Saturday, 8 June 2013

Some Tame Gazelle - Barbara Pym

I wasn't intending to join in with Barbara Pym Reading Week, which I've seen everywhere around the blogosphere (well done Thomas and Amanda!) and, it seems, I might be late to the party - because I hadn't spotted that the week ended on a Saturday.  Oops.  Well, hopefully they'll let me sneak in as a last minute participant, because I have just finished Some Tame Gazelle (1950) - Pym's first novel - because I realised Mum had given it to me, and thus it would qualify for Reading Presently too.



This isn't my first Pym - although it is only my second.  The first one I read, back in 2004, was Excellent Women.  I'd rather expected to love Barbara Pym devotedly, and was a bit nonplussed by my lukewarm response.  I certainly liked it, but it wasn't quite what I was expecting - it was set in London, for a start, which wasn't at all what I envisioned Pym being like.

Some Tame Gazelle, at any rate, is set in the countryside.  That helped me get in the right frame of mind.  It has the same "three or four families in a country village" that Jane Austen recommended as the perfect novelistic topic (for her niece at least, and to many Pym is a figurative niece of Austen) - more emphatically, it reminded me of the close-but-carping rural communities inhabited by Mapp and Lucia in E.F. Benson's series of novels.

The families in question are really households, I suppose.  I shan't write too much about the plot, because there have been so many reviews of Some Tame Gazelle in the blogosphere this week (scroll through Thomas's blog to find all Barbara Pym Reading Week links), but I'll give a brief precis.  Belinda and Harriet Bede are eldely sisters living together, and we see most of the goings-on of the village through Belinda's eyes (although Pym often gives a moment or two from perspective of other characters, which gets a bit dizzying.)  Neither are immune from the arrow of Cupid - the title, indeed, derives from the poet Thomas Bayly:
Some tame gazelle, or some gentle dove:
Something to love, oh, something to love!
 Harriet develops a love for every curate she sees - a love somewhere between maternal and romantic - while Belinda is more constant in her love.  It's for their local vicar, an Archdeacon, who was with Belinda at university, is unaffectionately married, and gives sermon which were 'a long string of quotations, joined together by a few explanations'.  Indeed, a less lovably man would be difficult to create.  He is selfish, snaps at everyone, quotes self-importantly and at length at the drop of a hat, neglects most of his vicarly duties... and yet I get the idea that we are not supposed to think Belinda foolish in her affections.  Is he in the same boat as Jean-Benoit Aubrey, Heathcliff, Rochester, and all manner of other literary romantic heroes whose charms entirely pass me by?  Belinda, on the other hand, is very lovable - as, indeed, is Harriet, despite one being cautious and the other impetuous.

But I suspect Pym is chiefly read for her tone.  As I mentioned, she is frequently mentioned in the same breath as Jane Austen - recently by Thomas himself - and while (from my limited experience of two Pym novels) I would say she has neither Austen's genius nor her tautness, Pym is certainly a worthy successor to Austen's love of irony.  And now, of course, I can find no examples.  But time and again the narrative voice says something which coyly suggests - oh so innocently - that the character is foolish, or doesn't know as much as they pretend, or in some other is not being honest.   This narrator is far too polite to say so outright, and isn't so common as to wink, but... raises her eyebrows a touch.

As for me?  I still like Pym.  I liked Some Tame Gazelle rather more than Excellent Women - it was funny, affectionate, moving without being heavy-handed.  As the son of a vicar, I relished reading about church families, even while it all seemed rather unlikely from my experience. It even felt like the 1930s novels I love so dearly (although published in 1950, I couldn't work out when it was meant to be set - everyone has servants, and levels of propriety are decidedly pre-war, but I suppose these things were both true for some 1950 villages).  But I still don't love Pym.  I love Jane Austen, and (later) E.F. Benson, E.M. Delafield, and other authors who laid out the blueprint Pym picked up - but I still felt as though I were reading at one remove from the originals.  And, of course, even Austen was not an original - if I'd read Pym before I'd read Austen, perhaps I would love Pym more.

