Barbara Pym’s Problem Comedy

by John Broening (April 2018)

Mayotte Magnus/The Barbara Pym Society



“Little England—It is somehow bound up with solid breakfasts and gloomy Sundays, smoky towns and winding roads, green fields and red pillar-boxes,” Orwell wrote of England at the darkest point of the Second World War. Comparing England to any foreign country, he noted, “The beer is bitterer, the coins are heavier, the grass is greener, the advertisements are more blatant. The crowds in the big towns, with their mild knobby faces, their bad teeth and gentle manners, are different from a European crowd.”


Eternal, unchanging England, then. But after that war, Little England began have another connotation: attenuated, retrenched, post-colonial England.

“The English are the only people capable of experiencing Schadenfreude towards their own misfortunes,” noted the historian Tony Judt. The tendency, dovetailed with a tradition of English pessimism, was certainly accelerated after the Second World War.

The tradition of the English pessimism: the pessimism of, oh, King Lear, Joy Division, Eleanor Rigby, Sir Walter Raleigh’s ‘What is Our Life?, Thomas Hardy’s poems (and Thomas Hardy’s novels).

Noel Coward, probably the greatest English writer of comic songs, both celebrated and mocked this national habit in “There Are Bad Times Just Around the Corner,” written in 1951:


There are bad times just around the corner.
The horizon’s gloomy as can be
There are black birds over
The grayish cliffs of Dover

And the rats are preparing to leave the BBC


Writing in 1983 about the beginnings of the project of European unity and, prophetically, about the difficulties the English would have in the EU, Luigi Barzini made some trenchant observations about the English character:


. . . the animal has always played such an important symbolic role in the intimate and public life of the country. To calm a difficult, spirited animal over jumps, in the hunting field or in the littered chaos and tumult of the battlefield, a rider must avoid the quick reflexes of the Latin and show imperturbable steadiness . . . Surely it was their hard life that taught the British to be brave, resourceful, patient, far-seeing, self-controlled, or to act as if they were. In one word, they are stoics.





Stoicism is at the heart of the novels of Barbara Pym, but a kind of curdled stoicism in which nobility only rarely plays a part, a stoicism which is manifested in people only rarely saying what they mean or meaning what they say, by a politeness, which as John Updike noted after visiting England, is largely territorial in character. A stoicism of growing quietly insane, or slowly starving yourself to death in the solitude of your bed-sit, of welcoming, with grim satisfaction, life’s attenuated choices.

Philip Larkin, Pym’s friend and champion, wrote:


This loss of interest, hair, and enterprise—
Ah, if the game were poker, yes,
You might discard them, draw a full house!
But it’s chess


Every literary age has a handful of representative figures, writers whose stature is amplified not just by the quality and fecundity of their work but by what their lives embody in relationship to that age. Marlowe with his raffishness and his occult learning. Byron with his larger-than-life personality and his revolutionary fervor. Dickens, who wrote, declaimed and procreated himself into any early grave, and whose rise from a debtor’s prison to fame and fortune was enabled through a literacy which also represented the social and political aspirations of his readers. In our time, there is Zadie Smith who personifies multicultural, meritocratic England.


For postwar England, the representative poet is without doubt Larkin. Larkin, who never married, seldom travelled abroad, worked as a librarian, wrote and published little and made Little England his central subject.


Among novelists, Barbara Pym, possibly. Pym, who never married, edited an obscure periodical, rarely travelled, cultivated a series of unsatisfying relationships with unavailable young men, and wrote the same novel—a short, neat, wry, bleak social comedy set in a shabby genteel-to-genteel Little England—from the beginning to the end of her career.


Jane Austen is the model. The comedy of manners whose engine is what Freud called “the narcissism of small differences.” A style dependent upon a cast of characters that is ethnically and culturally homogenous, in which action is circumscribed not just by limited economic opportunity but by a more or less accepted common code of behavior; that more or less is the subject of the comedy.




The Sweet Dove Died, written between 1963 and 1969 but not published until 1978, might be called Barbara Pym’s Problem Comedy. 


