Archive for June 20th, 2013

June 20, 2013

Barbara Pym, No Fond Return Of Love

I hadn’t read any Pym, I thought this was a problem, I decided to fix it, and a friend was reading this particular book. I don’t know if it was the best place to start, but I loved No Fond Return of Love, and have since then read a Pym and a half more.

From this weekend’s column:


The dictionary of obscure sorrows (one of the best things about the internet today) defines “sonder” as “n. the realization that each random passerby is living a life as vivid and complex as your own [ … ] an epic story that continues invisibly around you like an anthill sprawling deep underground, with elaborate passageways to thousands of other lives that you’ll never know existed, in which you might appear only once, as an extra sipping coffee in the background, as a blur of traffic passing on the highway, as a lighted window at dusk.”

There’s a moment in Barbara Pym’s No Fond Return of Love where, as the characters sit down to a dubious meal in a seaside guesthouse, another guest walks in. An ordinary-looking, middle-aged woman, there is nothing about her to suggest that she is a well known novelist. And so “they ate their stewed plums and custard and drank their thimble-sized cups of coffee, quite unconscious that they were being observed”. This novelist is probably a stand-in for Pym herself. We never see her again in this book, but this short scene is a reminder that other lives and stories are intersecting constantly with this one. And that our protagonists themselves are being observed.

Because the main character of No Fond Return of Love is herself an observer of other lives. We first meet Dulcie Mainwaring at a conference she attends to distract herself from the unhappy end of a relationship. It is here that she meets Viola Dace and Aylwin Forbes. Aylwin is an attractive scholar, Viola a sometime-colleague who is in love with him. Fascinated by both, Dulcie befriends Viola and sets about finding out anything she can about Aylwin.

One of the oddest things about this situation is how easily Dulcie’s interest in the lives of the people around her is taken for granted. The reader is fully aware of the absurdity and the potential awkwardness of her actions—as Dulcie lurks outside Aylwin’s brother’s church, sneaks into his mother-in-law’s house under a false name, and visits his father’s grave. Viola, who might have been expected to have a greater interest in the life of the man she loves than Dulcie, just shrugs and lets her get on with her spy work. No Fond Return of Love was written in 1961, and reading it I cannot help but think of how much easier the internet has made a private fascination with other people’s lives.  Less waiting outside churches, more judicious Facebook investigation, and a significantly smaller risk of being caught out. We’re constantly waiting for this to all blow up in Dulcie’s face, but this is not the sort of novel for grand climactic scenes.

Instead, it moves along quietly. Pym is as keen an observer of character as her fictional stand-in; she’s able to zero in on exactly what makes her characters absurd, but also on what makes them ordinary and sympathetic. And so the stylish young woman, envious of her friend’s tryst with an older man sits at home wearing a face mask and wondering if Bournvita is “the appropriate beverage to round off an evening of illicit kisses from a married man”. Dulcie complains that a character makes her feel as if there is “something lacking in me” (Viola, always ready to score a point, replies that this is “hardly his fault”); and at the beginning of the novel she really does seem merely a “dim English spinster”, the category with which Viola dismisses her. But no one is merely anything, and gradually we see Dulcie rejecting the narratives imposed upon her and becoming the heroine of this story.

This month is Pym’s birth centenary, and I’ve been using the opportunity to become acquainted with her work. And I find myself being drawn in; she is funny and clever and always quoteable. But more important to No Fond Return of Love is this—that, dim spinsters or otherwise, all lives are tragic, bleak, comic, absurd, all lives are worthy of being seen.