Earlier this year I attempted The Line of Beauty by Alan Hollinghurst. It did not go well. The pacing and protagonist didn’t work for me. In attempting to figure out why it didn’t work for me, and what might, Bonnie suggested that I give The Sweet Dove Died by Barbara Pym a chance (which seems fair, because it was Bonnie’s review of The Line of Beauty that got this whole thing started anyway). I very much wanted to read about the issues at hand and be a novel of manners to boot. And British! I was in, and not disappointed.
Published in 1978, The Sweet Dove Died tells the story of a handful of people interacting in 1960s England. We have Leonora Eyre, a single lady of ‘middle age’ who is of a social class and age where she is fills her days in much the same way she fills her house, with an interest in Victoriana and without a profession. One simply doesn’t do that. We also have Humphrey, an antiques dealer, and his nephew James, his protégé. Humphrey is very interested in pursuing Leonora, but she herself fancies James, who has affections for her, but perhaps not the sort she would wish.
Further complicating our triangle and pulling us into a pentagon, are Phoebe and Ned. Phoebe is an age appropriate, although of a different social class and very ‘60s woman James finds himself having relations with, who is herself turned over for the American Ned whom James meets while traveling for his work in the antiques shop. A trip that Humphrey sends him off on partly for his further education to take over the family business, and partly to get out of the way of Humphrey’s interests in Leonora…
It’s a very tangled web for fewer than 200 pages.
While these goings on is certainly enough to carry a novel, Pym doesn’t stop there. She’s interested in exploring the motives and personalities behind each of her characters and gives the reader just enough insight to make the logical leaps of understanding. Pym plays her cards close, and if the reader doesn’t pay attention, they’ll miss the signs, but each of these characters, from the young 20 something Phoebe, to the probably late 50s Humphrey are trying to define who they are and what life they want to be living – and how that life is better than the life chosen by others. Because if I haven’t mentioned it yet, all of the characters are terrible, delicious snobs.
The aspect of the novel which put me back on my readerly heels, and was the main reason for Bonnie’s suggestion of this Pym in particular, was the handling of sexuality, particularly the fluidity of James’ sexuality. Over the course of the novel he is contemplating the exact nature of his attraction to the older Leonora (who by my estimate is probably just past her fortieth birthday in the book, approximately 15 years older than James), to a casual sexual relationship with Phoebe who he doesn’t much like but wants to be respectful to, and then his affair with Ned which continues when Ned moves to England for his studies. The other characters’ reactions to the relationship between James and Ned is of quiet acceptance if not outright support, but also the expectation that James’ having a male lover would be a natural evolution of his youth and he would eventually find a suitable woman to marry initially caught me off guard. But then I happily read along and let Pym pull me into a version of the world she knew that I will not, but I get to visit from 2015 America.
I can wholeheartedly suggest this work to you and look forward to reading other Pym in the future.
This book was read and reviewed as part of the charitable Cannonball Read.