On the surface The Sweet Dove Died is an assured piece of work: a supreme example of what Geoff Dyer called “the tucked-up, hospital school of British fiction.” (The cover of my edition of the novel, from the American paperback reissue of her work in the early Eighties, is oh-so-appropriately done with a wallpaper-and-cameo motif.)


The three central characters who appear in the first scene neatly reappear in the last to tie up the action and submit themselves to the verdict of the author. The novel’s action takes place in the world of antique objects, so therefore the thematic action is relentlessly full of objects broken and stolen; objects neglected, lent, and retrieved; people as objects; objects as means to give the impression of a character and personality; objects as poor substitutes for the expression of sentiment; and the importance of accurate appraisal of both objects and people.


Every character has another character who is both mirror and a counterpart. The book’s title comes from Keats; helpfully, the passage of poetry that furnishes the book’s title is given as an epigraph. Not helpfully, but irritatingly, there is a scene in which a character glosses the poem’s meaning for slower, stupider readers. And the bossy authorial voice, always foreshadowing, judging, editorializing, leaves the reader no doubt about what to think.


It is all skillful yet so parsable, the ambiguityand uncertaintyfree product of the conscious mind.





The novel opens with three characters who have met at an antique auction: Stolid, fiftyish Humphrey who owns an antique shop; his handsome, twenty-four-year-old nephew James, who is apprenticing in his uncle’s business; and the elegant Leonora, a woman of a certain age and independent means. Leonora has overbid on an antique book and “[had swayed] sideways and almost [collapsed] at her moment of triumph,” leading James and Humphrey to whisk her out of the auction room and to a tea shop.


James is orphaned, we learn:


There was something about the idea of an orphan that brought out the best in Humphrey, that desire to do good without too much personal inconvenience that lurks in most of us.


It is that Janian note, the chilly epigrammatic judgment whose subject is always human nature., (Why are there so few great optimistic, utopian epigrams? Perhaps because an optimistic epigram is not an epigram but a bumper sticker. Or a motivational poster.)


Leonora allows herself to be escorted by Humphrey, for it is her habit to be wooed, without bestowing anything but her icy charm, by elderly admirers; but it is James’s company she covets.


In her well-appointed house, James and Leonora begin their peculiar relationship, quaint though strangely modern, a sexless, self-protective dance of mutual flattery mediated through the language of antiques:


‘I think Victoriana do suit you,’ he said, ‘you look exactly right in that chair.’


Leonora bowed her head in acknowledgement of the tribute, for she was used to receiving compliments gracefully.


‘I think you belong to some earlier period,’ she mused. ‘Perhaps the eighteenth century? One can imagine a portrait you leaning against a ruined pillar.’


James and Leonora are, in a way, like Facebook friends. Their friendship is a mutual agreement to “like” the other’s “posts”—their self-presentations; and an agreement not to delve deeply into the other’s less than perfect life.


James and Leonora continue to meet. In the meantime, out of nothing more than good manners, James beds the hapless Phoebe, a young woman with “dog-like eyes” who edits the “literary remains” of an obscure, deceased young woman.


James and Leonora’s relationship grows, not in depth but through routine, until James goes on holiday in Spain and Portugal. And as with so many Englishmen before or since, a journey to a warmer climate unleashes something previously suppressed.


It is on his travels that he hooks up with the trim, catty Ned, “an assistant professor of English at a small New England college.”


Ned is a caricature, both of an American and of a homosexual. Ned is small and neat, has a “thin, gnat-like voice.” He even speaks in italics (“But Jimmie, is that wise?”). The characteristics of a caricature are that it is both a flattening of detail and a concentration of energy. Meaning that caricatures in literature are often catalysts for the main action of the story.


It’s not hard to suss out the real-life prototype for Ned. At the time the novel was being written, another Ned was creating a succes de scandale: Ned Rorem, whose Paris Diaries were published in England in the mid-Sixties. Like the fictional Ned, real Ned was in the arts, as a composer and writer, made no secret of what he was, seemed to stir up drama wherever he went, and had a deep streak of articulate cruelty. (He described the death throes of an acquaintance as moving him no more than would the twitchings of a scorpion.)


