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April 3, 2011

Daughters-in-Law by Joanna Trollope

In her very strange book Felicity and Barbara Pym, Harrison Solow notes that Barbara Pym doesn’t so much write a lot about tea as that English novelists fixate on tea in general. Solow also writes that one hoping to learn more about the Pymmian universe could do with reading Joanna Trollope, which is the reason I decided to pick up Trollope’s new novel Daughters-in-Law. In which cups of tea are poured throughout, the ceremony never illustrated as quotably as it is by Pym, but how could it be? But yes, still, the tea at all signals perfect Englishness and is absolutely delightful.

Though Trollope writes of Pymmian class concerns, her work lacks the undercurrents that make Barbara Pym so subtly literary. This, however, also means that to read Daughters-in-Law this week was to escape into a world where plot dominates, and it was entirely easy to becoming altogether lost, which was a treat considering the week that I’d had. A double treat, actually, because I’ve had such a problem with commercial fiction since becoming a more demanding reader– is it too much to ask for accessible but not bad? And as I read through Daughters-in-Law, I kept coming up to intersections where lesser writers would turn off onto cliched avenues, but Joanna Trollope missed them every time.

Cliched characters are avoided too (for the most part) by Trollope presenting her story from multiple points of view, and so we see the impulsive, self-centred mother-in-law Rachel  from her own perspective and gain sympathy for her situation. That she has devoted her life to her family, to making her home the centre of her family’s life, a rambling bohemian nest in Suffolk where her husband paints birds in his studio, and she conducts cooking classes in her kitchen. Her position as the family’s centre has never been challenged, even with her two elder sons married, as one has married a woman whose family is abroad, and the other has no family at all. When her youngest marries a girl whose centre is eternally fixed on the self, however, friction is inevitable and explosions ensue.

Trollope writes with assurance of modern life– Pymmian and “old fashioned” aren’t necessarily synonyms, and I don’t think a curate turns up once. The youngest son Luke is forced to kick his cocaine habit before Charlotte will go out with him, however. And though Rachel and her husband Anthony live without a care on their inherited wealth, their children are all slightly constrained by housing prices. Trollope also writes matter-of-factly of one character’s experience with post-partum depression, which is incidental to the plot, life having gone on since the occurrence (as life often tends to do).

She also doesn’t have to rely on adultery for this novel about marriage and family relationships to progress, which is not to say that adultery itself is a cliche, but it usually is as portrayed in fiction. To write an an entire novel so compelling about people who (for the most part) behave quite decently is no small feat. And also, for that matter, Pymmish. It abounds!

February 27, 2011

Can Lit?

I br0ught a few Canadian novels with me, but have actually forgotten that Canada was ever such a place, so they’ve remained unopened in my suitcase. Instead, I’ve delighted in three epistolary novels in a row. The first was Daddy Long Legs by Jean Webster, which wasn’t remotely English, except for the umbrellas on the cover, and that was enough– I really liked it. Next was Burley Cross Postbox Theft, which was absolutely brilliant– I loved the ending. And on Friday, I read Felicity and Barbara Pym by Harrison Solow, which was even stranger than Nicola Barker’s novel, if such a thing was possible, but I adored it. The novel consists of correpondance from an academic to a student undertaking the study of liberal arts at an American university who is about to begin a seminar on Barbara Pym. Who is unclear about why she should bother to read Barbara Pym, and the academic is unscathing in her criticism of the student’s point of view, of her limitations. Unbashedly snobbish (but not in all respects. She recommends Miss Read and Jilly Cooper’s Class in order to understand Pym’s world), as she takes down the student for her own provincialism and then proceeds to outline why we should bother reading Barbara Pym, as well as how we should approach the liberal arts, which is by drawing a connection between impeccable literary analysis and the wider world. Connections between the insular nature of Pym’s village life and ideas of the earth-centred universe, and the island mentality of the English anyway. Absolutely fascinating, and though I appreciated Barbara Pym before I read it, I picked up her Less Than Angels next, of course, and I am a better reader now.

This weekend, we had a wonderful time in Glasgow with good friends (two of whom hopped over from Ireland for the occasion). The drive was lovely, the city was so vibrant and beautiful, and the sun shone and shone and we haven’t paid for it yet. Plus, we had afternoon tea at the Willow Tea Rooms, and had the kind of fun last night that is only possible in the company of the Scottish and the Irish. Tomorrow, to Yorkshire, and then a drive down South, then a day in London, and a day in Windsor, and before we know it, we’ll be home again, home again (and happy to be there. Though apparently, there is snow?).

