Tanya’s story, ‘Not scorned in Heaven, though little noticed here‘ won the 2020 Ellen J Miller Memorial competition, run by the Barbara Pym Society. The brief was to write a short story featuring characters from a Barbara Pym novel. Here, with a few added tweaks, is the story.
This room was, of course, full of books; but I have rather ceased to regard books as being very personal things — everybody one knows has them and they are really rather obvious. It was no doubt significant that Mary Beamish should have the novels of Miss Goudge while Piers had those of Miss Compton-Burnett, but I should have been able to guess that for myself without actually seeing. (A Glass of Blessings by Barbara Pym, published in 1956)
What is the narrator heroine Wilmet Forsyth actually saying here? Earlier in the novel we learn that ‘Mary Beamish was the kind of person who always made me feel particularly useless — she was so very much immersed in good works, so splendid, everyone said. She was about my own age, but small and rather dowdily dressed, presumably because she had neither the wish nor the ability to make the most of herself. She lived with her selfish old mother in a block of flats near our house and was on several committees as well as being a member of St Luke’s parochial church council.’
Do those thoughts tell us more about Barbara Pym’s heroine than about Mary Beamish, dismissed in another scene as so very much not my kind of person? Is it only good and dowdy people who are likely to read Elizabeth Goudge’s novels?
Elizabeth Goudge (1900-1984) was the only child of an Anglican priest and became a best-selling author in the UK and America after the success in 1934 of her first novel Island Magic, set in the Channel Islands. Like her later novels, it combines an almost mystical sense of place and love of nature, with themes of forgiveness, self-sacrifice and redemptive personal growth through suffering.
Characters offer themselves to others and restore them to wholeness. One of the most unforgettable is in Green Dolphin Country when a young sailor in the nineteenth century muddles up names, asks the wrong sister to travel from Guernsey to New Zealand to marry him, and when she arrives doesn’t tell her of the mistake. An almost unbelievable story, but based on Elizabeth Goudge’s great uncle.
Elizabeth Goudge shows us the holiness and interconnectedness, through suffering, love and foregiveness, of all human beings — and they are ordinary ones, like us, dealing with failure, loneliness, poverty, mental illness, disability, feeling misunderstood, undervalued, excluded, unloved. Christian spirituality is interwoven into the text, in unhurried lyrical prose. But this is never in a fundamentalist proselytizing fashion: more just whispers of Teilard de Chardin, Thomas Traherne, C.S. Lewis, St John of the Cross, Julian of Norwich, Brother Lawrence. Elizabeth Goudge’s Christianity is always generous, non-judgmental and inclusive. There is redemption and happiness at the end for the characters, though this is hard won, and only possible with the help of others and the healing effect of connectedness with them.
The beauty of the places where Elizabeth Goudge spent her life — Wells in Somerset, Ely, Oxford, Hampshire and the New Forest, Devon, childhood holidays in Guernsey at her grandparents’ home — becomes a breathing, life-changing spirit in her novels. God is all the time revealing his presence in what we see around us.
Children play an important role in Elizabeth Goudge’s adult novels and their inner lives are extraordinarily sensitively drawn. It’s perhaps why many of us loved novels like The Dean’s Watch, The City of Bells, The Bird in the Tree, The Herb of Grace, at an early age, as well as her children’s books, including The Little White Horse which won the Carnegie Medal for Children’s Fiction in 1946 and Linnets and Valerians published in 1964.
Are the novels too unrealistic and sentimental and fanciful for modern taste? Is the prose style too flowery, do the books feel as though they belong to a vanished past, to be read only for nostalgia? Elizabeth Goudge believed that ‘As this world becomes increasingly ugly, callous and materialistic it needs to be reminded that old fairy stories are rooted in truth, that imagination is of value, that happy endings do, in fact, occur, and that the blue spring mist that makes an ugly street look beautiful is just as real a thing as the street itself.’
