This week I have continued reading Barbara Pym’s novel Crampton Hodnet, finding passages that amuse me and noting her techniques for creating her signature humor, so wry and satisfying.
4. Barbara Pym lets her characters ponder and philosophize, but when they start taking themselves too seriously, she slips in some prosaic details (gleaned no doubt from a lifetime of observing and listening). The juxtaposition of the dramatic and somber with the small, unexpected, and mundane makes me laugh. Some examples:
Francis Cleveland, the married Oxford don, and Barbara Bird, his student, are in a railway compartment, heading home from their visit to the British Museum in London, where Francis has boldly declared his love. The two are alone in the compartment, but the chance for romance ends when “an old, birdlike man hurried in and sat nodding in a corner over his evening paper.” Francis and Barbara sink into dramatic individual reveries about their newly professed love and what an affair might mean for each of them, but the spell is broken when the old man announces, “I think I will go and wash my hands.”
Now alone with Barbara, Francis wants to kiss her, but she resists, again sinking into troubled thoughts about having an affair with a married man who is also her tutor. Pym ends the melodrama when the old man returns:
“. . . and there followed one of those unreal conversations, this one being about the washing arrangements in English trains, the small hard, non-lathering pieces of soap, the shortage of towels, the water that gushed forth in a boiling icy stream or refused to gush at all, the smuts in the basin.”
In a later chapter, the vicar offers a prayer to open the spring church garden party:
“Grant that . . . we may have fine weather, so that we may enjoy the fruits of the earth which Thou in Thy mercy has vouchsafed us.”
Stephen Latimer, the handsome curate, thinks,
“What fruits of the earth were they hoping to enjoy this afternoon? Early potatoes? There was certainly nothing else in the garden yet. . . he bent his head in a lower and more devout attitude, fixing his eyes on the root of a plantain which had been turned brown by weed-killer.”
When Miss Doggett and Miss Morrow return from the garden party and are eating dinner, Miss Morrow wonders what a person can expect to get out of life and if most people — herself included — often get much less than what they expect. Then Pym slips this in:
“With her mouth full of ham and beetroot and rather tough lettuce — Miss Dogget always took the tender leaves for herself — Miss Morrow pondered on these problems. But by the time the cornflour blancmage arrived she had found no satisfactory answer, and Miss Doggett had gone on to speak of other things.”
A lesser writer would have skipped the non-lathering soap, early potatoes, plaintain root, and rather tough lettuce. Genius Barbara Pym knew that the life (and humor) is in such details.
NEXT WEEK: THE SKILLS THAT HAVE HELPED ME THE MOST – Part 1