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.
Continue reading “Crampton Hodnet”
by George Howland Jr.
Since life is, by and large, tragic, it helps to have happy novels stacked by your bedside. When tired of being consumed by the grim realities of existence–global warming, poverty, war–and the great sorrows of literature–Anna Karenina, Middlemarch or Invisible Man, read something buoyant. There’s nothing wrong with works of art that don’t engender a major depressive episode. Novels with blithe romances are not necessarily Harlequins; funny books can rise above the sophomoric without becoming dark comedies; and a bildungsroman need not leave everyone’s entrails on the kitchen floor. We all need a restorative now and then, and uplifting novels are less expensive than cocaine, less anxiety producing than espresso and less fattening than tiramisu.
- David Lodge “Paradise News” (Penguin Books, 1991, $16.00)
Lodge’s greatest works are novels of ideas, flesh and bone. In this book, former Roman Catholic priest Bernard Walsh travels from the dreary English industrial heartland to Hawaii and comes to terms with family love, romantic love and the love of God. During his journey, Walsh provides a fascinating education about the revolution that occurred in 20th Century Christian theology. He explains how the simple homilies of sin, salvation, heaven and hell were replaced by Dietrich “Bonhoeffer’s ‘religionless Christianity,’ [Paul] Tillich’s Christian existentialism, or various types of Liberation Theology.” While this spiritual and intellectual transformation has caused Walsh to lose his vocation, it allows him to find his new life.
Continue reading “Happy Reads”