Elizabeth Goudge was a founding member of the Romantic Novelists’ Association in 1960, together with Denise Robins, Netta Muskett, Rosamunde Pilcher, Catherine Cookson, Barbara Cartland: very different writers loosely grouped under a broad definition of romantic. Even the word romantic might be misleading. Susan D. Amussen’s essay about Elizabeth Goudge in Anglican Women Novelists published by Bloomsbury in 2019 argues that she ‘frequently offers a critical view of contemporary gender norms in her fiction.’ Elizabeth Goudge’s male characters owe nothing to the Mr Darcy model, while unmarried women are portrayed as fulfilled and successful in their own right. They do not need a man or romantic love affairs to have a full life.
The Joy of the Snow is Elizabeth Goudge’s autobiography published in 1974. It’s as absorbing a read as any of her novels. It’s shortish, with a direct personal note, as if she wanted to explain something important before she became too frail. She died ten years later. A sentence from a chapter titled ‘Pain and the Love of God stood out on re-reading: if we can find a little of our one-ness with all other creatures, and love for them, then I believe we are half-way towards finding God.
The World of Elizabeth Goudge by Sylvia Gower has just been reissued in a lovely new edition by the altogether wonderful Somerset-based Girls Gone By Publishers — they republish some of our beloved out of print twentieth century books that are hard to find second hand. https://www.ggbp.co.uk/
I have never pretended, nor ever will pretend, that Emily was a proper child. Books are not written about proper children. They would be so dull nobody would read them. (L. M. Montgomery Emily Climbs)
Anne of Green Gables when it was published in 1908 was an instant success and established L M Montgomery’s career as Canada’s leading children’s author. Yet it’s Emily of New Moon, published in 1923, that L M Montgomery described in her journal as ‘the best book I have ever written … I have had more intense pleasure in writing it than any of the others—not even excepting Green Gables. I have lived it…’
Both Anne and Emily are highly imaginative girls, intensely receptive to the beauty of the natural world, in love with writing poetry and stories; characteristics shared by their creator. But Anne’s early literary ambitions – which include a comic episode when she wins a short story competition and wishes she hadn’t – are sidelined in the sequels which follow her life at college, working as a teacher and finally as a wife and mother.
Emily is altogether more driven, a fiercer, more complicated character – and possibly to a modern reader more interesting and satisfying. The three books in the series Emily of New Moon, Emily Climbs and Emily’s Quest tell Emily’s story from early childhood as she struggles to pursue her dream of becoming a writer. L. M. Montgomery knew about rejection; Anne of Green Gables was rejected many times before being accepted for publication. It’s not surprising that Emily’s courage and self-belief remain an inspiration for girls all over the world.
From early childhood Emily experiences what she calls ‘the flash’ – a moment of visionary awareness when she was very, very near to a world of wonderful beauty. Between it and herself hung only a thin curtain; she could never draw the curtain aside – but sometimes, just for a moment, a wind fluttered it and then it was as if she caught a glimpse of the enchanting realm beyond – only a glimpse – and heard a note of unearthly music.
L.M. Montgomery was only 21 months old when her mother died. Lucy was packed off to live with her Presbyterian grandparents in Cavendish, Prince Edward Island, and would later marry a minister. It was a childhood and adulthood she would mine for her novels and short stories.
Even as a small child, Emily has her own ideas about God. When her beloved father dies and as a penniless orphan she is wished onto unknown relatives, she scorns the advice of the housekeeper who has looked after her: ‘There’s one thing I’d advise you to do,’ said Ellen, determined to lose no chance of doing her duty, ‘and that is to kneel down and pray to God to make you a good and respectful and grateful child.’ Emily paused at the foot of the stairs and looked back. ‘Father said I wasn’t to have anything to do with your God,’ she said gravely… ‘I know what your God is like…I saw His picture in that Adam-and-Eve book of yours. He has whiskers and wears a nightgown. I don’t like him. But I like Father’s God.’ …‘Well, you’re bound to have the last word, but the Murrays will teach you what’s what,’ said Ellen, giving up the argument. ‘They’re strict Presbyterians, and won’t hold by any of your father’s awful notions.’