November 3, 2010

Two old books: Quartet in Autumn by Barbara Pym and Anne of Windy Poplars by LM Montgomery

Last week I read Barbara Pym’s Quartet in Autumn as I slowly (savouringly) make my way through her books. Quartet is the book Pym published after her years in the wilderness, the fifteen years where her work was considered unpublishable and her books went out of print. Her famous redemption came about in 1977 when Philip Larkin and Lord David Cecil both (independently) nominated her as one of the century’s most underrated writers. Quartet was published not long after that, followed by The Sweet Dove Died, which had been written previously and was rejected and rejected and then was not anymore.

Quartet is the story of four office mates (and what they do is quite beside the point. When the women retire, their positions aren’t filled. Days mostly hinge around brewing kettles and cups of tea) who are near retirement and who, through various circumstances, have each found themselves much alone in the world. And yet the four aren’t close either, which makes the story particularly interesting: what if the people who are closest to you hardly know you at all? And what if you’re fine with that?

Pym does a wonderful job of showing the discomfort of a person rather set in her ways who is forced to face a world that is changing. Though this makes for uncomfortable reading at times– I am not sure whether or not we’re meant to empathize with Letty when she leaves her flat because a family of Nigerians have moved into the unit below. Even Letty is not proud of her uncomfortableness, and I suppose this storyline is racist, but I also think it’s an honest depiction of very human situation. It’s not so much that Pym is racist, or her story is, though the character is, but that’s kind of the point. And I’m not sure that’s a good enough reason not to read the novel anymore.

Was hoarding a diagnosis in the 1970s? Because it’s all the rage these days, of course, but Letty’s co-worker Marcia was hard at it back in the day, filling the house she’d shared with her late mother with unopened packages of nightware from Marks and Spencer, stocking the cupboards with cans, and filling her garden shed with milk bottles (just in case there’s another war, and it’s the last war, where there was no milk without bottles). Pym manages to make Marcia’s affliction mildly amusing, actually, but it’s also sad. But not so sad– this is not a sentimental book. It’s not that lonely people are funny, or that funny people are lonely, but just that lonely people are, and I think it’s an idea that’s still incredibly profound.


I just finished reading Anne of Windy Poplars, which I’d been meaning to do since Kate posted about it ages ago. It’s a strange novel, the fourth in the Anne series (between of the Island and House of Dreams), but it was written after all of them. I don’t think I’ve read this book in over twenty years, but I have recently read two biographies of Montgomery and so have a better idea of its context than I did the first time. That Montgomery was being pushed by her publishers to give her readers more Anne, and so a novel like this was sort of cobbled together. That she was also limited it what she could do with Anne in this in-between story, because certainly nothing too profound could happen to her that would have to be accounted for in her already-established later history.

This novel takes place over three years in which Anne and Gilbert are living apart while she is working as principal of a high school in Summerside and Gilbert is studying at medical school. Much of the novel consists of letters she writes him, and I agree with Kate that these letters like nothing else express the true depth of their relationship. (Though unlike Kate, I never thought Gilbert was a dud. Perhaps that is because to me, he will always be Jonathan Crombie).

Because not much can happen to Anne then, this is an account of what happens to the people all around her– the people whose lives she touches, the curmudgeons she brings around, the wild people she manages to tame with her charm and by her wits. Some of these stories really are a bit much. We do see an Anne who is quite self-aware at times, and funny, remarking at one point of her tendency to meddle in the lives of others. This is less a novel really than a collection of episodes, almost short stories– it’s not so unlike The Blythes are Quoted in many respects, though of course Anne is much more central to what goes on. So many of the episodes are quite familiar to me from Anne of Green Gables: The Sequel which (please forgive me, and maybe I’m wrong because I’ve not seen it for a while) might be better than the book is. Which is not to say the book is bad, of course.

I had a similar problem with this book that I had with Budge Wilson’s Before Green Gables, with Anne encountering Anne-like characters. In Windy Poplars, it’s the story of Little Elizabeth, the lonely child who lives in the forbidding house next door and dreams of forever escaping into “tomorrow”– with all her talk of fairies and poetic trees, she’s like Anne Shirley on speed, and really, how can there be two of them? The whole point of Anne, her charm, is that she’s one in the million. Diana managed to be her kindred spirit while being nothing like Anne, and truth be told that dynamic made a lot more sense to me.

