04 June 2013
My new favorite Barbara Pym novel
Published in 1961, No Fond Return of Love was the last Pym novel published before the dark ages descended and Jonathan Cape and other publishers deemed Pym's work not commercially viable. Maybe it was the incongruity of Pym's world and the swinging sixties. Indeed while reading NFRL I found Pym's occasional descriptions of beehives and short skirts to be a little jarring. Mind you, not poorly written, or inauthentic, but just out of place against my perception of the Pymsian universe I have made up in my head. Given that I am inclined toward sensible ladies drinking tea rather than the visual and cultural chaos of Carnaby Street, this is hardly surprising.
After meeting at an academic conference, Dulcie Mainwaring and Viola Dace, two educated but underemployed single women find themselves stalking the strikingly handsome Aylwin Forbes, one of the learned authors who spoke (and fainted) at the conference. We discover almost immediately that Viola has had some sort of romantic entanglement with Aylwin and is still carrying a torch for him, but it isn't until later that we find out that Viola is the reason Aylwin's wife has recently left him. If we believe Viola, there was someting meaningful between them. If we believe Aylwin, he merely meant to thank Viola with a kiss for creating the index for one of his books. (No doubt the truth likes somewhere in the middle.)
The two women stalking Aylwin unfolds rather subtley and in a way that is somewhat surprising given their sensible, decorous personalities. And watching that happen is one of the great pleasures of this novel. It is easy to see why some refer to Pym as a 20th century Jane Austen, No Fond Return of Love has its share of vicars, gossip, and even a trip to the seaside town where folks bump into each other.
Many of the things that so endear Pym's fans to her work are present here: incredibly precise and concise attention to manners, food, clothing, and emotions; witty, trenchant observations of the social and professional workings of the worlds of literature, scholarship, and the Church of England; and women. We read about and believe in her well drawn male characters, but ultimately Pym's is a woman's world. They may be weak or strong or somewhere in between, but they are always authentic. While Pym may lean towards making her female characters more independent minded one rarely feels she is judging any of her women--or men for that matter. Pym's preference for observation rather than judgment may be a result of her years working for anthropology related organizations, just as the other characteristics common in her work were no doubt drawn from her own milieu.
If you haven't read any Pym yet, I think No Fond Return of Love is a wonderful place to start.
[Incidentally, the copy of NFRL I read was the new reissue of the novel from Open Road Media who also publish e-versions of the work. I'm so glad I bought a copy when I was at the Pym Society Conference in March because I only just found another edition of this title which are a little hard to find on this side of the Atlantic. But more importantly, the Open Road paperback editions are quite lovely. The covers and the paper feel good to the touch, the type is clear and fresh, and the covers don't try and make Pym look like chick-lit.]