Saturday, October 05, 2013

A Modern Victorian

The Sweet Dove DiedThe Sweet Dove Died 
by Barbara Pym

"How absurd and delicious it is to be in love with somebody younger than yourself. Everybody should try it." -- Barbara Pym

Only three years before her death by cancer at age sixty-six Barbara Pym was rediscovered and achieved international fame. The loci of the rediscovery was a survey of famous British writers in the January 21, 1977 edition of the Times Literary Supplement, in which two of the famous writers asked to nominate the most underrated book of the previous seventy-five years picked novels by Pym. Philip Larkin, one of the surveyed writers, put Pym in Jane Austen’s league for her ability to keep her reader “always on the verge of smiling.” Recently Alexander McCall Smith echoed this comparison when he singled out Pym’s Excellent Women as “one of the most endearingly amusing English novels of the twentieth century.” 
Among Pym's oeuvre The Sweet Dove Died is my personal favorite with its richly drawn characters including Leonora Eyre, an attractive and elegant, but essentially selfish, middle-aged woman.  Leonora is very much the Victorian trying to live in a post-Victorian world. She surrounds herself with Victoriana, even to the point of replacing her parents’ picture with that of her grandparents because she thinks that they, in their late Victorian dress, are more distinguished looking.  The plot involves her with an antique dealer, Humphrey Boyce, and his nephew James. Both men are attracted to Leonora, but Leonora prefers the young, good-looking James to the more "suitable" Humphrey. Who she will choose to be with and whether they will accept her becomes more and more complicated as the novel progresses. Pym's prose style is felicitous, while her story line is as classically sound as one out of Jane Austen. As with all Pym's fiction, the novel contains many literary references, notably to works by Keats, John Milton and Henry James. And all of her stories are a delight to read for any who enjoy a good English novel.

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Brian Joseph said...

I had not heard of Pym but her work sounds very good.

Lately I have been interested in rediscovered writers. It is puzzling how some writers are forgotten, more puzzling how they become rediscovered.

I am currently reading Irmgard Keun who definitely falls into the category of rediscovered.

James said...

You are right on regarding the mystery why some excellent writers are forgotten.
Irmgar Keun certainly is one of those authors, but surprisingly she is an author who I also have enjoyed reading, specifically The Artificial Silk Girl,
almost a decade ago. I compared her story to that of Dreiser's Sister Carrie
although the city of Berlin was also an important character in the story
which is why I was reading the book. Two other authors from the same era
worth considering are Joseph Roth who wrote about Austria, Berlin, and later, Paris, and Alfred Doblin whose Berlin Alexanderplatz is unfortunately out of print (in English).

Amy said...

I've read Excellent Women, and can't quite decide whether I love it or not, if that makes sense. The Phillip Larking quote resonated with me; I think I *almost* loved that book. :)

James said...

Thanks for your comment. I haven't read Excellent Women yet, but I plan to return to Pym someday and will include that one on my list.