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Ladies in Distress

Excellent Women

by Barbara Pym
E.P. Dutton, 256 pp., $7.95

Quartet in Autumn

by Barbara Pym
E.P. Dutton, 218 pp., $7.95

The Bad Sister

by Emma Tennant
Coward, McCann and Geoghegen, 228 pp., $8.95

Great Granny Webster

by Caroline Blackwood
Scribner’s, 135 pp., $7.95

In London last year, the Times Literary Supplement asked a number of writers to draw up a list of overrated and underrated writers. By no means a thankless task, but among the sneers that leapt to the page were words of praise, from Philip Larkin and Lord David Cecil, which served to call attention to Barbara Pym. She had brought out six quiet novels in the Fifties, but had gone unsung, and even, during the eventful late Sixties and after, unpublished. Now she has been sung, and is “the in-thing to read,” according to one British librarian. American readers are hereby offered an example of her early work and of her late. Anglophiles may be promised a treat, but unless she is to be troubled by the kind of higher-philistine condescension which has obscured the reception of Larkin’s poetry in America, other readers will like her almost as much.

In the Literary Supplement‘s parent paper, the Times, a series of advertisements has long been seen—appeals for money on behalf of the Distressed Gentlefolks Aid Association, accompanied by a fine-boned grieving elderly face, as of a Plantagenet on evil days. It was possible to feel, rather as Wilde felt about the death of little Nell, that it would take a heart of stone to accede to these requests, but Barbara Pym’s Excellent Women, published in 1952, might seem to disagree. The heroine, Mildred Lathbury, “did part-time work at an organization which helped impoverished gentlewomen, a cause very near to my own heart, as I felt that I was just the kind of person who might one day become one.” Mildred endures the type of suffering which is endured by the well-bred, frugal, plucky spinster. Modern literature has been considerate of victims: but this sort has often been passed over, or punished.

Mildred’s distress may be understood both as that of an unmarried woman and as that of a woman who suffers the usual disadvantages of her sex: Philip Larkin has suggested that the men Miss Pym writes about behave worse than the women, and her novels could fairly be regarded as grist to the feminist mill. But the present novel makes much of the vestal Mildred: here is a virgin who is forever “venturing” or “faltering,” sipping tea or sherry, catching the drone of music from a nearby church. “Love is rather a terrible thing,” she reflects. “Not perhaps my cup of tea.” She identifies herself as one of a “crowd” of “excellent women connected with the church.” The church she attends, St. Mary’s, is High Anglican to Anglo-Catholic, and is situated in a decayed or, as Anthony Powell once put it, “doomed” quarter near the center of London, around Victoria, a quarter of the forlorn and the genteel, where a herd of stricken deer find pasture. An estranged couple move into the flat next to hers, Helena and Rockingham Napier. Helena is a godless anthropologist and her husband a glamorous, feckless former naval officer, the sort of man, as Larkin notes, who is capable of handing a woman a bunch of chrysanthemums not bought in a shop but picked from his own garden—“dragged up roughly,” says Larkin, with a flash of anger. Helena has started to prefer to her husband a fellow anthropologist, cross and serious Everard Bone. Meanwhile Julian the vicar, with his biretta, wants to marry a glamorous worldly widow, Allegra Gray. In the fullness of time, Mildred and Everard make friends.

These storms in a teacup might seem at first to be due to show that Mildred is a dull and fragile creature who leans on the Church for lack of anything else. But it is soon apparent that she is not, that she is shrewd and cool and self-possessed and stylish. She is apt to present herself as a lady who knows what other ladies know, and who is addressing a readership no better informed:

Julian began to explain to us what an anthropologist was, or I suppose he did, but as it is unlikely that any anthropologist will read this, I can perhaps say that it appeared to be something to do with the study of man and his behavior in society—particularly among “primitive communities,” Julian said.

Before long, however, this narrator, for all her “perhapses,” has managed a brilliant and, I am in a position to state, accurate account of the community of anthropologists to which Helena belongs, with its “learned society.” The more than nominal excellence of the narrator becomes clear enough in an exchange with Everard:

You could consider marrying an excellent woman?” I asked in amazement. “But they are not for marrying.”

