I'm not quite sure how I felt about reading a book called The Sweet Dove Died.
Laying not a single claim to sweetness but I do now feel a strange and warm affinity with dove-like and dove-grey references whenever they crop up in a book, but another Barbara Pym was just what I needed once Clifton Fadiman had urged me to examine my bedtime reading carefully.
Barbara Pym (who I discover has a society) nothing short of soothingly unhurried, pre-slumber reading, nil to disturb unduly or supply nightmarish material that I could detect in this slim volume and the ageing but still single Leonora playing off antique's dealer Humphrey off against his young nephew James. Leonora is not yet ready to be cast as a spinster and nor will she be surrendering readily to the ageing process but Barbara Pym's slight and often briefest of allusions are all it takes to understand the battle against fragility and the impending loneliness of Leonora's life,
'But those brown spots on her hands...were surely a sign of age? The headache began to return and she lay down again, the tears trickling slowly down her cheeks.'
'Two fillings at one visit - even her beautiful teeth were going now.'
So much less always equals so much more with our Babs. How tempting it must have been to add 'sharply-defined' to those cheeks or something extra about the teeth but she knew exactly when to cut the extraneous.
The Keatsian origins of the title were buried too deep in my mind to retrieve so google had to rummage for it on my behalf,
'I had a dove and the sweet dove died;
And I have thought it died of grieving:
O what could it grieve for? Its feet were tied,
With a silken thread of my own hand’s weaving;'
It's the older Humphrey who should be a suitable match for Leonora but her eye is
set firmly on young James and Barbara Pym draws on some up-to-the-minute issues
for 1978 which I won't reveal for fear of spoiling, but she didn't shy away from tackling
The Sweet Dove Died published in what could be termed Barbara Pym's second flowering after a gap of sixteen years and just two years before her death, but to her utter delight it received strong reviews and soared to number three in the bestseller lists.
A poignant letter to Philip Larkin, published in the equally soothing autobiography in letters and diaries, A Very Private Eye reveals that Barbara can't conceal her pride,
'It has been gratifyingly well-received, enough balm to sooth and heal all those wounds when only you and a few kind friends thought anything of my works.'
The week before Barbara had recorded her Desert Island Discs with Roy Plomley...
'it must be a kind of silly season for the programme if they are having a novelist.'
Barbara had chosen a recording of Philip reading his poem An Arundel Tomb , etched in my memory as the unseen peom in my O Level English exam of 1970, and for her book choice The Golden Bowl by Henry James (thankfully not featured in my O Level English exam) but the letter ends with a marvellously down-to-earth Pym comment,
' Must stop and go to the hairdresser (in the village) but shan't have that fashionable frizzy style that the young seem to be adopting.'
A Very Private Eye in many ways quite the obverse of its title and, selling at pence / cents online, a real asset to any bookshelf; a marvellously astute lens focused on the world of publishing through the mid-twentieth century, and I lose count every time I open it of the number of well-known, oft-read authors who weave through Barbara's life. Fascinating anecdotes and meetings that breath life into a rapidly receding era.
An unassuming novelist if ever there was one and what a pleasure it is to see Virago bringing more Barbara Pym's back into print, Excellent Women earlier this year in the birthday edition and No Fond Return of Love has just arrived looking very 'of the moment.' We have Some Tame Gazelle and A Glass of Blessings to look forward to in 2009.