Monday, December 1, 2008

Books: The Sweet Dove Died, by Barbara Pym

Knowing nothing about Pym, I started this novel assuming she was a contemporary of Henry James, writing about characters taken from the time of DH Lawrence. I quickly checked the publication date and was shocked to see “1978,” but still assumed her fiction was of the historical nature, her protagonists being an orphaned young man working in his uncles antique shop and an older, refined, single woman the boy and his uncle encounter at an antiques auction.

Because of the things they do, the way they speak, and the things about which they talk, her characters have the repressed musty-fustiness of the Victorians—but that turns out to be something of an aesthetic choice. Leonora Eyre, the “heroine” (of cautionary, tragic sorts) collects Victorian baubles and her pristine flat, like her wardrobe, recalls that era. She has aged well, therefore drawing the attentions of impressionable James and his decorous uncle alike.

Pym gently implies that Leonora doesn’t care for sex, and James doesn’t seem to mind that, especially once he falls libidinously for the unkempt bohemian Phoebe. This new girl, who lives out in the country, makes him terribly uncomfortable by dressing poorly and leaving breadcrumbs around the apartment, but he keeps going back for the you-know-what, and successfully keeps it a secret from Leonora.

The secret comes out when James leaves both ladies behind for a tour of Europe. There, he meets Ned, and the two have a (very much implied, but never stated) affair. While he’s gone, the two women discover each other, as each feels entitled to his furniture. Upon returning, James smooths things over with Leonora by ignoring Phoebe, and all is peachy again, until Ned comes for a long visit, and convinces James to drop Leonora. The irreproachably proper woman finally loses herself in tears, but by the novel’s end, Ned has moved on to another man more interesting than James, and James has come back to Leonora.

There’s something rather repressed in all of this, and it’s hard not to read Leonora as a stand-in for Pym (although if she is, the woman was rather hard on herself). Pym’s own shying away from description of any sex acts or even words—like “homosexual”—that might clarify James’ relationship with Ned are the literary version of Leonora’s turning her head away in embarrassment when James’ poor uncle tries to kiss her mouth after an evening of cocktails.

At first, this shuttered world of implication and innuendo is attractive and fascinating, but, like Leonora herself, it begins to cloy rather quickly. Disappointingly, the appearances of Phoebe and Ned breathe no fresh air into Pym’s narration; she is forever trapped in Leonora’s voice, in spite of being an omniscient narrator.

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