Monday, July 14, 2014

To The Queen of Understatement: Happy 100th Birthday Barbara Pym

On June 2nd 1913 the British author Barbara Pym was born in Oswestry, Shropshire. When I came across Pym’s first novel Some Tame Gazelle which she started writing in her 20s, I never imagined that this hilarious book, together with the rest of her work, would become such an important part of my life. 

It is hard to imagine a less likely pair than Barbara Pym and I: She is British and the queen of  understatement,  I am an Israeli who tends to exaggerate. Her views and social criticism are muted and subtle, and if you don’t read carefully you could easily miss them. I am judgmental and  make no secrets of my opinions.

Her fiction portrays a totally different world than mine, even when she writes about London it is  a parochial village, her early novels Some Tame Gazelle, Excellent Women, and Jane and Prudence center on the church and its activities. Her 1950s novels tell the story of a world  which is no longer there postwar Britain and the start of the welfare state.  Her women characters are very different from me and my friends, many of them are single women whose life is strongly connected with the church.

But she is witty and very funny and these qualities are universal; and as I was intrigued by her minimalistic style and curious about her world, when it was time for me to pick a topic for my PhD dissertation I knew rightaway that I wanted to write about Barbara Pym. My prospective advisor was not at all thrilled . She had read one of Pym’s books and was not impressed.  It was up to me to convince her that Pym’s work was a worthy PhD topic. It didn’t suffice that I told my advisor that in 1977, on the occasion of its 75th anniversary, the London Times Literary Supplement asked a number of prominent British writers to name the most underrated writer of the century. Only one author was named twice as having been too long neglected: Barbara Pym.

So I wrote a paper to persuade my advisor that Barbara Pym is indeed a great writer. I did it without any references using only th enovel itself. I am pasting it below:

Comparison and Contrast in the world of Wilmet Forsyth Of A Glass Of Blessings

The absurdity of a phone impinging during church service in the first scene of A Glass of Blessing, immediately establishes this book’s occupation with contrasts. The heroine and narrator Wilmet Forsyth is fascinated with the unexpected, the surprising and the unusual. Perhaps it is because her life has become routine and dull with her marriage to Rodney Forsyth whom she met when in her service with the Wrens in Italy.

Life then in Italy was so exciting that Wilmet even missed the comforting boredom of England, and married “Rodney and those peculiarly English qualities which had seemed so loveable when we had first met in Italy during the war and I had been homesick for damp green English churchyards and intellectual walks and talks in the park on a Saturday afternoon”(13).

Today ten years later on her thirty third birthday, she is sitting in church, listening to the unexpected phone ringing and thinking on ways to liven up her life. Wilmet does not have a job, a hobby or even children. She explains that she does not have a job because of her husband’s wish, but knows herself well enough to admit that she hates to be “tied down to a routine”(17-18). She does not do any volunteer work like Mary Beamish, does not have children like her friend Rowena and she plans to make Piers Longridg, Rowena’s brother into her hobby, autumn project  (18).

 Wilmet constantly compares and contrasts herself and her position in life to others. Measuring herself up against Mary Beamish she reaches conclusions about her worth:” Mary Beamish was the kind of person who always made me feel particularly useless- she was so very much immersed in good works, so splendid, everyone said. She was about my age, but small and rather dowdily dressed, presumably because she had neither the wish nor than ability to make the most of herself” (19).  In spite of everyone’s admiration to the fine Mary, Wilmet has no wish to become like Mary. Moreover she does not even want to socialize with her because of Mary’s splendid qualities. Wilmet does take great deal of trouble with her appearance and does not wish to become any less useless.

 Wilmet used to share great intimacy with her great friend Rowena, with whom she served in Italy; now their situations are very different. While Rowena lives in the suburb with her husband and three children, Wilmet lives in town with her husband and his unusual mother Sybil. Wilmet’s visit to her friend provides her with more contrasting perceptions. While in the country, all the women guests wear black; as Rowena puts it: “like a kind of uniform, Wilmet wears” a sort of mole-coloured velvet dress” (41). Rowena’s rough hands make Wilmet sad to the point of tears. Rowena’s hands when they were “ young and gay Wren officers in Italy” used to be soft and smooth. (42). Rowena, the mother and the suburban wife, presents another alternative that does not appeal to Wilmet.

 Although Sybil, Rodney’s mother is much older than Wilmet and her peers Mary and Rowena, she is the liveliest of the three.  Sybil, vivacious and teeming with interests is game for any adventure. In contrast with the detachment she displays towards her husband, Wilmet is much closer to his mother. It seems almost paradoxical that the respectable dull Rodney will have such a nonconformist mother. In the relationship of the two women, the mother is the leader, Sybil suggests taking Portuguese and Wilmet follows suit. The contrast in their beliefs allows the reader to gain a glimpse into the reason for Wilmet’s religious belief. Sybil, an agnostic, does not attend church, and Wilmet admires her courage to face the consequences of her convictions: “there was something about my mother- in – law’s bleakly courageous agnosticism that I admired. It seemed rather brave for somebody nearing the end of life to hold such views. I wondered if she was ever afraid when she woke up in the small hours of the night and thought of death”(14). Here too, although Wilmet looks up to Sybil, she has no real desire to do the charity work Sybil does, to be interested in archeological topics or even to practice Portuguese grammar. The contrast between the two women is a statement rather than an inspiration for self-improvement

