Posts Tagged ‘No Fond Return of Love’

 

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Great cover on this 1981 Granada edition, designed by someone who has obviously read and “got” the book.

No Fond Return of Love by Barbara Pym ~ 1961. This edition: Granada, 1981. Paperback. ISBN: 0-586-05371-9. 287 pages.

My rating: 8/10 on a first reading. Perhaps to be elevated after a future re-read. This author is always better the second time around.

Barbara Pym is in rather fine form with this further delving into the complex lives of a number of single women in various stages of contentment (or otherwise) with their unpartnered state.

As with the stellar Excellent Women, and most of her other stealthily pithy novels, No Fond Return of Love has twin strands: the inner voice of a quiet spinster of the keenly-watching-from-the-shadows type, and the omnipotent authorial observation (not always uniformly benign) of various relationships playing out in that spinster’s sphere.

The set-up is familiar to the Pym reader. A single, upper middle class lady of no-longer-young vintage, engaged in some sort of quasi-intellectual undertaking, encounters a number of new people, including a man who both repels and attracts her. The man may or may not look upon the spinster with equal interest; the interest, if piqued, may or may not be romantic. Pym then shines an illuminating light on her chosen small segment of society; she dances her puppets about in increasingly bizarre postures until at last pairing them up in sometimes unexpected partnerships, which frequently feel less than wholly satisfactory, though cleaving to the traditional pattern of a tidy, “happy” ending.

Dulcie Mainwaring is our key character here, though she occasionally steps aside to allow others to have their moment in the dusty spotlight of Pym’s regard. A pleasantly attractive and undeniably intelligent women in her early thirties, Dulcie has just been given her walking papers (in the most tactful way) by her long-time fiancé – he has recently informed her, in acceptably clichéd terms, that he is “not worthy of her love” – and though Dulcie unprotestingly goes along with this charade, her inner confidence is badly shaken.

Pulling herself together, Dulcie decides to divert herself with attendance at a conference designed to address some of the various complexities of her particular line of work. Dulcie belongs to that of the vast network of poorly paid, unseen people (mostly female) who proofread, fact-check, do minor research, tidy up footnotes, and compile indexes and bibliographies for scholarly works of research and biography, and the conference is highlighted by lectures on such arcane topics as “Some Problems of an Editor”, by presenters mildly well-known amongst their peers.

As anyone who has been to this sort of a limited-interest conference may have found, the really interesting networking happens during coffee breaks and over evening drinks, and this event is no exception. Making a deliberate effort to shake off her post-broken-engagement gloom, Dulcie winds herself up to approach a fellow attendee, the slightly younger, slightly more experienced-in-the-arena-of love, and more than slightly patronizing Viola Dace. Though not exactly kindred spirits at first encounter, the two find themselves sharing an interest in one of the conference’s key speakers, the handsome and apparently charming Aylwin Forbes.

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Aylwin Forbes effortlessly repulses Viola’s attempts to renew their nebulous relationship with well-practiced urbanity; Dulcie watches their wary exchanges with an eyebrow secretly cocked; she catches every nuance. There is something about Aylwin which piques her interest, and after the conference is over and Dulcie is back home in the over-large house she has inherited from her late parents, she finds him popping back into her field of awareness.

Well, what else to do but research the man, then? Which Dulcie proceeds to do, with a tenacious thoroughness which does credit to her meticulous skill in tracking down elusive references and firmly knitting up tenuous connections. Dulcie’s technique, which involves much trudging about and putting herself into situations where she can inquire as to her subject without causing undue alarm to the interviewee, might well be what we refer to nowadays as stalkerish, but Dulcie, though obsessed with the minutiae of Aylwin’s life and the state of his troubled marriage, somehow manages to stay just on the sane side of this sort of behaviour. We view her actions as manifestations of her innate desire to acquire and organize information, even as her curiousity leads her into some exceedingly unlikely situations, in which the author’s sense of humour is fully indulged.

Dulcie is joined in her home by her eighteen-year-old niece Laurel, and then, in an odd plot twist, by the perennially sulky Viola Dace. Aylwin himself shows up, still vaguely attracted to/repulsed by Viola, and mildly interested in Dulcie in a platonic sort of way – she might be useful to him in a professional sense, Aylwin practically muses – and then increasingly infatuated with the oblivious (and half his age) Laurel, who has herself become romantically interested in the florist-shop-owning son of the family next door.

Meanwhile Dulcie has scraped acquaintance with Aylwin’s clergyman brother, Neville, who himself is having romantic problems with the aging spinsters of his flock, and with Aylwin’s rather soppy but ultimately likeable estranged wife Marjorie, with his matter-of-fact mother-in-law, and eventually with his surprisingly “common” mother, who owns a not-very-good guesthouse (complete with moulting taxidermied eagle in the lobby) in a seaside town, where most of the characters converge for what one fears will be a tremendous confrontation. This never materializes, though Dulcie has a bad moment or two as she crouches behind a piece of guesthouse furniture while Aylwin and Marjorie emotionally discuss the dissolution of their marriage, thinking they are alone.

The tale has strong elements of farce, as you may have gathered from this sketchy outline of some key points, but Pym’s dry tone, and the ever-apt inner thoughts of Dulcie kept me quite enthralled, even while I was mildly annoyed with myself for my collusion in such a nonsensical sort of thing. Dare I say that this reminded my of something which David Lodge might have dreamed up? Or even Robertson Davies, on one of his lighter-hearted days? Full of in-jokes which leave the reader feeling slightly on the fringes of the intellectual circle in which the author has placed his/her characters, and coming close to outright vulgarity with some of the more outlandish developments.

I didn’t much care for the ending, which seemed to argue that any man is better than none, after a book’s worth of practical examples of why a spinster’s fate might not be such a bad one. I thought that after going to great pains to demonstrate her character’s rich inner life, Barbara Pym let Dulcie down. Perhaps, writing at the end of that “happy housewife”-focussed decade, the author caved in to the 1950s’ ideal of marriage always being better than the alternative?

 

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