One of the things I love about Barbara Pym and about ‘Some Tame Gazelle’ especially is her sympathy for and understanding of the spinster; middle aged virgins and sexually inexperienced women are neither automatically threatening nor ridiculous in her books - they are simply a fact. Passion is all well and good but Pym is able to separate love and the need to love from sex in a way that we currently seem to struggle with. If the surplus woman was a figure of fun and derision pre 1914 at least by the end of the war she becomes somewhat less pathetic.
I’m considering this having just finished Noel Streatfeild’s ‘Saplings’ including the afterword (a much more satisfactory arrangement than a forward/introduction in my opinion). Dr Jeremy Holmes, who writes the afterword in my Persephone edition, feels the need to explain that a relationship might be seen as abusive by today’s standards, and to assure us that this is not so. Reading the book it’s clear that whatever other dangers and tragedy the 4 children it centres upon face, sexual abuse of any kind is not on their cards, it strikes me as an especially modern preoccupation that anyone could find this in the text, even to the extent to deny it.
‘Saplings’ has very little to do with single women, but it has reminded me again what an excellent publisher Persephone is. I’m inclined sometimes to give my heart to Virago – so many excellent books covering so darn much, sometimes in my mind Persephone suffers in comparison, and then I read something they’ve published and realise all over again how much there is to them. ‘Saplings’ is a book like that; middle class, middle England - very much what I would expect, and also the most amazingly perceptive examination of family dynamics and the damage it’s possible to inflict on children without even realising it that I’ve ever read. How could I have expected that?
Not for the first time in a Persephone book I found so many quietly subversive elements that I know it will take time to process it all to my entire satisfaction, but first off it was Lena the mother who jumped out of the book at me. A woman who should never have been a mother, not because she’s a particularly bad parent but because temperament suits her to be a wife and lover – her man will always come first, it’s not a fault so much as a fact, but one that will be hard on the children, especially when the man is no longer their father.
I love that despite the faults of the character she creates Streatfeild maintains sympathy for Lena, allowing her to be all about her sexuality - accepting rather than blaming her for the fact that her children are an important but secondary part of her life. It’s easy to imagine Lena as the charming but wicked stepmother in another sort of story, I just find her the sort of character painted in so many shades of grey and who breaks so many taboos even today that she’s a delight to read. I also notice that her sexuality, which might be taken for granted in contemporary fiction, is pulled out here not as abnormal but as a slightly unbalanced way of loving; all physical nothing spiritual, and that a mix of both is needed to build a real enduring happiness on.
Finally by way of celebration to mark my release from the sofa - here it is properly unemcumbered for the first time in a week...