Everybody knows how cozy certain English novels can be. Like those foggy walks on the Downs which envelop the human figure in mildly mythic illumination and a gently courted sense of disaster, they almost always bring one home safe for tea. Often they belong to the genre of the series-novel, in which a continuing environs or reappearing characters can bring us that sense of familial enclosure which is one of the great precincts of the novel, and one we all crave. In effect, that is what any novel is, whether sliced near and parochial or projected abysmally far. Those enclosures which become great of themselves are inhabited by creatures who bear terrifying or encouraging resemblances to ourselves, no matter their station in life or ours. After that, these novels take their tone from how daringly their creator will violate the safety of the enclosure to show us the raw facts outside. Trollope’s cynicism will do that. Jane Austen stays within—though so trippingly that her novels, if not strictly related as in the true genre, from a distance appear to be. Later, in France, Balzac’s gargantuan appetite would attempt to make all human character his enclosure, and still later Proust, burrowing from within, would make his sequence all one book. Indeed, one measure of a novelist seems to be how we do or do not succumb to the ever-present temptation to serialize what we see.
There the English have often been specialists, brought to it by the continuities of class difference and the permanences of provincial life, in which during the later nineteenth century all the literate would seem to have been subscribers to Mudie’s Library, lender par excellence to the long stretches of middle-class time. So the sought-for genre scene of life high or low could flourish on. If Mrs. Gaskell’s Cheshire proved too modest you could exert your snobberies in Barchester, although, staying with either, you would ultimately find yourself moving on from Cranford to Mary Barton and working women in an industrial town, or from a cathedral close to the raunchy idlers of The Way We Live Now and on to Parliament with Phineas Finn.
Meanwhile, comfortingly localized place and domestic character would persist in the crannies of all the major novelists, either per se or enlarged, and often in strange mixture. Think of those marvelously echo curates and textbook-saint village women in Charlotte Bronte’s Shirley, so curiously static, almost like period pieces, even as the novel is moving on into the world of the Luddite labor riots. It is George Eliot who will most have the courage for the world scene, yet it is her earlier evangelistically moral novels of village life which will provide the grounding for that most modern-sounding of Victorian novels, Middlemarch. Dickens will go farthest into the abyss of human misery, but with that strange alternation which will keep the great interlocking scenes of outer London separate from his lesser gallery of comic turns and fixed types, some of which may go back to those early Mystery plays in which accounts of English village life begin. While his women of course remain impossible. They are Mudie readers second-class and beyond, down to those kitchen-maid penny-dreadfuls they would have had to procure at the stationer’s. I suspect even Little Dorrit of it. Even Little Nell.
All the while that other stream of the more stringently enclosed novel has persisted in one or another variation, as it always will. There would be Disraeli’s friend Ada Leverson’s sassy novels of titled manners, sexually explicit in all but language and antecedent of both Mitford and Wodehouse. In the early 1930s Angela Thirkell initiated her series of light novels of country-house life set in a borrowed Barsetshire with High Rising, succeeded by such titles as Pomfret Towers, Before Lunch, and Cheerfulness Breaks In. Intellectuals proclaimed themselves unable to read them, and it was said that her son Colin Maclnnes, the distinguished author of City of Spades and other novels of West Indians in London, could not bear mention of them. Yet beginning in the 1920s there had been a series much tolerated, even cherished, as more by one of the intellectuals’ own. These were the “Lucia” novels of E. F. Benson, son of the Archbishop of Canterbury and biographer of, among others, Edward VII. Recently I reread them. They recount the infuriating progress and satisfying defeats of an impossibly arrogant and enchantingly self-willed country-town social arbiter as surrounded by the not always compliant gossip-on-the-green antics of her coterie, characters farcical enough in themselves. One sinks guiltily in their coy charms, grudging each book’s end, grateful for its encore, and meanwhile swaddled away from one’s own bothers by this dottily appealing contredanse, for it’s a round-the-clock read in which continuity is the real sugarplum. Feydeau bouts of time-off fun for the brainy, cloyingly too delicious by far, they are ridiculous in toto, savorable in all their parts, from which one exits at last with a vast “pouf.” Only later does one notice how the surface moralities of a decade have been proffered us in ironic bouquet.