You’re surely not suggesting that they are for the other things?” he said, smiling.

That had certainly not occurred to me and I was annoyed to find myself embarrassed.

They are for being unmarried,” I said, “and by that I mean a positive rather than a negative state.”

Poor things, aren’t they allowed to have the normal feelings, then?”

Oh, yes, but nothing can be done about them.”

Being without family and having the sort of friends for whom she isn’t always able to feel enthusiasm, Mildred qualifies for the compassion which we extend to poor things, orphans of the storm. But she is an orphan who is alert to the falsity of much of that compassion. When Julian remarks that Allegra has had a hard life and is an orphan, Mildred is unmoved. “Well, of course, a lot of people over thirty are orphans.” Women like Mildred have been important to the England which has insulted them, which calls them, using the words that Lawrence used of Jane Austen, “narrow-gutted spinsters.”

All the novels at present under review could be thought to have originated in themes and initiatives of two hundred years ago, when an interest in victims began to quicken, and romantic attitudes were named, commended and criticized. It is said of Barbara Pym, as it has been said of other writers, that she is like Jane Austen, but this time at least the comparison needn’t be resented. What is mostly meant by it is that she is a novelist of manners who writes about marriage and marriageability with the unromantic eye of a noticing, “positive” spinster. But the comparison can be taken further. There is a current reading of Jane Austen which holds that she is moved by the romantic attitudes with which she finds fault, and of Miss Pym, too, it can be claimed that she is both unromantic and romantic. The extent to which she is the second can be gauged by the extent to which the narrative, smilingly self-defined as that of a church-crawling “excellent woman,” has in it the voice of the outcast. Mildred’s authentic excellence is partly a matter of her ability to bear, and to take into constructive account, the responsibilities, sorrows, and incitements to self-pity, of such a plight.

Excellent Women made me think of Mansfield Park, in which the orphan Fanny lives, under insult, in the grand house of that name and is assailed by the blandishments of the talented but untrustworthy Crawfords, Henry and his sister Mary. The Crawfords come a cropper, and Mary, intelligent and delightful, is severely blamed by the writer for being light-mindedly solicitous of her brother when he is exposed as a sexual delinquent. Fanny does not come a cropper. She is like one of the fortunate foundlings of the romantic and Gothic tradition, who are not absent from Jane Austen’s books. She gets her man, and her Mansfield Park, and her rewards or deserts may be said to include Lionel Trilling’s description of her as embodying the spirit of Christian humility.

Mildred’s progress is not very different from Fanny’s. Here, too, Christian humility is assailed by the talented and untrustworthy, and rewarded with a good man, with whom she is to live happily if humbly ever after. (Miss Pym’s novels can be conscious of one another, and in Less Than Angels of 1955 we read that “Everard had married a rather dull woman who was nevertheless a great help to him in his work.”) At the same time, there is more than a touch of the Gothic novel in Excellent Women: the grand names conferred on Everard and on Rockingham Napier suggest the Cavalier strain which is evident there, the heroine’s faltering and venturing are Gothic acts and words, and Everard is the hostile male of the genre who grows into her lover and savior. He is Mildred’s Rochester, just as the pseudo-orphan Allegra Gray is her vampire: “I saw Mrs. Gray’s face rather too close to mine, her eyes wide open and penetrating, her teeth small and pointed….” We have to disbelieve Mildred when she protests, when she “hastens to add,” that, plain as she is, she is not at all like Jane Eyre, “who must have given hope to so many plain women who tell their stories in the first person.”

In the same way, another of Mrs. Pym’s books—like Excellent Women, one of her best—made me think of Northanger Abbey, whose heroine is bemused by a reading of Gothic novels, and which itself resembles the kind of novel it is laughing at. In A Glass of Blessings, published in 1958, Wilmet, a young woman with an unresponsive husband, lacks experience: “I had not had a lover before I married, I had no children, I wasn’t even asked to clean the brasses or arrange the flowers in church.” She yields to “wild imaginings,” which remove her from “reality,” and which concern not only the “baroque horror” of a furniture depository but a possible platonic infidelity. “Perhaps,” though, she finally wonders, her life has been a “glass of blessings,” after all. The reference is to the very beautiful poem by Herbert, “The Pulley,” which supplies the novel’s title and epigraph:

   When God at first made man,
Having a glass of blessings standing by;
Let us (said he) pour on him all we can:
Let the world’s riches, which dispersed lie, Contract into a span.

