A Comedy of Manners by Mari Howard (Clare Weiner)

Essential (thatched) Cottages

In the wilds of Oxfordshire, there is a village: we could call this village a microcosm of its county, even of its country. Which is the country of Lord Peter Wimsey, Bertie Wooster, all of the Agatha Christie murders you can think of (and possibly a few more) and of many distressed gentlefolk and frustrated spinsters. It is as they say, the quintessential English (note, not British) place to find many fictional characters. It is called Crampton Hodnet, and is the fictional abode of various characters from the imagination of Miss Barbara Pym. 

This past week, a new biography of Pym (2 June 1913 – 11 January 1980) was read, in 15 minute slots, on BBC Radio 4. Having read Crampton Hodnet many years ago (my sister-in-law had a copy, and decided we all needed to know more about the doings of typical inhabitants of perfect English villages, so pressed it upon me). I was curious to know more about Pym, whom I admit I have not read (apart from one other) from that day to this, even though her wit has been compared to Jane Austen's writing and been much admired. But I found her characters sad and unattractive. To me, she represented a creature of past ‘Englishness’ –the quiet, mouse-like, well-bred spinster. 

From this biographical reading, I discovered more. Pym did indeed call herself a ‘spinster’, and she wrote in her journal that she does and will probably always belong to that group. Her life, if typical, opens the modern reader’s eyes – if they are not already open (rolling, raised to heaven) to the life of our ‘maiden aunts’ of the ‘olden days’. It also parallels, (I wonder if in known or unconscious way), the life of Dorothy L Sayers, (13 June 1893 – 17 December 1957), creator of Lord Peter Wimsey.  Though Pym concentrated on ‘Comedy of manners’ – charting the antics, romantic and other, of the young and not so young, in pursuit of the opposite sex, and Sayers on the pursuit of unravelling the mysteries of crime, the characters definitely inhabit a similar cultural world.

Hardly surprising, I discovered both attended Oxford University, Sayers had studied Classics and Medieval languages at Somerville, possibly making her more likely to enjoy the puzzle- making and solving of crime.  She received a first class degree. Pym studied Eng. Lit., at St Hilda’s College, preparing herself as an observer of life, especially of the English middle and upper middle classes.

At Oxford in an age when the worlds of middle and upper class men and women had just began to mix freely and socially without the entanglements of parents and chaperones, both led an active sex life, falling passionately in love and being, in fact, fair game for philanderers. Which wasn’t, I imagine, necessarily the end they initially saw when giving themselves to lovers playing the field among the students at the women's colleges. All great fun – and available only to the more well off unmarried woman, since Marie Stopes and ‘planned parenthood’ were even in Pym’s time, the 1930s, officially only offering contraception to the married. This rather gives the lie to the ‘Innocent spinster aunt’ image, though Pym was compared, later, to Jane Austen by readers and critics. Did Jane ever experience unrequited, though shared, passion, as Barbara and Dorothy had? I rather suspect not. 

Pym ‘got away with’ never conceiving – or if she had, with ‘dealing with it’ and leaving no trace behind (e.g. in her journals). Whereas Sayers went on to give birth to a son, whose father was her second flirtation with a man she already knew was married.

Another link between these two writers is the Anglican church, particularly the ‘high’ or ‘Anglo-Catholic’ variety. Pym often features clergy in her stories, particularly in Quartet in Autumn and Crampton Hodnet.  An early work, Less than Angels, features a (heterosexual) couple who live together. In The Sweet Dove Died, she includes bi-sexuality. One of her books centres partly around a gay couple, of whom one is a clergyman. She wasn't afraid to let it be known in the book – though she stops short of writing actual sex scenes. Clearly for Pym there was no clash between sexual adventures or lifestyles and any ‘religious’ disapproval from God!  Their attachment to High Anglicanism –‘smells and bells’ as it was often called – with its emphasis on ceremonial and tradition, obviously gave neither woman qualms of conscience. Indeed Sayers went on to write a religious play, The Man born to be King, which was popular with church ‘am dram’ groups. Somehow, all this chimes (in my head) with ‘Essential Englishness’– the Englishness of quaint old churches, impressive Gothic cathedrals, Choral Evensong, indeed with the marriage of church and state, as seen in the lives of women of the class these writers came from – both had solicitors and school teachers in their family background (men, of course).