“. . . what have such horrors as crabs, bedbugs and piles to do with musical inspiration and the ‘crushing necessity to be an artist’?” Harold Acton wrote in a harshly negative review of the Diaries in the British press. “How should I know?” Rorem replied in a subsequent published diary (having a publishable diary always allows you to have the last word.) ”I’m the artist, he’s the aesthete.” Ouch.


Fictional Ned, who returns with James to England to spend a sabbatical year at Oxford researching Keats’s minor poems, contrives to separate Leonora from the passive and easily manipulatable James.


At this point, the novel begins to resemble another novel of the period, Michael Frayn’s Towards the End of the Morning. Frayn’s novel takes place at an unnamed, sleepy Fleet Street newspaper. Energy and ambition are in short supply in this corner of Little England. As in The Sweet Dove Died, good breeding disguises the characters’ lack of enterprise and intelligence. The staff of the newspaper is nothing but dead wood, almost literally: Eddy, an old retainer, dies at his desk, though because he is in the habit of falling asleep there after lunch, it takes his colleagues a while to figure out that he’s actually dead. The English dislike of confrontation, which is a fear of appearing ridiculous, becomes a form of complete helplessness; when the protagonist, the sub-editor John Dyson, is told to fire a hapless employee, he does so; but when that employee ignores the letter of termination and continues to show up for work, Dyson and his superiors are at a loss at what do.


Dyson’s downfall is his ambition is to appear on TV. When he has the opportunity to do so, he is paralyzed by a sense of self-importance and can do no more than  mechanically murmur and nod. As in The Sweet Dove Died, the catalyst for the action is the arrival of an American, an editor named Morris, who brings his own typewriter to work and smokes a pipe and catches the ear of the publisher with his ideas for appealing to the youth market. Like Ned, Morris is a figure of pure will. As in any novel of manners, it is the outsider, unbound by the norms of the society he enters, who shakes things up. Morris, like Ned, like many Americans in England at the time, is treated by the author with a kind of disdainful wonderment.


As James, for whom Leonora has evicted her elderly lodger and installed his belongings in a flat in her house, starts to avoid Leonora, she begins to suffer, probably for the first time in her life. And of course, after Ned achieves his goal, he begins to get bored with James. (“James would be no exception to the rule that nobody tired of Ned before he tired of them.”)


Leonora’s torment is itemized by the author with a kind of genteel sadism. James moves out of her apartment and into Ned’s, but not before Ned can take the pleasure in witnessing, intimately, her vanquishment (“Leonora, I think you want your tea. You look exhausted.”). She begins to find brown spots on her hands; her antique mirrors no longer give back a pleasing reflection; to her elderly admirers, and to the friends on whom she has been in the habit of bestowing the pleasure of her company, she becomes a figure of pathos or even of fun. Since Flaubert, no writer has so well evoked the sufferings of a vain and shallow woman:


Her throat ached and tears came into her eyes, not only for herself but also for the owners of the jewellery, ageing now or old, some probably dead. It was all she could do to walk composedly out of the room, down the wide staircase and into the street. She felt lost, uncertain what to do or where to go, and began walking aimlessly. She must have collided with somebody unknowingly, for she was conscious of a woman apologizing in a well-bred voice that had a note of surprise in it, as if Leonora were behaving in a peculiar way.


Lenora allows herself to break down in front of her dowdy friend Meg who, like her, has a gay young man who sees her only when he needs her company.


There are flashesbut only flashesof compassion in Leonora. The idea that trauma might transform or uplift her character as it does, say, Huck Finn, is alien to Pym’s dour vision of the world.


