Miss Pym and a Friend

Miss Pym and a Friend

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Ch 6 of my Book on Pym- A Few Green Leaves

Ellen Tsagaris Page 1 10/10/12 The Subversion of Romance in the Novels of Barbara Pym The Popular Press, 1998 ISBN: 0-87972-763-2 Chapter 6: The Sweet Dove Died, Quartet in Autumn and A Few Green Leaves The novels discussed in Chapter Five, No Fond Return of Love, An Unsuitable Attachment, and An Academic Question, all involve attachments which may seem unsuitable to some, but which result in some type of happy relationship. No Fond Return of Love and An Unsuitable Attachment involve single, excellent women who also fulfill the roles of romance heroines. An Academic Question deals with a wife who must endure a "rival woman" and who must also perform a task for her husband to prove she loves him. Pym's subversion of the romance genre is often light-hearted and witty in these novels. Death, when it appears, is a bit player. The same cannot be said, though, of the three novels discussed in Chapter Six. The Sweet Dove Died, Quartet in Autumns, and A Few Green Leaves also have their humorous moments, but the humor is laced with sadness, at times even with regret or bitterness. For example, the relationships in The Sweet Dove Died are often painful and humiliating for those involved. Moreover, of the themes in The Sweet Dove Died is the decay of beauty. So, for the first time, perhaps in a Pym novel, the heroine must cope with the fact that she is alone and losing her looks. She also suffers pain because she twice loses the younger man who is the object of her affection to youthful rivals. Quartet in Autumns, on the other hand, is perhaps the least romantic of Pym's books. The single women who are Pym's heroines in this novel lead isolated lives; they are forgotten by society and bereft of friends and family. The heroine of A Few Green Leaves acts as if she has read The Sweet Dove Died and Quartet in Autumn. In her mid to late thirties, she instinctively knows what her fate will be if she remains a spinster. Moreover, there are plenty of older spinsters in the novel who serve as examples of what might happen to her. In her last novel, Pym undermines romance by showing its hollowness; it fails its devotees after they age and lose their first youth, as it fails Miss Grundy, the one-time romance novelist. For Miss Grundy, Miss Lickerish, Miss Vereker and Daphne Dagnall of A Few Green Leaves, there is no Mr. Rochester waiting for them. Instead of love and happy endings, Pym's last three novels are full of irony , pathos, grim humor and contrasting portraits of loneliness. They are also about solitary existence which offers no community of support. Therefore, as Diana Benet writes in Something to Love, Pym's last three novels are about the "failure to recognize the need for love" (119). Lotus Snow writes in One Little Room an Everywhere that The Sweet Dove Died is a novel woven of "Ironic competitions" and contrasts (16). The main characters are Leonora Eyre, Humphrey Boyce, and his nephew, James. The two men run an antique shop dealing in porcelain, bronzes and small objects. James at twenty-four is beautiful but not too intelligent and "sexually ambivalent" (16). His uncle, a widower near sixty, is self-assured, financially successful and pompous. The two meet Leonora after she faints at an auction of antique books, and they immediately begin to compete for her favors. Leonora is sexually cold, but is attracted to the beautiful and passive James. Both men love beautiful clothing and objects, and Leonora uses these to ensnare them. Also, James could be the younger version of Leonora; they often have the same thoughts and refer to themselves in the third person as "one." Leonora is also brittle, harsh, vain, and elegant. She has no compassion for anyone but herself, but her friends Meg and Liz provide ironic foils for her own aloof personality. Liz is divorced; Meg is a spinster. While Leonora fulfills her need for something to love with the vapid James, Liz cares for siamese cats. Meg, however, is infatuated with a gay boy, Colin, who continually leaves her and returns to her. According to Annette Weld, Pym felt that The Sweet Dove Died was one of the best books she had ever written (171). The story paralleled her own unrequited affection for Richard Roberts, a man younger than she, who was an antique dealer (171). Like Leonora, Pym often suffered from Roberts' indifference and in 1962 she wrote about "the middle-aged or elderly novelist and the young man who admires her and is taken in by her . . . he is cruel to her (MS. 55 Fol.16, quoted in Groner 5). James Boyce may not have been as emotionally cruel to Leonora as Richard Roberts was to Pym, but James did take advantage of Leonora. For example, he accepted shelter, gifts and food from her as if it were his due. In accepting good food and in allowing himself to be waited on, James is not so different from other Pym men. If food for Leonora is a way of keeping James close to her, it is also a means for maintaining her own isolated existence and for emphasizing her love of perfection. The scene at the tearoom is an excellent example. Leonora prefers dainty, creme filled gateau with her tea. Like her, these tiny cakes are delicate, fancy, but without much substance. When Phoebe, whom Leonora does know at the time, inadvertently takes the last gateau, Leonora is at a loss. Her perfect world is physically diminished and she must settle for another cake. Perhaps the incident is a metaphor for Leonora's relationship with James. At one point, James says he feels like a creme cake, and Leonora does, at least temporarily, lose her "creme cake," James, to Phoebe. She must settle for her second-favorite cake, as she must settle for Humphrey's affections by the end of the novel. Leonora, moreover, is different from other Pym women because food, drink and clothing do not in themselves provide satisfaction for her. Instead, these simple necessities only become pleasures for Leonora when they serve to preserve her beauty and to maintain her elegant but isolated existence. For example, she dresses in extreme good taste in styles that are calculated not to reveal her age. When an outfit makes her look older, Leonora is not aware of the effect. So, only Humphrey notes the black lace dress she wears on one occasion makes her look washed out. Furthermore, when James comments on the fact that an outfit ages her by calling it Leonora's "autumnal outfit," she becomes flirtatious with James. Leonora is able to flirt with James about her clothes because she is a narcissistic woman who feels "secure enough" to joke with him (SDD 47). When James refers to her dress as autumnal, Leonora quips, "You mean that I look old? That I'm in the autumn of life?" (SDD 47). That may be exactly what James