A manuscript set aside for over forty years acquires a timeless charm
Barbara Pym’s Crampton Hodnet is probably the one flawless book I own. I often promise it to myself, with a cup of tea, at the end of a particularly dire task, like refolding sari blouses.
My sister bought this gem for me in 1987 and I’ve read it at least once a year since. It is a first edition published in 1985 by E.P. Dutton. The book has just the right size and heft. The type is readable in any light. A pretty ink drawing opens each chapter. Another edition came out in 2012, but mine is good for another quarter century.
Pym’s novels feature the indoor and inner lives of women and mild-mannered men. Her works are sometimes witty, sometimes languid, but the luminous joy of Crampton Hodnet makes it a one-off. Pym finished writing it in the 1940s, but by the time she thought of sending it to publishers a world war had come and gone, and she found the story dated. It was her literary executor who edited it and brought it to the public after her death.
The novel opens with Miss Morrow, a rather faded woman in her mid-thirties. Like her name, Miss Morrow is both wistful and optimistic. On this dull afternoon, she has the radio on low volume in an attempt to cheer herself without alerting Miss Doggett, her employer. But soon the house is buzzing with young Oxford students who have come to tea, and the scene sparkles.
Later scenes are set at church fairs, garden parties, libraries, Oxford lawns, London tea rooms, and the British Museum. Dialogues and characters are perfectly matched. Not a word is wasted, and Pym neatly reels out two narrative threads. In one, a professor becomes infatuated with his pretty young student but returns to his sensible wife. In the other, a clergyman asks Miss Morrow to marry him. Over the space of a year, other encounters take place, pretty as a minuet, and many promising matches are rained out. The overall impression is of an all-suffusing light on the middle elite of pre-war Oxford. The story that Pym considered dated offers a charming authenticity to today’s reader.
Pym’s work is often recommended to and by fans of Jane Austen. If Austen had been breezy about extramarital sex and gay undergrads, I suppose she would have written something very like this. Pym swivels deftly from one viewpoint to another, as when Miss Morrow is surprised to see Francis Cleveland go down the street carrying a wine bottle, and in the very next line Francis wonders how one would carry a bottle nonchalantly. So there’s a bit of James Joyce there as well as Austen. Most modern of all, Pym doesn’t “reward” our favourite female character with a husband. She leaves her serenely single.
Crampton Hodnet closes with Miss Morrow again listening to rich, unsuitable music from Radio Luxembourg. Life in that drawing room goes merrily on.
Next time you want cheer on a dull afternoon, do drop in.