Tuesday, August 05, 2008

"We both are rather comic people," or, Letters Week, Part II!

It seems right to follow the high seriousness of Tolstoy's letters with the more down-to-earth concerns of Barbara Pym. She offers a nice contrast, too in that, for all that Tolstoy took himself too seriously, Pym, at least in her letters, often presented herself too lightly; like the sharper characters in her novels, she tended to try to put the best face on bad news, offering up everything with a leaven of wry, self-deprecating humor.

In this letter to Henry Harvey, a longtime object of failed love interest, for example, her attempts at levity can't hide the emotional strain of a collapsed affair:
I can't exactly remember what I did tell you in my last letter. Did I tell you that I was in love and that it was all hopeless? I expect so--well if I did you may be interested (and relieved?) to hear that we parted at Christmas and haven't seen or written to each other since then--a real Victorian renunciation--the sort of thing I adore in novels, but find extremely painful in real life. Of course we may come together again in the future--time alone will tell (sorry!) but in the meantime he thought it better I should try to find somebody else who can marry me, which he wouldn't be able to do for at least a year. . . . Luckily we both are rather comic people so it isn't as bad as it sounds.
Or take this letter to her friend Bob Smith, from April 22, 1954, about her recurring struggles with the publishing industry:
I had a letter from Jock recently. He liked Jane and Prudence very much. But the Americans and Continentals most definitely don't and now I am feeling a little bruised! In answer to my enquiries Cape tells me that 8 Americans and 10 Continental publishers saw and "declined" (that seems to be the word) Excellent Women and they are still plodding on with J & P. So humble yourself, Miss Pym, and do not give yourself airs!
But late on this Tuesday night, something more truly cheerful seems in order--and what's more reliably entertaining than descriptions of Cyril Connolly? This one is from another letter to Henry Harvey, dated February 20, 1946:
If you haven't read Cyril Connolly's book The Unquiet Grave, you will wonder what I am talking about and say [angst] is just one of my silly German words, but as I expect you have read it you will see that I am keeping up to date with all our clever young men. Not that he is young exactly--he is approaching forty, indeed, probably is forty now, is fat and given to self-pity and nostalgia. But he is clever and puts his finger on what it is we suffer from now--though maybe you don't in the bracing air of Sweden. He is "soaked in French Literature"--not my expression, but the kind of thing one would like to be!
And this passage from a letter to her friend Richard Campbell Roberts, from January 5, 1965, seems a good way to close for today:
It says on this Airmail pad that 12 sheets and an envelope weighs less than half an nounce, but I doubt if I can go on at that length. Also I am writing this in the office in the morning, which seems frightfully sinful.
If simply writing a letter in the office of a morning makes her feel sinful, I think she needs a copy of Personal Days! Ed, how's your time machine working?