Monday 24 June 2013

Class in the Novels of Barbara Pym

No Fond Return of Love, written in the 50s, concerns two women in their 30s who have both been disappointed by men (one fiancé, one crush). Dulcie and Viola end up sharing a house, and in a very genteel way start stalking Viola’s love object (Aylwin). Dulcie (deserted by her fiancé) is a gentle, intelligent woman who could “make more of herself”. None of her friends guesses that she is an outrageous snob, always spotting the signs that someone (such as Aylwin’s mother-in-law) is from a slightly inferior class to her own.

Aylwin has a “Florentine leather stud box”, showing that he has travelled to the right part of Italy. But the box is a touristy souvenir, despite its good taste.

“It would have to be one of those classically simple meals, the sort that French peasants are said to eat and that enlightened English people sometimes enjoy rather self-consciously – a crusty French loaf, cheese, and lettuce and tomatoes from the garden.”

Variegated ivy” is a regrettable sign that a garden owner is not quite-quite. And as for “tradescantia with striped mauve leaves”! These appear in the flower shop where Stephen Beltane, the son of a neighbour, works.

A “hand-embroidered duchesse set” is being offered at Aylwin’s mother-in-law’s sale of work. A duchesse set consisted of three doilies intended to go under the powder box and pin trays on your dressing table. The name is pretentious (French and aristocratic), like “duchesse potatoes” – which are mashed potatoes piped into little suburban swirls.

“Each ‘bloom’ had cost one-and-three.” We’re back in the (over-priced) flower shop. “Flowers”, never “blooms”.

Academic women have a limited choice between “frightening elegance, frowsty bohemianism, or uncompromising dowdiness” ponders Aylwin (he is intimidated by them all).

Maurice, Dulcie’s ex-fiancé “held up his hand and contemplated his nails delicately”. There were two ways of checking that your fingernails were clean – Maurice’s method, or with a lightly curled fist and the palm of your hand towards you. His gesture betrays that he doesn’t move in the best circles – or is he gay?

Aylwin wonders “how he could stop a mat in his lounge from curling up at the edges”. Fifties houses were full of mats that tended to slip about on the linoleum floors. You kept them under control with  ugly rubber net backing. And he calls his sitting room a lounge! He is not as middle-class as people imagine.

“The fluffy little woman in the mauve twin-set, wrapping up the pottery donkey” – Dulcie’s negative judgement of Aylwin’s ex-wife. Pottery donkeys, brought back from European holidays, were the depth of fashion. She is pointed out to Dulcie as wearing a “lilac” twinset. People of Dulcie’s stratum in society only referred to colours by their names (mauve), not by something that might be that colour (violet, lemon, primrose).

“The kitchen was warm, and comfortable in a rather old-fashioned style, with deep basket chairs and a round table covered with a red plush cloth.” This is where a friend’s cook lives and works, and it sounds lovely. Whatever happened to kitchens like this?

Dulcie’s neighbour Mrs Beltane, who dotes on her tiny dog Felix, “was of that school which prefers to worship in a garden or some lovely ‘spot’: indeed, she would probably have maintained, if challenged, that one is nearer God’s heart in a garden than anywhere else on earth.”

“Felix yapped vigorously.” Middle-class people don't have yappy dogs.

“I have a black lace mantilla which I wear when I want to cover my head,” brags Viola. In a Catholic or Anglo-Catholic church, far classier than a hat. (If you want to wear a mantilla, remember that the middle point of the triangle goes over your forehead.)

“…what she thought of as ‘mean’ little semi-detached houses”. Dulcie being judgmental again.

In a churchyard, the area in front of the headstone is “filled in with green chippings, which looked like bath salts”. Not in the best taste.

On the train, “The furtive sandwich eating and the bringing out of the flasks of tea was accomplished with hardly any embarrassment.” People like us are not ashamed of eating in public.

Mrs Beltane is “using a new watering can of some white iridescent material – plastic, he supposed – in the form of a swan”. Oh dear!

“‘That’s far more what poor old Basil himself would have wished,’ said the woman firmly. ‘A few natural flowers – whatever there happened to be in the garden, even if it wasn’t very much – rather than an expensive sheaf of wired flowers from a Kensington florist. He would have hated the idea of wired flowers – he abhorred cruelty in all its forms.” Middle-class people still give this speech almost word for word – especially when complaining about the “heaps of flowers in cellophane” in front of Kensington Palace after Diana died. (In the book, Stephen Beltane spends most of his time at work wiring flowers into place.)

“‘What an odd smell,’ said Marjorie. ‘I suppose it’s the dust burning on the fire. When they aren’t used much they do get dusty.’” Marjorie is Aylwin’s ex-wife, and his mother, who runs a hotel, has an electric heater instead of an open fire.

“‘Oh, that academic stuff – where does it get one,’ said Viola impatiently. ‘One only meets people like Aylwin Forbes, and what use are they?’” Viola realises she has been wasting her time with the “right” kind of people, and marries someone who works in a shop.

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