A review of Some Tame Gazelle by Barbara Pym
To my shame, I had never come across the early 19th century poet, Thomas Haynes Bayly, before I picked up Barbara Pym’s first published novel, which appeared in 1950. Bayly’s couplet “Some tame gazelle, or some gentle dove:/ something to love, oh, something to love!” provides the book’s title and also gives a sense of the themes of this entertaining, sometimes funny, always acutely observed story of life in a quintessentially English village set before the Second World War.
I have come to Pym late, first dipping my toes into her works with Crampton Hodnet, which she pulled because she considered it to be out of synch with the times. Frankly, Some Tame Gazelle is also a nostalgic throwback to a more innocent world that existed, perhaps or at least in the minds of the literary set, before the horrors of the Second World War. Maybe you need to experience horrors to appreciate the calm of a world that has disappeared and which we will never know again. Whether that is an altogether bad thing is debatable, but there is very little in tone and subject matter between the two books, save one of timing.
The principal characters are two spinster sisters, Belinda Bede, the demurer of the two, and Harriet, the more outgoing and domineering. Their life is a round of social events, afternoon teas, soirees, gossip and feeling lovelorn. Belinda has been in love with the rather unworldly and lazy Archdeacon for over thirty years, sharing a passion for the English poets, while Harriet sets her sights on the string of young curates who have been employed to help the Archdeacon deal with the nitty gritty of parish life. The latest fly to enter her web is Mr Donne.
Belinda’s passion for the Archdeacon has been thwarted ever since he decided to marry Agatha, the daughter of a bishop. Still, their marriage appears to be a loveless one and hope springs eternal. Agatha’s departure for a spa holiday brings two new characters to stay at the vicarage, two librarians, Mr Parnell and Mr Mold. Mold threatens to disrupt the sisters’ ordered life by proposing to Harriet. Harriet, who is also being courted by the Italian Count Bianco, whose proposals she routinely spurns, rejects Mold whose immediate reaction is to go to the pub and count his lucky stars.
Donne thwarts Harriet’s designs on him by marrying Olivia Berridge, while Agatha’s guest from her holidays, Dr Grote, one of Harriet’s earlier proteges, astonishes the couple by proposing to Belinda. She too rejects him and on the rebound he marries another elderly spinster, Connie Aspinall, his intention merely to grab a wife before going back to his duties as the Bishop of Mbawawa.
These affairs of the heart with several tame gazelles add spice to the Bede sisters’ otherwise humdrum lives, but it is clear that they are not willing to take the plunge into matrimony. Harriet is content to drag curates under her large, protective wing – a new curate has replaced Mr Donne – and Belinda finds what solace she needs in the English poets, gardening, and doing good works, while secretly hoping that Agatha will do the decent thing and die before the Archdeacon.
The humour is gentle and whimsical, the characters are sharply drawn, Pym basing several on people she had encountered at University, the Archdeacon, in particular, being the epitome of what was wrong with the Church. It is a comedy of manners, a tale of two women who are trapped by the constraints and social mores of their existence and who lack the courage and even the desire to make any radical change, a wistful stale of regret and a paean to a world now gone. In style and tone, it is reminiscent of E M Delafield and E R Benson, funnier and more satiric than the former, but less waspish than the latter. It is worth seeking out.