It’s Emily’s ability to withdraw into the world of her imagination that save her in her new life at New Moon – this, and the pride for which all Murrays are renowned. ‘You ought to be thankful to get a home anywhere. Remember you’re not of much importance.’ ‘I am important to myself,’ cried Emily proudly. L. M. Montgomery was writing at a time when children were much more powerless than they are today, and the way Emily gets the better of tyrannical grown-ups with her use of language makes up much of the comedy in Emily of New Moon and Emily Climbs.
Perhaps many older readers like myself will remember a cruel teacher who used sarcasm to destroy our self-confidence and reduce us to misery. The scene in Emily of New Moon where the hateful Miss Brownell mocks Emily’s poetry in front of the class always takes me straight back to when I was caught during prep time at boarding school writing a story when I was meant to be doing maths, but thankfully escaped with only a detention and without the teacher reading it. The unbearable horror of an unsympathetic adult treading on those so sacred words!
But L. M. Montgomery gives us inspirational teachers too in her novels, and the unorthodox Mr Carpenter, though regarded by some as an alcoholic failure, is one of them. He makes Emily promise not to write to please anyone but herself, and his last words to her are ‘Beware of italics’ – today would he say exclamation marks or adverbs?
The delightful Irish Catholic priest Father Cassidy is another of the eccentrics L. M. Montgomery is so gifted at portraying and he too perceives Emily’s gift for words. To the end of her struggle for recognition Emily never forgot Father Cassidy’s ‘Keep On’ and the tone in which he said it. Significantly, when narrow-minded, domineering Aunt Elizabeth dismisses Emily’s ‘writing nonsense’ and even kind Aunt Laura doesn’t understand her compelling need to write, it is so-called simple-minded Cousin Jimmy, the composer of a thousand poems in his head, who is always on her side.
L.M. Montgomery went through periods of depression, made worse by a difficult marriage to a man suffering from some kind of mental illness. She never had the happy life that she gives to Anne in the Anne of Green Gables series. Something of this comes across in the sombre, almost tortured tone in part of Emily’s Quest, where Emily for a time loses her will to write and gives in to the controlling desires of a much older man. It’s hard for readers today to see Dean Priest as anything other than creepy or to forgive him for what he makes Emily do to her first book The Seller of Dreams.
It’s pride that keeps Emily from falling apart during the years of brutal rejection slips and the awfulness of faint praise; it’s also what keeps her estranged from the man she loves. But literary success comes by an unexpected route, and even Aunt Elizabeth (like Marilla Cuthbert in Anne of Green Gables she mellows in her later years) can remark ‘Well, I never could have believed that a pack of lies could sound as much like the real truth as that book does.’
‘I could hardly make a big production of it, you know… when he told me, about how he’d spent the night with some girl called Rebecca, all I could think of was the fact that I’d bought turbot for supper…’
Catherine Heath’s fifth and final novel Behaving Badly gives us one of the most brilliantly-conceived comic heroines ever. Published in 1984, it is somehow perfect escapist reading for today, taking us to a past which feels in retrospect to have been more innocent and less complicated.
‘I was going to do Hollandaise sauce, and I thought, oh dear, our lovely dinner’s going to be quite wasted. So when he told me about this girl I just said, oh, yes, I see. Oh, thank you for telling me. And that was all and we ate the turbot and do you know I quite enjoyed it… So I mean, there’s no point in putting on a tragic act. It stands to reason that nobody, nobody that greedy has much dignity to stand on.’
Fifty-year-old Bridget Mayor has dutifully filled her life with hobbies, television and church-going after her husband dumped her five years earlier to marry a much younger woman. Nothing very unusual about that for women in seventies Britain. But what happens when an Excellent Woman stops being excellent and decides she will start pleasing herself instead of other people? What’s the point in clinging to dignity? To her husband’s horrified discomfiture Bridget insists on moving back into her old home in Hampstead, where her devious ex-mother-in-law Frieda conspires to get rid of the intruder Rebecca. But that’s just the start…
Writing in The Times, Isabel Raphael wrote of Behaving Badly: Here is an exceptional novel, brisk and unsentimental, touching and subtly romantic. It is also very funny. Her style is poised and cool and her dialogue as artfully artless as that of Barbara Pym; and there is no higher praise in novels of this kind.