The Sweet Dove Died ends ever so neatly. Ned drops James and begins to complicate his romantic life to the extent that he feels he has no choice but to flee back to America. But before he leaves, he decides to pay a visit on Leonora and to “return” James to her. It’s the kind of thing British writersnovelists as well as playwrightsdo best, a scene of both comedy and pathos set in a well-furnished room, in which what is crucial is what is, stoically, unspoken and undone:


‘My dear, you needn’t mind me,’ he said almost kindly. ‘We may never meet again. I just want to think of you and Jimmie happy together in your wonderful friendship.’ He felt generous and good as he said this, and now he really did want it. But his glass was empty; he wished Leonora would refill it and thank him for giving James back to her, but she did neither. Her silence was disconcerting.


After Ned returns to America, James comes back, asking for forgiveness:


She and James had both been hurt, but it hardly seemed to make a bond between them—it was like a barrier or a wedge driving them apart.


‘People do change,’ she said. ’One sees it all the time.’


‘But not us, Leonora. I’m sorry if I hurt you. Won’t you forgive me?’


‘Yes,’ she answered. ‘Yes, I forgive you,’ she repeated, as if she were not quite sure. One did forgive James, of course; one was, or saw oneself as being, that kind of person. Why, then, did one not make some generous gesture, some impulsive movements towards him, so that all could be forgotten in the closeness of an embrace? Evidently James expected it, for he stood up and came towards her, then hesitated when she did not respond.


As he begins to skulk away, defeated, James spots his uncle on his way to see Leonora clutching an absurdly large bunch of peonies while “fussily trying each door of the car to make sure it was locked.”


And it is here the novel ends.






The Sweet Dove Died takes place in and around London over the course of the year—well, it’s impossible to say when it takes place, exactly. The novel is distinguished by an almost complete lack of topical references which would “fix” the time. There is a passing mention of Robert Carrier, the American gourmet cookbook author and TV personality who was a fixture in England in the Sixties and Seventies. There are “op art cakes” at a tea shop. There is a relatively frank and open attitude towards homosexuality, which suggests that it takes place after the decriminalization of homosexuality in 1967. There is even a scene in a salad bar, which evokes the 1970s. But there are no references to Rachmanism or the Profumo affair or Enoch Powell or Kim Philby or the Moors murders, and only one or two oblique references to the mass migration that had begun to reshape England in the mid Fifties. Above all there is little or nothing about the son et lumiere assault of Sixties popular culture or of the derangement of the senses introduced by the drug culture.


With a little adjustment and possibly by treating the subject of homosexuality with a Jamesian periphrasis, the novel could take place in—or could have been written in—1948 or even 1928.


Some of the lack of topical references may have to do with the difficult circumstances under which the novel was written and published. The Sweet Dove Died was started in 1963, after Pym’s previous novel was rejected; a first draft was sent several years later to her kind and supportive friend Philip Larkin, who suggested that “the value of the book would be Leonora’s slightly absurd ‘managing’ qualities turned to pathos and-what? . . . I think there’s more potential feeling in this book than in any you have written.” The book was rejected by several publishers-who were probably looking for something along the lines of A Clockwork Orange or The Golden Notebook or Candy; then it was shelved until 1977, when Pym was rehabilitated after she was named as one of England’s most underrated novelists by both Larkin and David Cecil. The novel was revised again and then published in 1978, shortly before Pym’s death in 1980.


You can imagine Pym’s anxiety while she was writing The Sweet Dove Died: her half-hearted attempts to make the novel contemporary were probably defeated by a sense that the culture was moving too rapidly for her to assimilate. The fact that she set the novel in the world of old precious objects suggests that she had little appetite to begin with for facing the changing present.


One can make a good argument that in England in 1968, there were a large number of people who were living as if it still were 1948. The best part of Robert Greenfield’s Ain’t It Time We Said Goodbye, Robert Greenfield’s account of the Rolling Stones’s 1971 tour of England, are his accounts of the band’s brushes with Little England, usually in the form of encounters with ancient backstage functionaries:


Asked to perform even the simplest task before a show, their response was always ”Oh, I can’t do that. It’s more than me job’s worth” Having somehow managed to survive two world wars as well, as . . . terrible food rationing . . . they were all members in good standing of the generation that had always considered the Stones an affront not just to national dignity but moral rectitude as well.


