I can’t think why it’s taken me so long to get around to reading Barbara Pym. But I’m glad that I have even if I’m a latecomer to the party. Some Tame Gazelle was her debut novel. In it she features characters based on people within her own circle of friends and acquaintances but imagines how their lives could be twenty or thirty years’ time.
The two ‘gazelles’ are the middle-aged spinster sisters Belinda and Harriet Bede. Belinda is the more intelligent one having taken a degree in literature. She’s long harboured a passion for the Archdeacon who lives in the village, being almost the only one who can tolerate his obscure sermons and propensity to regale everyone with his literary knowledge. Harriet has looks instead of grey cells but though her beauty has faded she is still the subject of repeated marriage proposals of an Italian count who lives locally. Instead she takes a fancy to every new curate who passes her way.
A smart and floridly handsome admirer in the Prime of Life would be much more acceptable to her than a husband of the same description. In her girlhood imaginings, Harriet had always visualised a tall, pale man for her husband, hence her partiality forthe clergy. ……. Who would exchange a comfortable life of spinsterhood in a country parish which always had its pale curate to be cherished, for the unknown trials of matrimony?
During the course of the book, both sisters reject proposals which would have taken them into the unknown world of marriage. They do so partly because they are not attracted to these men, but also because they are settled in their lives together and view marriage as a disturbance of that equilibrium.
Pym shines at portraying daily life in an English village of the 1950s with all its peculiarities and minor concerns. The mending of stays, the correct way to turn the heel of a sock; what to serve guests for lunch: these are the daily dilemmas of Harriet and Belinda.
Were all new curates always given boiled chicken when they came to supper for the first time? Belinda wondered. It was certainly an established ritual at their house and it seemed somehow right for the new curate. The coldness, the whiteness, the muffling with the sauce, perhaps even the sharpness added by the slices of lemon, there was something appropriate here even if Belinda could not see exactly what it was.
As amusing as these glimpses are of a world full of such small pains and pleasures, there is a sadness surrounding Pym’s leading ladies. With their faded hopes and lost dreams, these are gazelles who have lost a little of their spring but have found other compensations in life.