About Diana, a sad note in the novel– Anne goes home to Green Gables and Diana scarcely registers. She has a new baby, and Anne remarks at one point that Diana is busy in a whole other world, and that’s the end of it, but I found it disappointing. They were kindred spirits after all! Interesting also to see Montgomery locating her story in a wider context– there are mentions of boys, including Gilbert, going out west to work on “that railroad” they’re building out there. References to Anne teaching The War of 1812, and noting how lucky they were that days of war were far behind them, which was doubly not true by 1936 when the book was published.

September 1, 2010

The world is a Pymian place

I discovered The Barbara Pym Society before I’d even discovered Barbara Pym, in 2007 when I read this wonderful article on the CBC Arts site. This article was mostly the reason I ended up reading my first Pym book last fall, which was Excellent Women (though I think I was also inspired by a reference in Susan Hill’s Howards End is on the Landing.) And that book was the way I fell in love with Barbara Pym, and how convenient that she  had her own society that I could join. They hold annual conferences in Massachusetts and Oxford, both of which are just a bit too far out of my way, but I had a dream of one day getting there, and indulging in a bit of Pym talk with like-minded individuals.

It was to my great joy that I received a letter in July from Judy, a local Pym Society member who was looking for a meet-up. Turns out there are only a few of us in Canada– one in Montreal, three in the GTA, and four in Victoria (which makes it a veritable hotbed, no?). Judy orchestrated a get-together for those of us nearby, was gracious enough to move the venue to my house (as travelling alone with Harriet is less than fun), and we were thrilled to have our third member RSVP, and were pleased that she was to bring her daughter. Because, she and her daughter had visited Barbara Pym’s cottage during a trip to England in 2009, and they even met Barbara Pym’s sister. (Pym herself died in 1980).

And truly the world is a delightful place, because this group of strangers got together and there was immediately a kinship. We ranged in age (including Harriet) from 1-85, and we entertained one another with stories of how we’d found Barbara Pym, and what she meant to us. How her work is so deceptively simple, and how she invests the ordinary with meaning. Tea was served, scones were eaten (as this was my house, after all). At this point, Harriet left the room, and then returned wearing a hat and carrying a handbag. It was 40 degrees outside and we were sweltering in spite of the fan, but even still, the time went too quick and good conversation flowed. We wondered if Pym had ever fathomed that groups such as ours’ would be discussing her work (with such passion) thirty years after her death. Having recently read her biography, I suspected probably not, but I really wish I could have told her. Someone suggested that one couldn’t channel a spirit anymore than we were doing just then, and she was probably right.

It was a wonderful gathering, and we’re going to do it again, and I think I might have been the luckiest one there because I’ve still got unread Pyms before me. The others were inspired to reread. We said goodbye with enthusiastic hugs, and after everyone had left, I opened the hostess gift that Judy had brought me, and how thrilled I was to discover (wrapped in William Morris paper, of course) a jar of Ovaltine.

The world is a Pymian place.

August 25, 2010

Hardly a good advertisement

“I’ve just made a cup of tea,” said Miss Caton, who was crouching near the gas-ring. “This will do you good– a strong cup of tea with plenty of sugar. I learnt that when I was doing first aid during the war– treatment for shock.”
Humphrey glanced distastefully at the tan-coloured liquid in the think white cup and waved it aside. “No, thank you, Miss Caton– I really couldn’t drink it– and where did you get that terrible cup?”
“It’s the one I have my elevenses and my tea out of every day,” she said briskly.
Humphrey took his mid-morning coffee elsewhere if he was not at a sale and was seldom on the premises in the afternoon either, so he had probably never noticed his typist drinking from the thick serviceable cup.
“Well, Miss Caton,” he said. “I can only hope that nobody has ever seen you drinking from such a monstrosity. It would hardly be a good advertisement, would it?”
“I take my tea in the back,” she said, on the defensive, “so no customer could have seen me.”
“And you, James– do you drink from such a cup?” asked his uncle sternly.
“I don’t know,” James mumbled. “I suppose I may have done on occasion.”
Humphrey exclaimed in horror.
“Perhaps a cup of China tea,” Miss Caton persisted, “though it wouldn’t have the same reviving effect, and without milk or sugar it might be too acid for you in your present condition.”
–from Barbara Pym’s The Sweet Dove Died

August 20, 2010

If all else fails

So it turns out that I have a motto after all, because surely I’ve been saying this for years, but then Barbara Pym had been saying it for longer, so I read in her collected letters and diaries. The motto is (and it’s a good one, I think): “…if all else fails, we can always start a teashop.” Indeed.

