Original date of publication: 1958
My edition: 1980 (Perennial)
Why I decided to read: I’m on a mission to read all of Barbara Pym’s books
How I acquired my copy: from the Philadelphia Book trader, August 2010
A few years ago, when I first started reading Barbara Pym’s novels (with Excellent Women, which I think is a lot of people’s first Pym), I’d heard that her novels were a lot like Jane Austen’s. With a comparison like that, how could I pass that up? Barbara Pym’s novels are actually a lot funnier… but the humor is hidden.
This is the story of Wilmet Forsyth, a thirty-something housewife leading a leisured life with her civil servant husband. She spends her life involved with church work and attending classes, but her life isn’t all that fulfilling or fulfilled. Wilmet herself isn’t a person to like much; she’s incredibly superficial and narcissistic, concerned more with fashion (how often in the novel does she turn aside and tell the reader exactly what she’s wearing?) than in actually helping others. But she’s incredibly self-aware, and I think she knows on a deeper level what her faults are. Wilmet develops a friendship with Piers Longridge, a Portuguese translator and teacher (and a classic Barbara Pym character), who she imagines is in love with her. Little does she know that Piers’s attentions are focused elsewhere…
As I said, this book is incredibly funny, but the humor is hidden. The focus is on how people, especially within the constraints of Wilmet’s life, interact with each other on a small scale. You won’t see the major events of people’s lives described in Barbara Pym’s novels, but I think it’s the minutiae of people lives that are interesting; and that’s what make Barbara Pym’s books so good. There’s a crossover to Pym’s other books, too; Wilmet appears in No Fond Return of Love, and Prudence Bates of Jane and Prudence makes a cameo in A Glass of Blessings.