An Unsuitable Attachment was Barbara Pym’s seventh book — a number that should prove ominous, as this would turn out to be the book which publishers rejected on the grounds that it was (allegedly) “unpublishable”. Various reasons for this were advanced; apparently Pym was told initially that it just wasn’t the kind of thing people wanted to read in the mid-1960s anymore, whereas her friend Philip Larkin was later given to understand that the book had been reviewed unfavorably by the two key pre-publication assessment “readers” within the publisher’s own editorial team (apparently Larkin was shown their reviews as well). — Neither of these reasons strikes me as convincing; neither when looking at this book in isolation nor when comparing it to the vast majority of the major publishers’ fiction output in recent years (including this very publisher’s, Jonathan Cape / Penguin Random House). Publishing standards really have slipped abysmally in the past 50 years if this book was rejected on quality grounds in 1963 — and I wouldn’t even dream of insulting Ms. Pym by comparing her work to the likes of 50 Shades of Grey (whose only justification for existence is its gigantic cash cow persona to begin with).
True, not every character here is as fully drawn as they might be; and this is true in particular for the gentleman who constitutes the eponymous “unsuitable attachment” himself, John Challow (Pym really did like painting pictures with her characters’ names, didn’t she?). He remains little more than a cipher — enough to imagine just how he might have been considered “unsuitable” for his intended, Ianthe Broom, a “well-bred” librarian and clergyman’s daughter (and niece) with enough of an income and “nice things” — including a Pembroke table and some Hepplewhite chairs inherited from her parents — to secure a comfortable existence, five years his senior and far enough past her prime so as to raise an expectation that she will inevitably become, in the words of the local vicar’s wife, “one of those splendid spinsters … who are pillars of the Church and whom the Church certainly couldn’t do without.” But while we do learn that Ianthe eventually does genuinely fall in love with him and decides to stand by her “attachment”; convention, suitability and expectations of her family, neighbours and parish be … binned (hooray for Ianthe), we never find enough what actually binds him to her strongly enough to propose marriage in the first place.
There is the predictable suggestion, of course, that he (a gentleman of no wealth, education or “proper” sense of style with nothing to recommend him other than a pleasing manner and his good looks — the words “tall, dark and handsome” spring to mind) is chiefly courting her because she provides just the sort of financial security and social position that has been lacking to date in his life, and which he may well only ever be able to attain by marrying a woman just like her. But we also learn about him early on that he reads poetry, Lord Tennyson no less (a fact of which Patricia Wentworth’s paragon of propriety, Miss Maud Silver, would doublessly have approved with all her heart) — and we also learn in their first encounter that he finds Ianthe “rather pretty” (albeit “not very young”) and feels attracted (personally, not merely opportunistically) by her “air of good breeding”. So, ever the optimist, I would like to believe he genuinely does care for Ianthe … but other than those early indications, we learn little enough about his feelings for her, which I think is a shame.
(And, as a side note: My, my, how social attitudes do change. It’s been a long time since “film work” has last been looked up as something disrespectable, even by the self-declared “well-bred”. O tempora, o mores …)
Other than this, however, I really fail to see what the publisher’s in-house reviewers found so horrible — horrible enough, in fact, to reject not only this book but to bring about an almost 15-year publication hiatus for Pym. And if “a major character who remains a cipher” should have been one of the things that the publisher’s reviewers found lacking, I really don’t see why (other than as a result of being shamed into it by Larkin and The Times Literary Supplement) the publisher should finally have accepted Pym’s Quartet in Autumn — which contains at least one such major character as well (Norman, first and foremost) … and yet, ended up being a contender for the Booker Prize.
In fact, in one respect An Unsuitable Attachment is much closer to Quartet in Autumn than to an early novel like Excellent Women: While, like the latter, it does start out as a seemingly rather lighthearted satire of social mores and attitudes, Pym gradually abandons her merry distant hilltop perch as the novel progresses (and as the characters’ frustration with each other and with life in general mounts), until, like in Quartet in Autumn, the only distance left is one allowing her to observe her characters and their various (mostly self-inflicted) conumdrums from a perspective that still allows a certain amount of empathy but also disparate analysis and (at least implied) criticism. And with that change of authorial perspective, the reader’s perspective changes, too (well, mine did at least) — towards the end of the book, I felt disenchanted with pretty much everybody except Ianthe and (mostly) Mark Ainger, the vicar; though I did warm somewhat towards Daisy for her completely unprepossessing acceptance of Ianthe’s and John’s engagement and her instant willingness to help them in the face of John’s potentially losing his job over his engagement to Ianthe, even if this does come straight on the heels of one of her trademark mixtures of trumpeted do-goodery mixed with snobbery and prejudice vis-à-vis total strangers:
“Whenever [Daisy] entered a café she always felt obliged to choose a table where a coloured man or woman was already sitting, so that they should not feel slighted in any way. Looking around her, she saw a table for four with an African already at it. Then she noticed that a clergyman, also bearing a tray, was making for the same table, but she managed to get there before him and put her bag down on the chair next to her to prevent him from sitting down. One never knew — he might be a Roman Catholic or Oxford Group: it did not occur to her that he too might be trying to show the black man that there was no colour bar here.”
