Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Some Tame Gazelle, by Barbara Pym

Staff Review by Chris Saliba

Barbara Pym’s first novel is a minor classic that mixes elements of Jane Austen, Nancy Mitford and Oscar Wilde into a perfectly realised social comedy. Some Tame Gazelle's ironic, self-deprecating humour has a liberating effect, as it counsels the reader to appreciate life’s absurdities and cautions against taking ourselves too seriously.

Barbara Pym started work in 1934 on this debut novel when she was only 21 years of age. It went through several rewrites and was finally published in 1950. Some Tame Gazelle has as its central characters two English spinsters, living together in a small country village and repeatedly knocking back offers of marriage. The two Bede sisters, Belinda and Harriet, were based on Barbara Pym herself and her sister, Hilary. Other characters in the novel were based on friends and lovers.

Madcap and Rather Existential

The plot is quite madcap in its own rather existential way. Two middle aged sisters go about their business in a small country parish. There is church, gossip, jumble sales, housework and helping out in the community to keep them busy. Belinda Bede is the more conservative and introverted of the sisters, while Harriet is extroverted and jolly. Harriet enjoys flash clothes and cheerfully flirtatious relationships with her male friends and some of the new curates. Belinda, in her steadfast manner, has been carrying on a somewhat ridiculous if perfectly respectable adoration from afar of Archdeacon Hoccleve, with whom she has been in love  for over 30 years! Thankfully, the Archdeacon is married to the redoubtable Agatha, saving Belinda from the exertion on her nerves that a real love affair would bring.

Things are going along swimmingly for the sisters, until two ‘disturbing characters’ enter the scene: Theodore Grote, a bishop from Africa and the famous librarian, Nathaniel Mold.  They are paying attentions to the two sisters that are not particularly welcome. When Theodore Grote gives Belinda a bunch of flowers, she wrings her hands over their longevity, worrying that it may symbolise a burgeoning love interest from Grote. When she spots a dark mark of decay on the flowers, she is relieved and happily throws them in the bin. Harriet meanwhile is being pursued by Nathaniel Mold, but her more light hearted personality means she can effortlessly rebuff  his attentions. Ultimately these two suitors are politely refused, and the relieved sisters can go back to their old lifestyle.

Affinities with Jane Austen and Oscar Wilde

Why do the middle-aged sisters refuse these offers of marriage? It’s not exactly that they’re turned off by the men. It rather seems to be that intense romantic affairs have the power to tax the psyche too much and are perhaps better left alone. Hence Belinda keeps up her fond adoration of Archdeacon Hoccleve from a safe distance and saves herself the emotional turmoil of being actually involved with him. Harriet, a fun loving bachelor girl, has her ‘boyfriend’ of sorts in Count Bianco, who rather farcically continues to ask her hand in marriage which she makes a regular habit of refusing. In many ways, Belinda and Harriet’s attitude, their eschewal of messy emotional entanglements, reminded me of Lady Gwendolen in The Importance of Being Earnest. There is that wonderful line where she says to Cecily, “I never travel without my diary. One should always have something sensational to read in the train.” Some Tame Gazelle could well have been penned by Lady Gwendolen – it’s eschews action and burning passions, preferring a tantalising abstinence and an ironic attitude. For middle-aged Belinda and Harriet Bede, everything is experienced in the head, all aspects of intimate love have been considered and imagined, and in the final analysis they have decided to spare themselves the anguish of reality and live in a state of permanent contemplation.

Some Tame Gazelle is essentially a comedy of manners, one full Jane Austen like consciousness. Barbara Pym is a keen and close observer of her small milieu, and dissects it with care and skill. She chronicles the hum drum happenings of everyday life, the misunderstandings and minor personality clashes that fray our nerves. She is almost defiant in her sticking to the dull and prosaic in human affairs, heroically ready to confront the fact that life is not all it’s cracked up to be. This is the underlying attitude of Pym’s work: the world in general may be happy to carry on thinking that life offers wonderful potential, but there is a sly grin in Pym’s prose that says otherwise.

For example, when Belinda pokes fun at the famous quote by John Keble, the Anglican priest and poet:

‘The trivial round, the common task – did it furnish quite all we needed to ask? Had Keble really understood? Sometimes one almost doubted it. Belinda imagined him writing the lines in a Gothic study, panelled in pitch-pine and well dusted that morning by an efficient servant. Not at all the same thing as standing at the sink with aching back and hands plunged into the washing-up water.’

Domesticity and Men

This reference to domestic duties and male grandeur leads us to Pym’s depictions of men. While she is not an overtly feminist writer, she likes to write about the place of women in a man’s world, one of dreary chores and fulfilling a supporting role. Because Pym doesn’t seem to take the world of work, careers, ambition and social status at all seriously she can enjoy a slightly bemused, wry view of men. She doesn’t drag them down from their pedestals, but rather gingerly sets them at her own level.

While Pym may make some light hearted fun of men, it’s really Pym herself who is the great butt of her joke. Writing herself up as a middle-aged spinster in the character of Belinda Bede, eternally toying with notions of love and devotion, forever dithering but never able to take the plunge into a romantic involvement, Pym seems almost intent on a type of cruel self-punishment in this self-portrayal. Her honesty is quite astonishing and ultimately liberating for us, the reader.

Some Tame Gazelle is a perfect minor work that mixes Jane Austen’s genius for shrewd observation with Nancy Mitford’s appreciation of the socially absurd. It’s a self-deprecating comedy that has a cathartic effect on the reader, cautioning us against taking ourselves too seriously.

Some Tame Gazelle
, by Barbara Pym. Published by Virago Classics. ISBN: 9781844085798  RRP: $24.99