You expect an English author to be English, but not all English authors are dripping with Englishness. Those who are form a select crowd. What makes them creditable purveyors of Englishness elicits hot debate among their compatriots, surprisingly enough — who’d have thought Englishness would be a matter of such contention? As an outsider I observe these goings-on with a mixture of amusement and raised eyebrows when somebody lets fly with a particularly good chestnut. We Yanks are used to getting our Englishness through the visual route rather than the literary one. We know the story — we’ve seen Miss Marple on TV. We know it’s all about teapots and Victoria sponges and gray cardigans and saying things like “How extraordinary!” when somebody turns up dead in your peone bed.
But apparently the still waters of Englishness run deeper. That fact was recently brought forcefully to my attention by having a look at the works of Barbara Pym. As I read along great waves of Englishness swept over me until I found myself submerged and running out of air. After clawing my way to the surface I decided I’d better reconnoiter the territory in greater detail before plunging in again. As I learned about Pym’s world and about her life, I saw I’d jumped in without realizing how heavy an undertow of Englishness one meets in those deceptively calm waters.
My thoughts then set about identifying elements of Englishness I could recall from things I had read or seen in the media. There turned out to be quite a lot of them. I then thought it a good idea to consult the opinion of others and found a fascinating article by Christine Berberich from 2009 republished in (of all places) opendemocracyUK (full text here) with the provocative title “Whose Englishness Is It Anyway?”
Good question. Finding that article brought a sigh of relief and the thought that there’s no shame in being mildly confused by all the varieties of Englishness that exist. Berberich’s article is actually an examination of the novel England, England by Julian Barnes, based on the hilarious idea of a theme park on Englishness built on the Isle of Wight. I read the book a few years ago and found it amusing, but it lampoons rather than explains with its list of “50 Quintessences of Englishness.” The following paragraph from Berberich’s article gets closer to the kind of Englishness authors like Pym send crashing over you like a storm surge:
The narrative device of ‘the list’, and here in particular its use in attempts to define and explain national identity, deserves some elaboration. When all else fails, a simple listing of things, events and people one associates with a particular country can be offered in place of a proper definition. Dominic Head has pointed out the “empirical habit of cultural commentators who resort to lists of things that might define that national character by drawing together its disparate elements” (iv). The list of writers and cultural commentators who have made use of such lists is long and eclectic, ranging from John Betjeman, who famously conjured up “the Church of England, eccentric incumbents, oil-lit churches, Women’s Institutes, modest village inns, arguments about cow parsley on the altar, the noise of mowing machines on Saturday afternoons […] branch-line trains, light railways, leaning on gates and looking across fields” (v), and George Orwell, whose image of “old maids biking to Holy Communion through the mists of the autumn morning” (vi) has since been appropriated for nostalgic evocations of England’s past greatness, most famously by John Major in the 1990s; to otherwise seemingly more forward-looking and cynical commentators such as Jeremy Paxman who, in 1998, compiled a list of things English containing “village cricket and Elgar […] punk, street fashion, irony, vigorous politics, brass bands, Shakespeare, Cumberland sausages, double-decker buses, Vaughan Williams, Donne and Dickens, twitching net curtains, breast-obsession, quizzes and crosswords […]” (vii). Paxman’s list is particularly interesting as it departs, in some respects, from the ‘typical’ list of Englishness that often focuses on purely rural England – see, for example, Betjeman’s focus on villages and rural churches. Paxman not only combines the rural with the urban, but also offers an intriguing blend of objects, places, names and attitudes that shows just how much and how many different aspects there are to Englishness.
Amen to that last notion: many different aspects. Sometimes too many, it seems to me.
I confess that after a brief attempt at enumeration my effort collapsed in on itself. I found myself sitting in a pothole with my tires (sorry, tyres) flat and possibly a bit of damage to my undercarriage. Bits of Englishness floated about me like dust in bright sunlight. It was clear to me they weren’t going to settle for a long time. Some other approach would be necessary to make sense of things.
