Harriet chose a chocolate biscuit. 'I do believe the Archdeacon has been asking you to elope with him!" she declared triumphantly.
'Oh Harriet, how dreadful you are!' said Belinda, unable to help laughing at this monstrous suggestion. 'As if a clergyman, let alone an archdeacon, would do a thing like that!'
'Then he's been telling you that he's very fond of you, and wishes he'd married you instead of Agatha', went on Harriet, gallantly persevering.
'Well hardly that', ventured Belinda, growing a little more confidential, for the Ovaltine had loosened her tongue. 'I mean its a bit late for anything like that, isn't it'.
A good friend introduced me to Barbara Pym's novels in the 1980s, and I fell in love at once. I have come back to them from time to time since then, and they never cease to delight me. Indeed Pym is one of the few novelists I almost don't dare to read in public places, as I'm liable to start chuckling loudly at passages like the one above, from her first novel, Some Tame Gazelle (1950).
So I was delighted to see that a new biography had come out, especially as I'd always intended but never managed to read the 1990 one by her friend and colleague Hazel Holt. I galloped through its 148 pages, and certainly l learned a few things about Pym that I hadn't been properly conscious of before -- her close and loving relationship with her sister Hilary, her long years editing the scholarly journal Africa, and her many passionate attachments to various men throughout her life. She never married, but was evidently very attractive and had many admirers as well as male friends both straight and gay. I also knew that, after the six very successful novels she published between 1950 and 1961, she was unable to get any publisher to take anything on for 18 years. It was an article in the TLS with warm praise for her writing by David Cecil and Philip Larkin that revived her career and she had several years of well deserved success, including a Booker nomination, before her death in 1980 at the age of 67.
Not having read the earlier biography, I'm not able to comment on what, if anything, has been added by Ann Allestree. But in any case I was interested by the way she pointed out the frequently close relationship between Pym's life and her fiction, and to meet the originals of some of the more egregious male characters -- usually archdeacons or academics -- who populate her books. Her love for Jane Austen and for Ivy Compton Burnett, from whom she said she learned a lot about dialogue, come over well here. There are some interesting quotations from her diaries, and from letters to and from her friend Philip Larkin. I liked the accounts of her visits to churches and of the various houses she lived in, both of which were duly visited and described by Allestree. I would have loved to see some photos, many of which are described but not shown.
But I'm afraid I can't praise this book unconditionally. I think it could have been a good book if someone had taken the trouble to copy edit and proof read it. But as it stands, it is in desperate need of some work. The organisation of the material is a little odd and sometimes repetitive, but the most bothersome thing is the problems with the punctuation. This may seem a minor thing to some people, but punctuation (commas etc) are there for a reason -- properly placed, they make sense of what is being said, but if they are badly placed or missing it's hard to understand the argument, and I sometimes found myself having to re-read sentences. Then there's the question of the quotations. These are done very oddly indeed. Sometimes they start with a double quotation mark and end with a single, or fail to end at all. And far too often you can't actually tell if a passage is a quotation or not -- some certainly are, though not marked as such in any way -- or where it begins and ends. There's a curious habit of enclosing the names of characters with either single or double quotation marks, though this tends to come and go. And though there's a Select Bibliography, none of the items listed have any dates. So I was left with the impression of having read a promising first draft, but one that had me itching to get out the red pencil.
I'm really sorry to have to say this. I'm not generally in the habit of writing on here about books I haven't enjoyed, but however this happened (author or publisher) it seemed such a shame. I wish Ann Allestree the best with it, and perhaps there will be readers less fussy than myself. And I'm grateful to The Book Guild for sending me a review copy.