means, but she cannot accept his comment other than as a joke because she sees herself as ageless (Benet 124). Perhaps because she considers herself to be ageless, Leonora is one of the most romantic of Pym's heroines. For example, Diana Benet in Something to Love calls her an older Prudence Bates (119). In some ways, she seems to have stepped right out of a Barbara Cartland novel. For example, like many Cartland heroines, she belongs in a nineteenth century culture. In one scene, she looks into a flawed antique fruitwood mirror and is please to see a woman from what she thinks is another century (SDD 89). The mirror is "flawed," moreover, because it hides her age lines and aging skin. Also, like a character from The Age of Innocence, Leonora does not have to work because a legacy from her parents has left her what Woolf might call "a room of her own." She no longer has to work at her "unworthy occupation" of seeing textbooks through the press (SDD 17). She loves perfection, even in her surroundings, and hides a cream pitcher that is chipped. Yet, though she may be an incurable romantic, Leonora is not a pleasant or considerate person. She resembles the scheming Madame Merle in Henry James' Portrait of Lady . In fact, Leonora herself reads Henry James (SDD 200). Moreover, the plot involving an affair between an older woman and a younger man somewhat undermines the standard romance plot where the hero is often slightly older than the heroine. In some ways, Leonora's experiments with men echo gothic romance plots. Yet, unlike the gothic heroine, Leonora has an aversion to sex. At one point, while Leonora and Humphrey are walking, she sees a giant totem pole in the park, "shattering the peaceful beauty of the landscape" (SDD 37). Leonora thinks, "What a hideous phallic symbol. . . but of course one wouldn't mention it, only hurry by with head averted" (SDD 37). Passionate kisses also revolt her (SDD 92). Ironically, The Sweet Dove Died is about as sexually explicit as Pym gets. Humphrey fumbles with the front of Leonora's dress as he tries to kiss her, and she recoils in panic: He is going to kiss me, Leonora thought in sudden panic, pray heaven no more than that. She tried to protest, even to scream, but no sound came. Humphrey was larger and stronger than she was and his kiss very different from the reverent touch on lips, cheek or brow which was all James seemed to want. . . . Surely freedom from this sort of thing was among the compensation of advancing age . . . one really ought not to be having to fend people off any more. (SDD 92) Leonora, like other narcissistic women, finds the physical side of love distasteful. She is in some ways, like a character created by Elizabeth Taylor, a friend of Pym's. In Taylor's Angel, the heroine is a romance novelist who writes lurid tales of love, but who shrinks from sex. The narrator says, "Like many romantic narcissistic women she shied away from the final act of love-making" (Taylor 155). Furthermore, Leonora does not want the emotional pain she may open herself up to by loving someone else (Nardin 123). Neither does she care to substitute an animal. She is totally absorbed in her self and sustained by narcissism. For her, a full life consists of a home filled with her objects, decorated to her taste, and reflecting her own solitude and independence. Phoebe, Leonora's rival for James's affections, is the complete opposite of Leonora. Though Phoebe is a would-be author, her writing is unexceptional, her poetry worse, her housekeeping and cooking are downright disastrous. As Weld notes, Phoebe, who wears unusual clothes and is artistic, has a few traits in common with Catherine Oliphant of Less Than Angels, but she lacks Catherine's talent for writing and for cooking (175). In Susan Gorsky's terms, described in Chapter One, Phoebe does not make a satisfactory rival woman. Ned, James's homosexual friend, makes a far better rival for James's affections. Ned thrives on the drama of romance and for him the climax is "the defeat of a rival, the passion of a moment, the familiar ennui, the infidelities and the theatrical partings" (SDD 204). In fact, Ned sees himself as a protagonist in many of these situations. If Ned is the protagonist of the novel, James is the romantic hero. James is the nephew of an antique dealer, Humphrey Boyce. Both James and Humphrey are interested in Leonora, but for different reasons. Marlene St. Miguel Groner writes in her dissertation on Pym that James has no reality other than that which Leonora places on him (83). He does not know who he is yet, so he allows others to define his roles in life. Leonora, like the heroines discussed in Chapter Three, manages to transform James into her ideal and perfect companion. In fact, James himself fells at times that Leonora created him (SDD 51). Groner writes that as long as James and Leonora share the same "fictive reality" James is content to play the part Leonora writes for him (Groner 83). In playing the part Leonora that writes for him, however, James has lost whatever portion of his personality is already formed. He is passive, not at all Byronic, and unoriginal. He has beautiful golden hair like a cherub, but he lacks character. He does not even have the ridiculous idiosyncracies or quirks which other Pym heroes have, and which make them interesting. James is at a loss to deal with the relationships in his life, particularly with the controlling Leonora. Groner writes that he identifies with neutered cats and kittens and other caged animals (Groner 84). For example, the flat Leonora prepares for him at the top of her own house has bars on its windows. When James notices the bars with some chagrin, Leonora assures him that the room was probably a nursery (SDD 129). In some ways, the room is like the one which imprisons the heroine of Charlotte Perkins Gilman's The Yellow Wallpaper, for there seems to be no escape for James from the clutches of Leonora. Yet, the nursery motif fits the immature James, too. It is a comic way for Pym to deal with the Oedipal attraction between James and the much older Leonora. Perhaps Pym was spoofing herself a bit, and her involvement with the younger Richard Roberts. Weld also notes that James is the "sweet dove" of Keats' poem for which the novel is named. Perhaps Pym reduced further the image of the Byronic hero in James. At least her other men who imitate Byronic heroes in some way are handsome, even virile. For example, Fabian Driver of Jane and Prudence may carry an umbrella and may be a womanizer, but he is, as far as the reader knows, sexually potent. Also, there is sexual attraction between Ianthe and John Challow in An Unsuitable Attachment, and Nicholas Cleveland of Jane and Prudence and Everard Bone of Excellent Women are handsome men, if a bit eccentric. James, on the other hand, is petulant and