Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Crampton Hodnet, by Barbara Pym

Staff Review by Chris Saliba

Two pathetic and rather hopeless love affairs make for much gentle comedy in this posthumously published novel by Barbara Pym. 

British novelist Barbara Pym wrote Crampton Hodnet in the late 1930s. By the time she was ready to send it on the rounds to various publishers, the war had come and her time was taken up with volunteer work. The novel was eventually put aside by Pym herself; she felt it had become somewhat dated. Nonetheless she tinkered with it over the years and considered it “as good as anything I ever did.” Crampton Hodnet was published posthumously, five years after the author’s death in 1985.

The story contains all the usual elements of a good Barbara Pym novel. The actions centres around two hopeless, and it must be added rather pathetic, love affairs. The happily plain and sensible Miss Morrow, who lives with the dour and disapproving Miss Doggett, is being pursued by the passionless curate Mr Latimer. He is after a wife, more for practical than romantic reasons. When he finally summons the courage to propose, Miss Morrow is more than a little underwhelmed. While this uninspiring match is proceeding, Miss Doggett’s cousin, the don Francis Cleveland is carrying on an extramarital affair with one of his students, Barbara Bird. The romantic trysts between the couple are quite mild affairs, despite the passionate declarations of both parties. At one stage a controversy breaks out when word gets around that Francis Cleveland and Barbara Bird have had a clandestine meeting at a public library. Pym works all of this to brilliant, if very dry, comic effect.

In the end all parties come to their senses and return to their humdrum, yet eminently practical lives. Order is restored, silly, fruitless passions are put aside. Everyone gets on with things. Samuel Johnson wrote that love is the wisdom of fools and the folly of the wise. Barbara Pym’s characters always come close to falling into this trap, but evade disaster at the last minute.

Barbara Pym always wrote about what she knew best. Crampton Hodnet paints a gentle, humorous and human portrait of English village life. You settle into her fiction as you would into a favourite chair, getting slowly absorbed by the foibles and comic errors of her characters, until you grow fond of them and are finally sorry to have to leave them.

Crampton Hodnet, by Barbara Pym. Published by Virago. ISBN: 9781844087211 $19.99

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