This is the latest installment of Public Streets, a biweekly urban observations series curated by Ellis Avery.
In the summer of ‘14, as my family was planning a trip to England, I learned that I would be missing the annual meeting of the Barbara Pym Society in London. It gave me pleasure to imagine the Pymian Englishness that must surely pervade such a meeting—the wry conversation, the cups of strong tea, the endless exegesis of an unfairly obscure author—that might in itself be like a scene from one of her books. Later in our trip, however, we would be passing through Oxfordshire, where Barbara lived in a cottage with her widowed sister for the last eight years of her life and where she was buried. Of course, the route recommended by our navigational system—“Navi” as my husband cozily referred to it—would never have dreamed of bringing us through Finstock, a pin-prick on the map. But I felt, as one of Barbara’s male characters might have said, that I deserved this detour: our next stop was Northampton, where my husband would realize his cherished dream of visiting shoe factories. As for the other two members of our party, aged eleven and seven, they would just have to indulge me, for once.
Barbara Pym chronicled the non-special, the unheroic, the humble, the steady, the meek; and that is just the beginning of her glory. I’ve re-read her novels every year since I was in my early twenties, and of whichever book I’m reading, I always think, “This one is my favorite.” Yet I often wonder if I ever had the chance to meet Barbara, through some temporal mechanics nonsense, we would have much to say to each other. Barbara was so very English. Like Karl Ove Knausgaard, the Norwegian novelist so Norwego-centric that in his recent, infamous series of articles for the New York Times Magazine he found absolutely nothing to impart about a third of the United States, would Barbara find she had little in common with me, slangy-mouthed, Latin-poor American that I am, unfamiliar even with the verses of Cowper that her characters let drop so casually? How would she have felt about me referring to her by her Christian name? Would she have considered it, to use her characters’ most withering epithet, unsuitable?
Still, I don’t find myself capable of referring to her as “Pym,” like a cup of cucumber punch, and unlike Knausgaard, Barbara was so unfailingly humble a woman she might have excused my colonial familiarity, or even found it funny. She looked at and wrote about her world with a prevailing, compassionate humor that is the only thing about her that can be compared to Jane Austen: the kind of British wit that steals upon you with a jab at the end of a sentence. At their worst, her female characters can be selfish or bossy, her male characters handsome, lazy, and diffident to the point of catalepsy, their greatest crime that they constantly assume women are going to make them lunch. Really, nothing much happens in a Barbara Pym novel.
As a spinster at a time when such women seemed to count for little, from the late 1930s to her death in 1980, Barbara mostly wrote about other spinsters, homely women in their late-30s to mid-60s who harbor gentle longings for the vicar (or curate or rector) but ultimately find they don’t really need anything they don’t have. (Clergymen loom large in Barbara’s stories, usually handsome and living with a sister, always surrounded by clouds of grey, cardigan-clad women who forever hold jumble sales and make disappointing, frugal teas.) Although some of her characters do have romantic relationships, there is no such thing in a Barbara Pym novel as a happy ending, only a fuzzy one, as in the last scene of her post-World War II novel, Excellent Women, when the narrator, Mildred Lathbury, gives us the sense that an anthropologist named Everard Bone is going to marry her so she can index his ethnography for him.
In the beginning of Excellent Women, Mildred writes, “… I, mousy and rather plain anyway, drew attention to these qualities with my shapeless overall and old fawn skirt. Let me hasten to add that I am not at all like Jane Eyre, who must have given hope to so many plain women who tell their stories in the first person.”
Mildred has a bit of a crush on her devastatingly charming neighbor, Rockingham Napier, just returned to London from Italy after his de-mobbing, but it’s characteristic of a Barbara Pym heroine that every time “Rocky” charms Mildred, she thinks of the Wren officers in their ill-fitting uniforms he used to entertain in the admiral’s villa during the war, a humbling reminder that she, like them, is nothing special.
