some tame gazelle, by barbara pym

‘Miss Liversidge is really splendid,’ she declared and then wondered why one always said that Edith was ‘splendid’. It was probably because she hadn’t very much money, was tough and wiry, dug vigorously in her garden and kept goats.

Barbara Pym is the most badass writer who ever lived and I am going to tell you why.

He was smiling to himself in a sardonic way that Belinda found very disconcerting. It was unsuitable for a clergyman to look sardonic.

This sardonic clergyman is a very lightly fictionalized Henry Harvey, the great love of Pym’s life. She met him at Oxford and he sounds like a right tosser. Pym handles this so well! She vivisects and impales him both here and in her own journals with unflinching and scientific rigour. It is very suitable for a novelist to be sardonic; it is an especially suitable posture for a novelist in love.

Like Jane Austen, though, Pym is frequently misconstrued as cosy. It’s all in the subject matter: gossipy Church of England parishioners. If you find such people charming, you might miss the sharpness in Pym. If they make you think of serial murderers and Hot Fuzz then come, sit by me.

Sharp and unflinching as she is, Pym is not herself a serial murderer but something closer to a vet. Consider this curious passage:

‘What’s this?’ asked Agatha sharply, pointing to the Times-shrouded parcel which Belinda had put into a corner.

‘Oh, that’s Lady Clara’s marrows,’ Belinda explained.

‘Wrapped in newspaper?’ Agatha’s tone was expressive. ‘I’m afraid that won’t do at all.’ She produced some blue tissue paper from a secret hiding-place and began to undo Belinda’s parcel.

‘Oh, dear, I’m so sorry, I didn’t know there was any other paper,’ said Belinda in confusion. ‘I saw them lying there and I thought perhaps they ought to be wrapped up and put aside in case anybody sold them by mistake.’

‘I don’t think anybody would be so stupid as to do that,’ said Agatha evenly. ‘They were the two finest marrows on the stall, I chose them myself.’

‘Oh, well …’ Belinda gave a weak little laugh. All this fuss about two marrows. But it might go deeper than that, although it did not do to think so.

‘Perhaps you would like to go and have tea,’ said Agatha, who was having difficulty with the bulk of the marrows and the fragility of the tissue paper and did not want Belinda to see.

You’d never get away with a passage like this nowadays (Some Tame Gazelle took fifteen years to find a publisher but eventually came out in 1950). Your editor would tell you you’d made a mistake in the last sentence, where the narrative suddenly switches to Agatha’s point of view.

This is, of course, bullshit. Pym is one of the most controlled and surgical of writers. She wields third person omniscient like an edged weapon. If the POV switches it’s because she meant it to switch.

So who’s talking? Whose gaze is it that pierces both Belinda and Agatha right through to the bone (“all this fuss about two marrows”)? Who measures the tension between them (Agatha has been married to Belinda’s beloved Henry for thirty years) and all their weaknesses and evasions, and yet doesn’t condemn them? By whom are they so seen and known and accepted for what they are?

Barbara Pym is the most badass writer because her books are told from the point of view of God.

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