Miss Pym’s Day Out
This was a drama documentary I made for the BBC which mixed real people and actors. The fabulous Patricia Routledge (left) played Barbara Pym but had to act with Pym’s real sister, Hilary Walton, and the real love of her life, Henry Harvey then characters from the novels intertwined with the story of her going to London for the Booker Prize ceremony (and not winning). It was a bittersweet comedy about love, religion and literature.
I made the film because I love the work of Barbara Pym.
Like a jazz musician, Barbara Pym’s work can take unexpected improvisatory turns at one moment a character might be discussing the history of the word “dingle”, public conveniences in the Balkans, whether there are any red headed men in Naples, or if it is possible for Bishop Grote to look both like a fish and a sheep.
It is a world where details matter, and their significance is not immediately realised. Characters become confused by what has happened; one of the truest moments in her novel Some Tame Gazelle is when Harriet can’t believe that Mr.Mold can possibly have loved her from the moment he first saw her because “She had been wearing that awful tweed coat.”
From Barbara Pym I learned that setting and details matter; that they can disguise loneliness even if they may seem absurd at the time.
And I love her clergy.
There are some seventy-five clergymen in the work of Barbara Pym, which averages out at 5.76 a novel. Quite what O.76 of a clergyman might be like would, I think, have amused her. What could have marked the man down? Pomposity? Snobbery? Absence of humour? Or perhaps the simple thoughtlessness of having a wife. ‘Just imagine, a married curate,’ says Harriet “in disgust” in Some Tame Gazelle. A young married clergyman simply isn’t playing fair.
The churches themselves are sturdy Victorian buildings, Anglo-Catholic in temperament, filled with the lingering smell of incense and lit by low wattage lamps and a few guttering candles. They offer the timeless reassurance of daily Holy Communion, Sung Eucharist on Sundays, Confession and the Reservation of the Blessed Sacrament. The clergy who officiate might be kindly, hapless, holy fools, or vain beyond measure; but they are invariably ‘at ease with ladies.’ It is how these women deal with the uniquely clerical mixture of pride and incompetence that makes up much of Pym’s humour. Miss Doggett, in Crampton Hodnet, for example, finds herself being proposed to by a curate who cannot actually remember her Christian name:
‘Oh, Miss Morrow Janie,’ he burst out suddenly.
‘My name isn’t Janie.’
‘Well, it’s something beginning with J,’ he said impatiently. It was annoying to be held up by such a triviality. What did it matter what her name was at this moment?’
I think Pym was intrigued and puzzled by clergymen, loving and also slightly suspicious, as if she could not always believe in their intentions. Were they, perhaps at times, too good to be true? Implicit at the heart of her novels lies one crucial question; what do the clergy actually do with their time? Of course they pray, and this is of vital importance; they officiate at services, reassuring their congregation with the consolation of the sacraments and the confidence of the pulpit; they open fetes, bazaars, jumble sales and tombolas; they tend to the sick and dying; but can this really be all? They are forever telling their parishioners that they are rushed off their feet but can this be accurate? If so, then why are they seen holding ping-pong bats and quoting inappropriate passages from Keats or Milton? How do they find time to woo unsuitable women, or enjoy light Sunday suppers in the company of spinsters who worry about birds, woodworm and the Jesuits?
Pym understands the way in which many clergymen convey a lifestyle so hectic that they cannot quite cope and need help: serious, regular, help, preferably from adoring and ‘excellent’ women who will be there to cook, type, arrange flowers, wash albs, and wrap up presents at Christmas. They need ladies to see to their cassocks, mend their socks, cook boiled chicken, and type up their sermons for collection in some august future volume.
Sometimes this is genuine haplessness. Nicholas Cleveland in Jane and Prudence is a vague, kindly, holy fool whose principal enthusiasm rests in animal shaped soaps. But Tom Dagnall in A Few Green Leaves and David Lydell in Quintet in Autumn are rather more calculating, as Letty realises while eating a Poulet Nicoise that she is sure the Vicar has sampled many times before:
‘Had David Lydell gone all round the village sampling the cooking of the unattached women before deciding which one to settle with?
Some of the ladies are very much onto this hapless little game, realizing that any future drudgery is not so much divine as ‘standing at the sink with aching back and hands plunged into the washing up water’ or running ‘up and down stairs with glasses of hot milk and poached eggs.’ Others however, are still filled with the somewhat questionable hope that marriage to a clergyman might offer nothing less than an earthly glimpse of the paradise to come.
In any other author such ironic observational humour could be crude and unforgiving, but Barbara Pym’s writing contains both gentleness and a startling lack of ego that both tempers and blesses the acuity of her observation. It celebrates all that is best of Christian wisdom and generosity; hopeful without being trite, loving without being naïve, comic with being cruel. It is both reassuring and realistic, borne of the knowledge of the need for simple pleasures, well-spaced treats, and the advantages of a generous heart. In her work, and also through this book, comes an awareness that we are all, ultimately, little more than holy fools, caught in the divine comedy of life; a comedy which can move almost effortlessly from the remorselessly trivial to the ineffably profound. Our task is simply to work out which is which.