It may be because of her characters’ extreme self-deprecation that Barbara Pym has never quite been claimed as a Second Wave feminist, but this is a misunderstanding. Her characters are humble because this is the value that society has placed on them, but they are also acutely satirical about their situations, and curiously detached. Even when one of Barbara’s women takes a strong interest in a man, it feels forced, as when Marcia Ivory, a batty elderly character in Barbara’s saddest novel, Quartet in Autumn, briefly carries a torch for Norman, a co-worker, before dropping him in favor of the more satisfying hobby of bottle-hoarding. There is no woman more self-sufficient than a Barbara Pym heroine quietly eating an omelette and a can of beans in front of her paraffin heater. It’s only larger meals that are full of soufflés and social anxiety for her heroines: they involve men, and men are such a lot of work.
Barbara herself seemed to have borne an enduring unrequited love for a classmate from her time at Oxford, Henry Harvey, upon whom I strongly suspect most of her handsome, long-nosed, rather stuffy blond men to be based, but it is characteristic of Barbara that she never lets these men off without a good ribbing for their cowardice, self-importance, entitlement, and laziness, traits that Barbara’s women seem to accept, with varying degrees of irony, as the province of males. Barbara may have lived in a post-war milieu in which there were not enough husbands to go around, but these conditions must have existed in many times and places without producing an equivalent to the splendid British spinster. She, whether living with a sister, friend—or “friend”—or on her own, belongs to a culture in which men, besides the vicar, of course, are on the sidelines, and she is running the show. It is a modest culture, built on Christian duty and low expectations, but it is hers.
Barbara Pym may also have been the first novelist writing in English to tackle the sexual politics of housework. The scene from Excellent Women when Mildred feels she has to clean Rocky’s pan full of burnt potatoes, wishing she didn’t have to be quite so excellent all the time, resonates, to me, with the climactic scene from Jeanne Dielman, feminist film-maker Chantal Akerman’s 1975 four-hour masterpiece about a Belgian woman cleaning her house, burning her potatoes, and falling apart. It seems unlikely that Ackerman ever read Barbara Pym, but you never know.
I would like to tell you so much more about Barbara, about her names—her names!—her anthropologists, her gay men, her tea houses, her cats—but I’ll return now to England and the way in which the idea of a pilgrimage can give you the strength to get through crowds at Stonehenge and the anticipation of shoes in Northampton, taking on an almost religious urgency. Leaving Salisbury, we drove northeast, making a pit stop to buy daffodils for Barbara’s grave. For another hour, we drove small roads through endless roundabouts between hedgerows, deeper and deeper, it would seem, into nothing much, and emerged at a crossroads where there stood the same pub, at the bottom of a hill, that had been there in Barbara’s time.
The Plough Inn! I could not believe my luck. Barbara had sat here, in this surprisingly venerable, beautifully restored interior with its surprisingly fancy menu—surely that had changed since her time—of prawn salad and free range chicken. The pub, I ruminated as I had my salad, (pun intended), is in a Barbara Pym novel the scene of mild license, the place where the protagonist accompanies a man, tries a pint of bitter, which she doesn’t really like, gets a little tipsy, and a world opens up to her, which she decides not to enter. The pub is the portal to men, or sex, if you insist on putting it that way.
The very friendly red-faced publican told us, Oh, yes, Barbara Pym’s cottage was just up the road; we were to look for the blue English Heritage plaque. Talking to him, I got the sense that everyone in Finstock knew about Barbara Pym, but no one had read her. The sad truth is that as many times as I’ve pressed Barbara’s books into other people’s hands, not once have I transmitted my passion. But they are all wrong, and no less a writer than Philip Larkin agreed with me, naming her, in 1977, “The most under-rated writer of the century.”
We paid the bill and wandered up the road to find Barbara’s cottage, so close to the pub that it is not surprising to find Emma, protagonist of the last novel Barbara wrote, A Few Green Leaves, peeking out of her window in the opening sentences, “…seeing the party assembling outside the pub, wearing tweeds and sensible shoes and some carrying walking-sticks.” It’s thrilling to think of Barbara right here, describing the cottages of “honey-colored” stone, set much closer together than I’d imagined them, and embarrassingly easy to peer into. In A Few Green Leaves, Emma spies in on her neighbors, the Barracloughs, academic hippies whom she finds very exotic, and is herself caught by the rector’s glance in the act of carrying a tuna mousse, making her wonder wearily if this means she now has to invite him to lunch.
