Monday, December 19, 2011

Book Review: Crampton Hodnet, by Barbara Pym

You might think that with an almost six-month-old at home, I would have no time to read.  Well, you would be wrong!  I enjoy a luxurious 30 minute lunch break at work, which after microwaving my Lean Cuisine and cleaning up my silverware amounts to about 24 minutes, and the nightly 3.5 minutes from when I get into bed to when I fall asleep.  In that 27.5 minutes a day, I indulge in my true passion - books.

When the modern world presses upon me too much - people looking down at their phones, almost running smack into me in the aisles of Target, the incivility and stupidity of reality television and the news - I crave a retreat to a simpler time.  No, not the Amish inspirational romances that are so strangely popular these days.   I crave something British, a bit genteel but with a smidgen of droll wit - something like Jane Austen or Barbara Pym.   Pym's novels of the mid-twentieth century are like Austen's with their drawing rooms, spinsters, and vicars; just add electricity, automobiles, and church jumble sales.  I adored Pym's Excellent Women and have been slowly making my way through the rest of her works.   Alexander McCall Smith, another author who's work I've been recently enjoying, wrote a nice piece on Excellent Women for the Guardian.

Set in Oxford, the titular Crampton Hodnet is a fictitious nearby vicarage devised by Mr. Latimer, a young curate boarding with the formidable elder Miss Doggett and her lady companion Miss Morrow.  (Miss Morrow is basically a lady-in-waiting, a spinster in her mid-30's who tend to blend in with the drapes and make witty asides to herself.)  Mr. Latimer and Miss Morrow get caught walking in the rain one day, heading home from the same direction but not together, and the curate freaks out when an acquaintance sees them and assumes they were together - hence the unnecessary fabrication.  These are the kinds of things upon which Pym builds her stories - and slight though they may seem, they loom large in the insular, gossipy circles of her novels.  Her books do not end as happily as most of Austen's do, however - there is a much more complicated depiction of marriage and the roles of men and women here.  Yet I always find myself laughing out loud at something in her tales; they are so wryly funny.  Here, a passage in which Miss Morrow sees Mr. Latimer off to a trip to Paris and then does something uncharacteristically passionate:

It was a lovely morning, when even the monkey-puzzle (tree)  was bathed in sunshine.  She clasped a branch in her hand and stood feeling its prickliness and looking up into the dark tower of the branches.  It was like being in church.  And yet on a day like this, one realized it was a living thing too and had beauty, as most living things have in some form or another.  Dear monkey-puzzle, thought Miss Morrow, impulsively clasping her arms around the trunk. 
"Now Miss Morrow," came Miss Doggett's voice, loud and firm, "you must find some other time to indulge in your nature worship or whatever it is.  You look quite ridiculous.  I hope nobody saw you."
"Only God can make a tree," said Miss Morrow unexpectedly. 

Miss Doggett goes on to point out that she messed up her dress, and Miss Morrow, seeing that her drab colored clothing was unsullied, thinks, 'That was the best of drab clothes.  One could be a nature-worshipper without fear of soiling one's dress.'

I am so glad that I have yet to work my through all of Pym's novels.  They are truly delightful and I intend to parse them out, savoring the pleasure for some time.  And then, of course, there's always the joy of re-reading!

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