2013 marks the centenary of Barbara Pym, a British novelist with a unique gift for capturing the foibles and idiosyncrasies of post-WW II England. Her characters are usually middle-aged women, clergy, and academics; her debut novel, Some Tame Gazelle, includes all three.
Harriet and Belinda Bede are sisters, unmarried and of a certain age. Belinda is devoted to Henry Hoccleve, a love interest from her youth, now married to Agatha and serving as archdeacon in the village. Harriet is routinely pursued by an Italian count who inexplicably also lives in the village. Every few months he proposes marriage, and Harriet routinely declines. Instead, Harriet focuses her attentions on each new curate arriving in the parish, knowing full well her attentions will not be seen as anything other than maternal. Both women are perfectly comfortable sharing a house and caring for each other as old age approaches.
The entire village is quite comfortable, actually. Everyone goes to church on Sunday, and social life revolves around community activities like the annual garden party. People tend their gardens, women knit, and everyone seems to have at least a cook/housekeeper to prepare Sunday lunch while they are away at worship. This routine is disrupted when Agatha goes away on holiday alone, and both academics and a bishop visit the close-knit community.
Pym is delightfully witty, capturing perfectly the village’s rich cast of characters. Henry has an inflated view of his abilities; his sermons are known for their length and liberal use of quotations from obscure sources. His idea of a perfect party activity is to read aloud to his guests. Really, Henry just likes hearing the sound of his own voice:
There was of course nothing she would have liked better than to hear dear Henry reciting Milton, but somehow with Agatha outside and so much to be done it didn’t seem quite the thing. Also, it was the morning and it seemed a little odd to be thinking about poetry before luncheon. (p. 21)
But his talents are largely lost on his flock:
The congregation suddenly relaxed. It was just going to be one of the Archdeacon’s usual sermons after all. There had been no need for those uncomfortable fears. They settled down again, now completely reassured, and prepared themselves for a long string of quotations, joined together by a few explanations from the Archdeacon. (p. 107)
The minor characters are just as amusing. There’s a brilliant scene when the local seamstress refuses to eat food Belinda provided after discovering a caterpillar in the vegetables. Sock-knitting and the perils of the Kitchener stitch are covered in more detail than I would expect to find in a novel. Pym’s writing had me chuckling all the way.
The plot was also satisfying, with just the right amount of conflict and uncertainty even as I knew everything would turn out all right in the end. Some Tame Gazelle is an ideal comfort read.