Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Crampton Hodnet - Barbara Pym

'Crampton Hodnet' has a curious history, Pym wrote it in the early days of the war and it was finished by spring 1940 - when she put it in ice. Louis De Bernieres speculates as to why in the introduction; it seems likely that work, love, and war all got in the way, and that when she looked at it again it felt dated, it may also have been that she didn't feel entirely satisfied with it.

Happily Pym kept the manuscript and Hazel Holt rescued it after her death, gave it a bit of a brush up, and it was finally posthumously published in 1985 and now again by Virago. It's a curious book, initially I assumed it had been written just before the war given that the central theme is how little some things change, but 1940 also makes sense and accounts just as well for the distinctly nostalgic edge to the book. After the war 'Crampton Hodnet' probably did feel out of kilter with the mood of the moment, but now it's an absolute delight.

This isn't quite classic Pym though all the ingredients are in place. There are a couple of outrageously camp young men who veer too far into caricature to be really satisfying and the general tone perhaps aims for a broader comedy than in some of her later books but this is a really lovely read. Miss Morrow is a wonderful creation; a thirty something spinster working as a ladies companion to a far more forceful spinster, the elderly, and perfectly foul, Miss Doggett. Miss Morrow's lot is hardly an enviable one but her sense of humour carries her through. The arrival of Mr Latimer a handsome, as well as eligible, curate in the Doggett household seems at first to offer a promise of change, maybe even romantic escape for Miss Morrow and if it wasn't for Crampton Hodnet maybe there would have been romance.

Miss Morrow is definitely an excellent woman so when she hears Mr Latimer tell a not very convincing lie it's a shock to her - curates should be above such things,, and after that I couldn't see Mr Latimer as deserving Miss Morrow at all. The other major strand in the plot concerns the marriage of Francis and Margaret Cleveland. Francis is a good looking middle aged Don, Margaret has reached a point where her husband is a thing to be taken for granted and not entirely seriously. Their marriage has basically been a success but the romance is a distant memory when an attractive young student threatens to upset everything.

Barbara Bird adores Francis but would far rather he stayed on a pedestal, when he starts to reciprocate her feelings in a classic mid life crisis it turns out to be not at all what she wanted all of which is rather hard on Francis and Margaret as they become the source of North Oxford gossip. It all becomes rather a mess, but to much change is unthinkable, life has a rhythm in a university city; the students come and go but are essentially always the same, escape may be possible for the Mr Latimer's of the world, but for the rest of them things will carry on much as they always have. I think this may be destined to be my favourite Pym. 

8 comments:

  1. I thought I'd read all BP's novels but I haven't read this one! So thanks for this review which makes me long to get hold of it.

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    1. I think there are 3 I haven't read yet which is a slightly depressing thought which only the prospect of revisiting some of the ones I read ages ago can banish. It's a shame she didn't write a few more, and that she was so under appreciated for so long during her lifetime.

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  2. This is the first BP that I read and my very favurite - I think because it's set in Oxford! i got the copy of this and started rereading it and put it aside, i can't remember why so I must get it out again

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    1. I liked the Oxford setting too, the academic background where the names change but almost everything else stays the same was really effective. I liked that it wasn't as polished or subtle as some of the later books as well. It's just a lovely book.

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  3. A lovely review.

    I'm on my fourth Pym at present, and am continually struck by how subtle and clever both the writing and the humour are. It all seems effortless, which as we know, is usually not the case at all. I love the way some characters criss cross the novels, and feel a thrill of delight when I realise I've read about this person or that in another of her books. Miss Doggett and Miss Morrow turn up in Some Tame Gazelle, I seem to remember.

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    1. This isn't her most subtle book but it has a real charm to it, I really need to read all her books again looking out for characters and tracing their progress. I tend to gallop through her books and think I've probably missed a lot along the way so rereading really is something to look forward to.

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  4. I think this was the first Pym I ever read. It was before I really developed an understanding and appreciation for this kind of British writing, so I know I would enjoy it much more today then I did then. I haven't read all of her novels yet (rationing them) but my favorite so far is Some Tame Gazelle.

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  5. I think I really need to read 'Some Tame Gazelle' again as it keeps getting mentioned and I can't really remember it. Your holiday book haul looks great by the way.

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