Saturday 12 May 2018

Pym Again

'... she crouched down, her fingers moving over the shelves among the Marie Corellis, Hall Caines and Annie C. Swans.'
Such was the choice of leisure reading available to guests in a South coast seaside hotel, circa 1960, as noted by Barbara Pym in No Fond Return of Love. Marie Corelli, bestselling writer of sensational romances, and Hall Caine, phenomenally successful 'serious' novelist, I knew, if only by name – but Annie C. Swan? She was, I learned, a Scottish writer who in her heyday was every bit as popular as the other two, and now even more surely forgotten. She wrote romances of Scottish life, the first of which, Aldersyde, was praised by both Tennyson and Gladstone, but her core audience were readers of The People's Friend magazine (which is still extant, and next year celebrates its 150th anniversary).
  But enough of Annie C. Swan. I was reading No Fond Return of Love to recover from my long immersion in Martin Amis's Experience. Published in 1961, it was the last to come out before the long hiatus in her career that began with Cape shamefully dropping her, continued with a string of further rejections from other publishers – and ended, happily, with both Philip Larkin and David Cecil naming her as their 'most underrated writer of the century' in 1977.
  Shirley Hazzard judges No Fond Return of Love 'one of her very best', and I'm inclined to agree. It gets off to a richly promising start – indeed the very first sentence is arresting:
'There are various ways of mending a broken heart, but perhaps going to a learned conference is one of the more unusual.'
The broken heart belongs to 'sensible' Dulcie Mainwaring, who, at the 'learned conference', meets flaky Viola Dace, who is nursing a helpless passion for the handsome Aylwin Forbes, a guest speaker on the subject of 'Some Problems of an Editor'. Before long Dulcie too has fallen for the irresistible Aylwin (ah, those Barbara Pym names!)
  From this germ, the plot unfolds with the kind of masterly precision we expect from Pym at her best. A colourful cast of characters is deployed, a range of locations deftly evoked, vicars and their female admirers turn up everywhere (as we'd expect), substantial meals are eaten at every opportunity, and even youth gets a look-in, in the shape of Dulcie's niece. The action is driven by Dulcie's natural curiosity, heightened by her professional abilities as a researcher. Determined to find out all she can about Aylwin Forbes and his family, she proves remarkably tenacious as she and Viola pursue their researches...
  But it is Pym herself, of course, who is controlling the action, and in a surprisingly self-conscious way. Dulcie's conversation is peppered with references to how events are beginning to resemble a novel (often a Victorian novel) and how things would play out 'if this were a novel'. There is even a scene in which Aylwin, under the influence of The Portrait of a Lady, starts speaking in Jamesian dialogue. As all the characters are drawn together in one place for the climactic scenes, Pym uses contrivances – including overheard conversation – worthy of Ivy Compton Burnett herself (whom she greatly admired), though she is never as blatant in her disregard for probability, or as stinging in her comedy. No Fond Return is, however, a very funny novel, its comedy typically never far from pathos. And it pulls off a bravura last-minute ending that might be summed up as 'They think it's all over... It is now!' A joy to read, and the perfect antidote to an excess of M. Amis.


  1. Yes, yes, but the mouse?

  2. Ah yes, the mouse... Well, he won the first three rounds hands down with a fine display of escapology and is now making free of the place in a manner bordering on the insolent. I have an improved trap arriving tomorrow, so he might soon be smiling on the other side of his face. Or not. I'm beginning to feel like Wile E. Coyote...

  3. Thanks, the update made me smile, and hope the better mousetrap does the job. Bought the Barbara Pym which I really should have read before this. Also thanks.