I subsequently had the brilliant idea of attempting to define Englishness by contrasting it with something it is not — definition by the inverse, always a useful trick when you find yourself in a pinch. I thought of what I consider to be typically American in an author so I could put that up against Englishness and see where the round pegs and square holes showed up. That didn’t work very well either, unfortunately. We Americans were into grit and drama even back in the day, long before our national life turned into a tasteless imitation of reality TV. There’s Nathaniel Hawthorne publishing The Scarlet Letter in 1850 on a topic that in 19th century England nobody would have dared to mention in polite society, let alone make the subject of a novel. The next year Melville comes out with Moby Dick, perhaps similar to Thomas Hardy in some ways, but then Hardy isn’t very English when push comes to shove — he really should have been Russian. Louisa May Alcott? Nope — uppity women don’t have any place in an English landscape, especially if they aren’t even proper ladies. We need not even mention glorious, dotty old Walt Whitman going off at the mouth about the “body electric,” goodness me. There wouldn’t be enough smelling salts in all the Home Counties combined to revive an audience at the Women’s Institute after a reading from Whitman, especially if the section “Calamus” figured among the selections. The result: apples and oranges, of no use in the attempt to find Englishness by deduction from its opposite.
So I took up once again the search for parallels. I scoured American literature throwing things on the discard pile right and left as I moved forward in time. Horatio Alger? Vulgar upstart. John Steinbeck? Hardly, what self-respecting novelist writes about poor people? Gertrude Stein? In the words of George Bernard Shaw: not bloody likely. The more I moved toward the present the less likely it seemed I’d find anything useful until, lo and behold, I hit paydirt in a place I least expected to find it: Lake Wobegon.
After having that astonishing insight I could have used some smelling salts myself. Lake Wobegon, whoda thunkit. Then I had what some might think a stroke of madness, but at the time seemed to me a stroke of genius: let’s put Barbara Pym in Lake Wobegon and see what happens. Now we’re getting somewhere. Lake Wobegon is about as American as you can get — way more American than I could stand to live in, by the way. I grew up in something similar and hightailed it out of there as soon as I was legally old enough to accomplish it without risk of seizure and forcible return. I only go back to visit after girding my loins and making sure my stash of ibuprofin is topped up. If we plop Pym down in Lake Wobegon her Englishness should stick out like a sore thumb, right?
Let’s start with a look at Pym’s fiction just to orient ourselves in the appropriate universe. Many people opine that her finest novel is Excellent Women. But that novel is set in London — although a London remarkably reminiscent of Buckhamingshire, truth be told. Instead we’ll go to Pym’s last novel, A Few Green Leaves, a product of the last years of her life spent in Finstock (Oxfordshire) where she lived with her sister Hilary. From a review by Eve Auchincloss published in 1981 in The New York Times (here) comes this bit:
That final book, ”A Few Green Leaves,” is as good a place to begin reading her as any, with its old-fashioned social structure, present in all her fiction. In these familiar ivied walls great fissures spread as the earth shifts underfoot, and the occupants, genteel Anglicans getting past life’s prime, have no place else to go. The scene is an Oxfordshire village in which Emma, a dabbler in anthropololgy drifting toward the shallows of spinsterhood (a condition little known in the modern world but a constant in Barbara Pym’s novels) passes a summer making halfhearted ”Observations on the Social Patterns of a West Oxfordshire Community.” Skeptical, uncertain, dowdy, modest and acquiescent, this 30-ish Emma is a far cry from Emma Woodhouse, preferring to compare herself to another Emma, Hardy’s first wife, ”a person with something unsatisfactory about her.”
Another waif, the village rector, Tom Dagnall (”poor Tom,” Emma can’t help thinking), a man of suppressed High Church leanings distasteful to his thin flock, is a widower managed by his unmarried older sister, Daphne, a passionate Hellenophile. Tom’s passion, his obsession, is local history. He prowls the woods in search of the ruins of a deserted medieval village that preceded the modern one, puzzles over the outmoded custom of burying the dead in woolen shrouds, and resents the expectation that the clergy should always ”have some bromide at the ready.” His church is half empty, the graveyard smothered in long grass, and the mausoleum icy and unvisited – ”Nobody spends much time here,” he remarks, conscious of the absurdity.
