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.
(Back in May of 2007 I noticed that a bunch of people in the blogosphere had created lists of 101 things to do in 1001 days. I was intrigued by the notion but felt I needed to change the parameters. So I created my 40 by 40 list. 40 things I wanted to do before I turned 40. Well on August 17th I turn 40, and I need to give $10 to charity for every uncompleted item. So it is time to see how I did.)
30. Finish Organizing My Recipe Files – COMPLETED
Running Tally: $130.00 to charity.
I have a file system with recipes organized by ingredient (e.g., fish, beef, vegetables, potatoes, etc.) but also some that say more about type of cooking (e.g., quick meals, holiday baking, etc.). No doubt I will want to make further improvements to this system. But for right now it is as good as it is going to get.
Some of you may have seen on the blogosphere people posting lists of 101 things they would accomplish in the next 1001 days. As my 38th birthday approaches, I am putting my own twist on that challenge by making a list of 40 things to do by the time I am 40. I need to finish the following things by August 17, 2009.
(Updated 5/30/07–had too many travel related tasks, sadly not enough vacation time…)
1. Quit my job (completed 10/12/07 and again on 12/01/08)
2. Get another job (completed 10/13/07 and again on 2/5/09)
3. Go to my 20 year high school reunion (completed 7/28/07)
4. Pass the TAP Exam (completed 8/10/07)
5. Make four new friends (1 down, 3 to go)
6. Write a blog tribute to the Womenfolk (completed 6/9/07)
7. Finish my first novel
8. Submit novel for publication
9. Outline my second novel
10. Finish my business plan
11. Take a cruise (completed 1/18/09)
12. Become a homeowner
13. Reduce my cholesterol below 200
14. Make a timpano (see the movie Big Night)
15. Volunteer during the next Presidential election cycle (completed Oct and Nov 2008)
16. Get a letter published in the New York Times (completed 7/18/07)
17. Spend a long weekend in Vienna, Berlin or Barcelona
18. Start and finish the “Write Now” better handwriting program
19. Release 25 books into the wild through BookCrossing (abondoned 7/29/07)
20. Make pudding from scratch (completed 7/7/7)
21. Hear Mahler’s 8th Symphony again
22. Read at least the first volume of Proust’s In Search of Lost Time
23. Finish the rest of the Modern Library’s list of 100 top novels of the 20th Century (except for Faulkner and Joyce-I just can’t do it)
24. Go back to the house in Italy for 2 weeks
25. Get the maximum Roth IRA for ’08 and ’09 (I got one for 2007 thinking it was part of the challenge, oh well, now I will be able to retire a week earlier than expected.)
26. Go a month without TV
27. See every best picture Oscar nominee
28. Go to the Udvar-Hazy Air and Space Museum near Dulles (completed 3/08)
29. Go back to Ithaca, NY for a long weekend (completed 8/08)
30. Finish organizing my recipe files
31. Don’t curse for two weeks
32. Go to the Museum of Television and Radio (completed 12/08)
33. Streamline my wardrobe (completed 10/01/07)
34. Have a vegetable garden
35. Go to a BSO concert at Strathmore
36. Go to a concert at the Library of Congress
37. Find an opera/orchestra/concert buddy
38. Go to a concert at the Peabody Institute
39. Sing in a choir
40. Give 10 dollars to charity for every item not finished by August 17, 2009