Barbara Pym is one of those authors whose readers fall into either the category "I love her!" or "What's the fuss?" Harrison Solow loves her, which is obvious from her delightful fictitious non-fiction book, Felicity & Barbara Pym, published in 2010. It's a clever idea: a young college student has to write an essay about Barbara Pym's novels and an experienced teacher guides her as she approaches this entirely new subject. The foreward to the book is by Hazel Holt, who calls it original, controversial, academic, readable, serious, light-hearted, sensible, and charming.
Felicity is a fictional student at a fictional New England Ivy ("with its strangely appropriate connotations of creeping tendrils, tenacity, and poison") who is writing to the fictional Mallory Cooper, who is working in Hollywood but for a semester is tutor to Felicity whose literature professor is on sick leave. Mallory bears a striking resemblance to Harrison Solow. The tutor begins by recommending that Felicity learn what she can about the English, who are a more complex people than other anglophones realize.
The tutor begins with a recommended reading list to give Felicity a feeling for the English and their world:
- Lark Rise to Candleford by Flora Thompson
- English Eccentrics by Edith Sitwell
- The English by J B Priestly
- Victoria's Heyday by J B Priestly
- Anything by Somerset Maugham, Iris Murdock, Margaret Drabble, A S Byatt
- Some of the Miss Read books
- The Damerosehay Trilogy by Elizabeth Goudge
- Novels by D E Stevenson
- Cider with Rosie by Laurie Lee
- Poets of whom Miss Pym's characters are fond: Coventry Patmore, Matthew Arnold, Tennyson, Pope, Milton, Goldsmith, Keats, Gray, Marvell, Donne, Rossetti
- The Story of English by Robert McCrum, William Cran, and Robert MacNeil
This is not the typical college reading list but the tutor believes Felicity will learn more from these books than from sociological or historical studies.They are, she says,
... solid reflections of the same culture and era as ... Barbara Pym. I think you will find great (and many) similarities of tone, attitude, cultural and moral values, habits, customs, foods, assumptions, rituals, language, class, education, and society between these illuminating tales and those works that are considered literature by people who think they know about such things -- as well as by the people who do.
More books to provide background are those written for children by Noel Streatfield, A A Milne, E Nesbit, C S Lewis, and P L Travers. Also worthwhile to set the scene is Robert Louis Stevenson's xenophobic children's verse,"which represents an attitude of semi-sweet smugness that you will find over and over in English literature."
I want you to feel the vocabulary and the syntax and the concerns and the themes -- the flavour and the manners and the foods and the tools of Barbara Pym's world.
Although she does not want Felicity to begin there, she does send her to the critics that many of us read when we were studing English literature (and that I still own in browning and slightly foxed paperbacks.)
- E M Forster, Aspects of the Novel
- Ian Watt
- Virginia Woolf
- I A Richards
- William Empson, Seven Types of Ambiguity
- F R Leavis
- Northrop Fry
- The Pelican Guide to English Literature (in 7 volumes)
The girl is assigned Barbara Pym's novels as the subject for a major essay and as she begins reading the first, Some Tame Gazelle, she finds herself immediately floundering. "Nothing happens," she complains. The men are silly and the women are mousy. The characters are all alike. What's with the dowdy clothes? And how can anybody consume as much tea as the people in these novels?
All valid complaints coming from a very young, not-widely-read, student whose first questions to her tutor are: Why should I read Barbara Pym? and Why read literature at all? Solow does a fine job of answering.
She points out that Barbara Pym's novels are written by a woman who is steeped in the habits of her age and class. She was born in 1913 and was upper middle class and very well educated (Oxford.) Her books are far from obvious and they emphasize the importance of class in that era. Says Solow: "... there are a number of seemingly irrelevant and random factors on which the delicate structure of class is built, the least of which is income, and the greatest of which may be, ... a cup of tea."
She recommends that Felicity "... investigate every reference to every author, book, poem, or source quoted in Barbara Pym's work. You will not understand her characters, nor will you succeed in your English Literature studies unless you do." This is something my online otherlit group has discovered as we make our way through Pym's oeuvre.
She also recommends that Felicity learn all there is to know about tea and be prepared to take a test on afternoon tea, high tea, meat tea, lunch, dinner, supper, China tea, Ceylon tea, and whether the milk is put into the cup before or after the tea itself.
Her explanation of the world Pym's women come from, their experiences and their expectations is excellent. These are women who spent the most important years of their youth during the war; they are used to sacrifice and keeping a stiff upper lip in the face of nightly bombardment. They understand the class significance of a rayon sweater, a brightly colored dress, or baggy tweeds. They have grown up reading Enid Blyton and adopted her values: self-deprecation, doing one's bit, never drawing attention to oneself.
The tutor in the book has taught a class comparing Barbara Pym and Anita Brookner and she gives us the syllabus. ("You must, you must, must read Anita Brookner, quite probably the best and certainly one of the three best English (fiction and nonfiction) writers in England today.") Pym was the mistress of the "in group" and Brookner of the "out group." I would dearly love to take that class if it existed.