Monday, November 12, 2012

Barbara Pym's An Unsuitable Attachment: Notes for Some Future Essay, Maybe

*Title is funny and ironic, in that there's not an "attachment" in the entire novel that isn't unsuitable in one way or another. On an initial read it would be easy to conclude that the title refers to the marriage at the novel's climax. Subsequent readings lead me to think that it applies at least as much to the attachment of the vicar's wife for her cat as to anything else.

*It is a novel, like Jane Austen's novels, in which the ultimate object is the maintenance of order through marriage. Unlike Austen's novels, however, this novel manages to match up virtually everyone with the wrong person, if they weren't wrongly matched to begin with, which would seem to suggest far more skepticism about the notion of order, and far more interest in the undercurrents of human personalities, than Austen's novels evince. Just consider:

-Mark Ainger, handsome, "remote," intellectual vicar who insists on remaining in a down-at-heels parish out of a sense of duty to the poor, even though he's ineffectual at ministering to them. He has to rehearse even the most commonplace of exchanges, as in his first appearance in the novel, thinking his way through buying fish at the neighborhood chippie.

Mark is married to

-Sophia, consistently described as a too-thin red-haired pre-Raphaelite, whose depths of Romanticism and emotional neediness would seem to make her not an ideal partner for Mark, nor he for her. The barrenness of their marriage is reflected in both their unexplained childlessness and in Sophia's devouring love for their cat. "She's all I've got." About which more later.

Mark himself seems obliquely attracted to their neighbor,

-Ianthe Broome, "a canon's daughter," conventional and correct, with "tiresomely good" taste. "What an asset to our parish," Mark thinks of her with uncharacteristically spontaneous enthusiasm, in the back of a taxi in Rome (in considering why he does not convert to Roman Catholicism, he has had to remind himself, as an afterthought, of the impediment of Sophia, "his beloved wife," whom he goes on to equate with the cat: "And then there was Faustina, who was, he was sure, fiercely Protestant.") Ianthe, for her own part, is shocked at Sophia's departures from what Ianthe views as suitable opinions and behaviors for a clergyman's wife and identifies, rightly, the weirdness of her attachment to the cat, about which more later. In many ways Ianthe is far more the model of a clergyman's wife, and far more fitted to be satisfied with what a man Mark has to offer on all levels.

Mark being obviously unavailable, however, the husband prospect which most readily suggests itself is

-Ianthe's neighbor, Rupert Stonebird. He and Ianthe buy and move into their little terraced houses in the neighborhood of Mark's church, St. Basil's, at the same time. The book opens with Rupert, in fact, observing Sophia and her sister Penelope as they observe him:  "[A]s an anthropologist, he knew that men and women may observe each other as warily as wild animals hidden in long grass." Like Mark, Rupert is somewhat remote, unassuming (well, maybe Mark as a tall, good-looking vicar isn't that unassuming), and privately uncertain of himself. Even in his personal life, he settles more comfortably into the role of observer and is interested in people in, largely, a detached anthropological way, as in a sherry-drinking scene in Ianthe's house, following the parish bazaar.

A rather strange collection of men and women, thought Rupert with an anthropologist's detachment, none of whom really know each other, but between whom waves and currents of feeling are already beginning to pass. What, indeed, could they drink to? 

Rupert, having recently recovered his childhood faith and churchgoing habits, ponders the possibility of a match with Ianthe:  she's right there, for one thing, and she's a known quantity, the excellent churchwoman, the woman of good breeding and taste, incapable of a misstep. He finds her soothing, imagines a decorous dalliance with her, and likes the idea of marriage to her, yet it is Penelope Grandison, Sophia's eccentric younger sister, "the pre-Raphaelite beatnik," as Rupert privately calls her, who moves him to actual emotion and desire. Meanwhile, Ianthe finds Rupert, his friends, and their study of primitive tribes oddly, perhaps primally, alarming.