Herbert goes on to say that man has been denied the gift of repose: “Let him be rich and weary.” We may be meant to decide that Wilmet has been restless, and romantic, and had to be chastened. But then we might also have decided that she had quite a lot to be restless about.

Precious few rewards, desserts, or blessings await the four sufferers in Barbara Pym’s new novel, Quartet in Autumn. Two men and two women, all near retirement, share an office in a huge firm whose business is too boring to mention. One of the men is an expert on the events of the Christian Year. Operated on for cancer, one of the women, Marcia, putters about collecting things and brooding over her surgeon, and then dies. Afterward, the other male colleague opens a drawer in Marcia’s house:

To his surprise, it was full of plastic bags of various sizes, all neatly folded and classified by size and type. There was something almost admirable about the arrangement, unexpected and yet just the sort of thing he could imagine Marcia doing.

The next sentence reads: “He closed the drawer and stood in the middle of the room, wondering what to do.” None of the four has ever found much to “do,” and in the end they do less and less. Their faults are neatly classified, but more is made of those of a busybody social worker, who feels uneasy that her social work has been unable to save Marcia from the jaws of death.

Marcia is precisely evoked, and so is Letty, whose troubles with a false woman friend, jilted by a babyish clergyman, are turned with Miss Pym’s old skill. But it looks as if the imagination of the victim, of the celibate, which has informed her fiction is less lively here, less hopeful, and the story of these poor things is not a rich one. The blessings poured for the four are such as to make the Herbert poem seem like a painful satire: literature’s poor things are very unfortunate if they prevent their authors, as often happens and as happens here, from conveying that they can ever have had a really good time.

Miss Pym’s best books convey an impression altogether remote from this, however, and they are those of a very accomplished writer. Her favorites among contemporary English novelists are lvy Compton-Burnett, Elizabeth Taylor, Anthony Powell, and Iris Murdoch, but she could rarely be mistaken for any one of these. She may be classed with Betjeman as a poet of High Church attendance. When incense is mentioned, it tends to be as a joke: some classes of the stuff are better bred than others, we are made aware. The odor of sanctity is missing from her books, except as a further joke, but a fragrance as of vegetables and salads, as of cresses, cucumbers, lettuce, Stilton, is not. Her interest in religion is anthropological, skeptical, sardonic; it may also be romantic; whether and in what way it is pious, I can’t be sure. For all I can tell, she may be an “Anglican atheist”: a term of Orwell’s, which has been applied to Larkin.

Religion is treated as a comfort in her books, where shyness and reserve are treated as a strength. She has said in the New Review that she would “like to see more entertaining and amusing works written and published,” and she has not been too pious or too shy to write such works herself. Some readers have chosen to praise the “high comedy” generated by her High Churchgoers, and one might feel that the snobbish English language has helped to generate that emphasis: unlike much of the high comedy known to me, hers is funny.

In Emma Tennant’s The Bad Sister, gentlefolk are distressed when one of their number is put to death by his illegitimate daughter. Dependence on the fiction of the first Romantic period is in this case deliberate, explicit, and surprising. So far from shy is Emma Tennant that she has used as a model James Hogg’s celebrated novel of 1824, The Confessions of a Justified Sinner. Hogg describes the ordeal of a fanatic, who, duped by antinomian Calvinism, by the teaching that those to whom God’s grace has been given can do no wrong, anxiously aspires to a sense of infallibility, and falls into the “deep gulfs” reserved, in the poet Cowper’s words, for God’s castaway. The word “justified” bears the theological meaning which points to a man made just or perfect, saved by the gift of grace, but the Machiavellian sense of the word is also relevant. Emma Tennant writes about a modern fanaticism, a new infallibility. So far as execution or “finish” is concerned, objections can be pressed to what she does, but the strategy she has hit on for emulating the Ettrick Shepherd is ingenious and suggestive.

