Dead White Comfort

PymFirst published on 6th April, 2014 in The Star

I AM currently reading a collection of fragments by the late British novelist Barbara Pym … one of those dead, white women authors I am so fond of. The first Pym I read was No Fond Return of Love, several years ago, but I recently acquired 10 of her books and once I started reading, I couldn’t stop. Thus, I am now halfway through the final one and feeling quite sad at the thought of soon being Pymless.

I think I shall have to treat that sorry state with a couple of Jane Austens, and then a selection of my favourites, Elizabeth Bowen et al.

Jane Austen, probably my first taste of dead white comfort.

“Jane Austen is concerned with marriage and money,” an ex-boyfriend used to say (dismissively and disdainfully), and it occurs to me that this is what I like about my dead, white women, marriage-and-money being shorthand for the preoccupations of women in general and not to be taken too literally. Women do not actually have a monopoly on the concerns explored by these authors, but perhaps men approach them in ways I can’t relate to. Would it be unjust to say that most men deal with life too coldly, or else with too much aggression, or by denying their feelings? It’s simply what I’ve observed, and, as I have heard countless men describe women as too emotional, irrational and rash, I will take it as fair comment in both cases: perhaps our observations simply reflect our (mis)understanding of each other.

I like reading about women dealing with life and all its attendant miseries, the more mundane the better. It’s like what C.S. Lewis is supposed to have said: “We read to know we are not alone.” Yes, exactly, and it’s simplistic to think that a Malaysian mother of three would have nothing in common with a spinster in 1950s rural England or a disappointed suburban wife in a 1970s Canada. It’s comforting to realise that, divided by time and continents and cultures, we are all stressing about the same things. It might also be considered depressing – that there seems to be no solution or escape from life’s petty sorrows. I know have female friends who find these fictional lives that are so like real life tedious and boring and sad. They certainly don’t seem to offer any diversion or flights of fancy. However, in a way, reading these books are a form of escapism for me because it some cases, although the problems are familiar, the ways they are dealt with are singular and amazing; the people who suffer so good and brave; the resolutions so right and just. Someone like Elizabeth Goudge, for instance, wrote these heartening stories about communities that are frankly too good to be true, comprising individuals full of kindness and love and integrity. I read these books and I know it’s fantasy but I’m still encouraged, and maybe inspired too. That can’t be a bad thing.

Elizabeth Goude: Another comforting favourite.

I began my love affair with some of these dead white women when I was in my teens. I was quite sulky and given to outbursts and rages, and I daresay I found the stiff-upper-lipped atmosphere of these stories calming. I recognised Austen’s wit and irony even then, and found her ability to recognise the ridiculous in the grimmest situations comforting. My preference was probably shaped by the limited choices I had, and I wonder sometimes if too many options are a totally good thing: They might overwhelm you and cause you to just give up, give in and follow the herd.

I guess the point of today’s column is to encourage teens to try something out of the ordinary, something you’d never normally read, something no one you know is reading or has even heard of. Barbara Pym? Maybe. And if you hate her it’s fine. But even among authors still alive and still in print, and who write for young people, there are countless ones who don’t enjoy the sort of exposure bestselling writers like J.K. Rowling, John Green, Veronica Roth, and Suzanne Collins do. This doesn’t mean they aren’t worth reading. There are many great writers out there who will never be famous, but they might have written books that fit you just right, that speak directly to you, that make you feel happy and complete and pumped the way no other books do.

It’s exciting to think of being young and exploring books and figuring out what you like and what you don’t. Even now, in my dotage, I am discovering new authors who excite me, and even new old authors to add to my dead, white woman list. Some of these authors are still alive, they’re just dead in spirit, which sounds terrible, but is not meant to be. It’s just shorthand for my favourite kind of (comfort) writing: graceful, measured, natural, intimate.

Whatever incarnation your dead, white women take, I wish you the best in finding them. Happy Reading!


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