Pym, Barbara. An Unsuitable Attachment.

NY: Dutton, 1982.

In 1977, Philip Larkin (who was offered but declined the honor of Poet Laureate) famously wrote an article for the Times Literary Supplement in which he described Pym, who had just published her seventh novel, as “the most underrated writer of the 20th century.” That acclaim from a respected source helped, but she still never achieved the sort of recognition she deserved from the general reading public, and it’s a puzzle why that never happened.

Several of her books, in fact, were rejected by publishers when first written and were not published until after her death, years later. That’s the case with this one, which actually was written, and set, in 1963.

Like many of Pym’s books, the principle themes are the often confused relationships between men and women, who seem never to quite understand each other, and the unsettled place of the church in modern Britain. Ianthe Broome, the properly raised daughter of a canon of the C of E, is left in moderate comfort by her late parents. She works as a librarian (an acceptably ladylike profession), which doesn’t pay much, but she nevertheless has enough inherited money to buy a small house in a not-posh area of north London. She becomes acquainted with the residents of the nearby parish vicarage, the Rev. Mark Ainger and his wife, Sophia, and the latter almost immediately begins trying to find her a husband (apparently seeing that as one of the primary duties of a vicar’s wife). Sophia’s unmarried younger sister, Penelope, is in the market, too, and the two of them decide her best bet would be another new resident in the neighborhood, anthropologist Rupert Stonebird. (An academic is nearly always an acceptable husband, however dull and otherwise intellectually engaged he might be.) But what will they do if Rupert shows a preference for the slim, well-dressed, nicely presented Ianthe? But then John Challow comes to work at the library, an attractive man five years Ianthe’s junior, and with a background in small-time theater, who nevertheless takes an immediate interest in her, somewhat to her confusion. (He, of course, would be entirely unsuitable in the eyes of all the other women in the story.) Next door to the vicarage live veterinarian Edwin Pettigrew and his unmarried sister, Daisy, whose mission in life is to minister to small animals, whom she is convinced are being mistreated by practically everyone — especially foreigners.

That’s the principal cast and Pym brings them into contact with each other and watches their reactions and the assumptions (usually incorrect) that they form about each other. And nearly all of them are sympathetic characters, even the often irritating Mervyn Cantrell, Ianthe’s and John’s boss at the library, and who also covets Ianthe — or her heirloom furniture, at least. The chapters dealing with the parish field trip to Rome are especially good, with the newly-arrived English ladies immediately setting off in search of a cup of tea, while Daisy, who has packed a supply of tinned cat food in her capacious purse, is hopeful of discovering indigent Italian felines. But during their visit, Ianthe also discovers quite another, somewhat unsettling side to her friend, Sophia.

The interesting thing is that the flavor of Pym’s writing is almost Edwardian — matching the mindset of many of the characters — and the reader may forget that the setting is actually the early 1960s, until some casual reference yanks one back to the present (which is now forty years in our own past). It may simply be that this sort of gently written, quietly amusing English comedy of manners is simply too old-fashioned to appeal to 21st-century readers, and that would be a shame.

Published in: on 19 January 2013 at 4:54 pm  Comments (1)  
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One CommentLeave a comment

  1. I love Barbara Pym.

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