Each of these books, Hogg’s and hers, is two books, in the sense that each consists of a pair of rival narratives in which the same events are recounted. In Hogg’s novel, an editor expresses what could be taken to be a reasonable man’s view of the behavior of a religious maniac, but his account is succeeded by an autobiography in which the sinner of the title tells how he has been suborned by a sinister antinomian prince, Gil-Martin, who proves to be the Devil in disguise. Critics have quarreled over how reliable the editor is intended to be, but that quarrel needn’t torment those for whom the novel can often be experienced as the picture of a single conflict-ridden state, a state which comprehends the feelings of the sinner Robert Wringhim, those of his brother the gay spark George, and the sensible, Tory outlook of the editor. No one point of view is allowed to rule: a sympathy with outcasts is fundamental, for instance, in a novel which is also very vivid about the doom in store for God’s Scottish castaways. The action may be thought to issue from the time in Robert’s life when he was “sinning every hour, and all the while most strenuously warring against sin.” The organism’s effort to behave simultaneously as a spark and as a saint projects it into duality.

Emma Tennant grew up, as Hogg did, by the banks of the Yarrow, in the land of the Border Ballads. She imagines a jolly Tory from those parts who begets a daughter, Jane, on an Irish shopgirl. Jane is excluded from his grand household, with its wife and legitimate daughter, and appears to commit a parricide on the laird. The first narrator, who is researching a TV program on the murder mystery that results, establishes that Jane has become involved with a commune or coven of infallible feminists, where she has bestowed on her the communal surname of Wild. These women are bossed by wicked Meg, who is in league with the powers of darkness. One of the researcher’s sources says of Meg, “She always seemed to look different,” and the researcher “thought for a moment of jokingly remarking that the days were long past when this changeability of appearance was known as being ‘journalière’—you’d more likely get reported to the Sex Discrimination Board if you remarked on a woman’s looks in this way.” This is a smart updating of duality’s traditional terms.

The second of the two tellings is Jane’s. She works in London as a movie critic, and talks of her dealings with a second self or shadow associated, mostly, with her legitimate sister, and of her submission to blood-sucking Meg and to a princely male referred to as Gilmartin. Jane is at her most interesting when she describes her disconsolate home life with a male lover, and the visits they receive from his fluffy, fashionable, sinister mother, Mrs. Marten, who, as her name indicates, is, as Meg is, sib, as the Scots used to say, or kin, to the dark powers.

Tony and his mother are persuasively described—“I felt at a disadvantage, still in my nightdress with Tony there coated with the dust of International Airports, and his mother, who must have been up and covered in cosmetics for hours”—but the connection between this pair and the more overtly supernatural characters, the fanged suborners who appear to be figments of Jane’s distressed imagination and who are not as interesting as the realities of her domestic life, is hard to follow. The explanations which derive from Meg—those of a dogmatic ghost who expounds a feminist interpretation of duality—do not explain the connection. Meg’s hard line is that the slaughtered laird was an incarnation of capitalism and paternalism, and that the “wrongs of society” have to do with “the suppression of masculinity in women and of femininity in men.” Jane lacks the male principle, of which her male tempter may provide a transfusion.

His demon is no genius; nor is he”: Hogg’s novel had only two reviews on publication, both unfavorable. One English review of The Bad Sister caught the tone of Hogg’s notices very well. It said that the novel was spoiled by being Gothic, but did not know enough about the tradition to spot the dependence on Hogg. Critics have long been able to seem high and weighty by looking down on such Gothic things as the tempter, the captor, the escaper, or the second self in these and other capacities, and yet such things have been the essential concerns of much romantic writing. The trick is to make out that the tradition is popular, subliterary, and that gifted novelists, like Hogg, or Dickens, are too good to be Gothic. Hogg has been called Scottish instead, as if he couldn’t be both.