childlike. He quickly sickens on Leonora and feels at one point like a child who eats too many creme cakes. While Pym writes of creme cakes, she hasn't much to write about wedding cake in The Sweet Dove Died. Yet, marriage is present in the novel, if only in the way that Leonora rejects it. She considers her married acquaintances to be silly, and rejects the institution itself by refusing to be insulted by people who wonder why she has not married. Leonora also rejects suitable social roles for single women, many of which are discussed in Chapter Three in this dissertation. For example, she is not at all interested in church jumble sales or in charity work. Leonora reasons that she has not married because, as with everything else, she would expect perfection in marriage. Of course, no one has lived up to Leonora's inhumanly perfect expectations. While Leonora Eyre seems to be a bit inhuman because of her love of perfection, the characters of Quartet in Autumn are all too human, leading solitary, imperfect lives full of pathos. Quartet in Autumn is the story of four office workers in late middle age. Marcia, Letty, Edwin and Norman have seen each other every day at work for years, but they have virtually nothing to do with each other outside work. Instead, each lives a life that centers on his or her idiosyncracies and on how to survive in a world increasingly hostile to elderly people who are alone in the world. None of the four has family nearby, either. Letty has never married; she is, perhaps, what Belinda Bede might have become had she not had Harriet. Edwin is a widower, but his children live far away, so he is not close to them or to his grandchildren. As a result, the Church has become his family; his entire discourse is centered on religious affairs. Norman is cantankerous and appears to be unfriendly, yet he proves a capable friend to the others. Marcia is the most isolated and the most eccentric of the four. She collects and organizes tinned food and plastic bags, and is very specific about which milk bottles she will store in her shed. Marcia dresses in garments that resemble the tatters of a jester or of Harlequin, yet she is a kind of aging, romantic princess. In her mind, her surgeon is the Prince Charming she was denied in her youth. After Marcia and Letty retire, the four have little to do with each other until Marcia dies. When she leaves her house and its effects to Norman, the remaining three come together in an effort to help Norman settle the estate. They come to a better understanding of their relationship to each other and form a kind of community in Marcia's memory. In a world that forces them to be isolated because it has no place for them, Edwin, Norman and Letty make a place for themselves and give meaning to their lives when, perhaps, society will not. Perhaps because the social world does not hold much meaning for the characters of Quartet in Autumn, Annette Weld notes that unlike other Pym novels, Quartet in Autumn keeps descriptions of social gatherings to a minimum (184). In contrast, the novel focusses on aging and what Weld calls its horrors and isolation (185). Just as Pym keeps descriptions of social gatherings to a minimum in Quartet in Autumn, she keeps descriptions of meals to a minimum. Most of the characters eat sparingly from tins and prepared foods. Marcia Ivory eats less than everyone else, to the point where she starves herself to death. It is as if the narrator would have us believe that the elderly do not need much to eat. Ironically, Marcia eats less than any of the other characters, yet it is her use of food on which Pym focusses. Perhaps Marcia deliberately starves to express herself and to rebel against society. Gilbert and Gubar write in The Madwoman in the Attic that repressed female characters sometimes use hunger as a way to "escape" from their restrictive lives or surroundings (85). Yet, Marcia occasionally does share meals with others. For example, the meal the four share at Marcia's retirement party is, according to Jane Nardin in Barbara Pym, a step forward in their relationship (129). Nardin argues that for the four late middle- aged characters that the novel centers around, food is more seductive than sex (21). As Nardin says in, Pym's lavish descriptions of food and food preparation imply that food is a pleasure (20). Holiday meals like Christmas dinner, however, merely exacerbate the isolation the characters feel in Quartet. For example, Edwin's daughter lives so far away, that Christmas dinner at her house is a special occasion with people he barely knows. Yet, the narrator says, "Only Edwin would be spending Christmas in the traditional and accepted way in his role as father and grandfather. . . , though he would have preferred to spend the festival alone at home, with nor more than a quick drink with Father G. between services, to mark the secular aspect of the occasion" (QA 83). There is none of the camaraderie of a Dickensian Christmas dinner for Norman. He recites the rhyme "Christmas comes but once a year,/ And when it comes it brings good cheer . . ." with sarcasm because he realizes no one really wants his company (QA 83). As the narrator says, no one would argue with Norman for Christmas is a "difficult time for those who are no longer young and are without close relatives . . ." (QA 83). Norman is invited to spend Christmas with his brother-in-law, Ken, and his "lady friend," who would soon replace his dead sister's role of wife to Ken. Yet, there is little charity in the invitation other than that Ken and his friend realize Norman "has nobody," and they "allow" Norman to visit them from time to time (83). Yet, both Norman and Edwin regard Christmas dinner as more of a nuisance or necessity to be tolerated. It is Marcia and Letty who have the "real problem" with the loneliness of the celebration. As single, older women, their traditional role of holiday cook and hostess has been usurped. They have no home and tree to decorate, no family to gather at the hearth and bake cookies for. For the two women who "had no relatives they could spend Christmas with" the holiday had been for many years "an occasion to be got through as quickly as possible" (QA 84). Marcia, who gets vaguer and vaguer as the years pass, worries less and less about Christmas. When her mother was alive, the two lone women had a "large bird than usual," a capon their butcher recommended as suitable for two ladies dining alone (QA 84). Traditional society in the form of the male butcher even dictates how a widow and a spinster should celebrate holidays. Too big a turkey and too flamboyant a celebration won't do at all. When Marcia's mother died, Marcia marked Christmas quietly with Snowy, her cat, who filled her need for something to love. After the cat died, Marcia let Christmas merge into a haze of other days