Barbara Pym’s Some Tame Gazelle was the third book I finished reading while we were traveling through southern France. It is a good thing that I am not one of those people who likes to read books germane to the places I am visiting, because the setting of Pym’s novel was in pretty stark contrast to where I had set my butt to read the book. Some Tame Gazelle takes place in an English village in the late 1940s, where the major concerns seem to be about darning socks, the proper way to dust the front room, and the topic of the Archdeacon’s latest sermon. All a far cry from a warm sunny day in Provence lounging by the pool. Of course, this begs the question, why in the world would I want to mentally transport myself from my sybaritic lair in the south of France to the mundane minutiae of post-war village life? Because everything about these industrious, gossipy English villagers fascinates me.
This is the kind of book that is manna for Anglophiles like myself. First published in the UK in 1950 (but not until 1983 in the US), Some Tame Gazelle is Pym’s first novel and it sets the tone for many others that she wrote later. Her books are full of competent, independent, often single women, usually mixed in with lots of vicars, curates, archdeacons, bishops and the like, and lots and lots of tea. A little bit of Trollope, a little bit of E.F. Benson, with dashes of Austen and Wodehouse.
The action, if you can call it that, centers on two middle age spinster sisters Harriet and Belinda Bede who keep house together. Harriet develops a platonic fetish for each of the young curates who pass through the local church over the years. Her interest in nurturing these young men, and an attachment to her life with her sister, keeps her from accepting the many offers of marriage that come her direction. Belinda, on the other hand, has had one overriding, longstanding, and unrequited love, for the archdeacon who she has known since their days at university together.
A mellow comedy of manners, the plot has a relatively gentle arc that is nonetheless engaging and surprising in its way. In many cases it is the routine details of their daily lives and their everyday interactions with their neighbors that are interesting and revealing about these characters. And I am never more interested in the minutiae of their housekeeping than when they talk about food. We aren’t talking Babette’s Feast here, we are talking about the obsession that many Briton’s must have had with food in the days of food rationing and fiscal diligence. These are the kind of descriptions of food that help give British cooking a bad name. Perhaps unjustly so if you consider what crap Americans were eating in the 1950s. There is a scene where the sisters serve Cauliflower Cheese for lunch and a caterpillar is found by their traveling seamstress Miss Prior, in her portion of the midday meal. The semi-polite interchange between master and servant over the caterpillar is hilarious in its subdued way. But for me the real fascination is with the Cauliflower Cheese itself. Some kind of gratin with cheese and cauliflower? A head of cauliflower with a cheese sauce poured over it? Can my British readers enlighten me? What is it? Do people still make it? Is it delicious or is it kind of bleak?
If mid-century middle-class British manners and mores are your thing, Barbara Pym is for you.