizing, ungratefulone who is, , loutish. These weaknesses and more, Emma recognizes, asking in fact, "Did I once love this man?" (p. 131). Still, she perseveres, through the woods with casseroles, doing his shopping, mending his becoming sad when he returns to his wife. Emma, who is Pym's means of examining a profession as compensation aining unmarried, anthropology is not a life-fulfilling experience. She f':';i!t:tllilldesires, as first priority, a relationship with a man, perhaps the "meaningone her mother would like to arrange for her. In Emma's view her mother, :<-li'}'lllatidowed college teacher, had at least "fulfilled herself as a woman" that is, had married and borne Emma, and could then turn to her studies "with a conscience" (p. 8). On this score Emma's conscience is uneasy, but at s end the characteristic optimism of an excellent woman returns ",""~11 Emma foresees staying on in the village. Here, she realizes, she "could a novel and even ... embark on a love affair which need not necessarily an unhappy one" (p. 250) . . "'~.Participating in the colloquy underlying the plots of Barbara Pym's novels the voices of custom, emotion and reason. They are projected through protagonists themselves as well as other characters and groups. The of custom, exemplifying attitudes, practices, rituals, is embodied often the expressions and actions of the parish vicar or other friends of each r-protagonist. In all Pym's narratives, custom is the weight of traditions unicated by sets of assumptions about single women. For example, it is DreSumedthat single women have abundant free time; that since they are uninvolved they enjoy mediating lovers' quarrels; that living is always lonely and, therefore, 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. Spinsters are, it is thought, quicker to make appropriate allowances. In this vein, ~nmarried women automatically qualify as Biblical Marthas, expected to ute~d a hand at every church function and help every sick relative, bachelor or WIdowerin need of mended cuff or tea and cakes." The voice of emotion, the instinctual response of individual feelings about :$elf,one's relationship to men, love, marriage and spinsterhood is projected Ihr~ugh ~hecharacters of suitors, friends, domestics and, particularly, through lntenor monologues of the protagonists themselves. Here, too, presumpabound: single women prefer to marry and are always looking, since all rs long for romance and a mate; single women feel less feminine for .without a man and are sympathetic to men left on their own. Thus they ever ready to tidy up, prepare meals, tend plants. Again, single women the need to nurture men caught in crises, domestic or professional. voice of reason, a voice founded upon detached observation as well as analysis, belongs only to the protagonists, who in Pyrn's novels no sane counsellors, learned mentors or wise friends. The ministers of


158 Roberti. Graham these stories are more in need of counsel than able to supply it; friends, colleagues- in the restricted settingsdramatized - b self-centered or imperceptive. To sort out illusion from reality, well-founded or flawed, remains the task of the women themselves, only rational voices. . In this role the voice of reason counteracts traditional assu the self-centered expectations of others. Belinda, Mildred, Catherine; 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; that though there are living alone can be satisfying, even a luxury; that society does women as second-class citizens yet uses them when their very independ is a community asset; that men are often weak, requiring more lookirll! than women do; that the economy as structured places a premium work and minimizes married or single women's; that it takes a effort to maintain one's dignity as a single person. Hearing the coun tervailing voices, facing the assumptions, ""'5"'511115 fictional colloquy extracts varied conclusions from each of the protagoi While posing many questions, the narratives nevertheless arrive overriding query significant to each excellent woman in her specific circumstance: as, in our way, we all seek happiness, does singleness a boon, a handicap, or something in-between? While the question is for all, the individual responses sustain a thematic colloquy that throughout Pym's fiction and, more often than not, affirms single essentially good and nominally fulfilling. Unhappily, this conclusion partly stems from the woeful dearth of men in society at large. For the few women who, like Mildred consider relinquishing independence for marriage, bemused the only attitude possible. 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, "Gas-fire ... was only one degree better than the glowing functional which I had gazed with Julian" [p. 237]). Men may be flawed through through, but there is the chance, the slimmest chance, in Mildred's mind in marriage she may discover the complementary side of the single Finally, as she whispers her qualified yes, the voice of the excellent is tinged with resignation. If all this reflects merely a crazy-quilt society where men and marry-or not-for reasons outlandish or muddled or unknown themselves, Pym responds so be it. But if, as a result, excellent remain overlooked or submerged, what is lost may be those without mates and children, perhaps without family of without career or distinction, face the need to love and be loved, connections with others in ways that bring a sense of usefulness and is, after all, a very human problem. Where there is tragedy in Pyrn's is linked to what might have been.