without noting it (QA 85). Marcia's neighbors, however, do not even respect her right to be alone on Christmas. The social worker, Janice, urges them to "do something" about Marcia, because society, while it ignores spinsters, feels it has a duty to force them to eat Christmas dinner with someone. They see Marcia as lonely and feel that "Christmas was the time for 'doing' something about old people or 'the aged'" (QA 85). Priscilla, the neighbor, is not even sure that Marcia is lonely, it is something she "hears" about older people, though her husband points out to her that though eccentric, Marcia is young enough and independent enough to work and to celebrate her own holiday (85). Marcia, however, disappoints them. She does not drink, nor does she eat a lot. Clearly, she does not fit their pattern of the grateful, elderly spinster enjoying a Christmas dinner provided by other's charity. Letty, however, might have welcomed Priscilla's invitation. She, of all the characters, regrets not having a family to spend Christmas with, and she is determined to "face Christmas with courage and a kind of deliberate boldness" to hold loneliness at bay (QA 85). She can no longer eat Christmas dinner with her friend Marjorie, because she has become engaged, and Letty would be an intruder. Also, Letty does not want people to pity her because they found out she had no invitation for Christmas dinner. Letty describes herself as a gooseberry who would be out of place, thereby describing herself as a particularly sour fruit known as the "woman's fruit" becomes only women would trouble to sweeten and cook it. At the end, Letty accepts a rough invitation from Mrs. Pope, her landlady, who spends the holiday discoursing on how people eat too much (86). The lonely Christmas Norman and the others spend is a far cry from celebrations in other novels, say An Unsuitable Attachment, where the characters visit each other and exchange gifts, and where Mark Ainger worries that the Father Christmas on his Yule cake is a bit shabby. Pym deliberately takes the romance out of Christmas in Quartet in Autumn, while a romance novelist would take a lonely character and give her a festivity filled Christmas that would lead to some kind of love connection. For example, publishers Signet Super Regency and Harlequin produce anthologies of Christmas romance stories each year entitled A Victorian Christmas (Signet) and Historical Christmas Stories (Harlequin). In "Kidnapped for Christmas" by Betina Krahn, a penniless but well-educated governess falls into the hands of a wealthy widower who gives her a fantastic Christmas and who later marries her (184). Almost all the stories involve poor and lonely but attractive women who are rescued by wealthy admirers, and who spend festive Christmases with them. By the end of the novel, it is not the traditional Christmas dinner which brings the remaining characters together. Instead, Marcia's death, and the fact that she leaves her house to Norman, forces them to gather and to share her horde of tinned food. The occasion seems more like a holiday for the three, because they find a bottle of sherry which they open. Marlene St. Miguel Groner writes in her dissertation The Novels of Barbara Pym that Norman's invitation to share the tinned food is sort of a breakthrough in their relationship. If, as Groner points out, Marcia has been hording the food as a replacement for something to love (Groner 57), then its sharing is a distribution of that love. Sharing among the heroes and heroines is not, however, apparent in their early dealings with each other. The two heroines of the novel are Letty Crowe and Marcia Ivory, whose last names invoke images of black and white. Letty is sort of an aging romance heroine who never had a "knight in shining armor." She is an "unashamed reader of novels" but realizes that her own life, that of an aging, unmarried woman, is of "no interest whatever to the writer of modern fiction" (QA 3). She no longer reads romantic novels, though because they no longer provide what she needed in them (3). Letty once read romances for the same reason the women Janice Radway surveys in Reading the Romance read them, for escape and entertainment (Radway 89). Some of Radway's women comment, for example, that they read romances because they are "light reading" and because "they always seem an escape and they usually turn out the way you wish life really was" (88). Perhaps reading romances enhances the identity of Radway's readers in some way. In The Novels of Barbara Pym, Groner writes that Letty's desire to be a character in a novel enhances her identity (56). For Example, Letty has romantic, almost Wordsworthian ideas about her own life and death when she visits Marjorie in the country. Like, perhaps, the Lady of Shallot, she imagines lying on the "autumn carpet of beech leaves" in the wood and wondering if it "could be the kind of place to like down in and prepare for death when life became to much to be endured" (QA 150). The image is romantic, yet morbid. Pym deflates it and makes it humorous by asking immediately after Letty's melancholy musings, "Had an old person--a pensioner, of course-- ever been found in such a situation? No doubt it would be difficult to lie undiscovered for long, for this wood was a favorite walking place for bustling women with dogs. It was not the kind of fancy she could indulge with Marjorie or even dwell on too much herself. Danger lay in that direction" (QA 150). Letty's fancies are dangerous, because they could lead to suicidal thoughts, but they are also "dangerous" in a comic vein, for the walking dogs could mistake her for hidden fire hydrant, or a leafy stump! Letty's imagination is not the only thing she has in common with romance heroines. She is also like them in the sense that she is independent. Just as Dulcie Mainwaring will not be shunted off to an apartment she does not want, Letty will not allow Marjorie to place her in an old ladies' home. Letty rebels against Marjorie, and society who, as discussed in Chapter Five, wishes to put away older spinsters. She feels indignant with Marjorie "for supposing that she would be content with this sort of existence when she herself was going to marry a handsome clergyman" (QA 151). Forty years ago, Letty might trail behind Marjorie, "but there was no need to follow that same pattern now" (151). Marcia, too, is independent and refuses to follow the pattern someone else designs for her. Yet, she shows vestiges of the romance heroine in her personality, too. Mason Cooley writes that there is an obscure thread of romance in Marcia's life which manifests itself in ambulance rides and new nighties for Mr. Strong to see (20). The young surgeon becomes for Marcia a hero, a sort of knight, who will save her from death, loneliness, and nosy social workers. His very name