There's nothing to beat some comfort reading in amongst all this month's wartime reading and mine's been a Pym. I always have trouble typing Barbara...it usually wants to come out barabarabarra for some reason in the same way that I have a list of other words that always type up worngly...excatly.
I have been browsing through A Very Private Eye, Barbara Pym's Autobiography in Letters and Diaries too. I seem to do this each time I read one of her novels, just to gather in some contemporaneous detail about her life and her writing.
It might help if I didn't do this but instead picked the book up one day and just read it cover to cover because I have a completely disjointed, piecemeal collage of Barbara Pym's life with little sequence or order about it. So I was hovering around the wartime years, wondering what Babs was up to and something crops up that is complete news to me because I haven't read the book properly. So I became completely engrossed in her doomed love affair with Gordon because I hit on the news of the sadness that Barbara was feeling in June 1943
'I still love him as much as ever and nothing will alter that except meeting someone else.'
What's all this about then?
All news to me and I had to hastily backtrack to 1942, thought details seemed sparse.
Barbara had fallen for the charms of the writer and broadcaster Gordon Glover and a serious love affair ensued, serious enough at least on Barbara's part for her to burn all her diaries for that year, so little record exists beyond mentions in letters to close friends and occasional diary entries. These entries suggest a lengthy period of tearful sadness with matters complicated by the fact that Barbara was very amicably sharing a house with Gordon's ex-wife Honor and had inevitably became embroiled in the emotional melee.
In July 1943 Barbara decided to make a break and joined the WRNS working in naval censorship. Suddenly, based in Southampton, her life was an unexpected whirl of social opportunities and when she was posted to Naples in 1944 things became even more hectic but Barbara never quite lost that eye for the artificiality of her situation and the rather fraudulent disguise that she felt a uniform offered.
So there I discover the source for one of the threads in Excellent Women and one that weaves in neatly with my recent reading of Alan Allport's Demobbed. I was spoiled for choice because I have this in that perfect Virago birthday edition too, the purists might be relieved to know I've scribbled in the paperback.
Enter the delightful Mildred Lathbury, one of those classic and beloved Pym characters,
'I suppose an unmarried woman just over thirty, who lives alone and has no apparent ties, must expect to find herself involved or interested in other people's business, and if she is a clergyman's daughter then one might really say there is no hope for her.'
and as Mildred prepares to welcome anthropologist Helena Napier, a new tenant to the flat beneath hers, she ponders her methods,
'I don't know whether spinsters are really more inquisitive than married women, though I believe they are thought to be because of the emptiness of their lives, but I could hardly admit to Mrs Napier that at one point during the afternoon I had arranged to be brushing my flight of stairs so that I could peer through the banisters and watch her furniture being brought in.'
These are the post-war years and Helena is awaiting the return of her husband Rockingham's (Rocky to his friends) return from the war. Rockingham has been very busy in the defence of his country...well as much as being the Flag Lieutenant to an Admiral in Italy and living in a luxury villa demands of him,
'Rockingham hasn't had to do anything much but be charming to a lot of dreary Wren officers in ill-fitting white uniforms, as far as I can make out.'
As a regular churchgoer Mildred has another circle of friends which inevitably includes a marriageable vicar for whom she has no intentions, in fact Mildred is almost content with her lot, it is everyone else who assumes she is not. Whilst being a wonderful observer of the emotional mayhem going on around her, Mildred is self-effacing, kindly but firm in her purpose, a lover of her independence and no slouch at spotting when she is being used,
'Yes, it would make a nice change,' I agreed. And before long I should find myself at his sink peeling his potatoes and washing; that would be a nice change...'
Potential suitors enter stage right and and exit stage left whilst I fell into the same trap as Mildred's friends. As the mismatched Napiers struggle with Rocky's return to civilian life and Helena's independence, which has grown considerably in his absence, Barbara Pym had me working out who would be the best partner for Mildred too.
Mildred of course, smitten by Rockingham Napier is keeping a very open mind about the whole thing,
'Perhaps long spaghetti is the kind of thing that ought to be eaten quite alone with nobody to watch one's struggles. Surely many a romance must have been nipped in the bud by sitting opposite someone eating spaghetti?'
It was my read of Excellent Women that sent me scuttling to find this quote again from an insightful piece by Barbara Brothers Living and Loving in the Novels of Barbara Pym and I've read it many times for its analysis of Barbara Pym's depiction of women
'Those who never light a flame in a man's heart... those whose prince is really a frog after all... her 'excellent women' are those 'who can just go home and eat a boiled egg and make a cup of tea and be very splendid.'
Excellent Women, published in 1952, surely demonstrates something emerging in those post war years, those early
hints of feminism to come
Another Pymtastic read, every one a gentle winner to my mind and scroll down for gifts.