There are connections between the two novelists Barbara Pym (1913-1980) and Catherine Heath (1924-1991): both studied English Literature at St Hilda’s College Oxford, both seamlessly combine wit, satire and sympathy, and both died of cancer aged sixty-six. But it’s disappointing that Catherine Heath remains relatively unknown. In the Barbara Pym Society’s publication Green Leaves of November 1998 Hazel K. Bell wrote how she hoped that Catherine Heath’s wonderful novels would one day be rescued from obscurity, in the same way as Barbara Pym’s have been.
That hasn’t happened, despite Judi Dench’s superb performance as Bridget in the 1989 British television series of Behaving Badly, now available as a DVD. If only they would show it again!
Behaving Badly clearly isn’t everyone’s cup of tea. It will seem too dated for some, too much a piece of social history, even too trivial. But for others it’s an altogether delightful read where favourite lines can be relished over and over again: Upstairs Frieda closed a detective story. It was useless. She had no access to South American arrow poison. And as one character says near the end, using a very Barbara Pymish word, ‘Isn’t it, in a way, splendid?’
In rereading Jane Austen, we are able to experience something of that age of elegance which too often eludes us in the twentieth century. We are unrepentant about this form of escapism and turn to her six novels for relaxation… Like Mr Woodhouse, we enjoy the company of these old friends best; and though we prefer their actual company to secondhand discussions and speculations about them, anything concerning them will always hold a fascination for us…. writes Another Lady AKA Marie Dobbs.
In her An Apology from the Collaborator, included at the end of Jane Austen’s Sanditon completed by Another Lady published in 1975, Marie Dobbs admits that she offers her version for our sheer enjoyment, aware that Jane Austen’s language, integrity and meticulous technique cannot be faithfully copied.
She was too hard on herself. Marie Dobbs’ completed Sanditon is peppered with delightful passages poking fun at human vanity and folly, which feel as though they could be written by Jane Austen herself. The Miss Beauforts…were certainly no longer content to remain on their balcony now these two personable young men were to be perceived strolling about admiring the Sanditon views. Indeed, they felt a definite obligation to improve the landscape for them immediately by dotting graceful feminine silhouettes wherever they be most visible. The very next day Miss Letitia carried her easel out of doors and began moving it from sand to shingle, from hill to Terrace with tireless and unselfish activity. No concern for completing her own sketches interfered with her sense of duty to adorn whatever vista might require her presence.
There is some splendid Austen-ish dialogue too, as in this speech from Reginald Catton, one of the only two on-stage characters added by Marie Dobbs: ‘So that was Miss Denham! Predatory female – Sidney warned me. He said I would not be in the least danger from anyone else – could handle all the Miss Beauforts with ease – but Miss Denham would be hanging about me forever if once she caught sight of my barouche. I told the groom to keep it well out of sight in the stables.’
Reginald Catton may also remind fans of Georgette Heyer of her comic young men about town, such as Ferdy Fakenham in Friday’s Child. Marie Dobbs makes the hero Sidney Parker resemble the witty, charming, teasing Henry Tilney in Northanger Abbey, but in his unassuming kind-heartedness there are echoes of Georgette Heyer’s endearing Freddy in Cotillion. The later developments of the plot come close to Heyer regency romances too – no problem for those of us who love both authors, as we must suspect Marie Dobbs did – but perhaps some literary critics might argue that Jane Austen was intending to take a different and sharper line.
It’s difficult not to feel disappointment that Andrew Davies’ recent television adaptation of Sanditon didn’t follow the story and tone of the Another Lady/Marie Dobbs completed version. In the eleven chapters Jane Austen wrote before illness stopped her in March 1817, she set up everything we love in her other novels and Marie Dobbs fulfils the sparkling early promise with grace, respect and humour. Added to this we have in Sanditon a merciless satire of hypochondriacs and medical quackery, speaking to us all the more poignantly when we remember that Jane Austen was only four months away from her death on 18th July.