implies heroism and masculinity, and his handsome demeanor stirs Marcia's imagination. If Marcia were young and beautiful like a romance heroine, her eccentric personality would, as Janice Radway writes, be "tempered and undercut" by her extraordinary beauty" (124). Therefore, Amanda Quick can have a beautiful heroine who is also a nineteenth century paleontologist in Ravished, and Morgan Llewellyn can have a gorgeous heroine who is a pirate in Grania. Though Quartet in Autumn contains touches of romance, there are no weddings in the novel. The only proposed marriage, between Marjorie and David, never takes place. The lack of bridal ceremonies is rather a grim implication that there are no possibilities for people in late middle age to marry and lead full lives. Instead, three, not two characters, come together at the end of the novel in what Annette Weld in Barbara Pym describes as a kind of anti-wedding feast. There are romantic associations, however, for Marcia is linked with the Queen of Sheba because the sherry she owned was made from grapes that grew in vineyards that allegedly belonged to the Queen of Sheba (QA 216). While Pym de-emphasizes romance in Quartet in Autumn, she resurrects it as a point of emphasis in her last novel, A Few Green Leaves. A Few Green Leaves is the story of Emma Hovick, an anthropologist in her early thirties who comes to a small English village to do research on its unwitting inhabitants. As with Pym's other single women, Emma is on her own, somewhat dowdy in appearance, and a keen observer. She, like Mildred Lathbury and Dulcie Mainwaring, has "loved and lost," but her ex-lover, Graham Pettifer, comes back into her life after she views him on a television program. At the same time, Emma strikes up an acquaintance with Tom Dagnall, the local vicar who is a widower. Precisely because Emma remains "incognito," the other inhabitants of the village are curious about her. They wonder why she does not leave for work each day, why she dresses as she does, what friends and acquaintances she may have in other villages. Yet, Emma, the ultimate observer, also wonders about them, and begins classifying her neighbors almost before the pictures are hung on her new walls. Among the customs Emma observes is the flower arranging done for the church. One type of flower arranging involves a trick of extending the life of a floral arrangement by adding a few green leaves. Hence, Pym takes the title for her final novel not from a literary quotation, but from an ordinary household hint. Household hints notwithstanding, however, romance is a key element in A Few Green Leaves. Robert Cotsell says in Barbara Pym, "For Pym, novel writing always has a relation to the continuity of romance in life. In this, her last novel, she reaffirms this central tenet . . ." (138). Once again, food plays center stage in a Pym novel. Actually, other novelists use Pym's techniques, though perhaps not in such a mouth-watering manner. For example, George Bauer asserts in his study of Roland Barthes' work, "Eating Out: With Barthes," that Barthes states flatly that all novels could be classified according to "the frankness of their alimentary allusion" (39).For example, in his version of Plato's Criton which details the death of Socrates, Barthes centers the action on whether or not Socrates will eat a fig (41-42). (The friends of Socrates have attempted to take him to a place where fig trees flourish and are a staple of the diet (41).) There are similarities between Barthes' observations and Pym's work; for example, the question of whether or not to eat becomes a vital issue for Marcia Ivory in Quartet in Autumn. In A Few Green Leaves, the issue is similar for Magdalen Raven, though it is more centered on whether she would eat what she wanted in defiance of Dr. Shrubsole, her son-in-law, or whether she should give in to him. As in Pym's other books, characters are often categorized by what they eat, and food may serve as a means of expression as well. In this novel, however, food becomes a way for people to control each other. The most obvious example is young Dr. Shrubsole, who takes over his mother-in-law's diet to "preserve" her. Pym opens the novel with a panorama of the types of Sunday suppers people might serve each other in order to introduce the various ways she will represent food in the novel. Emma considers what people will eat for Sunday dinner as part of her study. She muses that Sunday supper would of course be lighter than the normal daily meal, with husbands coming back from work. Emma thinks that the shepherd's pie, concocted from the remains of the Sunday joint, would turn up as a kind of moussaka at the rectory because the vicar's sister, Daphne, is very fond of Greece (FGL 9). Emma speculates that some village inhabitants will have meals ready-prepared from freezers or "supper dishes at the supermarket with tempting titles and bright attractive pictures on the cover (FGL 9). Some citizens will have fish sold from the back of a van "suggesting a nobler time when fish had been eaten on Fridays . . . " (FGL 10). Others, like Emma, prefer a simpler meal, a bit of cheese or a small tin. Emma finally decides that, since she is a lone woman, her dinner "would have to ba an omelette, the kind of thing that every woman is supposed to turn her hand to . . ." Lone women, she reasons, are not to be fussy like lone men. For example, her neighbor, Adam Prince, is very fussy about food; he even makes a career of it as a gourmet food inspector (FGL 10). Yet, Emma manages to express herself through the generic omelette. Because she is not really "every woman," there is something different about her omelette (10). Emma is also different from other women, say Mildred Lathbury of Excellent Women, because she drinks red wine and other alcoholic beverages with her meals, though she suspects men like Adam Prince, the gourmet critic, wouldn't approve. Emma, though, does not care about approval, male or otherwise. She feels relaxed and at peace with her wine and often uses her leisure time to enjoy food and to watch T.V. While dining alone for some women represents their failure at building a successful family; dining alone for Emma is a time to relax and enjoy herself. Ironically, some of the men in the novel cannot enjoy themselves when it comes to food. For example, Dr. Shrubsole distrusts fattening foods and Adam Prince distrusts rich sauces, garnishings and attractive pottery. Prince critiques elaborate food because he feels its garnishings may hide mediocre cooking. Actually, he has a point; spices and rich sauces were originally created to hide the taste of meat that was spoiling. Michelle Berriedale-Johnson gives recipes for these types of potted meats in The Victorian Cookbook. Still, there is something interesting in the way Prince critiques food; he critiques