Monday, June 10, 2013

Penelope Fitzgerald on Barbara Pym

Before I leave Barbara Pym for a while, here's one last, quick post in honor of her centennial. In a review of Pym's A Few Green Leaves, Penelope Fitzgerald--who, though nearly Pym's contemporary, didn't truly get established in her writing career until much later, and who clearly felt Pym's influence--offers a description of the mostly hidden stakes that quietly underlie conversations in Pym's works:
In her nine novels Barbara Pym stuck serenely to the [world] she knew best: quiet suburbs, obscure office departments, villages where the neighbours could be observed through the curtains, and, above all, Anglican parishes. . . . This meant that the necessary confrontations must take place at cold Sunday suppers, little gatherings, visits, funerals, and so on, which Barbara Pym, supremely observant in her own territory, was able to convert into a battleground. Here, even without intending it, a given character is either advancing or retreating: you have, for instance, an unfair advantage if your mother is dead, "just a silver-framed photograph," over someone whose mother lives in Putney. And in the course of the struggle strange fragments of conversation float to the surface, lyrical moments dear to Barbara Pym.
"An anthropologist," declared Miss Doggett in an authoritative tone. "He does some kind of scientific work, I believe."

"I thought it meant a cannibal--someone who ate human flesh," said Jane in wonder.

"Well, science has made such strides," said Miss Doggett doubtfully.
"Well, he is a Roman Catholic priest, and it is not usual for them to marry, is it?"

"No, of course they are forbidden to," Miss Foresight agreed.

"Still, Miss Lydgate is much taller than he is," she added.
In such exchanges the victory is doubtful: indeed, Miss Doggett and Miss Foresight are, in their way, invincible.
Pym's conversational battles, like her humor, are so subtle that an inattentive or unsympathetic reader could easily miss them entirely. Unlike Ivy Compton-Burnett, whose characters fight with words like naked blades and in not a few cases are ready to back up their thrusts with actual violence, Pym's characters leave the social surface unruffled; in fact, a fear of troubling the waters is at the root of many a silent retreat. Pym's dialogue, and what it represents, is part of a lineage that stretches back to Austen--but surely Penelope Fitzgerald was not its last practitioner? Anyone have nominations for the Pym of today, in that regard?

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