But as the ever-so-sensible heroine Charlotte says to the would-be seducer Sir Edward who has read more sentimental novels than agreed with him: ‘our taste in novels is not at all the same.’ Nor is our taste in television adaptations all the same, and this is probably a very good thing.
What’s the connection between Jilly Cooper and Barbara Pym apart from them being quintessentially English and writing splendidly funny novels?
Jilly Cooper’s introduction to the 2007 Virago edition of Barbara Pym’s Jane andPrudence, first published in 1953, tells the story of how she borrowed the novel quite by chance from a library and fell in love with it. ‘I shamefully lied to the librarians that I had lost it, paying a 3s 6d fine … over the years, as Barbara Pym replaced Nancy Mitford, Georgette Heyer, even Jane Austen, as my most loved author, I devoured all her books, but Jane and Prudence remains my favourite.’
Jilly Cooper was therefore the perfect and altogether delightful guest at a magnificent tea in Oxford, celebrating the 25th anniversary of the Barbara Pym Society, as part of the Society’s weekend conference featuring Jane and Prudence. Some of those attending might never have read a Jilly Cooper novel; others like myself have delicious youthful memories of revelling in her stories serialised in magazines like 19 and Petticoat, some of which were subsequently expanded into short romantic novels named after their heroines.
It’s in Harriet, partly set in Oxford and published in 1976, that we get a rather endearing echo of a scene in Barbara Pym’s Jane and Prudence; in both novels young girls remark to each other that thirty sounds so old but forty must be worse… whereupon they brood silently upon this horror!
Jilly Cooper might be more famous now for her ‘bonkbuster’ novels, starting with Riders in 1985, but perhaps the older among us will always have an affectionate soft spot for the irresistible heroes and scatty/naughty/dreamy/kind-hearted/unselfconfident/innocent heroines of the early romantic novels Bella, Emily, Octavia, Prudence, Harriet, Imogen and her collection of short stories Lisa & Co, first published as Love and Other Heartaches. They offered the escapist, romantic, comfort-with-comedy reading we sometimes needed when growing up.
As Jilly Cooper wrote of her short stories in 1981 ‘I cannot pretend that these stories are literature. They are written purely to entertain… Their mood is rooted firmly in the sixties, where we all lived it up… when the young were still optimistic about marriage, and believed that God was in his Heaven if all was Mr Right with the world.’
Jilly Cooper met Barbara Pym just once – at the Hatchards Authors of the Year Party in 1979 – a wonderful memory she will always treasure. I know I will do the same after meeting Jilly Cooper.
‘Swanking is still unacceptable’ says Mary Killen, on the (always enjoyable) Your Problems Solved page of this week’s The Spectator magazine. She is replying to an anxious letter from a reader who would like to give copies of his/her two ‘respectably published’ novels to neighbours and acquaintances who are unaware of the novels’ existence, but worries that these gifts put the recipients in an awkward position.
There is something altogether endearing about this concern for the feelings of others and the appeal for advice in general ‘about trumpet-blowing, however subtly done’. The writer says that in his/her younger days ‘swanking’ was considered the worst of sins …
Mary comes up with a creative solution to the problem perfectly tailored to this particular correspondent. But for most of us it may be that swanking is now a necessity – part and parcel of publishing and marketing novels, however much it goes against the grain.
For John Betjeman, Barbara Pym’s novel Excellent Women was ‘a perfect book’. Nobody listening to a splendid adaptation of it at the Barbara Pym Society Spring meeting in London would disagree. Probably some of the audience had read it so many times they practically knew every delicious line.
But what came across forcibly was that the novel, as adapted here by Georgia Powell and directed by Tristram Powell, worked so brilliantly in the format of a radio play. Large chunks and several characters were cut out but it was still perfect. This must be because the book is really written as a series of delightfully observed scenes; we are not waiting impatiently to see what happens next but savouring the fullness of every moment.