food as other men criticize women's clothing. Like the male fashion designer who forms women's taste for them, Prince knows all the nuances of cooking. For example, he knows the proper butter to go with spaghetti, what beverage to have with each meal, and what wine the clergy use in their rituals (FGL 27). In a way, food is Prince's discourse, which he uses to express himself. Daphne Dagnall also uses food to express her love of Greece. She often incorporates Greek cooking into her own meals. For lunch, she concocts a Greek version of a "ploughman's lunch," which consists of a "hunk of stale bread, a few small hard black olives, the larger juicier kind being unobtainable . . . and something approaching a goats'-milk cheese. No butter, of course, such a decadent refinement didn't go with an attic luncheon" (FGL 29). Clearly, in this small meal, she has captured the history of an entire nation. At one point, Daphne ritualizes her meals. She forms leftover crust from a very English gooseberry tart into miniature female figures that remind her of Cycladic idols she saw in Athens (FGL 136). Also, her hellenicized meals represent Daphne's dissatisfaction with life in England; her meals imitate the kind of life in Greece she really wants. Daphne's brother, on the other hand, is in love with all things Medieval and Jacobean. So, when he spies Emma holding a bland, pudding-like dish, he immediately thinks she is holding a blanc mange, an ancient dish mentioned in the Canterbury Tales and popular in the seventeenth century (FGL 29-30). In reality, Emma is holding a ham mousse. The ham mousse, however, is not for Tom. Emma is really expecting Graham Pettifer and his wife, Claudia, to come to lunch. What Emma expects to be a boring and maybe uncomfortable meal of fashionably cold food and salad turns out to be a potentially "dangerous liaison" for Graham comes to lunch alone and informs Emma that he and Claudia are breaking up (FGL 32-33). Emma feels controlled by the situation once she realizes that she will be alone with Graham. Yet, other characters use food to control events and other characters. Dr. Shrubsole uses food to control the life of his mother-in-law, Magdalen Raven. For example, he forces her to substitute saccharine for sugar, forbids her butter, and has his wife serve fresh fruit instead of puddings and cakes for dessert. Dr. Shrubsole ostensibly takes over Magdalen's diet because he is concerned about her health, but he really wants the power of life and death over her. He speculates that " . . If Avice's mother were not so well . . . preserved, if she were allowed all the white bread, sugar, butter, cakes and puddings that her naturally depraved taste craved . . if she were to drop down dead, the Shrubsoles would have enough money to buy a larger house" (FGL 52-52). Shrubsole believes that he can regulate personally how long Magdalen lives by controlling the food she eats; when he tires of her, as he is beginning to, he can change her diet and be rid of her. Not having sugar is more of a deprivation than Magdalen may realize. She insists on having sweetener because even during World War II, she was not without sweetener for her coffee (FGL 53), but sugar, or dessert itself is a sign of being part of the privileged class. Irma S. Rombauer writes in The Joy of Cooking that desserts allow the hostess "to build a focal point for a buffet, produce a startling souffle or confect an attractively garnished individual plate" (684). Moreover, examples of all kinds of elaborate desserts are shown in Christmas issues of magazines like Good Housekeeping and Martha Stewart's Living. Thus, desserts are a chance to show one's creativity, to put a civilizing finishing touch to a meal that has already been civilized by cooking. The point Pym illustrates by the illustration of Magdalen and her sugar may indicate that food and drink compensate for not having something to love. For example, Tom thinks Daphne has been drinking Sherry to make up for not having a dog. Magdalen only has memories of "sweeter times" during the war, perhaps when her husband was alive. In this instance, food takes on sexual connotations. Adam Prince, the gourmet critic, is another person who substitutes food for sex. In fact, when he brings red wine to the "bring and buy sale," Miss Lee nearly embraces the bottle and is embarrassed, as are many of the other women present. It is as if Adam has introduced a sexual element by introducing the red wine. If food serves as kind of code for sex, then it may also be an indicator of compatibility between men and women. For example, Tom and Emma find they first have something in common when they discuss the making of jam. For Emma, the preparation of food is still an art, and she picks her own blackberries and is ashamed to serve canned rice pudding (169). Her thinking is similar to Tom's; he often laments the use of substitute, artificial materials for clothing. In fact, substitutes for food and quick preparation exist throughout the novel. For example, saccharine is substituted for sugar, margarine for butter, frozen food for fresh (Rossen World of Barbara Pym 169). Emma tends to classify people in A Few Green Leaves by what they wear as well as what they eat. Clothes, for example, illustrate and emphasize the generation gap apparent in the village. Young people wear jeans, the older villagers never do (FGL 6). Some of the villages wear smarter, and brighter, clothing than the rector and his group (6). In another example, Graham Pettifer pronounces Emma as thin, dowdy and bony, saying she has "pitifully little 'bosom wise'" (FGL 34). Furthermore, the young academic wife, Tamsin Barraclough, is classified as the type who is able to wear Laura Ashley dresses and jumble sale clothes and get away with it (FGL 39). Robert Cotsell notes in Barbara Pym that clothes are no longer a symbol of charity in a Pym novel, the poor "wouldn't look at cast-offs" as Daphne observes (FGL 47). Clothes can also symbolize changes in tradition and ritual. At the jumble sale, people bring offerings to the rectory as if they were offerings to the church itself. They give their items almost reverently, in a hushed way to Daphne, who, with her Greek name appears to be a sort of oracle, who critiques the quality of the clothes like a goddess of fashion. For example, Adam's good suit is hung on a hanger for all to see. His "bad boy" jeans are hidden away because they are deemed unsuitable (FGL 42). The doctor's tweed coat is almost revered because it is implied it has "magical properties" (43). Emma, in a sort of defiance, brings clean but well-worn underwear and displays it though she is embarrassed (47). In another sense, clothes, and the materials from which they are made, become historical artifacts. Tom Dagnall, who is fascinated with Medieval and Jacobean history, reads