I really can't not write about this topic ‘tongue in cheek’, or as ‘a comedy of manners’. These lives are full of something, a je ne sais quoi, which defines the rolling countryside, the Rupert Brooke poetry (think Grantchester and honey – Cambridge, I know - but…). Indeed, a sense of entitlement is also certainly there in the mix. We readers deserve an amorous clergyman, a late marriage, a cottage in Crampton Hodnet… or those living in mid-to-late 20th century England were thought to want to read about it…

And I feel drawn to say this to those who point to the 1960s (I was a student 1968 - 71) as being defined by the ‘sexual revolution’ and becoming a ‘Post-Christian society’: look carefully, plus ├ža change? Men predate, and women succumb. I wonder if several waves of feminism has actually made a lot of difference? Equality eludes us.

Country church interior, with essentially English companion...


How interesting that there were all these parallels. I've read most of Dorothy Sayers' novels but nothing by Barabara Pym - I suppose she has suffered by not being a genre writer.
I hadn't thought of this before but I now realise if Dorothy Sayers had been born a bit later she might well have been recruited to work at Bletchley Park.
Cecelia, Bletchley Park - yes, I think she had the kind of brain they'd be able to use!

I'm not sure about Barbara Pym - I'd imagine a 'comedy of manners' is a genre, even if a smaller one than Crime or Romance? She had success in the early years of writing, then a 'wildness time', then later, success, promoted to publishers by Philip Larkin. Though reading her,I felt that Pym's stories lay behind many Women's Own etc type short fiction in those magazines - in the 1950s-70s, though not sharply witty and more traditional on the romance side, they seem to've been in the area of 'delightful Englishness' in which hers are set...
Jan Needle said…
Somebody once said that sexual intercourse began in 1963, didn't they? Hhhm
Ruth Leigh said…
Ah magnificent! I am just reading her biography now. One of my all-time favourite novels is Excellent Women. Dry, witty, moreish - it's Pym at her very best. You make a good point about predatory men and the women who succumb to them. I haven't got very far, but the first relationship doesn't sound promising.
Griselda Heppel said…
Not sure why attachment to High Anglicanism should have given either Sayers of Pym any qualms of conscience! The Man Born to be King is a superb play and her translation of The Divine Comedy (in which she actually reproduces in English Dante's terza rima - not perfect, of course, but astonishingly accurate in meaning), including her scholarly introduction, puts her well beyond any Englishness of quaint old churches.

I love both these writers and think their 'romantic' novels are of great value and depth, not just a collection of cosy tropes. Also not with you re the sense of entitlement - Pym's heroines are characterised by a total absence of anything they can call their own, either materially or emotionally, which makes the books so sad and funny at the same time.
Griselda, I really appreciate that you can put an opposite viewpoint, and put it without personal rancour or 'offence'. We do seem to need that kind of discussion in the present world.
Of course, you mean Sayers, not Pym, when you write about both Th eMan Bornto be King and the Dante translation and scholarly writing - and I agree totally - Sayers worked as an academic (in Oxford I think?) and, as the first comment above says, possibly had the kind of brain they could've used at Bletchley Park.
As for me, I suspect sad/funny is a genre I kind of find all too sad to enjoy, in a book - that's a personal opinion.
But I do think think also that she was possibly taken up by lesser writers, who exploited a kind of 'Cotswold Englishness' - and if it was, well, that's all right too - tase in reading is a very personal thing.
Peter Leyland said…
Thanks Mari. I like both these writers and have lots of books by both. I taught Sayers' Wimsey novels in my detective courses. It is perhaps little known, although you may, that Sayers was responsible for the Toucan Guinness advert, 'Guiness is good for you'.
Griselda Heppel said…
Yes, it's perhaps the characteristics of novels written in the 1920s and 30s that we're talking about - amusing stories about dashing young men and women by writers such as Jeffrey Farnol and Ethel M Dell (neither of whom I've read - no, I think I tried a Farnol once and found it much too dated) in which the class assumptions of the period would jar today. This is also true of Enid Blyton's stories - one of the reasons she is so frowned upon but children still love her!
Griselda Heppel said…
And fascinating gem, Peter, about Dorothy Sayers dreaming up the Guinness Toucan! I never knew that.

Great post and discussion opportunity. I hadn't really thought about these writers in the context of their period before. Will always be in love with Peter Wimsey though.

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