Each character in a Barbara Pym novel has a distinctive way of speaking; what they say could not possibly be spoken by anyone else. Another writing lesson here, I found myself thinking. I happily shut my eyes and listened to the actors playing the characters who are always living in the heads of Barbara Pym devotees, some of them taking on multiple parts – Frances Grey, Malcolm Sinclair, Martin Hutson, Jane Slavin, Carolyn Pickles – and Penelope Wilton as the narrator capturing the sly comedy of Barbara Pym’s voice.
Excellent Women was published in 1952, twenty years after John Betjeman’s first radio programme. If he’d been sitting with us in the St Alban’s Centre on Sunday he too would have revelled in this adaptation of the book he described as perfect. As he wrote, ‘Excellent Women is England, and, thank goodness, it is full of them.’
‘I don’t know that clergymen are so much better than other men,’ says the wife of Archdeacon Grantly in Barchester Towers. Anyone familiar with the stream of clergymen in Anthony Trollope’s forty-seven novels might well agree.
For Trollope certainly doesn’t treat clergymen any differently to his other characters, holding them up to the same well-polished mirror to expose their mixed motives and moral vacillation. But he rarely intrudes on what we might call their relationship with God. Instead he shows us their relationships with their families, fellow clergy and wider society.
Trollope’s clergymen are never depicted as simple goodies or baddies; they are thoroughly human, a fluctuating mix of strength and weakness. The most saintly is probably Septimus Harding, first introduced to us in The Warden, the meek, sweet-natured, peace-loving precentor of Barchester Cathedral and warden of Hiram’s Hospital. He isn’t perfect – he’s not especially hard-working or energetic – but he provides a quiet, underlying morality throughout the six Barchester novels. Even when upset by the sermon delivered by Obadiah Slope, he can still say with habitual gentleness that ‘Christian ministers are never called on by God’s word to insult the convictions, or even the prejudices of their brethren.’
Trollope himself was essentially tolerant in his approach to religion. It’s the clerics who push their version of Christianity down other people’s throats who come in for the most stick in his novels. The extremely tiresome Roman Catholic priest Father Barham in The Way We Live Now according to Trollope’s notes was based on the real life George Bampfield, who when staying with the Trollopes ‘made himself absolutely unbearable’ with his aggressive proselytising and criticism of the Anglican church. In the same novel Father Barham is contrasted to the affable Bishop Yeld, thoroughly relaxed as to dogma, yet clearly effective and well regarded in his diocese. But Trollope is always even-handed. In The Macdermots of Ballycloran we are given a picture of kindness and Christian compassion in the exemplary Roman Catholic priest Father John McGrath.
There are good and bad apples everywhere, in all Christian traditions, in high and low churchmanship. Most infamous of all is Obadiah Slope, the slimy evangelical chaplain to the hen-pecked bishop in Barchester Towers who cloaks himself in pious virtue while plotting to rule the diocese and suggesting that old-style clergymen like Mr Harding should be carried away on ‘the rubbish cart’ of history. Then there’s his taste for rich widows … In Miss Mackenzie Trollope caricatures what he saw as evangelical cant in the Revd Jeremiah Maguire, but there are low churchmen who are altogether excellent such as Mr Saul the curate in The Claverings. As for villains at the high church end we have the murderous chaplain Mr Greenwood in Marion Fay.
Clergymen as minor characters often provide some of the best comedy in Trollope’s novels and we are treated to a delightful variety, including Montagu Blake, irritatingly jolly and pleased with himself in An Old Man’s Love, Thomas Gibson, ‘a sort of tame-cat parson’ fought over by ladies in He Knew He Was Right, or Caleb Thumble, Mrs Proudie’s time-serving stoodge in The Last Chronicle of Barset.
Especially appealing to modern readers may be those clergymen heroes who challenge intransigent and intolerant attitudes within society and the church – attractive examples are Frank Fenwick, befriending a fallen woman in The Vicar of Bulhampton and Dr Wortle, pugnaciously resisting interference from parents and his bishop in Dr Wortle’s School.