about people being buried in wool during the month of August, 1678 (FGL 21). Pym makes the Tom's observation humorous because in the same passage, Tom remembers that Miss Lickerish buries one of her hedgehogs in a woolen jumper (FGL 21). As in Excellent Women and her other books, Pym, through this example, points out that once solemn rituals have been reduced to meaningless ceremonies or humorous anecdotes. Instead of noble Jacobean subjects being interred in wool, hedgehogs are laid to rest in it. Tom also feels humanity has lost some of its solemn dignity and has estranged itself from nature by wearing artificial fibers like polyester. For the physicians in the novel, clothes are a panacea for the ills that plague their female patients. When Daphne consults with Shrubsole, he tells her to wear more clothes, and inquires about woolen underwear (16). His prescription is a variation of the "go and by yourself a pretty new hat mentality." In fact, his superior, old Dr. G., actually tells a depressed woman to buy a new hat (FGL 16-17). For Dr. G., women are clotheshorses, depressed when they are empty. Pym saves the hat prescription from becoming a cliche by having young Dr. Shrubsole observe in a deadpan manner that women hadn't worn hats in years (FGL 17). Shrubsole cannot understand that Daphne, who loves the warm Aegean climate, does not feel comfortable in the cold, damp English climate. He also does not understand that a woman may want a home of her own. To Shrubsole, two unmarried women making a home together suggests some sort of frustrated lesbianism (FGL 17). Yet, regardless of the nature of their relationship, unmarried women who live together are not always happy in Pym's novels. For example, Miss Grundy has a roommate who tends to bully her around. She is also sort of a prototype of what may happen to Emma. She is a romance author who has not been able to enjoy romance in her own life. The narrator calls miss Grundy the reputed author of a romantic historical novel. Pym makes her a subject of humor, for when she stumbles on a rocky path, she finds herself in the "kind of situation that might have provided a fruitful plot; but it was not the son of the house who came to her assistance or a handsome stranger but Emma . . ." (FGL 56). If this were Jane Eyre, Wuthering Heights, or another romance, a handsome hero would have helped Miss Grundy. Then, if it were a romance, Miss Grundy would have a romantic first name and would be young and beguilingly helpless, as the young Cathy is at the opening of Wuthering Heights when she is attacked by a dog and saved by her future husband. Rossen suggest in The World of Barbara Pym that Miss Grundy may have abandoned writing romance because the "failure of life to imitate art might have proved to disappointing for her to be able to keep writing romances" (160). Janice Radway in Reading the Romance would take issue with the idea that romance writers write in an attempt to create romantic scripts for themselves, but at least one real romance writer attempts to live out her novels, or to imitate her own life when she writes. Danielle Steel lives a fairytale, romance filled world and has carefully constructed an image for herself as a romance heroine. Moreover, she borrows heavily from her own life when she writes the plots for her stories. In any case, romance is hopeless for many Pym women, and various female characters in A Few Green Leaves are left alone like Miss Grundy is. For example, Miss Vereker, the former governess, is the last of Pym's Jane Eyre characters, but unlike some of the others, she does not find a Rochester (Rossen, WBP 161). Robert Cotsell says Emma's name links her to Miss Vereker and that Miss Vereker is a representative of the "neglected single woman of the late nineteenth century novels to which Emma is connected by name, if nothing else" (134). Finally, Emma's friend Ianthe Potts who is a museum worker is, according to Janice Rossen,"doomed to a life of loneliness; the man she loves turns out to be homosexual" (161). Emma, however, does not have the luxury of fainting and being rescued by anyone, son of the manor or otherwise. She is too independent to fall for cliches, and is therefore judged more harshly by society in everything including her appearance. For example, the narrator says that Emma "is the type that the women's magazines used to make a feature of 'improving' . . . " (FGL 1). Annette Weld describes Emma in Barbara Pym as a "not too young woman uneasy with her present situation" (196). Though it is the 1970's, not the 1950's, women's magazines still have influence over how women view themselves. Janice Rossen has observed about the "makeover" idea in The World of Barbara Pym that Emma suffers because she does not make the most of her appearance to attract a man (163). Rossen argues that this is a common failing of Pym's academic women. As if to prove Rossen's point, Tom is actually repulsed by one of Emma's drabber dresses. Rossen, however, writes that Emma's often non-descript clothes do not illustrate that she is at fault for not caring, but that life is difficult (163). Others, like Graham Pettifer see her as pathetically thin and dowdy, but Tom Dagnall sees Emma "only as a sensible person in her thirties, dark-haired, thin and possibly capable of talking intelligently about local history . . ." (1). Therefore, it is Emma's intelligence that attracts Tom, because he is passionately interested in local history and would love to have someone to discuss it with. Tom is a Pym male, however, and thus can't help but see Emma for her useful potential to him. He imagines she might be able to help in his parish as a typist, but is more considerate than other Pym men because he realizes he would be asking an educated woman to do menial work (FGL 7). Daphne Dagnall is not so kind; she scorns Emma's research and wonders "if you can call it work" (FGL 25). In fact, Emma, an anthropologist, is there to observe the other inhabitants of the village, just as they observe her. She, too, is a Pym "artist observer, who observes her fellow citizen in time-honored manner behind the shadow of her curtains (FGL 1). One wants to know if the curtains are lace, for, if they are, Emma takes on some of the attributes of a romance heroine, who plans her discourse among the lacy, but filmy and distortive world of romance. As Janice Rossen writes in The World of Barbara Pym, Emma is a heroine who has not achieved much distinction, partly because she is over thirty and unmarried. In fact, Emma is one of a series of women in the novel who represents the various stages of spinsterhood (159). Emma's name links her with the world of romance and with Jane Austen; yet she aligns herself not with Austen but with Hardy's first wife, "a person with something unsatisfactory about her" (FGL 9). Therefore, if