Barbara Pym 's Fiction


8arl>ara pym,No Fond Return of Love (London, 1979), p. 141. 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, 1978); Excellent Women (Middlesex, 1980): Jane Pmde (London, 1979); Less Than Angels (New York, 1980); A Glass of Blessings nce ',Middlesex, 1980): Quartet in Autumn (London, 1980); The Sweet Dove Died (London, 1QM\, A Few Green Leaves (New York, 1980); An Unsuitable Attachment (London, 1982). H. Youssef, "Status and Fertility Patterns," in Women in the Muslim World, ed. Lois and Nikki Keddie (Cambridge, Mass., 1978), p. 78. See also Naila Minai, Women in : Tradition and Transition in the Middle East (New York, 1981), pp. 187-94; and Jessie " The Female World (New York, 1981), pp. 156-59. Julia Cherry Spruill, Women:S Life and Work in the Southern Colonies

(1938; New York,

1972), p. 138.
~Spinster," The Compact Edition of the Oxford English Dictionary, Anna Shapiro, "The Resurrection

1971 ed.

of Barbara Pym," Saturday Review, July-August 1983, p. 29.

critical writing about Barbara Pyrn's work has thus far appeared in reviews. Notable ,elceptions include: Philip Larkin, "The World of Barbara Pym ," TLS, Mar. 1977, p. 260 and (sa Kapp, "Out of the Swim with Barbara Pyrn," The American Scholar, 52 (1983)' 237-42. An early appreciation of pym's writing exists in Robert Smith, "How Pleasant to Know Miss Pym," Ariel: A Review of International English Literature, 2, IV (1971),63-68. None of these addresses the married-singleness issues. Russell A. Ward, "The Never-Married in Later Life," Journal of Gerontology, 34 (1979), 861-69and Leonard Cargan, "Single: An Examination of Two Stereotypes," Family Relations, ;t) (1981),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, 1960-75. resents this comparison. Maneuvered into tidying-up her neighbor's kitchen, she grumbles, "Martha's back must have ached too ... " (p. 150). In Less Than Angels Mabel Swan thinks of her spinster sister Rhoda as a "Martha," even when she is not fussing about Jeremy Tunstall, Old and Alone: A Sociological Study of Old People (London, 1966)' p. 39. See also, Elmer Spreitzer and Lawrence E. Riley, "Factors Associated with Singlehood," Journal of Marriage and the Family, 36 (1974),533-42. l{l! Isaac Bashevis Singer, "The Unseen," in Gimpel the Fool and Other Stories (1957; New York,

1(9),p.149. 11' Carolyn G. Heilbrun, Reinventing IlJ Peter 1. Stein, Single (Englewood III Bernard, p. 159. Hi Ward, pp. 861,863.


(New York, 1979), p. 175.

Cliffs, N.J., 1976).


Tunstall, pp. 6485. J..~orowilz and 1. TognoJi, "The Role of Home in Adult Development: Men and Women LIVIngAlone Describe Their Residential Histories," Family Relations, 31 (1982),335. Ann Oakley, The Sociology of Housework (Bath, 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. of an anomaly in Pyrn's work, A Glass 0/ Blessings presents a variation without

much reference to singleness; it is the only novel focused entirely on a married protagonist,a Woman vaguely discontented and courting an extra-marital affair. When the object of her a.ttention leads her to his homosexual friends, the humor becomes priceless and the recognition painful.