And of course, I very much agree with Sophia (the vicar’s wife)’s choice of Earl Grey as the tea appropriate to a conversation with another vicar about a difficult subject. So well-bred and civilized, and such a contrast to the unsuitability under discussion!
But ultimately, I am left with pouring the bulk of my affections where they have been right from the beginning, onto Faustina, the vicarage cat; and I’ll leave you with her final coup reported here — memo to fictional cat owners everywhere: you do not try to spoon-feed your feline a thoroughly disgusting substance; even less so, without even trying to mask its flavour (and if you do, you most certainly don’t use miniature anointing spoons):
“‘Take an apostle spoon,’ Edwin Pettigrew had said, in that calm way that inspired so much confidence, making it all sound so easy. And certainly one would have thought that a vicarage was the one place where one could be sure of finding plenty of apostle spoons. Trying to hold Faustina firmly under one arm, Sophia rummaged in the silver drawer but could not find one. Then she remembered the coffee spoons that had been a wedding present and were kept in a satin-lined case. Surely those were apostle spoons? They looked something like them, but then she realized that they were miniature replicas of the coronation anointing spoon — not so unsuitable, really, for with a jerk of her head Faustina sent the spoonful of liquid paraffin running down her face and brindled front so that she had, in a sense, anointed herself with oil.
Sophia let out a cry of exasperation as the cat jumped to the ground and stalked away. Who would ever have thought that a miniature anointing spoon could have contained so much, she asked herself, for her hands and the front of her skirt seemed to be covered with liquid paraffin.”
Spent another enjoyable afternoon with Ianthe, the vicar and his wife, and their parishioners and acquaintances. Things are moving along at a rather surprising pace in Ianthe’s life, and not in the right direction at all in Penelope’s. A trip to Rome provides interesting insights (to the characters as well as to the reader). I continue to like Mark and Sophia a lot, ditto Ianthe. Rather seriously put off by Rupert lately, however.
“He worked contentedly for some time and was deep in the intricacies of a genealogy when the telephone rang. It was a colleague, Everard Bone, who with his wife Mildred was to be one of the guests at the dinner arty that evening.
‘Such a nuisance, Mildred seems to have flu,’ he said irritably. ‘She thought it would be unwise to come out this evening, so I’m afraid that’s that. She sends her apologies, of course.’
‘I’m so sorry, said Rupert, ‘but I quite see that she shouldn’t come out. I’d been looking forward to seeing you both, and I had wanted to discuss that Unesco thing with you.’
‘Oh, I shall be coming,’ said Everard. ‘I only rang to say that Mildred can’t.”
NOOOOO!!! How could you, Ms. Pym??
How could you do this —
a) at all,
b) off stage,
c) without ever letting us know how Mildred feels about her choice, neither when she first made it nor now, some years down the road,
d) AND as we learn in the next part of the conversation, to add insult to injury, leave flu-sick Mildred in the care of Everard’s mother of all people??
[TA howls in frustration.]
And granted, a match with Everard is in the cards at the end of Excellent Women. But still … (sigh).
“‘Is Mrs Gammon ill as well, then?’ asked Ianthe helplessly.
‘Not that I know of. She’s not at home. It’s her bingo night,’ the vicar explained.
‘Bingo?‘ Ianthe gave the word a horriefied emphasis, for it sounded unsuitable coming from his pale lips.“
Take that, bingo-loving BookLikers … 🙂
So — Pym’s infamous seventh book, the one that was rejected out of the blue as allegedly “unpublishable” by the very publishing house that had happily published Pym’s prior six novels to great success.
My edition is a Granada paperback from 1983, the year after it finally, posthumously saw the light of day; and it includes an introduction by Pym’s friend Philip Larkin — who downplays his own role in getting her books belatedly back into the limelight, after an almost 15-year hiatus, but who does reveal a bit of his correspondence with Pym’s former publisher on the issue … and I do find the publisher’s assertion that this book was rejected on alleged “quality” grounds (rather than because the publisher felt it was out of date topically and stylistically) rather staggering. All I can say is that publication standards have slipped abysmally between the 1960s and today, judging by more than just a few of the books accepted for publication these days (including, by the same imprint and house, Jonathan Cape / Penguin Random House). In light of the accepptance of these books, the fact that An Unsuitable Attachment was initially rejected on alleged quality grounds is plainly mind-boggling.