Or one may say that the desire to have “The Sixties” present means introducing the same tedious stock footage (shot of Beatles shaking their mop tops; shot of girls clutching their heads and screaming hysterically; shot of girl in mini skirt doing a hippie dance while bowler-hatted man looks on, appalled and fascinated; shot of Rolling Stones, surly but subdued, on their way to the magistrate’s; shot of bobbies breaking up riot at Trafalgar Square, etc.).


But what was at stake was not a full account of the present. It was Pym’s tone, that dry, stoic-ironic tone that was not just a reflection of the author’s voice but of the characters’.


Look, for example, at a novel by an old-guard novelist that actually tries to tackle rather than avoid the Sixties, Anthony Powell’s Hearing Secret Harmonies, the last volume of his A Dance to the Music of Time. The combination of the groovy subject matter-drugs, hippies, pop culture, the crackpot social theories of the time-with the same old astringent, aloof, mandarin Anthony Powell tone is, to put it mildly, discordant. It reminds me, in its comic/surrealist incongruity, of those animated collages that connect the old Monty Python sketches.


“It is not a world likely to have held its own in the Swinging Sixties and indeed it did not,” Larkin wrote in “The World of Barbara Pym,” an essay which helped spark the Pym mini-revival in the late Seventies and early Eighties.



Jane Austin                


The Barbara Pym revival has come and gone. Pym, in her way, is too sour, too bleak for many people’s taste.


(Did I mention that she is not just witty but funny? Quietly hilarious in that dry English way?:


Humphrey rose to carve it. He was one of the men who are at their best with a carving knife and here was meat worthy of his talent.


 . . . but after a while there was something almost enjoyable about her tediously detailed account of the flight to Paris, the coach journey through France and Switzerland the arrival at Lake Maggiore. Her friend’s upset stomach and dislike of Continental Catholicism were made vivid to James, so that he found himself sharing in their relief at the eventual return to good plain food and the Anglican Church.)


The greatest literary revival of the last 40 years has not been Barbara Pym’s modest rehabilitation but the apotheosis of another Jane Austen-like writer: Jane Austen. Repeated filmings and television serializations of all the novels. Rewrites of Pride and Prejudice like Bridget Jones’ Diary. Rewrites of Sense and Sensibility like Clueless. Jane Austen Book Clubs. The novel called The Jane Austen Book Club. The film adaptation of the novel. On my desk as I write this is a brand new book called Jane on the Brain: Exploring the Science of Social Intelligence with Jane Austen.


What is missing from Pym’s novels that is present in Jane Austen’s is something that many women and a few men today dream about:  successful old-fashioned courtship, usually involving the young, the attractive, and, sometimes, the moneyed.  Just as the remarkable success of The Fifty Shades series (125 million copies sold!) seems to show that, as comedian Bill Maher has pointed out, despite the #MeToo movement, there are significant numbers of women whose greatest fantasy is to be bound, blindfolded and lightly tortured by a handsome, mysterious young billionaire.


Pym’s suitors and love objects are, alas, too old, too poor, too self-absorbed, too undesirable or too miserable to stay the course.



But Jane Austen and her literary followers seem to have little say about contemporary Britain. The best writers have turned not to her but to another model: Dickens. As England has changed, prospered, diversified, internationalized and devolved, and seemingly lost its reserve and stoicism, a new paradigm was needed, one which could accommodate the bright, separate worlds, the larger-than-life characters, the self-promoting grotesques, the strivers and the  desperate hustlers. Dickens has become the explicit model for sprawling, disordered novels like Zadie Smith’s White Teeth, Monica Ali’s Brick Lane and In The Kitchen, Martin Amis’s Lionel Abso and John Lancaster’s Capital.


 “One of those writers who are well worth stealing,” as Orwell wrote.


John Broening is a freelance writer based in Denver, Colorado. His writing has appeared in Gastronomica, Departures, The Baltimore Sun, The City Paper, The Faster Times and The Outlet and his article on the Noble Swine Supper Club was featured in Best Food Writing 2012.

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