There are aging maidens who arrange flowers for the altar, polish the church brass, make rubbings and have bring-and-buy sales; a one-time Anglican priest, ”fat and sleek as a well-living neutered cat,” who has ”gone over to Rome” and travels as restaurant inspector for a gourmet magazine; and another summer visitor, a selfish, sponging anthropologist whom Emma once knew ”quite well.”
Summer passes. Emma makes casseroles for her boring anthropologist, and occasionally, the reader is left to guess, sleeps with him. Daphne organizes a jumble sale, helping herself to some of the better garments and, instead of escaping to Greece, buys a dog and moves to Birmingham with a bossy retired schoolteacher who wears tweed capes and trousers. Tom leads history society walks in the woods and wishes people would invite him to dinner now Daphne is gone. The ruins of the deserted medieval village are discovered by chance; one of the old ladies expires; dissatisfied Daphne returns for a visit; the anthropologist skulks back to London; Emma finally cooks a so-so meal for Tom, vaguely, even hopefully, perceiving in him a possible lover. By now the summer’s green leaves have fallen and the showy dahlias round the mausoleum are blasted by frost.
Now let’s take a look at Lake Wobegon. Here’s a list of a few favorite spots in town:
- Bertha’s Kitty Boutique (“for persons who care about cats”)
- Ralph’s Pretty Good Grocery; “If you can’t find it at Ralph’s, you can probably get along (pretty good) without it.”
- Our Lady of Perpetual Responsibility Catholic Church; Father Emil (retired), Father Wilmer (current)
- Lake Wobegon Lutheran Church; Pastor Ingqvist (transferred), Pastor Barbara Ham (Interim Pastor), Pastor Liz (current)
- LuAnne Magendanz’s Bon Marché Beauty Parlor and Salon
- The Sons of Knute Temple, Norwegian fraternal organization
The similarities quickly become obvious. There’s nothing particularly genteel about Lake Wobegon, but in all honesty I find nothing particularly genteel about life in Pym’s village. Nobody has enough money to be upper crust. They carry on like village people anywhere, really. They lead small, often thwarted lives and pursue odd habits as if programmed to do what they do. Here’s a short description of the denizens of Lake Wobegon (webpage here):
Lake Wobegon is a quiet town. It is the kind of town where you can stand in the middle of Main Street and not be in anyone’s way. But the town has its share of eccentrics. There is Myrtle Krebsbach. At seventy-two she looks more like a woman of thirty-four who has had a hard life. Every Friday night she has two pink daiquiris and hums “Tiptoe through the Tulips” between each daiquiri. Her husband Florian is a bit of a hypochondriac. He visits the doctor often and drives a 1966 Chevrolet that is spotless. He bought it with forty-two thousand miles and it still has forty-two thousand miles. He cleans the motor with gasoline before he goes inside the doctor’s office.
The Thanatopsis Society was founded by the late Mrs. Bjornson as a literary society. But it has since become a social society. Once a year they hire a lecturer to speak on some obscure topic of national importance. The only question any of the residents of Lake Wobegon would have for him during the question and answer segment would be how much he was being paid.
It’s hardly High Church, but the similarities to Pym’s Oxfordshire village are remarkable. One imagines the women of Our Lady of Perpetual Responsibility being equally as thorough in polishing the pews as the vicarage dames in Pym’s ivied haunt. They no doubt stand in equal perplexity before the burning question of whether or not cow’s parsnip may legitimately be included in a floral arrangement intended for the altar. Such are the Big Issues in life — not inequality under capitalism, climate change or overpopulation. So yes, turn Pym from High Church Anglican to Lutheran or Catholic, refit one of her futzy male characters with an old Ford Torino instead of an Anglia, and it becomes perfectly possible to reproduce her village idylls without much difficulty at all as the quirky, small-town life Keillor features in his Lake Wobegon material. In both places nothing much happens. The sign on the highway at the entrance to town should read: Welcome. Please Lower Your Expectations and Observe Speed Limits.
For reasons not entirely transparent to my understanding Pym has often been compared to Jane Austen. Blogger Marianne Goss wrote about Pym in 2017 as follows (webpage here):
“Jane Austen recreated only funnier,” the late New York Times literary critic Anatole Broyard said of Pym. I’m not sure about funnier, but Pym’s dry irony is certainly amusing.
