Sitting on the porch this afternoon with half a bottle of plonk and a paperback copy of Barbara Pym’s Less Than Angels, I realized that, nearly forty years after first encountering her novels, I love her more each time I re-read them.
Like Jane Austen, she penetrates into ordinary lives with perception and empathy. Of one character, she writes that he “often avoided looking into people’s eyes when he spoke to them, fearful of what he might see there, for life was very terrible whatever front we might put on it, and only the eyes of the very young or the very old and wise could look out on it with a clear untroubled gaze.”
But, as with Austen, we also revel in the distinctive authorial irony, as with another character “who enjoyed the work which was congenial to her natural curiosity about people and her desire to arrange their lives for them.”
We have her sardonic insight into male-female relationships, with the young man who says, “It would be a reciprocal relationship — the woman giving the food and shelter and doing some typing for him and he man giving the priceless gift of himself.”
We have a one-sentence, tone-perfect summing-up of a modern high-church Anglican service: “The service was beautifully conducted and there was perhaps nobody who did not feel in some way the better for having been present at it.” Note, please, “perhaps,” felicitously combined with the litotes of “nobody … did not feel.” It is a sentence that, in its own way, is as sublime as the ritual it describes.
And, mind you, there is the fellow-feeling engendered by a chapter that begins with the sentence “Catherine poured herself rather a large glass of gin.”
I am not halfway through it, and the evening lies ahead, Reader, envy me.