The Bad Sister resembles Hogg’s novel in being, and in having to be, ideologically equivocal. Hogg, an admirer of the Covenanters, wrote, in the Confessions, what was taken to be an antipuritan work, an attack on the theology which had characterized, in later times, the sects who saw themselves as heirs to the Covenanters. As for Emma Tennant, she has been the editor of a successful magazine, Bananas, specializing in feminist polemic and in a vein of romantic fantasy which reached a high point lately with a dualistic fable, “The Head,” by Ted Hughes, and now she has written a book which could be taken to be an attack on feminist infallibility. Hogg’s Bananas, in other words, is “The Brownie of Bodsbeck,” a tale which is sympathetic to the sufferings of the pious. The Confessions can’t have been liked by latterday Covenanters, the Wild, as they were eventually called, and Emma Tennant may have to justify herself before a court-martial of wild sisters. Her novel brings together romantic wildness and its opposites, and it is not the only novel, of those I am discussing, which does this.

The woman who tells the story of Caroline Blackwood’s Great Granny Webster is another distressed member of the upper class, and an orphan who stands in the line of descent from the romantic affliction of the early nineteenth century which is implied in all of these novels. She goes to the South Coast seaside resort of Hove to be boarded out for a while with her great-grandmother, who is very rich and very mean, and who lives more or less immobile in a morgue-like mansion, waited on by a trampled maid, Richards. The opening sections of the novella luxuriate in the severities of an outlandishly repressive regime, and fall, at one point, into a welter of negatives and double negatives, “onlys” and “hardlys”: “When I first arrived to stay with Great Granny Webster she had told me that the only human being she had spoken to for months was Richards. I knew that when I left her house she would revert to the dispiriting sole company of Richards without hardly registering that I had been there and had gone.”

The narrator learns how her father, killed in the Second World War, had been strangely attracted to Great Granny Webster, and had braved the languorous train journeys of the war years in order to visit her in Hove. She also learns of a no less peculiar regime which obtains in an Ulster castle, where, in bitter isolation, amid the subsistence-level squalors and hardships which literature loves to ascribe to the Irish landed gentry, her father’s mother, Great Granny Webster’s daughter, has gone off her head and supposed herself in the confidence of the fairies. This lonely woman’s sole duty is to vet the French menu cards ritually presented by the skivvies, who then deliver an unvaried diet of roast pheasant. In addition, there are encounters with an Aunt Lavinia, a secretly suicidal between-the-wars good-time girl: both this book and The Bad Sister achieve their best subjects in a depiction of the fascinating leisure of a woman of fashion.

The narrator is informed by her great-grandmother and by Lavinia that she is like her informant. This is bad news, given that the women of the dynasty have been inclined to go mad. The question that matters most to the narrator is that of her father’s mysterious visits to Hove, and the answer is felt to be likely to throw light on the threat of a family destiny to which the narrator, largely impassive, can at intervals respond. An assistant narrator, Tommy Redcliffe, a seasoned observer of living conditions in the Ulster castle and of its raving châtelaine, lets the narrator know that, for her father, Great Granny Webster

represented sanity. Now many people might not find her special brand of sanity all that alluring. But I think it made him feel secure just to see that it existed. Having watched your grandmother ruin your grandfather, I don’t think that your Great Granny Webster’s parsimonious side could disturb him all that much. And when he made those trips down to Hove to visit her he may even have liked her gloomy silences—his ears had been filled so often with the chuckles of the mad….

So it seems that her father, shrinking from his fey mother, sought out in Great Granny Webster “the very same rock-like qualities that my grandmother had obviously unsuccessfully tried to flee.” The book, though, does not place the rock-like sanity of the great-grandmother beyond dispute, and Redcliffe’s reference to her “parsimonious side” has an air of understatement: no other side has been disclosed. There are those who might think she is as mad as her daughter, and as a hatter.

The tale has gone down well in England, where the appetite for the eccentricities and sufferings of the privileged never sleeps. But there is another reason for its doing well, which has to do with the appetite of its writer. Without being, in any extensive way, artless or careless, it reads like a long and colorful letter, and has the force of an eager unburdening. The narrator is a faint and, I believe, a traditional presence, that of a solitary who may be expected to impart very little of herself beyond the vigilance of her misfortunes and hard time, and the answers she assembles to the questions she raises induce reservations. But it isn’t every novel now whose contents play on your nerves and excite your curiosity as if they had arrived through the mail, or were being told to your face.

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