Like Austen, Pym preferred to work on a small canvas, limiting her scope to the people and world she knew. One of her characters, Catherine Oliphant in Less Than Angels (1955), is describing Pym’s own focus when she says, “The small things of life were so much bigger than the great things . . . the trivial pleasures . . . funny things seen and overheard.”
Spinsters (using the politically incorrect word is key to understanding Pym), Anglican clergy, and eccentrics are staples in Pym’s fiction. Her first book, Some Tame Gazelle (1950), set the pattern: the unmarried Bede sisters live together and organize their lives around clergymen. Pym, writing a century and a half after Austen, doesn’t marry off her women at the end. Her men are also less desirable than Austen’s, so who needs them anyway? The ending of Some Tame Gazelle is consoling rather than sad. The Bede sisters are content to hold on to spinsterhood, fussing over clergymen because they enjoy it.
As one critic noted, Pym imbues socially marginal, somewhat lonely women with dignity and resilience; they are accepting of their lives rather than resigned. Another commented that in Pym’s fiction, singlehood is an identity rather than an absence.
Spinsters! That may be the ticket. Spinsters don’t figure in Lake Wobegon. Are all the spinsters in Pym’s fiction what make up the essential Englishness of it?
Hmmm … The English spinster and her accoutrements are definitely primary to Pym’s novels — accoutrements like vicarages, Victoria sponges, brass polish for the sacristy, and tea in the garden with gossip about who was recently seen taking the air with whom, all of which leads precisely nowhere since you always end exactly where you started. All roads lead to nowhere in Lake Wobegon, as well, but with a difference: no spinsters. It’s all about the usual American shtick of kids on sports fields, church basement suppers (let us never forget “tuna hotdish”) and such things — the focus is squarely on family life. Individuality is differently constructed in Lake Wobegon and while quirkiness is also Business As Usual, spinsterhood is not. Widows, yes — widows can be defined by their past, but not spinsters. Nobody knows quite what to do with a spinster in an American small town. In English villages like Pym’s, however, they’re as thick on the ground as mushrooms after heavy rain.
In a review by Rebecca West written in 1912 of The Spinster by Hubert Wales she gives us useful insight into the English manifestation of the phenomenon:
Another lady of trying habits is Mr Hubert Wales’ The Spinster. We have all of us had experience of the terribly confidential old lady in the crowded railway-carriage who will tell us about the operation her son has just undergone, and how it runs in the family. The Spinster was troubled with a similar unbridled candour. Although close on forty, and gifted with that training in deceit which an unattractive appearance imposes on women, she goes about confessing (with imbecile quiet dignity) the secret of her life to her sisters, her cousins and her aunts, the butcher, the baker and the candlestick-maker, and — finally — a coroner’s jury …
… The Spinster is a great work. This is the first production by Mr Hubert Wales that I have ever read. I was held from the very first page, whereon I read: ‘There were reservoirs of love in her — of wife-love and of mother-love — accumulating reservoirs, which had never been tapped.” This is luscious imagery. “The Tapping of the Spinster” would be an exquisite title for a poetical play. And the conception of fate as a Metropolitan Water Board regulating the flow of spiritual liquids is immense. I find Mr Wales difficult to place as an artist. Undoubtedly his style derives largely from Mr Frederick Harrison, though the breezy incident of the Spinster’s mother throwing the new potatoes at the housemaid obviously shows the influence of Strindberg. In philosophy it would not be too much to say that Mr Wales stands shoulder to shoulder with Ella Wheeler Wilcox.
It is not unkind to say that the above two books need never have been written. Of course, one is glad they have been written, just as one is glad that there are dog-shows at the Horticultural Show, even though one never goes near the place oneself. One likes to think of all those jolly little puppies; and similarly, one is glad that Mr Wales feels up to his work …
What a beautiful job of damning with faint praise. West’s commentary brings out the fact that the spinster is more a trope than an individual. In the case of Wales’s book the trope appears sufficiently uninteresting to warrant scant attention. Wales’s spinster lacks village quirkiness and isn’t localized in an environment circumscribed enough to make her characteristics stand out to attention for want of anything else sufficiently interesting to capture our notice. But Pym’s world is circumscribed in that way — as was her life. The spinsters in Pym’s novels require that constricted environment so they can remain visible in it. In the hustle and bustle of a large city they disappear without a trace.
