English novelist Barbara Pym is not everyone’s cup of tea. Slyly hilarious, her emphasis on cosy (British spelling) and the seemingly dull, drab, poetry-reciting, aging women who people her novels are not to everyone’s taste. But when “the world is too much with us, late and soon,” I will grab one of her books—and get cozy.
Long-accustomed, I think, to close-third writing, Pym’s revelation of multiple characters’ interiority is so skillfully done that for years I never noticed. (Her liberal use of adverbs never registered either. Until it did. And was forgiven.) Nor did I adequately appreciate how she’d created female characters like “Jane” in her Jane and Prudence who, I finally realized after multiple readings, deserve my compassion and not the scorn their creator ruthlessly heaps upon her badly-dressed and wretched-cook women! Professionally-thwarted women like Jane—whose thin volume of essays written before she’d married could have been the beginnings of a successful writing career! Discounted women. Lonely women. Women seared by their war experiences and the privations that followed. Like I said: Barbara Pym is sly.
Best of all, while exploring those women’s interiority, she’ll write something like this (The context is World War II in an air raid shelter, at night, as Nazi planes fly overhead on their way to Liverpool):
“It’s so terrible,” said Laura helplessly, wishing there were something adequate one could say. But there was nothing. It was of no consolation to the bombed that the eyes of women in safe places should fill with tears when they spoke of them. Tears, idle tears were of no use to anyone, not even to oneself. This oppressive sorrow could not be washed away in the selfish indulgence of a good cry.
As I grieve for Gaza, as I grieve for the dear ones I’ve recently lost, as I grieve for the pain and suffering surrounding safe-place me, I, too, know my tears are of no use. I, too, know oppressive sorrow. Yet how elegantly Pym captures this enormous, endlessly confusing and confounding dilemma of consciousness! (I would quibble with that still-upper-lip “selfish,” though.)
One lump or two?