I’ve finally woken up after an exhausting week of swine flu, and taken enough Tamiflu to no longer be a danger to others so today I’m venturing beyond the door and into the world again. I know I’m feeling better because at least I can concentrate enough to read again – and stay awake. Being ill without a book in hand has been an odd experience but yesterday I got all the way through ‘Some Tame Gazelle’, a sure sign of returning health.
Barbara Pym was recommended to me in an online reading group – dove grey books, originally set up to discuss Persephone publications it’s evolved into a brilliant source of recommendation and reading inspiration so when someone there says read it and Virago prints it what could be more convincing? So far I’ve loved all the Pym’s I’ve read and look forward to the rest of the reissues but ‘Some Tame Gazelle’ has something special about it.
It is the tale of Belinda and Harriet Bede, two middle aged spinster sisters, both Oxford educated and comfortably off who have elected to spend their old age together. They live hard by the village vicarage inhabited by the Archdeacon with whom Belinda fell in love 30 years previously when they were both undergraduates; Harriet meanwhile entertains herself with a string of young curates in need of her tender care. In many ways this was the perfect antidote to all the surplus woman books I read over the summer, after so many unhappy spinsters finding contented ones feels like a treat.
‘Some Tame Gazelle’ was Pym’s first book, she started writing it in 1934 when she was only 21, but it wasn’t published until 1950, apparently it’s how she imagined herself and her sister might be in prosperous middle age. I have a lot of sympathy with Pym’s outlook in this narrative, it’s easy to believe in Belinda’s continuing dream of love with the Archdeacon, and the sometimes prickly relationship she has with his wife. Henry is a man difficult to the point of being almost entirely unlikable, for Belinda it is certainly better to have loved and lost, but the habit of loyalty and thinking herself in love are enough for her happiness, when a proposal comes along from a very respectable but unappealing quarter she has no hesitation in turning it down. I suspect that if Henry ever where free and inclined to marry her she would turn him down too.
Harriet’s passion for curates also makes sense; Pym makes no bones about them being more in the way of pets than potential lovers. Despite her middle years Harriet doesn’t lack for entirely suitable suitors but again elects not to marry, and why should she. Her life is comfortable, well ordered and full of interest; the curates fill a romantic void, but also allow full scope for her mothering instincts. If any of that sounds a little unhealthy I don’t think it’s meant to. These are women who have elected to make the best of what they have without compromise – no marriage without love or the chance of passion. As I said I can believe in Pym’s vision although I wonder what a slightly older woman would make of it. I’ve seen plenty of the sort of insubstantial personal relationships she describes between men and women being made use of to substitute for something more conventional or deep, but wonder how many would really pass up the opportunities Belinda and Harriet have? I’m torn on this, initially I began to think it unlikely, but I’m veering back the other way now.