While Pym’s protagonists are usually kept from excessive eccentricity, it flourishes in the supporting characters like horseradish taking over the garden. If one considers Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple — another spinster who purveys Englishness in spades — one sees that the same shoe fits perfectly. So also is the case with Hercule Poirot, who’s a classic spinster if ever there was one, despite being male and Belgian. There’s no rule written anywhere that spinsters must be female — males make excellent spinsters, as well, and Poirot takes the cake in that department if you ask me.
Comparison between Pym and Austen misses the mark in my opinion because Austen does one thing and one thing only: steers single women to the altar and gets the ring on the finger precisely so the protagonist will not become a spinster. Pym does nothing of the sort; there’s no teleological thrust in her novels propelling us toward a scene at the altar with its I take thees. Without a focus on getting the protagonist hitched, the texture of Pym’s work becomes much more diffuse and the narrative focus becomes episodic as it is in Keillor’s Lake Wobegon stories. It boils down to village storytelling, really. I just listened to one of Keillor’s Lake Wobegon stories on YouTube — “Clarence Cleans His Roof.” Thank goodness for that notice about lowered expectations on the sign coming into town. The same should be posted at the town limits of Pym’s village in Oxfordshire.
Alexander McCall Smith wrote in 2008 a review of Excellent Women (here) in which Englishness is elevated to axiomatic status for both Pym and Austen:
Like Jane Austen, Pym painted her pictures on a small square of ivory, and covered much the same territory as did her better-known predecessor: the details of smallish lives led to places that could only be in England. Neither used a megaphone; neither said much about the great issues of their time.
Why could these places only be in England? We’ve seen that with a few tweaks — and a few less spinsters — Pym could fit into Lake Wobegon without too great a strain on either body or soul. Why then McCall Smith’s statement, delivered as something self-evident, that the details of these smallish lives could only be in England? Maybe Englishness isn’t so much about the people as it is about the place?
By George, I think we’ve got it. Look closely at the difference in environment between Lake Wobegon and Pym’s Oxfordshire village and all is revealed. Pym’s characters are infused with the quaintness of Pym’s Oxfordshire, like dunking a biscuit (sorry, a cookie) into a cup ot tea. In Lake Wobegon, however, the environment is of no help at all in getting a sense of the characters. It’s impossible for Bertha’s Kitty Boutique to be a Grade II-listed piece of architecture — it’s likely the same kind of utilitarian structure you see everywhere else in town. Our Lady of Perpetual Responsibility will certainly look like a church, but it will not be like English village churches, many of which date from medieval times. Let’s take a look at Finstock, the Oxfordshire village in which Pym lived the last years of her life and which served as the locus for A Few Green Leaves.
From the Wikipedia page on the village (here):
It is thought that there was a settlement of some kind here at the time of the Domesday survey of 1086 when it formed part of the Hundred of Banbury belonging to the Bishop of Lincoln. In 1135 the village of Finstock is referred to as Fynstoke. In this period, the village formed part of the manor and parish of Charlbury.
In the early 16th century the manor of Charlbury and its land, including Finstock, was held by Sir Thomas White, a London tailor who founded St John’s College, Oxford, in 1555. The manor was then included in the college’s endowment. As the college lands were owned by an absentee landlord, the land was leased to many people including the Lee family of Ditchley Park from 1592 to 1776. The college then resumed direct control until 1857, when the lordship of the manor passed to Francis Spencer, 2nd Lord Churchill of Wychwood, the owner of Cornbury Park. It remains in the possession of Cornbury Park today although most of the manorial rights have lapsed and much of the village of Finstock is now freehold.
Finstock Manor House is 17th-century and has a date stone saying 1660. It is an L-shaped house with three gables on each of its longer sides and an attic window in each gable. All the attic windows in the gables are elliptical and one is oeil-de-boeuf. The roof is of Stonesfield slate. The house is a Grade II* listed building.
