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.
This very evocative photo, which was found on here, comes with the following caption:
Late in the spring term of 1899, Frances Benjamin Johnston photographed these young women pursuing an education with the intention of becoming educators themselves. Johnston had been commissioned to make a photographic survey of Washington, D.C., schools to show the public what was meant by the new, “progressive” education. Her photographs were displayed at the Paris Exposition of 1900 and were also used to illustrate a series of publications titled The New Education Illustrated.
Sent to me by Dark Puss, this somewhat strange photo makes a change from my usual pretty pictures of women reading. But it does feature a woman and several books. Thanks, DP, for keeping things lively.
Sent to me by Dark Puss, this lovely photo is from Life magazine and taken in the 1950s. But who is she, and what is she reading? I tried to find out by exploring the Life archives with total lack of success but DP is obviously cleverer than I am because this is what he managed to find out:
October 1950: Model reading while waiting her turn at fashion show. (Photo by Eliot Elisofon/Time & Life Pictures/Getty Images). Probably from the Fashion Guild Awards, October 10th 1950.
I'm still curious to know why she is reading music, or I think so anyway. And sorry to see she has a cigarette in her hand. But it is a truly lovely picture, as I hope you agree.
I've just been browing Life magazine website in the vain hope of finding a picture I'm putting on here later in the week and I ran across some lovely early pictures of Marilyn Monroe. She's been much in my mind since I saw My Week with Marilyn a few days ago. It's a great film and everybody in it does a terrific job of impersonating the various famous people they are playing. But nobody, however beautiful and talented, can match the real Marilyn -- that's my opinion, anyway. In these early photos she hasn't yet become a star and Life did not even publish them at the time as they didn't know who she was, though the photographer was clever enough to have spotted something really special. Beautiful.
A thing of beauty is a joy forever, said Keats, and he never spoke a truer word. And how he would have loved the exhibition I've just been to at the V&A -- The Cult of Beauty: The Aesthetic Movement 1860-1900. In fact, as well as enjoying the many luscious painted women on show, he'd probably have felt very much at home with some of it, because the Pre-Raphaelites, who figure largely here, were very much influenced by his late Romantic pseudo medievalism. (Sorry -- off with the mortarboard).
The V&A certainly knows what its doing when it puts on these major exhibitions. I've never been a huge fan of the Pre-Raphaelites, but after seeing the best of them on display today -- Watts, Burne Jones and many more -- and seeing them in context, with their intelligent, informative and mercifully brief descriptions attached, I felt like I'd got the point at last. The star of the show for me, as far as painting was concerned, was the wonderful James McNeil Whistler, many of whose delicate, subtle portraits are on display -- three of the series called Symphony in White, an extraordinary portrait of Thomas Carlyle looking, I thought, desperately sad, and many many more. The Museum has even rustled up a life-size digital replica of Whistler's famous Peacock Room, which I was lucky enough to see in it's full glory in the Smithsonian many years ago.
But there's far more here than just paintings. Photographs, sculpture, pottery, jewellery, wallpaper, household objects, books, furniture, clothes -- you name it, the whole world of the bohemian late nineteenth-century is here on display. If you stand still beside some of the exhibits you can even hear some poems being read -- my eyes filled with tears listening to Yeats' poem He Wishes for the Cloths of Heaven.
In fact I found the whole thing an amazingly emotional experience -- I felt almost sick at times, if you can understand that, from the sheer glorious intensity of it all. And how I long now for a house to decorate in the style of the Aesthetic Movement -- how about a Peacock frieze, some William Morris wallpaper, a Christopher Dresser teapot on a little bamboo table...and me dressed in ivory silk, artfully draped so that I don't need my corsets...
I don't suppose this is going to happen in a hurry. But I am so glad I went -- and if you get the chance, please go too. You won't regret it.
The images comes from the exhibition website -- I hope the V&A won't mind.