Quartet in Autumn
The Bad Sister
Great Granny Webster
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brought out six quiet novels in the Fifties, but had gone unsung, and even, during the eventful late Sixties and after, unpublished.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…
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