Here are some pics:
The population of Finstock is a few short of 800. That notwithstanding, the goings on in the village are enough to raise anyone’s eyebrows in surprise, as we learn from the Wikipedia page:
T. S. Eliot came to Finstock to be received into the Church of England. William Force Stead was a fellow American and came to England as an American consul but soon found that his real bents in life were literature and religion. He was ordained, became chaplain of Worcester College, Oxford and after meeting Eliot in 1923 (with whom he shared a love of cats) steadily drew him towards Anglicanism and agreed to baptise him. He was then living in “a fine seventeenth century gabled house at Finstock”, Finstock Manor and invited Eliot to stay there to meet his godfathers, B. H. Streeter and Vere Somerset, before his baptism at Finstock on 29 June 1927. The novelist Barbara Pym lived at Finstock after her retirement and is buried in the churchyard of Holy Trinity.
Well, Lake Wobegon can’t complete with the likes of that — two major figures in English literature associated with a village of 800 people. Garrison Keillor grew up in Anoka, Minnesota (population 17,142) and based Lake Wobegon on the life he knew there. I needn’t provide pics of the place since we’ve seen it all before — American towns are remarkably uniform, not quaint, and their history is neither long nor studded with literary luminaries. The Anoka town motto says it all (and explains how in Keillor’s hands it became Lake Wobegon): “Halloween Capital of the World.”
Wow. Eat your heart out, Finstock.
So there we have it — without the quaintness and inherent picturesqueness of the English village, Pym’s novels would be just like a story out of Lake Wobegon — quirky people doing quirky things and leading quirky lives as representatives of an insular kind of life firmly oriented toward the past rather than the future. The English village is what makes Pym’s Englishness definitive, not the nature of her characters, even if they’re spinsters. Their accoutrements — the teapots and the Victoria sponges and the intense focus on the minutiae of life — all form part of the village picturesqueness that Pym purveys. Stripping things down to the human bare bones of the story would find us quickly stifling a yawn and reaching for something else to read. In and of themselves Pym’s characters are boring. Their lives are thwarted, their impulses run into the sands of daily life and disappear, they resemble medieval peasants living short and brutish lives despite the introduction of central heating and the easy availability of digestive biscuits. The only picturesque thing about them is their surroundings. The Oxfordshire village is lovely, there’s no doubt about that.
It had all been done long before either Pym or Keillor came onto the scene. Early in the 19th century a movement in German literature called “Biedermeier” arose and celebrated the little things in life. One of the movement’s major proponents was Adalbert Stifter (info here), whose writing I know well because I have his complete works. Unlike Pym, who now has societies dedicated to the reverence of her work with annual meetings in both the UK and the USA, Stifter takes a bad rap. As a stylist he’s hard to beat — one of the greatest pleasures for me in reading his works is the beauty of his German. His subject matter, however, brought scorn upon him from the literary lights of his day. One of them said Stifter was only interested in “beetles and buttercups.” He dedicates himself ostensibly to the depiction of the placid dignity of the quotidian, but there are eruptions of the dark underbelly of human existence, as well. From the Wikipedia page:
Stifter’s work is characterized by the pursuit of beauty; his characters strive to be moral and move in gorgeous landscapes luxuriously described. Evil, cruelty, and suffering rarely appear on the surface of his writing, but Thomas Mann noted that “behind the quiet, inward exactitude of his descriptions of Nature in particular there is at work a predilection for the excessive, the elemental and the catastrophic, the pathological.” Although considered by some to be one-dimensional compared to his more famous and realistic contemporaries, his visions of ideal worlds reflect his informal allegiance to the Biedermeier movement in literature. As Carl Schorske puts it, “To illustrate and propagate his concept of Bildung, compounded of Benedictine world piety, German humanism, and Biedermeier conventionality, Stifter gave to the world his novel Der Nachsommer”.
But Stifter’s still waters run far deeper than those of either Lake Wobegon or Finstock. In the story “Kalkstein” (“Limestone”) from Stifter’s Bunte Steine (= Colorful Stones) we find an old pastor stuck out in a village in a desolate karst landscape living a life of abject poverty and consummate altruism. As things progress we find his tawdry little secret: an underwear fetish. He grew up in an affluent household and as an adolescent formed an attachment to a girl his age whose undergarments were always of the purest white. Throughout his long life that early attachment, which disappeared with his youth, remained fixed in his psyche. And — somewhat creepily — beneath the sackcloth and ashes our destitute pastor wears undergarments of the finest quality linen, bleached to perfect whiteness. It’s difficult to imagine that story on “The Prairie Home Companion.” It would have to go something like: “Why Clarence’s Underwear Is Always the Whitest In Town.” No, it won’t do — it violates the coziness rule. We can’t be doing with underwear fetishes in Lake Wobegon or in Pym’s quaint Oxfordshire. The lives lived so ploddingly there don’t have cellars like those of the characters in Stifter’s fiction.