After walking by Barbara’s cottage, we got back in the car and drove up a hill to look for the churchyard. This was where “Navi” seemed confused, stopping us in front of a cluster of the kind of modernly uncharming houses Emma disparagingly calls “bungalows… How horrid!” I agreed with her. We accosted a young woman who sent us straight back between the houses up a narrow path hemmed in by trees. Here we found a small Victorian church, no doubt the same one Barbara describes in A Few Green Leaves, where the rector, Tom Dagnale, so often encounters surprising visitors to the mausoleum. But the church was not open at the moment and my family was getting impatient, so if I secretly hoped to meet a tall, brown-eyed Tom wandering the aisles as if he didn’t quite know what to do with himself, meditating upon deserted Medieval villages, I was going to have to live quietly with my disappointment, as so many of Barbara’s characters do.
The small churchyard meandered on until it reached a fence, on the other side of which some little girls could be seen riding horses. Here, as at her cottage, I expected to have Barbara’s presence announced for me somehow, by a grand monument, a pile of flowers, a clatch of weeping church ladies in tea-length skirts and sensible shoes, but I couldn’t find Barbara’s stone at all. Clutching my daffodils, I hunted for it for fifteen or twenty minutes without success. In fact, the graveyard was in a bit of a state, as the parochial church council complains in A Few Green Leaves, the grass growing tall around the stones. The council goes on to declare its distress about “the excesses of the village mourners”:
… elaborate curb-stones, green marble chips and florid gilt lettering disfigured the general appearance of the churchyard. Some graves even had vases of artificial flowers on them, surely a disgrace in a rural area? Were there not rules that could be applied and enforced by the rector?
Elsewhere, the young village doctor, Martin Shrubsole, worries that his mother-in-law is spending too much time working in the graveyard, possibly being morbid. Barbara must have walked here, too, thinking of her death, or engaged, like Martin Shrubsole’s mother-in-law, in some of the maintenance that seemed to be lacking, or both. In Barbara’s earlier books, her characters are still looking for love, or some semblance of it, but by this last novel, she seems to acknowledge that not love but the graveyard will be her lot. Though she never penned a word in her novels about anything so embarrassing as “spirituality,” and her more academic characters often find themselves quite appalled by their own religiosity, when they retain it, Barbara was a life-long churchgoer. No doubt she was comforted by thoughts of the afterlife, and of course “comfort” is the most her characters ever seem to get: a few green leaves, a poem recollected, a cup of china tea, they so often find, are enough for them. Still, I am an American and I can’t help but wish for Barbara to have been loved madly by Henry Harvey, or someone else she wanted to be loved by.
My family was getting anxious to leave and I was now in a frantic agony of stone-scanning, clutching my daffodils, when a neatly-dressed man with a cardigan thrown around his shoulders entered the graveyard. We greeted each other and I told them that I had come all the way from Brooklyn to visit Barbara Pym’s grave and I couldn’t find it.
“I’ve heard she was here,” he said in the Hobbity local accent. “I’ve never read her. She’s meant to be good, isn’t she?” he added without much conviction. He looked to be in his sixties, with a gentle and slightly worried look to go with his accent. He told us he had come to pay respects to his aunt, whom I imagined as Miss Lee, the old village lady from A Few Green Leaves who constantly dredges up memories of the old days at the local manor and the marvelous governess there, Miss Vereker.
The man began to help me search for Barbara Pym’s stone. He was much better at it, because it was only a minute or two before he cried out,
“Here it is!”
“You’ve found it?” I said, incredulous with relief, running to the spot.
And there it was, a small, unpolished marker that Barbara and her sister shared. The simple arched stone, humble to begin with, had in three and a half decades already grown worn and blackened at the edges.
I stood over it and read:
Of course, I thought. How Barbara is that? It might have been the title of one of her novels: A Small, Simple Stone.
I shed my tears, knelt to leave my daffodils on the grass, and we walked back to our car.