Friday, February 10, 2012

Some Tame Gazelle

I finally read my first Barbara Pym novel. I like to start at the beginning with an author, and so I read her first novel, Some Tame Gazelle. She had been hyped pretty thoroughly to me by a variety of bookish friends, and so I was relieved to discover that I did enjoy the book and am eager to read another Pym.

I'm always a bit skeptical when an author is dubbed "the next Austen." And while I can see the comparison to Austen insofar as the ironic wit and English village life are concerned, I'm not sure the similarities run deeper than that. I find Austen novels are mythic at their heart and essentially fairytales in which the heroine manages to overcome seemingly unsurmountable obstacles to win her prince. They may be ground in prosaic settings (as opposed to the fantastic settings of Mysteries of Udolpho, for example) but they are still fairytales, and are all the more powerful because the characters seem so very real and ordinary.

Some Tame Gazelle, and I'm guessing the rest of Pym's novels, are not fairytales. The two women whose stories we learn, Belinda and Harriet, are middle-aged unmarried women (I refuse to use the term "spinster") and rather than overcoming unsurmountable obstacles to gain their earthly reward of a husband, meander along a journey that takes them to where they started, reasonably happy and comfortable and fulfilled in life as long as they have "some tame gazelle" to love.

The title comes from a poem by Thomas Haynes Bayly that contains the line:
Some tame gazelle, or some gentle dove: Something to love, oh, something to love!

In Harriet's case, she loves curates--she dotes on them. She invites them to dinner, bakes them pies and cakes, showers them with gifts, and when the invariably pale, attractive young men move on, she mourns each briefly and then adopts the next to come to the village. In Belinda's case, she loves the village archdeacon, a former beau who married elsewhere but who maintains a slightly more-than-friendly relationship with Belinda. Both women could easily do what Charlotte Lucas did, and catch the brass ring when it goes by, but both opt for a life spent in adoring their own particular tame gazelle.

I did enjoy the wonderful names that Pym gave her characters. Who can read about the Bede sisters without thinking of "the venerable Bede," or not think of John Donne when reading about the latest curate, Edgar Donne, or not nod at the reference to the poem Piers Plowman when encountering Edward Plowman in the story. This novel creaks with English literary references, which makes me happy.

I did have to resort to my iPad to regularly look up words and phrases that were unfamiliar to me. Much as a looked, however, I never did find a reasonable explanation of what "mallows" are; internet reference suggest salad greens, but I got the feeling what was being described was more like a squash. Any thoughts?

I laughed out loud in places, I smiled frequently at Pym's wonderful turn of phrase, I sighed contentedly at the end, and I plan on reading Excellent Women next.

This is just the type of scene I imagined throughout Some Tame Gazelle. In a way, I found Pym in Some Tame Gazelle much more reminscent of Gaskell in Cranford than Austen at all.


  1. "Ilaughed out loud in places, I smiled frequently at Pym's wonderful turn of phrase, I sighed contentedly at the end.."

    Now that's how to sell a book! How have I never heard of Pym? Glad you rectified that for me because this certainly sounds like it's right up my alley!

  2. I've only read Excellent Women which I loved. It was enough to make me want to buy all the rest of her novels, which I have yet to get around to reading! You are tempting me to go pick up one of her books now. I do like good humor. Can't help you with the mallows reference though! :)

  3. I just yesterday checked this out from the library, no kidding!! I've only read Excellent Women which I just loved.

    I agree she's a bit like Austen and Gaskell, I think because of the village settings, but to me, mostly because of the wry observations of life. Just something about the atmosphere, I can't describe it any better than that.

    I also have Crampton Hodnet and Quarted in Autumn which I got via Paperback Swap. Haven't touched them yet but lately I've had the overwhelming urge for mid-century middlebrow fiction. Just the thing for the winter.

  4. I enjoyed Excellent Women, and this one sounds like it covers similar territory. I agree with you that I wouldn't compare Pym to Austen, though.

    I have this book on one of my bookshelves - I'll get round to reading it at some stage.

  5. No, Pym definitely does not write fairy tales. I think the similarities to Jane Austen are based on village life and manners. Some Tame Gazelle is my next Pym... hopefully soon. So glad you enjoyed this.

  6. It has been a long time since I read Pym, but your review brought it all back. I read quite a few, since they offer truth, but in gentle, digestible gulps. I agree that reading her work does not feel like reading Austen, more like the Gaskell of 'Cranford', as you suggested. Among later writers, I would compare Pym with Elizabeth Bishop or Anita Brookner, though Pym finds hope and humor rather than resignation. As you put it so beautifully-- her characters "meander along a journey that takes them to where they started, reasonably happy and comfortable and fulfilled." There is an art to gaining happiness from such rather meager emotional materials--a discipline of sorts that they excel at. In this discipline (and absence of complaint), there is something to admire.

    I'm also glad you mentioned Pym's vocabulary and the need for a dictionary at times! I remember learning what a "jumble sale" was from Pym (I'd call it "rummage"). As for mallow, I think of it as a small pink or white flower, but I would need help to spot one! :)

  7. I have to read something by Pym. I do have Excellent Women, but love when a book can make me laugh.

    That watercolor is lovely.