Emma places herself in the plot of a romance at all, she chooses not the role of the heroine, but of the rival woman. Gorsky describes the demon and rival woman in her essay "The Gentle Doubters: Images of Women in Englishwomen's Novels, 1840-1920." One of the demon's most important personality traits is that she consciously tries to achieve something (46). she may even resort to tricks or crime to achieve her goals (46). Emma does have a goal: she wants to conduct secret research in the village for a study. Still, like many a romance heroine, Emma lives in an old cottage like the ones that appear in the eighteenth and nineteenth century novels her mother teaches. She speculates her mother named her Emma so that "some of the qualities of the heroine of the novel might be perpetuated." (FGL 8). The narrator tells us that she was not named Emily because her mother feared she would be associated with her grandmother's servants and not with the author of Wuthering Heights. If A Few Green Leaves' heroine is not associated with Cathy of Wuthering Heights, the novel's heroes are not associated with Heathcliff, either. In fact, there is hardly anything Byronic or splendid about the two men who are interested in Emma, Tom Dagnall and Graham Pettifer. Pym does her best to deflate their romantic importance or to make them look silly. For example, Emma thinks of Dr. Graham Pettifer, "To say he had been her 'lover' was to altogether too grand a way to describe what their association had been . . . " (FGL 11). Furthermore, Graham lacks Heathcliff's dark good looks; in fact, he must not have been that handsome when he was younger because when Emma sees him on television, she notes that he had improved in looks by filling out or something (FGL 12). Janice Rossen compares Graham to Rocky Napier of Excellent Women, but says that he lacks Rocky's charm; still, like Rocky, Graham will use the women in his life and he accepts a "constant offering of food" as his due from Emma (164). Besides the fact that he is an opportunist who constantly accepts food from Emma, Graham is also somewhat cold sexually; he doesn't visit Emma because he has feelings of romantic nostalgia. Instead, he looks her up because he expects her to be amusing for him. In fact, "Their meeting had not been the kind of amusing romantic encounter he had imagined. . . " (FGL 170). Though handsome, Graham is easily bored and becomes petulant. Pym undercuts Graham as a romantic hero by giving him an all too human childish personality. Pym also subverts setting to undermine romance in A Few Green Leaves. When Emma and Graham take a walk through the Sangreal Copse, the pair encounters an ugly little cluster of bungalows and a foul smelling but abandoned chicken coop. Emma sadly comments, "So much for my romantic ideas about Sangreal Copse" (172). Pym is not the only author to give her heroes childish or unusual traits, though. Many romance authors make their heroes different from other men or vulnerable in some way. For example, Anne Rice's Ramses from The Mummy is an immortal man who suffers from loneliness. Heroes in Rice novels that contain elements of romance often have so-called feminine qualities or like to collect antique dolls and Christmas ornaments. Yet, Rice and other writers only paint their heroes this way to endear them to their female readers. They give them traits and interests that their female readers may want for themselves. Pym, however, undermines her male characters' roles as romance heroes my making them look ridiculous. Even gentle Tom Dagnall is not spared in A Few Green Leaves. Though Tom is tall and "austerely good-looking," he is not that attractive (FGL 1). For one thing, though he is a widower, he does not pursue single women. For another thing, he is more interested in historical trivia like what types of materials were used for seventeenth century shrouds. Therefore, Tom's discourse is not of passion, but of musty books and grave clothes. His eyes are brown, like those of many a romance hero, but they are not warm and endearing; they lack the "dog-like qualities" often associated with that color which implicitly attract a woman's sympathy. The days when the local vicar was a good catch for a romance heroine are gone. So Tom, displaced in importance by the local doctors, muddles on alone. If she views heroes with some ambivalence in A Few Green Leaves, Pym views marriage with ambivalence in this novel as well. Janice Rossen correctly writes in The World of Barbara Pym that marriage in Pym's late 1970's seems to be more casual (157). For example, Beatrix, Emma's mother, wants her to marry, yet she herself does not set "all that much store by the status" (8). Beatrix continued to work as an academic throughout her short marriage, and when Emma's father was killed in the war, Beatrix felt comfortable resuming her life as a single woman. The narrator says that after his death, Beatrix felt she had "fulfilled herself as a woman" by marring and having Emma and she had been able to "return to her academic studies with a clear conscience" (8). On the other hand, Graham and Claudia give a more cynical view of marriage for they are about to be divorced (FGL 33-34). Yet, their status is unclear because they later reconcile. The Shrubsoles' marriage does not appear to be equal, either. For all that he loves to control others, Dr. Shrubsole is, in turn, dominated and controlled by Avice, his wife, who carries a cudgel when she walks. For Avice, marriage is a continual process in improving one's status and in symbolizing that improvement by obtaining bigger house. Her name is suspiciously close to "avarice." Still, the characters in A Few Green Leaves need something to love, just as they do in the other novels. For example, Daphne decides she could love a dog. (FGL 46). As Annette Weld notes, "Pym calls up a host of characters from earlier works for a final curtain call" (199). There is an obituary notice for Fabian Driver of Jane and Prudence and the death of Miss Clovis of Less than Angels is announced. Several elderly characters from Less Than Angels appear at her funeral. Pym finished the novel only two months before her death. Perhaps she realized it was her swan's song, and she wanted to tie-up her loose ends. In this last novel, Pym seems to leave the answer of whether a single woman can live a full or meaningful life of her own open. In hindsight, one wants to answer the question for Pym herself in the affirmative. She has left her readers a legacy of novels that are increasing in literary importance and in popularity, and she has answered the critics responsible for her years of silence. What the reader learns from reading Pym's work is that, for everyone, regardless of age and sex, there is always the possibility of change, for better or for worse.

No comments:

Post a Comment