The Big Pym-Re-Read: Some Tame Gazelle

Some tame gazelleWhile Less Than Angels is about a community of anthropologists, Some Tame Gazelle, Barbara Pym’s first published novel, features her other favourite profession, the clergy.

The main characters, however, are spinsters, another Pym speciality, in this case, a pair of sisters called Harriet and Belinda Bede.

Harriet, the older sister, is plump, attractive, garrulous, and rather more flamboyant than the quiet, mousy, self-effacing and reflective Belinda.

Harriet has a fondness for young curates, a completely respectable regard, mind you, taking the innocent form of mothering these men of the cloth, inviting them for tea and dinner, and presenting them with gifts of knitted socks and sweaters, fruit, and homemade jams.

Meanwhile, Belinda loves their neighbour and the vicar of their parish, Archdeacon Henry Hoccleve. Belinda has been friends with the Archdeacon since they were at university together, and has remained steadfast for thirty years. Alas, he is married to the formidable Agatha, whom Belinda views with a combination of awe and fear.

Archdeacon HorcleveIn the first chapter of the novel we are introduced to Harriet’s latest young curate, Edgar Donne (I picture him looking like the poet Gerard Manley Hopkins [right]. Bizarrely, I also picture the Archedeacon looking like Hopskins!), who has come to the Bede’s for supper, and, as the book progresses, we meet the other characters, part of the Bede’s circle, including Henry and Agatha Horcleve; Count Ricardo Bianco, an Italian nobleman settled in their village, who is in love with Harriet and proposes to her regularly and in vain; Edith Liversidge, a ‘decayed gentlewoman’, and her poor relation, the dreary harp-playing Connie Aspinall who will not stop speaking of her days as companion to a lady in Belgrave Square.

Pym is as always a very funny writer, a genius at observing humans and human nature. It’s astounding that she wrote this insightful and witty novel about middle-aged people when she was a young undergraduate.

It is said that Belinda and Harriet are based on Barbara herself and her sister, Hilary, and they did end up living together, in a village in Oxfordshire, and are buried in the churchyard there. Several of the other characters who appear in Some Tame Gazelle are also based on real people: Henry Horcleve is supposedly Henry Harvey, Pym’s first love whom she met when she was an undergraduate at Oxford; Ricardo Bianco is the academic Robert Weiss, who was actually half-Italian, born in Milan, who moved to  England to read law at Oxford, and settled in England; and the writer Robert Liddell was the inspiration for Dr Nicholas Parnell, Belinda and Henry’s old university friend who comes to visit them.

Like all Pym’s novels, Some Tame Gazelle is character- rather than plot-driven. The focus is on the characters and their lives. Where Belinda is concerned, we are also privy to her inner thoughts and private musings.

These are not exciting lives, but they are important because they are the lives of people whom we grow to know and care about. Belinda Bede and those who surround her become our friends, and we are drawn into their ordinary, everyday existence so that it is as if we are part of their world.

It’s a small, predictable world, which I find restful and comforting. Pym’s novels are after all, some of my favourite comfort reads and no wonder! There are no nasty scandals, no horrid shocks, no meanness or depravity in this world. How realistic is this? As humans inhabit this world, probably not at all. It serves its purpose anyhow, or my needs when I pick up such a novel.

Still, there are parts of Some Tame Gazelle that are unsettling, and which remind me that I would probably not be welcome into the cosy community it describes. Just as the anthropologists in Less Than Angels invade foreign communities and comment on their ‘primitive’ ways, so do the clergy in this novel presume to bring ‘civilisation’ to Africa in the form of Christianity.

A Bishop visits the parish — he was known to the Bedes when he was a young curate — and presents a slide show about his work in a remote village in Africa:

There appeared in rapid succession several pictures of handsome natives,
dressed in bunches of leaves and garlands of flowers. Some members of the
audience were inclined to giggle at these, but the Bishop hastily explained
that the pictures were of the natives as they used to be.

‘We have since introduced a form of European dress which is far more in
keeping with Christian ideas of morality,’ he said. Another slide followed,
showing the natives clad in this way. ‘I should like to add here,’ he went on,
‘that we are often very much in need of garments for our people and should
welcome gifts of clothing or material – light cotton materials, of course,
nothing elaborate or costly.’

Yes, the book and the sentiments expressed were of their time, but this imposition of Western mores on the inhabitants of ‘less civilised’ Asians and Africans persists to this day.

I would like to believe that Pym was simply describing common colonial attitudes towards non-Europeans and that her opinions were more accurately reflected in Belinda Bede’s, admittedly rather confused, thoughts:

Of course the Mbawawa were a deserving cause, she supposed, but
were they not happier in their leaves and flowers? Naturally one wished them
to have the benefits of Christianity; it was rather difficult to see where one
should draw the line. They could hardly appear at a service in a dress of
leaves, she reflected, when she herself felt that a short-sleeved dress was
unsuitable. But need they wear those shapeless cotton garments? Perhaps the
architecture of the church had something to do with it: one’s style of dress
ought to be somehow in keeping … her thoughts wandered on against a
background of bleating Bishop’s voice.

The Bishop asks Belinda to marry him and is refused. Likewise, Harriet receives, but rejects a marriage proposal from Mr Mold, the assistant librarian at Dr Nicholas Parnell’s college. It seems the sisters are too fond of each other and their lives in their community to be tempted by any man, although one wonders if Belinda would make the exception for the Archdeacon if he were free to propose to her.

