A Comedy of Manners by Mari Howard (Clare Weiner)
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 ça 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...|