If other people did not love Pym so wholeheartedly, then I think I would sound very enthusiastic.  I think Pym is a very good writer, and Some Tame Gazelle is a lovely novel - but it will not be on my top ten for this year, I suspect.  Perhaps I am still too young?  Perhaps I am too familiar with the generation above Pym. When so many people rate her as one of their absolute favourites, even my very-much-liking of Pym feels a little bit like a failure.


What I really do love is the cover, and indeed all the covers of these Virago Pym reprints.  But curiously I can't find any information about the designer or artist on the book jacket - I hope I'm just being dozy, because otherwise very poor show Virago.  Very poor show indeed.

27 comments:

  1. Glad you enjoyed it better than your first exposure to Pym. And no, you are not supposed to like the Archdeacon - he is a horror!
    As for books set in London v ditto set in a village - it never does to forget that London is merely a string of villages, set down cheek by jowl. The 'village mentality' is never far away - especially in the 30s, 40s and 50s.

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    1. I wonder if everyone thinks him a horror? Belinda deserves much better!

      I shall have to cordially disagree about London - do you believe it yourself, I wonder, Mum? Where are the sheep in London! Where are the low crime rates, the rambling nature, everyone saying hello to each other in the street? Even in the 50s, surely not?

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  2. Ah, Excellent Women was my first Pym as well a few years ago and I didn't care for it that much either. I read Some Tame Gazelle this week and liked it a whole lot better - so much so that I picked up Jane and Prudence to read sometime soon. I'm even considering rereading Excellent Women to see if it was just a timing thing. We shall see. I do agree with your assessment, though - I enjoyed Pym, but I'm not yet to the "love" stage. I was definitely glad that I gave her a second, chance, though - I wouldn't have without the enthusiasm of the reading week.

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    1. We've gone along the same path, Susan! I do have quite a few Pyms on my shelves, ready for when the floodgates open and I learn to adore her...

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  3. I'm glad you enjoyed Some Tame Gazelle Simon, I do love Pym - having already read and enjoyed 10 of the 13 books I am now re-reading them for the LT readalong and I find she improves with re-reading. And yes - you might just be a tad young - I suspect I wouldn't have enjoyed her quite as much in my twenties as I do in my forties. Funnily enough I don't much care for these covers - although they are cherry I suppose. I am trying to collect the lovely US Moyer Bell editions - I have 5 - they are proving hard and/or expensive to track down.

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    1. I do like an author who improves with re-reading - but it's hard to convince oneself to re-read books unless one loves them the first time!

      I am a sucker for these shades of blue and green, I really love them - but, yes, those Moyer Bell editions are THE best.

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  4. I kept thinking, as I was reading Excellent Women, that I would not have got on with Pym at all if I was not now at an age where relating to middle-aged spinsters is as easy as, um, looking in the mirror! ;-) However, I do not consider that a particularly valid form of literary criticism on my part (esp. as I also loved Quartet in Autumn, where the protagonists are considerably older), so there must have been something else that caught my fancy as well, and I think that was - you're right! - the tone (slyly catty combined with knowing self-deprecation). That and loving books where not much happens, à la Brookner.

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    1. Of course, I love so many books with older heroines - right up to those of people nearing death's door - so I suspected that wouldn't be the be all and end all. But, where Brookner really bored me, the humour of Pym was certainly the aspect I most loved.

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  5. I read Some Tame Gazelle a few months ago and it was my third Pym, but I didn't like it nearly as much as Excellent Women or Crampton Hodnet, which I thoroughly enjoyed. I vaguely remember CH as a bit slapsticky, but I loved it. I've just finished No Fond Return of Love and Jane and Prudence and loved both.

    I too am trying to track down the Moyer Bell editions and they can be pricey.

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    1. Slapsticky sounds like I could rather love it, Karen! I think I have CH somewhere... but I don't think I could read two Pyms in a row.