While the women characters serve as a measuring stick for Wilmet’s personality, she further contrasts and compares the men in her life.  While Harry and Rodney are the reliable types, they are contrasted with the legendary, exciting Rocky (to be met again later in Excellent Women) and with the moody Piers. Harry is deemed so dull that Wilmet is certain that Piers must be the one who has sent her the beautiful Victorian box. Father Thames who has style, taste and probably some money is contrasted with the dumpy yet worthy Father Bode. Wilmet’s constant comparison of the men does not give her any insight into their world. By juxtaposing them and opposing them one against the other, she does not seem to gain any more understanding of their inner world. Contrasting seems as a convenient way for her to form her impressions and an amusing way to pass the time.

 Other aspects in Wilmet’s life are also presented as a series of comparisons and contrasts. There are the two types of the Anglican church: the favoured high church, and the despised low church, and different religious practices: celibacy: the choice of Father Thames, Father Bode and the unfortunate Father Sainsbury versus getting married:  Father Ransome’s choice.  Houses are compared: Rowena’s house in the country with Wilmet’s home.  Other interiors are contrasted: Rowena’s rooms with Miss Prideaux crowded bed-sitter. Voices are compared: Keith’s voice is described ironically by Piers as “not quite our kind of voice” or “not [as] a colleague’s voice” by Wilmet, as opposed to the “cultured male voice” of Piers as described by Rodney (160, 90).  Wilmet pays attention to the tiniest details and she even chooses to comment on the different kinds of tea as indication to style, taste and occasion.  In addition to categorizing and classifying new information, this binary view reveals some of the preferences and the prejudices of Wilmet, and probably also those of her social class.

 Art objects too are admired by Wilmet and are subsequently contrasted; such an example provides the Faberge egg, Father Thames’ prize possession. In a comical scene when Mr. Coleman informs Wilmet about the incident with the egg, she compares between the egg and Mr. Coleman’s precious car “Husky” (171).

“‘Amazing what people will spend their money on, isn’t it?’  Said Mr. Coleman.

‘It’s all according to one’s taste’, I said wondering whether I myself would prefer a Faberge egg or a Husky and not being absolutely sure”(172).

 In addition to the pecuniary value of the two objects, the egg has more meanings. Although Wilmet wonders what she would prefer, it becomes evident that in Wilmet’s world the Faberge egg is far superior to the  “Husky” car. The egg is ultimately meant for people’s enjoyment. Father Thames reveals himself to be a true Christian; he was aware of the fact the Mr. Bason used to “borrow” the egg and understood and accepted Bason’s aesthetic need to be surrounded by beautiful objects. Mr. Coleman’s is obsessed with material possession, whereas Father Thames is generous and understanding.

 In a way, borrowing Wilmet’s view of her world as a series of oppositions, Wilmet herself is a lot like the Faberge egg. She is Rodney‘s prize possession, and, yet does not seem to mind being borrowed by someone else. She is static, ornamental, highly stylized, elegant and beautiful.  She derives her worth from the admiration of other; like the egg she seems to be hollow and with no real substance. The egg has some religious connotation, being made especially for Easter, but the religion is mostly ceremonial, on the surface. Wilmet also practices religion, but without any depth. The egg is a symbol of a passing world that does not exist any more, Wilmet too is conservative and seems to be a relic of a bygone era.

 Wilmet’s world is made of passive comparisons and contrasts. Experiences are relative, they are either measured against her or against something else, and nothing has an absolute value. She usually draws no conclusion from her painstaking examinations of the world around her, but rather remains almost blind to what lies behind her observations. Other people are able to take action while she remains passive and lets life pulls her along. The dowdy Mary schemes and gets Father Ransome, as her brother Gerald claims (255). Sybil takes actions, marries Arnold and actually goes to Portugal. The lazy Piers find a boyfriend, Mr. Bason lands a new job, and even the reliable Rodney has some kind of a liaison. All the while, Wilmet remains the static center of the book, the world around her keeps revolving without her participation.  She, who looks to other to get her justification for being, eventually becomes disappointed. Her project Piers who was going to be her whole raison d’etre proved to be a major fiasco, he did not need to be loved and cared by her. It seemed that every one, but her knew about him, but since Wilmet never takes actions, or risks, even her failures remain unknown to everyone but herself.

 Work Cited: Pym, Barbara. A Glass Of Blessing. Perennial Library, Harper &Row.  1981.

After reading this short paper, my advisor agreed with me that Barbara Pym was a good choice for a PhD dissertation. I don’t believe that Barbara Pym has ever become her “cup of tea” but she was an attentive and excellent advisor for this project.  And on the day when I submitted my dissertation she said “now is the time to find a publisher for the book t” and I did.

And about Barbara Pym, perhaps because she is underrated, and therefore a well- kept secret, reading  her for me is always a discovery -- an understated adventure.

Happy 100 Birthday Barbara Pym!

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