When I was growing up, my mom was a bit (really, that’s an understatement) of an Anglophile. She traveled to the UK annually, she watched Masterpiece Theater every Sunday night, she was always first in line at our local art house cinema for the new Merchant Ivory movie or a Miss Marple retrospective, she knew who Hugh Laurie was WAY before House, and she always surrounded herself with a pile of “quaint” British books. Authors like Agatha Christie, Jane Austen, EF Benson, Marion Chesney, James Herriott, PD James, PG Wodehouse, Dorothy Sayers, and Barbara Pym were regulars in our house.
I’m embarrassed to say that I’ve read very few of the names on that list, but am trying to remedy that. Inspired by fellow Cannonballer Bonnie’s recent Barbara Pym binge, I recently picked up my first Pym, Crampton Hodnet.
Barbara Pym’s story is quite an interesting one. She wrote her books in the 1950s and 60s, but she didn’t find much success, as her writing was seen as being a bit stuffy and old-fashioned. She came to fame in the late 1970s, and also after her death in 1980, when her books were rediscovered by an entirely new generation of readers.
In Crampton Hodnet, Pym paints a picture of village life in pre-WWII Oxford, with various characters leading the flow of the story on a rotating basis. We meet Miss Morrow, a 36 year old “spinster” acting as the companion to the overwhelming Miss Doggett (apparently, these two characters appear in at least one other of her novels); Mr. Latimer, the handsome and single curate; the dithering Cleveland family; the pretty student Barbara Bird; and various others.
Their lives are filled with tea parties, shopping excursions, garden luncheons, and gossip. Who has been seen dining with whom? Who was that hiding in the bushes with someone who isn’t his wife? Who will be the lucky lady to catch Mr. latimer’s eye? What color dress is appropriate for a spinster to wear to a garden party?
Like Jane Austen, Pym presents society’s expectations with a large comic presence. She doesn’t take the perceived proprieties of the day too seriously. She makes light of the fact that society sees a 36 year old woman — one who is clever, attractive, and intelligent — to be a hopeless spinster with no options left to her. She ridicules a man considering an affair with a younger woman — he realizes that he wouldn’t be able to survive on his own, as he doesn’t cook, do laundry, or know anything about keeping a home and starting over.
This book was simply a delight. I enjoyed every last page of it and can’t wait to get my hands on another Pym. It made me think of my mom, and made me realize she was on to something with that constant pile of books, and I’m considering a full-on CBR8 dedicated to that pile.