Other men, perhaps eligible, perhaps not, include

-Mervyn Cantrell, Ianthe's irritable, sexually ambiguous senior colleague at the sociological library where she works. Mervyn loves Ianthe's "good" furniture, that much is certain.

-John Challow, also a colleague at the library. Younger than Ianthe, socially her inferior (though in what way isn't spelled out precisely, though to Pym's intended audience and Pym herself perhaps this would have been more than obvious). In a way that I frankly find kind of creepy, John insinuates himself into Ianthe's feelings mostly by way of meaningful eye contact, inappropriately intimate comments about what color bed-jacket would look good on her, and the like. Ianthe, at St. Peter's in Rome,  imagines herself walking about the basilica with John, then wonders whether a life with him would include "things like that." Her train of thought on the subject is a revelatory one, with regard to her own character, with its sense of propriety, its shrinkings, but also its unexpected girdings of the will:

Would it be possible to go round sightseeing with him and expect him to say the sort of things appropriate to the occasion? But perhaps if they were to have any life together, none of it -- or very little -- would be spent in looking at churches and picture galleries, so it wouldn't matter. Plenty of people did without that sort of thing and were perfectly happy . . . Ianthe stopped short at the boldness of her thoughts, wondering what she could have meant . . . 

 The novel is in many ways an anthropological study itself (not for nothing had Barbara Pym worked for just such a learned society as appears in several of her novels), examining precisely that phenomenon which Rupert has observed:  the waves and currents of feeling which pass between men and women,  none of whom really know each other. In many ways, it is those waves and currents, and the turbulence they cause, which are the heart of the novel, more than any particular protagonist.

My own thoughts, however, keep returning to Sophia, easily the weirdest character of this ensemble. As the only married woman in the cast, she would seem to be out of the action;  her obvious, predictable function would be that of chorus and matchmaker.   But settled and decided as her life might superficially seem, she is in many ways the most turbulent, the least deeply settled, of all the characters. She is married, but her marriage is arid and full of apologies, spoken and unspoken. She tries to create a home in the vicarage, in the image of her own childhood home, but this is a failure;  she can't graft her apparently happy childhood onto her adult life, and her attempts at atmosphere fall short, ring hollow.  In the end, it is in Rupert's untidy study, when she has come -- unexpectedly, irrationally and perhaps even inappropriately -- to talk over Ianthe's impending marriage, that she thinks, "Oh, what a haven." Of all the characters, Rupert alone extends sympathy to Sophia, seeing her as a tragic figure and intuiting her acquaintance with despair.

And then there's the cat. Initially the cat merely seems like any childless couple's fur baby, imbued in their shared imagination with human qualities, and conversed through, as if it took an active role in household communications.

"No, Faustina," said Sophia more sternly. "We do not leap onto the table for our food. We take it from our dish in the proper place."
"But there is nothing in the dish," Mark pointed out. 
"Yes, but we must be patient," said Sophia, helping the cat first. 
As the novel progresses, however, it becomes clear that for both Sophia and Mark, on various levels, the lines between the human and the animal have become blurred.  "'Penny, we do not look on divorce and remarriage in that way,'" says Mark to his sister-in-law, "rather in the tone he used when Faustina jumped onto the table and began licking the butter dish." And, "We do not drink alcohol in the afternoon," says Sophia to Rupert as she reclines in a chair in the "haven" of his study.

Or, well, it's not so much that the boundaries between human and animal are confused as that Faustina functions as a sort of projected self for both Mark and Sophia, as if their one-fleshness expressed itself, inadequately, in the form of a cat. Her name of course is a saint's name, which might be said to reflect Mark's own remote air of sanctity;  certainly part of Sophia's dissatisfaction must arise from her feeling of being married not to a flesh-and-blood man, of the sort who puts up shelves in the kitchen, but to a saint. On the other hand, as we learn late in the novel, Faustina is the name of the villa near Naples where Sophia's mad-looking aunt lives, surrounded by lemon groves and lush gardens and attended by a longtime Italian lover. The cat's name and Sophia's disproportionate and unrequited devotion to her both suggest Faustina's function as an emblem of the "larger," less convention-bound, more romantic life Sophia yearns for but has traded away by marrying her father's curate.

