Barbara Pym’s funniest novel follows relations between two unlikely couples
By George Howland Jr.
In 1940, the English-novelist Barbara Pym intended to publish Crampton Hodnet, a comedy of manners set in North Oxford, England. Unfortunately, World War Two intervened and the novel had to wait to find its public. First, after the war, Pym experienced literary success with the publication of six novels between 1950-61, none of them “Crampton Hodnet.” For the next 16 years, no one would publish her new novels and she became a forgotten literary figure. Finally, in 1977, The Times Literary Supplement, an august London weekly, asked notables to name “the most underrated writer of the [20th] century”; Poet Philip Larkin and biographer Lord David Cecil both chose Pym. Pym’s work experienced a wonderful renaissance and she published four more novels. In 1981, she died. Four years later, after Hazel Holt, Pym’s literary executor, prepared the manuscript for publication, Crampton Hodnet was finally able to enter our lives.
Of Pym’s thirteen published novels, Crampton Hodnet is the funniest. It has the hallmark of Pym’s work: the close observation of ordinary lives of middle-class Englishmen and women. Some of her characters are confined by the cruelty of genteel poverty while others are swollen with arrogance by failing to appreciate their own good fortune. Crampton Hodnet, however, contains none of the heartbreak of The Sweet Dove Died or any of the pathos of Quartet in Autumn.
The plot rambles around the relationships of a pair of twosomes: Francis Cleveland, a restless, middle-aged, Oxford don, and Barbara Bird, his bright, passionate pupil; and Reverend Stephen Latimer, a handsome, red-haired curate of the Church of England, and Jessie Morrow, “a thin, used-up looking,” lady’s companion with “definite personality.”
Both relationships develop in delightfully unexpected ways.
At the beginning of the affair between professor and pupil, Barbara has an ardent crush on Francis. When the don eventually returns her feelings and then wants to consummate them, she is very unenthusiastic. “She knew exactly how she ought to feel, for she was well read in our greater and lesser English poets, but the unfortunate fact was that she did not really like being kissed at all.” The tension between Barbara’s desire for Platonic love and Francis’ insistence on corporeal expression produces sparks that resolve in the penultimate chapter.
Meanwhile, Reverend Latimer wrestles with the question of marriage. He is a newcomer to Oxford and arrives without interest in matrimony. Yet, the women at the church plague him with their talk of love. “It was obvious that he could never expect to have much peace until he was safely married.” The idea suddenly occurs to him, “he might do worse than marry Miss Morrow.” When he proposes to her, the conversation meanders off in an unexpected direction that includes Ovaltine.
While Pym’s telling and witty observations of either of these relationships could sustain her novel, the author gives us much more: the web of social connections that is affected and changed by the twosomes. We have the pleasure of observing many wonderful characters respond to these upheavals in their midst: Miss Doggett, the don’s aunt and Miss Morrow’s employer; Mrs. Francis Cleveland; Edward Killigrew, one of Francis’ colleagues, and Mrs. Killigrew, his mother.
The overall effect is a delightful evocation of a time and place and the kind of people who inhabited it.