August 19, 2010

Sometimes just laziness

Hmm. I’ve written before about how much I love recurring secondary characters throughout an author’s works, which creates the sense of a self-contained universe with millions of tiny whirling lives that I’m privy to glimpses of– in books by Margaret Drabble, and Barbara Pym. But how interesting then to read in a letter from Pym to Philip Larkin: “With me it’s sometimes just laziness– if I need a casual clergyman or anthropologist I just take one from an earlier book. Perhaps really one should take such a very minor character that only the author recognises it, like a kind of superstition or a charm.”

July 28, 2010

You've got to court delight

You’ve got to court delight, I think. By which I mean that things don’t just turn up in the post. You’ve got to send small gifts across the country to get a thank-you note in return, and subscribe to literary journals and magazines, and have a friend who lives in Antarctica who sends a postcard from time to time. Or rather, you have to go out of your way to buy a red teapot so that you can be a person who has a red teapot (unless you’re a particular fortunate person for whom red teapots arrive in the post).

Anyway, the point is that I received two letters in the post today upon whose envelopes my name was inscribed by hand. (And it wasn’t even that deceptively handwriting-like font that Bell Canada puts on all their envelopes when they send missives begging for the return of my custom.) Two handwritten envelopes is practically unheard of! I tore them open in a hurry and was not the least bit disappointed by what I found inside.

But let me backtrack. I joined The Barbara Pym Society earlier this year, because it seemed a strange, funny and Pymian thing to do. (I was inspired by this article.) And I also made friends with a brilliant writer/almost birdwatcher, and had her over for tea last week. As a result of these two things, I today received a lovely letter from a fellow Pym Society member who is looking for a Canadian meet-up*, and an absolutely beautiful thank you note from my birder-writer friend (who is truly as master of the form). Both of which made me exquisitely happy.

So you do have to court delight, I think. Though there’s also the point that if you wish to be perpetually delighted, just look for the pleasure of tiny, wonderful things. (Or perhaps I need to get out more…)

*Fascinatingly enough, the Pym Society member had sent me this letter unknowing that we’d corresponded in the past! Three years ago, she published a beautiful essay in The Globe, and sent me a note after I’d mentioned it on my blog. And now we find ourselves two of the very small population of Canadian Barbara Pym Society members! How marvelously tiny the world truly is…

April 20, 2010

My video pitch for Barbara Pym

Jen Knoch’s book club is not only Keepin’ It Real, but they’re Keepin’ Toronto Reading too. I did my part for their effort, making a video pitch for Barbara Pym’s No Fond Return of Love. You can watch the video, and my series of bizarre facial expressions, here.

March 29, 2010

Barbara Pym again

It sounds like I’m being cutesy, but it’s true: something had been a little “off” around here, reading-wise, and it dawned on me that the problem was that I hadn’t read Barbara Pym in ages. So I’ve got on that with Some Tame Gazelle, her first published novel, which she started writing whilst a student at Oxford, proof that she’d been turned onto middle-age spinsters early.

Also, aren’t these Moyer Bell editions quite lovely? The prints call Persephone Books to mind, though of course these aren’t quite as artful, but they’re also ridiculously inexpensive. I love them.

Though I know exactly why I love Barbara Pym, I can think of all kinds of reasons why I might not– she’s never written an opening scene that didn’t involve the vicar or the curate (and I don’t even know what a curate is), not to mention that Jane Austen comparison (because I’m not really so crazy about Jane Austen myself). The last Pym novel I read was Unsuitable Attachment (which was the fourth Pym novel I’d read) and I finally saw the Austen comparison, in that so much of her plots are to do with couplings.

With Pym, however, the couplings are merely an excuse for everything else, rather than ends in themselves. And everything else is usually absurd, funny, understated and surprising. With a great degree of subtlety, she deals with adultery, homosexuality, loneliness, friendship, spirituality, marriage and sexuality, which is a surprising array for a writer who’d been dealing with spinsters since adolescence. I love her narrators, and their English reserve, and the story we glimpse around this. And yes, I love the tea. Always, the tea, and the irresistible bookishness.

Barbara Pym is charming, delightful, splendid, and so smart. Now that I’m reading her again, all is right with the world.

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