Oddly enough, it's Ianthe who moves in the direction of that less convention-bound life in her choice of a marriage partner, though a thoughtful reader would hardly feel sanguine about her prospects, let alone swept up in the momentum of the love story -- we're not in Middlemarch/Will Ladislaw territory here. Still, this would explain Sophia's feelings of desolation in the wake of the marriage:  that Ianthe has done something not only out of character for herself, but in character for Sophia, who in fact has set a very Ianthe course for her own life, however much she might try to doctor it with bowls of quince and doses of liquid paraffin for Faustina.

As usual, I don't know how to end this -- it's notes, not an essay, so I suppose these thoughts haven't really culminated in anything. And I haven't dealt much with Sophia's sister Penelope, who's an interesting  and endearing character in her own right. But there it is. If you've read this novel, I'd love to have some further conversation. If you haven't read it, do go read it so that we can have some conversation. I find that despite its surface fluffiness, all vicars and jumble sales and comic eccentricities, Barbara Pym's work yields more and more depth and texture and interest on subsequent readings, and there are all kinds of things one could say about this, or any, of her novels.

Which is a lame note to end on, but again, there it is.


steve said...

i recognize certain themes in your critique: there are those in this world who would saddle, indeed have saddled, a person with fiercely protestant cats. some such cats may have crazy tail-less, three-legged, one-eared aunts with whom they may share certain peculiar habits of thought or expression. nonetheless we regard such people with forbearance and charity, indeed with fondness, as we may find echoes of our own humanity within the narrative.

Sally Thomas said...

Well, of course we do. Which is why Pym is so worth reading, because what she's to presenting us is the church jumble sale of the human condition. At the same time, I think her narrative method in the novel is more anthropological than anything else and invites the kind of reading which wonders at patterns of relationship and the ways that people in tribal groups, such as the Anglican parish, both inhabit and subvert their assigned roles within those patterns. Which is frankly fascinating to me.

I do find fascinating the ways that the Anglican Pym's clergy and parishioners wrestle with the specter of Roman Catholicism -- one of the things that rings particularly true in her "churchy" novels, it seems to me, is that the Anglican proximity to Rome, geographically and ecclesiologically, sits uncomfortably with all of them, and particularly with her vicars, none of whom are ever happily married (though some are "higher" than others, in terms of their churchmanship -- and there's always tension between "high" and "low" and celibate and non-celibate). In this novel, for example, Mark Ainger finds himself envying the "cosiness" of the groups of priests on their plane to Rome, whose presence makes him feel a heightened sense of his own isolation. He can't see himself ever joining them, however, because "he was too old now, and the whole thing was altogether too complicated. There was Sophia, too, his beloved wife, and even Faustina, who was, he was sure, fiercely Protestant."

Having walked that particular road, and a certain amount of it in that particular culture, albeit in its diminished and latter-day form, I find this to be, again, a true and accurate observation on a cultural level, and also the kind of thing which can open out to suggest a more universal discomfort of human beings in their own skin. Which, again, is what the novel highlights.

Sally Thomas said...

Incidentally, this tiny passage, very typical of Pym, is my favorite comic moment in the entire novel:

At the parish bazaar, "Mark was approaching with an elderly clergyman, a former vicar who had on his retirement bought a house just on the boundary of the parish, rather tactlessly, some thought, but as he was a celibate there was no wife to poke her nose into parish affairs, which was something to be thankful for.

'Ah, Mrs. Ainger, you see before you the dog returning to his vomit,' he said cheerfully, greeting Sophia."

That makes me laugh every time.

Sally Thomas said...

"presenting to us," I meant to type in my first response.