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  6. I have ordered Some tame gazelle, but it is delayed. I hope it will arrive coming week. It will be my first Barbara Pym, so I am quite looking forward to it.
    But fortunately, not all of us have the same taste in books, that would make for very boring bookblogs!

    Kind regards,

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    1. Do report back, Bettina! And how true, about taste in books.

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  7. Nice review Simon - I *did* enjoy this and felt that Pym had some good points to make about men, women and self-deception. I fear perhaps what I feel about her is suffering from reading the books so closely together rather than at a distance of longer when they were first published - and I've found what she was trying to say becoming obscured a little by the characters.

    But I must agree with Ali, I really dislike the newer covers immensely - they make the books look much too chick-lit-ish for me!

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    1. Thanks Karen!
      I agree that reading several in a row wouldn't work. Few authors can stand that, really.

      How funny that people dislike the covers - I adore them! If they'd been pink/purple, perhaps they would have seemed chick-litty to me, but I don't see it as stands.

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  8. This is one I'm looking forward to, based on the reviews I've read this week, including yours! I first read her so many years ago that I can't even remember which ones I've read (also an effect of reading too many too quickly).

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    1. Pym week really has taken the blogosphere by storm, hasn't it?

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  9. I've just finished Jane and Prudence, and I loved the cover more than I loved the book.

    A smashing review Simon, thank you.

    ps I'll have to comment under 'Anonymous' 'cos I can't remember how I did it before - I'm hopeless with modern technology, sorry.

    Regards

    Jeano

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    1. Thanks very much! I think I have Jane and Prudence somewhere, but that's not a very ringing endorsement... unless it has a really wonderful cover!

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  10. I've only read one Pym novel so far - Less Than Angels, which I read this week for the reading week. It's too early for me to say whether I'm going to love Pym or not, but I did enjoy Less Than Angels and am looking forward to trying one of her better known books next!

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    1. I don't think I've ever even seen Less Than Angels - but I'll keep an eye out now!

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  11. Yes, 'Some Tame Gazelle' is one of the Barbara Pym books I do like. There was also a BBC audio dramatisation made several years ago that is good, which I think was played on Radio 4 extra not too long ago.

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    1. That's one to hunt out, thanks Lori - especially if they cast well.

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  12. 'Some Tame Gazelle' was my first, and for many years my *only* experience with Barbara Pym. I had acquired it somewhere in my travels, and periodically reread it with mild but genuine enjoyment. It wasn't until a few years ago, when we merged onto the "Information Highway" of the internet with a satellite system that I became aware of book blogs, and then, almost immediately, of the huge popularity of Barbara Pym among the bloggers I most enjoyed following. I felt rather smug in having already "discovered" her, but I was a mite nonplussed to find that I didn't find much of her subsequent work nearly as appealing as that first novel. I do find that she rewards rereading, though, possibly because so many of her characters reappear throughout the books and unless you can place them and remember their backstories you can feel a bit lost, like being at a party full of casual acquaintances who all know each other much better than you know any of them!

    I'm currently reading 'Excellent Women' for the second time, and am liking it a whole lot better than I did first time round. Pym's wittiness is low key and insidious; one has to be paying attention. But I don't think I could manage more than one or two read back-to-back; they're just the tiniest bit dreary and over-exposure to the trials and tribulations of Pym protagonists is bad for this middle-aged person's morale!

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    1. Finding books before the internet must have been a nightmare! Luckily my love for books more or less coincided with the dawn of the internet (although we didn't have it at home, so I had to order books surreptitiously at the school computers - well, I asked sellers for their addresses, and sent cheques!)

      I love the description of Pym's wittiness as low key and insidious - delightful observation.

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  13. I'm a Jane Austen fan from way back and a lot of the pleasure is the rereading, I'm delighted to hear that Pym is in the same boat.

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    1. Well, Jane just gets better and better!

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