The nature of the characters in Stifter’s works is part of the authorial agenda so their depiction is carefully constructed and squarely occupies the foreground of his stories. That dynamic has flipped by the time we get to Finstock and Lake Wobegon. The Biedermeier nature of life in those places now forms the foreground to the characters and their doings. Simply by placing characters in Lake Wobegon or in the equivalent of Finstock the authors have set the parameters for the range of action susceptible to depiction. We’re in a cozy world where eccentricity is comic but not bloodcurdling. There may well be tiffs in the Church Committee about what may or may not appear in floral arrangements for the altar, but there will be no news breaking about a twelve year old girl killing her father with a machete and burying the body in the garden in order to escape incest. That sort of thing is for Helen Mirren of “Prime Suspect” to deal with in London (where, as we all know, anything can happen). Stifter’s Biedermeier framework has settled into the narrative infrastructure of Lake Wobegon and Finstock deeply enough to prevent any nasty surprises. It reminds me of the “cozy mystery” genre that’s become so popular in recent years with ladies of a certain age who visit public libraries weekly for a new set of books to keep them amused of an evening. As I overheard one of them say once to a library clerk, “You know what you’re getting with authors like this, which is just the way I like it.” Teapots, Victoria sponges and tidy, picturesque murders are fine. Dark upwellings from the subconscious or headlong lurches into the pathological are beyond the pale. We ladies have standards, right girls?
The desire for such cozified things never dies. That’s why there are Barbara Pym Societies in the UK and the USA today to continue the tradition in a world where it now can only be found in such places as conferences in church basements. Here’s a description by Hannah Rosefield of one such a meeting from an article of 2015 in the New Yorker entitled, “Barbara Pym and the New Spinster” (here) — there’s that S word again … :
“You’ll see it’s exactly like her novels. Everyone here is from their pages,” Laura Shapiro said, when I told her that this was my first time at the Barbara Pym Society’s annual North American conference. It was a Friday night in the middle of March and we were standing with sixty or so other Pym fans in the wood-panelled hall of the Episcopalian Church of the Advent in Boston. On the tables where we would shortly eat dinner were milk bottles full of tulips and daffodils. “I’m so glad we’re not having Pymian food,” I heard a professor of literature say, alluding perhaps to the solitary meals—a boiled egg or half a tin of baked beans—often eaten by her heroines. A woman at my table was telling her companion that her father, a clergyman in New York, retired in 1959. Before the evening was out, I would have three separate conversations about Anthony Trollope. This is Pym’s world: genteel, literary, largely female, located somewhere between academia and the church.
After dinner was a game of trivia—Pym-themed, of course—and the level of Pym obsession became clear. Tom Sopko, the conference organizer, read aloud quotations from her novels and, table by table, we guessed the character they related to. “Today I was in pale coffee brown with touches of black and coral jewellery,” he read, and as soon as he reached “coffee brown” the room filled with sounds of recognition. It was like this for almost every question. The next morning, the conference relocated to Harvard’s Barker Center and the number of attendees expanded to a hundred. The rest of the weekend was spent alternating talks about this year’s featured book, “Quartet in Autumn” (1977), with suitably Pym-ish activities: a sherry party, a dramatized reading, and Evensong back at the Church of the Advent.
I rest my case. The carryings-on described above could easily take place in Lake Wobegon, provided at some point somebody asks the speakers how much they’re being paid. The jury is in: Barbara Pym’s Englishness is all about place. Without the atmosphere supplied by English village, she’s just The Wandering Spinster without a wisteria bower under which to lay her head. So that settles the matter: no need to plunge into A Few Green Leaves again. I’ll just watch Miss Marple on YouTube. Sorted! 🙂