This is the first Barbara Pym novel from 1950. And it feels like both a first novel and a first Barbara Pym novel. At some point in English literature (and this is true about American literature as well in its own particular ways), there’s a shift in books, especially pastoral town books (Jane Austen, Arnold Bennett, George Eliot, some Waugh etc, Miss Marple) from books where going to church (especially regular old Church of England church) goes from a part of and sometimes topic within novels, to the subject and setting of novels. What I mean by this is that there comes a point that when church is a setting in a book, there’s a pointed specificity to that, than what used to be to a regular part of most lives. This is a book that feels like it’s straddling the line here. The same thing happens in Excellent Women, which would come next, and is a more refined version of this kind of story. We have the friendship of two women of a local parish, the goings on of their lives, and the sudden excitement of new curates (and old curates) that might offer subjects to talk about, and in the tradition of the English country novel, marriages to consider. What makes 20th century novels rewarding is their ability to unknit those finely woven traditions and expectations of older novels. So while this book (and later Pym novels) is a lot like Jane Austen novels in the daily machinations, there’s a concerted effort to establish some of the distinctions within each.
This book is also quite hilarious at times (there’s a chapter where they say “cauliflower cheese” like nine times and it’s so funny each time). There’s also a kind of roughness in this novel that makes it enjoyable, but also less good than later novels.