I was introduced to Barbara Pym in the 1980s and read with huge pleasure all the novels that were in print at the time. Now it's Barbara Pym Reading Week and I'm looking back at some reviews I wrote several years ago. This one is from 2009.
I read most of No Fond Return of Love on a long train journey and was quite embarassed to find myself chuckling out loud as I read, not something I am given to do very often. It is, I suppose, a fairly typical Pym plot, and of course takes place in the 1950s, when most of these novels were written.
Pretty but slightly faded Dulcie Mainwaring, recovering from a broken engagement, decides to attend a learned conference for people like herself, who "correct proofs, make bibliographies and indexes, and do all the rather humdrum thankless tasks for people more brilliant than ourselves". At the conference she meets and befriends Viola Dace, who has come to the conference in pursuit of the handsome Dr Aylwin Forbes, with whom she is unrequitedly in love.
Aylwin, recently separated from his unsuitable wife Marjorie, has a "nasty turn" during his lecture ("Some Problems of an Editor") and Dulcie, watching him being revived with smelling salts, is struck by his beauty:
Like a greek marble, or something dug up in the garden of an Italian villa, the features a little blunted, with the charm of being not quite perfect.
Dulcie's awakened interest leads her to start applying her research skills to investigating Aylwin's life, a pursuit that leads her to make an incognito visit to his estranged wife, now living in suburban gloom with her dreadful mother -- luckily they are having a jumble sale in aid of the church organ fund, and Dulcie is able to nose her way into the house and buy a dreadful pottery donkey from Marjorie without being suspected of having an ulterior motive. She and Viola also visit the High Anglican church in north London where Aylwin's brother Neville presides as clergyman, only to find that he has fled the unwelcome attentions of one of his parishoners, a Miss Spicer, who has succumbed to his beauty and charm like many women parishoners before her and has been spotted rushing into the church in floods of tears.
Discovering that Aylwin and Neville's mother runs a hotel in the seaside resort Taviscombe, they decide to spend a cold Easter weekend there, though they spend the first night in the Anchorage Hotel ("bright Christian atmosphere"). Dinner there is unutterable dreary :
The silence in the room was broken only by the sound of water being poured into glasses -- perhaps the most dismal sound heard on an English holiday, and having nothing in common with the musical trickle of spring water rippling over stones in a mountain stream
so that they have to go out and buy a bottle of gin to consume in their bedroom. Next day they move into Mrs Forbes's Eagle House Hotel, and find Neville has arrived and is helping his mother serve meals, still wearing his clergyman's outfit.
A visit to the local graveyard and a grim Victorian castle in the town establishes what they suspected, that Aylwin and Neville's father married beneath him and was cut off with a shilling by the noble family from which he was descended. Soon Marjorie and her mother also arrive at the hotel and finally so does Aylwin himself: Dulcie is in the embarassing position of finding herself crouched unseen on the floor behind the sofa, examining a bookshelf, when Aylwin and Marjorie come into the room to stiffly discuss the end of their marriage. Many more adventures occur before, almost as the reader has given up hope of there being such a thing, a happy ending finally happens.
I'm so excited about the wonderful revival of interest that's going on this week -- I know not everyone take to Pym, but I love her to bits and am so grateful to Thomas for having this terrific idea.