Her interactions with and thoughts regarding the pompous Henry Horcleve are, for me, the novel’s funniest moments, with her exchanges with his wife also providing some excellent comedy. I am especially tickled by the scene in which Agatha tells Belinda that a woman sometimes has to take charge when proposing marriage as ‘”there is often a natural hesitation on the part of the man, especially if he feels … that a woman is far
superior to him intellectually”‘ and Belinda’s reaction:

At this moment an idea came into Belinda’s head. At first it seemed
fantastic, then quite likely, and finally almost a certainty. Agatha had
proposed to Henry. Why had this never occurred to her before? And now that
it had, what was the use of it? Belinda could not answer this, but she knew
that she could put it away in her mind and take it out again when she was
feeling in need of comfort.

In the end, no matter how much pleasure Belinda and Harriet experience from unrequited love, proposals of marriage and harmless flirtation with curates, librarians and Bishops, they are reluctant to disrupt the status quo. These little events provide excitement and thrills , but can be enjoyed only if their lives remain, on the whole, predictable and safe. One even wonders if Count Ricardo would be at a loss if Harriet ever accepted his proposal: I get the impression that he enjoys wallowing in the melancholy produced by being regularly rejected, just as he takes pleasure in ‘a melancholy talk about his old friend John Akenside, who had been killed in a riot in Prague, when he had just been sitting at an open-air café taking a glass of wine, as was his custom in the evening, doing no harm to anybody.’

What never fails to impress (and alarm) me is the way the men who propose marriage react to being refused:

‘I’m afraid my sister and I are very confirmed spinsters,’ [Harriet] added, in a
lighter vein.

Mr Mold felt like saying that he had not intended to marry her sister as
well, for he was now annoyed rather than hurt at her refusal, and did not
consider that she had sufficiently realized the compliment he had paid her in
asking her to be his wife. He muttered something about it being a great pity,
and then Harriet said she hoped that he would have a pleasant journey back;
the afternoon train was a very convenient one and she believed there was a
restaurant car on it. Dr Parnell would be staying a little longer, perhaps? It
was such a real pleasure for them to see visitors as they lived such uneventful
lives in this quiet village. She did hope that Mr Mold would come and see
them again next time he was in the neighbourhood.

As he stood on the front doorstep, Mr Mold extended a cordial invitation to
her to come and visit him some time. ‘You’ll always find me in the Library,’
he added jovially, almost his old self again.

‘Reading Stitchcraft, I suppose,’ said Harriet, on a teasing note.

As he went out of the gate, he even waved one of his new gloves at her.
Perhaps after all the Librarian was right when he said that marriage was a
tiresome business and that he and Mold were lucky not to have been caught.
He looked at his watch. There would be plenty of time for a chat with the
landlord of the Crownwheel and Pinion before lunch. Marriage might put a
stop to all that kind of thing.

And when Belinda turns down the Bishop Theodore Grote …

‘I think it is perhaps a little early for tea, Miss Bede, and I have
still another call to make.’

‘Oh, I expect you will get tea there,’ said Belinda in a full, relieved tone.
‘Now that I come to think of it, we have only very little cake, just a small
piece of gingerbread, I believe. When one has guests one likes to have rather
more than that to offer them.’ She frowned, wishing she had not used the
word ‘offer’, but the Bishop did not seem to be at all upset, or even, indeed,
to have noticed.

‘I’m so sorry,’ said Belinda ambiguously. ‘I am really most
honoured that you should have felt … but I’m sure you will understand how
it is.’

‘Do not give it another thought, Miss Bede,’ he said briskly, ‘I assure you
that I shall not. After all, we must remember that God moves in a mysterious
way, His wonders to perform.’

As for the Count, he simply copes by reminiscing about his friend John Akenside. His affections, at least, seem genuine, as he has been devoted to Harriet for years, but Mr Mold and Bishop Grote seem far from sincere. Perhaps they are each seeking a wife only ‘to help him into his grave.’

Seriously though, do Mr Mold and Bishop Grote want to marry because they want a friend, a housekeeper, a sexual partner, or all three? Are these men virgins? I think Belinda and Harriet probably are, but, in reality, they might not be. They were at university, after all, and could have had affairs then. As for the men, being out in the world, as it were, it’s entirely possible that they would be sexually experienced, certainly more than two spinsters living in a small village. It’s even reasonable to expect the clergymen not to be totally innocent.

Here I am reminded of Susan Howatch’s by Church of England novels, with all those randy priests! I admit that those novels shocked me no end. Maybe I have unrealistic expectations when it comes to the clergy. They are only human, but I think I am disappointed when they don’t appear to be making much effort to remain chaste. I guess the clergy in Some Tame Gazelle give me the impression of chastity, even of asexuality. Am I in denial? I suppose it is part of the book’s attraction that it portrays an almost idealistic, romantic world, a means of escape from the reality. (Can you tell I am tired of salacious, over-sexed men?)

The title of the novel refers to a line in Thomas Haynes Bayly’s poem, Something to Love:

‘Some tame gazelle, or some gentle dove:
Something to love, oh, something to love!’

In the poem, the poet longs for ‘something that’s filled with love for me’, believing that ’tis sad to die and leave none to grieve’.

This might suggest that Some Tame Gazelle is about the desire to be loved, and it really is. Who wouldn’t want to be loved and to love? What I find appealing, however, is that, at the end of the book, Belinda and Harriet Bede are not with lovers or spouses. Despite being published in 1950, it was ahead of its time and the Bedes prove really much more progressive than, say, the liberated women in the television series Sex and the City. Belinda and Harriet crave affection like most humans do, but they do not rely on the affection of a man to fulfil them. They have each other; they have the love and esteem of their friends. They have many, a great many, things and people to love.

Next on my Pym list: Excellent Women.

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