If you don't mind indulging me, I want to remind you, as we labor over our editing, of the sheer pleasure in reading.
Barbara Pym, whose work Philip Larkn championed, was a writer whose work could stand up to comparison with Jane Austen's in its attention to the telling details of domestic life and its delicious understated irony.
Here, in a passage from Excellent Women, Mildred Lathbury, the narrator, is taken to meet Everard Bone's mother:
I thought I had better revive the conversation which had lapsed, so I commented on the animals' heads in the hall, saying what fine specimens they were.
'My husband shot them in India and Africa,' said Mrs. Bone, 'but however many you shoot there still seem to be more.'
'Oh, yes, it would be a terrible thing if they became extinct,' I said. 'I suppose they keep the rarer animals in game preserves now.'
'It's not the animals so much as the birds,' said Mrs. Bone fiercely. 'You will hardly believe this, Miss - er- but I was sitting in the window this afternoon and as it was a fine day I had it open at the bottom, when I felt something drop into my lap. And do you know what it was?' She turned and peered at me intently.
I said that I had no idea.
'Unpleasantness,' she said, almost triumphantly. ... Then lowering her voice she explained, 'From a bird, you see. It had done something when I was actually sitting in my own drawing-room.'
'How annoying,' I said, feeling mesmerised and unable even to laugh.
'And that's not the worst,' she went on, rummaging in a small desk which stood open and seemed to be full of old newspapers.'Read this.' She handed me a cutting headed OWL BITES WOMAN, from which I read that an owl had flown in through a cottage window one evening and bitten a wman on the chin. 'And this,' she went on, adding another cutting which told how a swan had knocked a girl off her bicycle. 'What do you think of that?'
'Oh, I suppose they were just accidents,' I said.
'Accidents! Even Miss Jessop agrees that they are rather more than accidents, don't you, Miss Jessop?'
Miss Jessop made a quavering sound which might have been 'Yes' or 'No' but it was not allowed to develop into speech, for Mrs. Bone broke in by telling Everard that Miss Jessop wouldn't want any sherry.
'The Domination of the Birds,' she went on.'I very much fear it may come to that.'
Everard looked at me a little anxiously but I managed to keep up the conversation until Mrs. Bone declared that it was dinner time. 'You had better be going home, now, Miss Jessop,' she said. 'We are going to have our dinner.'
Miss Jessop stood up and put on her gloves. Then, with a little nod which seemed to include all of us, she went quietly out of the room.
'I eat as many birds as possible,' said Mrs. Bone when we were sitting down to roast chicken. 'I have them sent from Harrods or Fortnum's, and sometimes I go and look at them in the cold meats department. They do them up very prettily with aspic jelly and decorations. At least we can eat our enemies.'
Comments: A nice little economical portrait of a domestic tyrant and monomaniac.
Don't let anyone tell you that you're not allowed to use adverbs. That fiercely tips the reader off that something is coming, and Pym develops it by stages, from the laughable euphemisms "unpleasantness" and "had done something" to the trove of newspaper clippings to the explicitly paranoid "Domination of the Birds" to the concluding determination to eat the birds first.
Mrs. Bone's tyrannical disposition is not displayed in her avian monologue alone. There is the dim figure of Miss Jessop, who is allowed to be an audience for Mrs. Bone's pronouncements, whose agreement Mrs. Bone announces for her, whose murmurs are "not allowed to develop into speech," and who can be abruptly ordered out of the room when her presence is no longer required.
Finally, Pym, with a few deft touches, points to a normative world outside Mrs. Bone's drawing-room. Mildred is unable to laugh at the "unpleasantness" announcement, and Everard looks at her anxiously to gauge her reaction to his mother. But she maintains the proprieties and keeps up her end of the small talk without becoming visibly disconcerted. An excellent woman, indeed.
Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun