I’ve been reading mostly Shakespeare and Harry Potter lately, so haven’t had time to catch up on many new books. But I was recently able to finish a novel by the wonderful Barbara Pym, The Sweet Dove Died. I’ve written about Pym before—author of many “ordinary sane people doing ordinary sane things”—in particular, about the pleasures of her 1952 novel, Excellent Women. But The Sweet Dove Died struck a different chord, and I haven’t stopped thinking about it since I put it down a week or so ago.
The title is from Keats; the book begins with the poem’s first four stanzas:
I had a dove, and the sweet dove died;
And I have thought it died of grieving;
O, what could it grieve for? its feet were tied
With a silken thread of my own hand’s weaving . . .
Unlike Excellent Women, Dove is suffused with melancholy. To be sure, there is plenty of the distinctly British banter that endears Pym to so many, and the precision and dexterity of her observations of social interaction remains very funny. But the novel’s subjects—loneliness; aging; the nature of love between people who are generations apart; the fickleness of youth—are severe, and the resolution Pym provides is far from uplifting.
The main character, Leonora Eyre, is an elegant, beautiful woman nearing the end of middle-age who commands the respect and admiration of most of the supporting cast. Leonora dresses to perfection, she lives in a pristinely-decorated flat in the best part of London, and she collects priceless antiques (we first meet her at an antique auction). But while appearances would suggest that she is perfectly happy with her life, you can sense that all is not well. For Leonora is lonely; she is worried about getting old; and, early on in the story, her life is complicated by the arrival of a vapid but charming young man named James.
It’s a beautifully written story, and I recommend it highly. But in any case, I’m mainly writing today to share one particular passage. To set the stage: Leonora and James, along with James’ love interest, an American named Ned with whom Leonora is competing for James’ affections, are touring the Keats house in Hampstead on a typically dreary Monday afternoon.
Here is the passage:
All the same, the overcast skies and dripping rain spread a pall of sadness over the little house, with its simple bare rooms. There was nobody else looking over it except for a middle-aged woman wearing a mackintosh pixie hood and transparent rainboots over her shoes. She was carrying a shopping bag full of books, on top of which lay the brightly coloured packet of a frozen ‘dinner for one.’ Leonora could see the artistically delineated slices of beef with dark brown gravy, a little round Yorkshire pudding, two mounds of mashed potato and brilliantly green peas. Her first feeling was her usual one of contempt for anybody who could live in this way, then, perhaps because growing unhappiness had made her more sensitive, she saw the woman going home to a cosy solitude, her dinner heated up in twenty-five minutes with no bother of preparation, books to read while she ate it, and the memory of a visit to Keats’ house to cherish. And now she caught a glimpse of her face, plain but radiant, as she looked up from one of the glass cases that held the touching relics. There were tears on her cheeks.
I am no critic, and certainly the novel contains many more finely wrought passages. But to me, this paragraph encapsulates Pym—the ordinary, seemingly mundane details (the simple, bare rooms of the Keats house; the frozen ‘dinner for one’); the delicate descriptions of the items in the scene (the “little round Yorkshire pudding”); the unsparing emotional observations (part of the power of the moment is Leonora’s admission that Keats “meant nothing to her”); and then, in the end, something more—something transcendent. This nondescript (notice the irony there) woman is so plain, so ordinary, and yet . . . “There were tears on her cheeks.” But why? Well, that’s the question, isn’t it?