It is in the portraits of clergymen developed over the course of several novels that we see Trollope’s penetrating insight into human frailty and yet capacity for change. The proud and wealthy Archdeacon Grantly, first introduced to us in The Warden, comes across as bullying and worldly when compared to his self-depreciating father-in-law Mr Harding: ‘looking like an ecclesiastical statue … a fitting impersonation of the church militant here on earth; one hand ensconced within his pocket, evinced the practical hold which our mother church keeps on her temporal possessions; and the other, loose for action, was ready to fight if need be for her defence’. By the final volume of the six Barchester novels we come to recognise and value the man underneath.
If Theophilus Grantly and Septimus Harding are the clergymen most beloved by readers, Trollope himself believed that he would be remembered for three characters, only one of them a cleric: Plantagenet Palliser, Lady Glencora, and Josiah Crawley, the perpetual curate of Hogglestock. ‘I claim to have portrayed the mind of the unfortunate man with great accuracy and great delicacy. The pride, the humility, the manliness, the weakness, the conscientious rectitude and bitter prejudices of Mr Crawley were, I feel, true to nature and well described.’ Josiah Crawley is an unattractive character, first appearing in Framley Parsonage where he reproves the pleasure-loving young vicar Mark Robarts, and in his pride and anger at his own poverty creates extra trouble and suffering for his poor wife and children. There is never any doubting his holiness – significantly among the rough and poor brickmakers of Hoggle End he is ‘held in high respect’ – but it is in The Last Chronicle of Barset that he becomes a tragic figure, the half-mad saint unjustly accused.
Trollope was writing at a time when the Church of England was facing much-needed change. Trollope was generally on the side of reform – many of the novels expose the cruelly unequal pay structure – but as always he can empathise with its victims and reveal the occasional less pleasant side of the reformers. ‘Till we can become divine we must be content to be human, lest in our hurry for a change we sink to something lower.’ (Barchester Towers). His natural sympathies were at the high church end, alongside Archdeacon Grantly and Mr Harding, but he believed that the church should accept difference: ‘We are too apt to look at schism in our church as an unmitigated evil. Moderate schism, if there may be such a thing…teaches men to think upon religion.’ (Barchester Towers). Interestingly, Cardinal Newman was a devoted reader of Trollope’s novels.
Trollope was a Victorian, and the Victorians saw the novel as an effective way to influence people; novels ought to instruct as well as entertain. ‘Gentle readers, the physic is always beneath the sugar, hidden or unhidden. In writing novels, we novelists preach to you from our pulpits.’ Neither in his life nor in his novels did Trollope make a parade of his own belief in God’s mercy and goodness, but it underlies everything he wrote until his death in 1882. ‘I trust… I shall not be thought to scoff at the pulpit, though some may imagine that I do not feel all the reverence that is due to the cloth. I may question the infallibility of the teachers, but I hope that I shall not therefore be accused of doubt as to the thing taught.’
Tomorrow is the 24th of April and Anthony Trollope’s birthday. Perhaps Mr Harding’s words to the bedesmen of Hiram’s Hospital in The Warden could also be Trollope’s wish for himself and all of us: ‘I hope you may live contented, and die trusting in the Lord Jesus Christ, and thankful to Almighty God for the good things he has given you.’
In a radio talk recorded in February 1978 and transmitted on BBC Radio 3 in April, less than two years before she died, Barbara Pym described a favourite television quiz game, where panellists were asked to guess the authorship of certain passages read out to them. ‘There were no prizes for guessing, no moving belt or desirable objects passing before their eyes, just the pleasure and satisfaction of recognising the unmistakable voice of … whoever it might be. I think that’s the kind of immortality most authors would want – to feel that their work would be immediately recognisable as having been written by them and by nobody else. But of course it’s a lot to ask for!’
It might be, but Barbara Pym’s voice is entirely and delightfully unmistakable; it’s unlike any other author, however longingly we search. There just isn’t enough of it for us readers – if only she’d written more! Blame her publishers who rejected her seventh novel An Unsuitable Attachment in 1963. Thank goodness she went on writing during the following fourteen years of rejection – though probably not as much as she might have done…
One of the joys of Barbara Pym’s novels is the way characters reappear. They are our old friends… Here in WRITINGS is a short story written as a light-hearted tribute to Barbara Pym featuring some of them: Tread Softly in the Ladies.