It is such books, if not these precisely then the whole secondary stream of them—and not the divine Jane, as is the current analogy—that are the antecedents of Barbara Pym. Perhaps in this lies the reason why, after issuing six of her books during the 1950s, her publisher rejected her next, bringing on a silence lasting until 1977, when with Quartet in Autumn her reputation was revived. She died in 1980. I recall encountering her at the Booker Awards dinner in 1977. If she knew she was dying she may have had thoughts on those belated tributes which are so often the lot of the artist crippled or moribund, for that same evening a prize to Paul Scott for his Raj Quartet was accepted by his daughter, since he was then on his deathbed. We often do the same, only a little later, for our suicides. Thereafter one must take care to assess the work, not the discovering fans. It is possible to love Jane and still flee the Jane-ites. In the case of Pym I find myself somewhere between.
One must of course never trust English life not still to contain those quiet corners which once symbolized it. The heroine of Excellent Women (1952), an ecclesiastical spinster who clocks her life by the Lent Service at St. Ermin’s or by a “I was formally introduced to Mrs. Gray at the jumble sale,” decides that “love is a terrible thing” and “not quite my cup of tea.” Tea is the strongest drink—or metaphor—in all of Pym, and the coda of all crises. We also meet Everard Bone, anthropologist yet passionate convert. They are in a shabby corner of London the wrong side of Victoria, meeting at church, Learned Society do’s, antique shops, and front doors, some thirty years ago. Passing there now one might see punks of both sexes packing a car just as possibly for a picnic as for an orgy, though their hair may be waxed in magenta porcupine quills. Yet only last month, in the cathedral town of St. Alban’s, my hostess shyly showed me some vignettes of local life she had been writing, and very well too, for the church magazine, these and its other announcements quite appropriate to the Pym paperback I had read en route. Or as the punks might have been, if Pym had got around to them, for it is her disarming habit to modulate to the contemporary surface while she keeps her own vantage.
In Less than Angels (1958) we are still in a covey of anthropologists—so often Pym’s rather transparent cover for life-study—who here put Fioradora on the player-piano and ask each other, “I hope you eat the meat of brownfleshed birds” (duckling in this case, venison having been served the day before). Catherine, the young writer, wears “the fashions of the day” when “women of thirty could dress like girls of twenty, their hair apparently cut with nail-scissors.” What one eats, drinks, wears—and what one quotes from a collectively known poetry index—will be important to all these novels, linked as they are by recurring preoccupations as much as by characters, and by the floating minutiae of daily living never treated as trivia, to which these mild psyches are wittily but exhaustively attached. Of Paris cafes, where, it is said, “if you sat long enough everybody you had ever known or loved would pass by,” Catherine thinks: “Surely it couldn’t be quite everyone, that would be far too emotionally exhausting.” Pym is fondest of the heroine of limited appreciations, and for our pleasure is not above patronizing them, as with Wilmet, the sub-adulterous young matron in A Glass of Blessings (1958): “We were to learn the subjunctive and I found myself wondering whether I could take so kindly to the Portuguese now that I realized how often they used it.” There is often some such slippage of irony between the character’s own irony and what the author herself cannot contain, and it is then that one wishes for some heavier sword to poke through this fine arras of wit always interposed. Or perhaps it is that, in novels so based on the perfect dig and—one must say it—on ticking people off, the steady small rain of apperception finally palls. Still one is grateful for the glass always offered, of intelligent amusement from an ever-observant mind which only boundaries appear to excite.
The sexual is merely grazed even when it is the subject. Middle-aged women fall in love with homosexuals, or, like Leonora, the narcissist of The Sweet Dove Died (1978), with young men like James, who feels after making love with a younger woman that “while he was not particularly anxious to repeat the experience he liked to think that he could if he wanted to.” Emma of Pym’s last novel, A Few Green Leaves (1980)—the name-parallel with Austen’s Emma going not unmentioned—thinks of a man with whom she had once had a brief love affair: “To say that he had been her lover was altogether too grand, for there had not been that much love about it, no more than proximity and a mild affection.” When he comes to sleep occasionally at her cottage, “Sometimes he would have to be content with her company only, her conversation, and whatever else he might be prepared to ask and she to give.” So do Pym readers have to be, the author not saying what that “else” is, or indeed what is meant by “company.” One can end up feeling that not all the reticence in these books comes from art.
