Pym, Barbara. The Sweet Dove Died.

NY: Dutton, 1978.

Pym’s novels aren’t epics or sagas, they’re rather small but always graceful examinations of ordinary people and the situations in which they find themselves. The setting this time is London of the late 1970s and there are four focal characters, two younger and in tune with the times (more or less), and two older who are trying hard to pretend “the times” don’t exist.

The slightly pompous Humphrey Boyce is a 60-year-old antiques dealer of no great fame who is attempting to introduce his orphaned 24-year-old nephew, James, into the business. “There was something about the idea of an orphan that brought out the best in Humphrey, that desire to do good without too much personal inconvenience that lurks in most of us.”

They meet Leonora, a single lady in her fifties, at a Sotheby’s auction and the long-widowed Humphrey is soon wining and dining her, trying to decide if he really wants to consider remarriage after so many years. Leonora, as we soon discover, is both extremely self-regarding in a ladylike way — she simply assumes her own gracious and elegant superiority — and rather dismissive about other people. (“One has to be tough with old people,” Leonora went on, “it’s the only way — otherwise they encroach.”) She lives on a small inherited income and is far more interested in the rather shy and overly diffident James than she is in his uncle — never mind that she’s literally twice his age. And then James meets the recently graduated and very untidy Phoebe, who is doing literary estate work in the country at the moment, and in whom James finds himself becoming rather interested, even though the girl isn’t especially attractive and seems rather stand-offish and gawky, especially compared to Leonora.

And that’s the set-up. From that point, Pym stands back and watches quietly as chemistry happens. Actually, it’s all rather a game. Humphrey wants Leonora but he isn’t trying very hard, really. Leonora (whose last name is “Eyre,” as in “Jane”) wants James, but only on her own terms; sex definitely is not part of her plan. Phoebe (whose last name is “Sharpe,” as in “Becky”) doesn’t really know what she wants — perhaps James, but it’s so much work. And what does James want? If only someone would tell him.

And then James goes off on an antique-buying trip to Spain and, since the lease on his flat is about to expire and he’ll have to find a new place when he returns anyway, he lends some of his furniture to Phoebe. Leonora, discovering that she has a rival, quickly turns out the old lady living in the top-flat flat of her building (got to be tough) and fixes the place up for James, even going so far as to demand the return of the loaned pieces from Phoebe. (Face it, she’s a bully if she suspects her desires might be thwarted.) One hopes that James will finally acquire a spine at this point, but no: He’s actually discovering another side of his own sexuality in Spain with a visiting American professor. And when he returns to London, he knuckles under to what everyone else seems to expect of him. This sounds somewhat pathetic but Pym’s narrative skill makes it all seem inevitable. Like most of her books, it’s a group portrait in multiple dimensions.

Pym also is a master — mistress — of quiet humor, as in James’s first visit to Phoebe’s tiny rural cottage. “‘Are you any good at gardening?’ she asked. ‘No,’ he said quickly, seeing himself having to mow the lawn, ‘but my mother was a great gardener.’ No doubt his mother was dead, Phoebe thought, giving him an unfair advantage over her, with a mother still alive in Putney.” Marvelous stuff, and very much worth the reading.

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Published in: on 20 September 2013 at 5:27 am  Leave a Comment  
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