Continuing my list of thoughts on how Barbara Pym creates satisfying, wry humor in her novels:
3. She takes her time in sharing the details of her characters’ mundane thoughts, so that I see myself in their musings and chuckle (or laugh out loud) with recognition.
An example: In one of the early chapters o Crampton Hodnet, Jessie Morrow, the dowdy 30-something paid companion of the imperious Miss Maude Doggett, is hastily putting on some makeup before her first meeting with the dashing new curate, Stephen Latimer.
To show, by contrast, Pym’s skill, I have rewritten this passage in workaday prose:
She didn’t have time to change her dress so she washed her hands and put on perfume. She rubbed her lips and cheeks with a handkerchief but the lipstick and rouge didn’t come off, especially the lipstick. The lipstick was supposed to make your lips look tempting. Jessie did not buy the lipstick so she could tempt someone.
Now, the prose of Barbara Pym:
There was no time to change her dress, but she washed her hands and sprinkled herself lavishly with Parma Violet, as if to make up for it. Then, with her handkerchief, she scrubbed at her lips and cheeks, but the cosmetics she had used were of an indelible brand, and while the scrubbing took some of it off, it by no means removed all of it. This was especially noticeable with the lips. Miss Morrow thought, with sudden shame but also with some amusement, of the advertisement on the little card to which the lipstick had been fixed. Something about your lips never having looked to tempting. How humiliating to be caught out in such a folly! She assured herself that nothing had been further from her mind than the idea of tempting anyone. The very possibility of Jessie Morrow’s tempting anyone was so ludicrous that it made her feel like blushing.
When Stephen Latimer, appears in the next paragraph, Pym refers to Jessie’s clumsy makeup again, switching to his point-of-view:
[Jessie] had very bright eyes and such a high colour on her cheeks and lips that for a moment he wondered if it could be natural. But then he told himself that his suspicions were ridiculous. She didn’t look at all the sort who would use makeup.
Later, Miss Doggett comes upon Jessie and the curate laughing together, and is shocked to see her companion “painted like a harlot.” Jessie slips away to use soap and water to get rid of the rouge and lipstick, hoping to evade Miss Doggett’s scolding:
Ten minutes later [Jessie] went downstairs, her face flushed and shining, but flushed only because she had had to rub so hard with her soapy face flannel.
I laughed at Jessie’s panic at her botched lipstick and rouge — this scene brought back memories of my own attempts to wash off ineptly applied makeup. And through this simple problem of the “indelible” makeup, we are shown some thoughts of Jessie, the curate, and Miss Doggett.
NEXT WEEK: WHAT’S SO FUNNY? Part 3