Pym enjoys people who have not quite had passion. As the gentle insights come on, poking fun more wellbred than the wellbred, it’s like having a sly friend, gifted at protracted gossip and with a special eye for those whose timid energies have almost been expunged. You may feel superior to her people for the circumscription of their lives, from which so much is absent, in the main children, often marriage, or a love not arrived at from languid motives or over-spiritual ones. Yet, as with any world watched in wax and wane, people take on dignity with their own finiteness.
In Pym’s last book, Emma’s friend Ianthe, now in love with a “gay” (the word still being made much of), was once the young librarian of An Unsuitable Attachment, the book whose rejection had silenced its author. Destiny, or applied psychology, has rounded out Ianthe—always the serial temptation. Looking back, one might see how that book’s deceptively limp cat-lovers and people-fanciers might have appeared during the rise of the Beatles, the welfare state, and the Labour Party, and the concomitant decline of the Kensington drawl on the bbc. An audience was changing. People were wanting to read about new-class energies. Partisanship verging on propaganda was required of a writer’s stance on the people written about, and Pym’s perfectly adjusted harmonics could leave one in doubt. Did she love her characters too much, or not very? Kinship is not part of her spectrum—except to ordinary events, the squashed ones. The kind of hurt which could emanate from Stevie Smith, in her work as in her presence, that winning empathy of the minor for the minor, evades Pym. She is rather a finely ticking ear, with a taste for those who are squelched.
Further, the female audience for the serious novel was not quite as it had been. George Eliot’s audience, and that of even later writers, had not been so sexually divided; non-literary men of that era read novels without qualm. The kitchen-maiders would be ever with us, Tauchnitz to Harlequin. Now there was a new middle group. Pym is very good on the comfort women take in each other, but there was Lessing now. There would also be those novels of popular or sociological family concerns which raised the intelligence ante perhaps, yet gave the feminine reader a workout in her own domestic world which refreshed exactly as exercise does in a salon.
Meanwhile, Drabble would soon be re-identifying the university couple and the in-crowd of liberal opinion. Angus Wilson’s homosexuals were coming in from an altogether sharper world. Above all the language had changed, violently. While the language of a class society is always referential, and indeed one of England’s prides, the references had changed; once again the vowels had bent. Pym’s cadence could sound coy. Most of all, the enclosures of the serial novel itself had shifted. Joyce Cary had his Irish eye on the netherworld of art, C. P. Snow was issuing his scoops on the politics of ambition, and Anthony Powell’s Music of Time was making its annual serio-comic grumble of disquiet over all the losses. The world of the conversazione, which Pym’s essentially is, was a beleaguered world, even where it existed. Such a reality was in some disgrace.
Equally one can see why the time for its resurrection has come. As with some of the “period” television shows on both sides of the Atlantic, Pym’s gently acerb serial makes it intellectually possible to escape into a postwar period many in England can remember and some over here can be charmed by, while the pleasures of participatory fandom—remember Tolkien?—can be as stylish as transatlantic chess. Yet novels like these have a residue, persuading us that our own lives, where quiet, are not valueless, especially when wit, like lemon to tea, can be added. Even the fandom which a run-on novel so often evokes is a kind of piety toward the novel form. Yet when the comparisons run wild, then one does have to remark that the size of the target inevitably defines the stature of the satirist. In Pym’s work itself there is no indication that we are to take its devotion to the smallish as aspersion on the real extravagance.
The enclosed novel doesn’t have to take place in the drawing room. It can be a “No Exit” of metaphor. Or it can exist, as the Ivy Compton-Burnett novels did, on superficiality, in one of the more elegant drawing rooms of hell. What one asks of the great enclosures (and gets) is an assurance that the sequestration is natural within the life of the times, and within human nature as well. In Austen one receives both. One has no wish to see her travel abroad. The measure of what we get from her is marked by a certain relief that she never did. One is brought into all the parlors of the world. Yet in that modern apostrophe to dailiness, Tanizaki’s The Makioka Sisters, one is never allowed to forget the implied world outside. Perhaps that points to why, for us now, the enduringly poignant enclosures are those which are broached, as when, in the parlor exchanges of Prince Myshkin, the poorfolk alleyways suddenly intrude. Or when, embosomed in the Cheerybles, we remember the vast, interlocking streets of the miserable child. When tea will not do, when safety is not intended, somehow that is where we best find it.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 1 Number 1, on page 53
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