Monday, June 03, 2013

Good birthday wishes for Thomas Hardy and Barbara Pym!

In a diary entry for May 20, 1977, Barbara Pym noted,
Seeing a handsome Dorset woman at a petrol pump I thought a Hardy heroine of today might well follow such an occupation. Tess for instance.
She mentions reading Hardy a couple of times in her diaries and letters, once accurately describing the right atmosphere for taking comfort from his poetry--
The weather is dull but not unpleasant--rather calming and saddening and I'm glad i have brought Hardy's poems with me.
--and later trying (and failing) to imagine him driving.

If she knew they shared a birthday, she didn't mention it. Yesterday, June 2, would have been Pym's hundredth birthday, Hardy's 173rd. They overlapped for fifteen years, long enough for us to imagine a young Pym, having fallen for Tess, saddened at hearing of Hardy's death. They're not similar writers at all, but in a talk written for the BBC in the spring of 1978, "Finding a Voice," Pym did reveal some passages from Hardy's notebooks that, while she doesn't explicitly make this point, feel like part of the Pym universe:
Let me quote this entry for Sunday, February 1st 1874: "To Trinity Church, Dorchester. The rector in his sermon delivered himself of mean images in a sublime voice, and the effect is that of a glowing landscape in which clothes are hung up to dry." Or another entry, for October 25th 1867, more likely to have inspired a poem: "Martha R --, an old maid whose lover died, has his love letters to her bound, and keeps them on the parlour table."
The latter has the self-aware wistfulness of Pym's characters, the former a hint of her judgment and humor--though if we encountered it in the context of Hardy's work the judgment would predominate.

Which leads to the unanswerable question: Would Hardy have liked Pym's work? It seems wildly unlikely, doesn't it? Hardy bridges the Victorian and Edwardian eras, but for all their ventures into psychology his novels remain nearly as full of incident as their predecessors, whereas Barbara Pym's books turn on such modest changes of heart and fortune that a reader more accustomed to the violence and passion of Hardy could miss them entirely. In fact, the developments in Pym's plots so often don't exist, involving as they do the raising and surrendering of unexpressed dreams--whereas dreams in Hardy are rarely (if ever?) repressed, finding life in wild, dramatic action.

The humor, too, would be a problem. Hardy's novels are almost entirely humorless, at least when it comes to their central characters and concerns, as Anthony Powell noted in a 1971 review for the Telegraph:
Hardy's failing was a total lack of humour, which, one feels, might have prevented some of the absurdities. He could do knockabout up to a point, or irony, but one has only to think of Balzac, Dickens, Dostoevsky, Proust, or Conrad, to see the missing quality that is possessed by most of the great novelists in one form or another.
Hardy's humor is almost always found in the rustics around his protagonists, the characters who see no disjunction between their dreams and their surroundings, who harbor neither hope nor fear of change--they're Shakespearean jesters (though fortunately less irritating). Gentle satire of Pym's sort, even if you could explain its essential reference points of contemporary social intercourse, would I suspect fall entirely flat with Hardy. As Penelope Fitzgerald notes in her perceptive review of Pym's last novel, A Few Green Leaves,
High comedy needs a settled world, ready to resent disturbance.
--and Hardy's world is anything but settled. What we get in Hardy is the friction caused by different rates of change, between an old way of life that is inexorably being lost (but slowly enough that the fact can be denied) and a new freedom that is emerging too fitfully (and that ultimately may not wholly compensate for what's been lost). Tess as a gas station attendant in Hardy would involve disgrace and rage in at least equal parts with fierce independence; as a Pym character she would be merely a figure of speculative village gossip.

No, much as Pym loved Hardy, the reverse seems unlikely. But birthday mates they are despite. This year, Pym, rightfully, is getting the lion's share of attention: her centennial has sparked a wonderfully astute appreciation by Carrie Frye for the Awl, while bloggers at My Porch and Fig and Thistle are hosting a Barbara Pym reading week. From My Porch's gallery of Pym covers I learned that the New York Times once called her "the novelist most touted by one's most literary friends," while Shirley Hazzard simply noted that "her books will last." Indeed. It's unlikely we'll be around for her bicentennial, but I hold out hopes that her books will.

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