And of course, given this novel’s own destiny, the following paragraph in particular also makes for uncomfortably prescient reading (from p. 80 of my edition):
“An elderly female novelist had come in at a quarter to six and Penelope had found herself trying to explain why her latest novel had not been reviewed in the Sunday Telegraph, why it had not been advertised more widely, why copies had not been displayed ‘on the bookstall of a friend’s local station, why it had not yet been reprinted. […]
‘This would not have happened with Mr Chatto or Mr Windus,’ said the female novelist, as Penelope at last managed to get her out of the building. ‘I shall go to the Army and Navy Stores,’ she announced. ‘They are sure to have copies of my book there.'”
And yes, Chatto & Windus is part of Penguin Random House these days as well.
An Unsuitable Attachment does not quite display the same cheerful atmosphere as Excellent Women; the tone is quite a bit more subdued, though still leagues away from A Quartet in Autumn (thank God). But it has the same sense of understated humour, and as in Pym’s other books, not a single word is superfluous or out of place — the writing is neat and precise, and as in her other novels, Pym generally doesn’t need more than a single line to perfectly portray the essence of a character (or situation). We’re back in Pym’s world of a parish in one of London’s less descript neighborhoods, complete with the vicar and his wife (two of the novel’s POV characters), a spinster librarian (who hasn’t quite yet given up on matrimony, however), several bachelors, a young lady who has recently suffered a disappointment in love (but is undeterred in her quest for a husband, not least in light of the fact that she is “already” 25 years old), a retired nurse, a parish council and parish events, the liturgical calendar as the year’s (and the novel’s) ordering principle, several members of the elevated clergy in the characters’ family backgrounds, genteel poverty, fish & chips, chicken in aspic and similarly questionable but quintessentially 1950s-60s culinary “delights”, and the intricacies of the class system firmly implanted in everybody’s heads, right down to such details as shoewear, interior decoration, and prejudices about eating habits.
Philip Larkin mentions in his introduction that “rather like the finale of a musical comedy”, this novel also features an “omnium gatherum” of characters from all of Pym’s previous books — nice to know, then, that they all seem to inhabit the same fictional universe, though this also makes me wonder whether there is a point to reading her novels in publication order after all (or at the very least, a point to revisiting An Unsuitable Attachment after having read all of the preceding books); particularly as Larkin is definitely right in observing parenthetically, à propos of another one of Pym’s novels (A Glass of Blessings), that a “conversation … about Rocky Napier is only fully meaningful if we have met him in Excellent Women” — I’m pretty sure this might be said about quite a number of the characters from Pym’s other novels featuring as part of the “omnium gatherum” in An Unsuitable Attachment. (Excellent Women is apparently represented here by … Everard Bone, incidentally.)
There is one character here, however, who is entirely unique and, unsurprisingly, my absolute favourite so far.
“‘[T]heir cats will be looked after too — one only hopes Daisy won’t put in more food for them than for the humans.’
Faustina looked up from her saucer, her dark face made all the more reproachful by its beard of milk.'”
Right you are, kitty. Go Faustina!
Wow. What a depressing read — particularly so, the first half of the book (or thereabouts). We’re meeting four main characters who thoroughly seem to be passengers, not drivers of their own lives, in a trajectory from nowhere to nowhere (and not necessarily a different part of nowhere, either) — all set, as I said in my reading status update from a little over the halfway point, against a quintessentially late 1970s backdrop of cheap drabness (with the cityscape and office life mirroring the four protagonists’s personal lives), occasionally contrasted with and punctuated by the visceral shocks of the psychedelic age.
Like others who participated in the buddy read, I felt by far the most drawn to Lettie; not only because she is the character whom we get to know the best both inside and out (and with whom it is thus easiest to empathize), but also because she is the one who most reflects about her situation and who is the most honest to herself — to the point of realizing, at the very end, that even at this comparatively late point of her life she does still have choices, however seemingly minor ones, and it is up to her and nobody else to make those choices. (Norman, by contrast, is likewise given a choice and though he does realize it for what it is, he ultimately backtracks to the status quo, only a more secure version thereof; and Edwin — the most financially secure and socially “established” member of the quartet — never has sufficient incentive to change the status quo to begin with … whereas Marcia’s path is one of utter self-destruction.)
Throughout the book, I kept finding myself comparing the lives of the four protagonists with those of my grandparents and my mom: The former, selling the house where they had raised their children upon my grandpa’s retirement from his job in a federal ministry and moving into a (much smaller, but comfortable) apartment and into a financially secure and, health allowing, active final 2 (or in my grandma’s case, 3) decades of their lives. And my mom, taking advantage of the generous early retirement program offered by the employer where she’d worked the final 2 decades of her working life, and making the most of it, with plenty of travel in Europe and elsewhere as long as her body would play along, and at 80 years of age still my opera-going companion and still in control of arranging her life just as she sees fit. — And yet, only a few decades earlier (if my mom had not started but ended her professional life in the 1960s or 1970s), she might easily have found herself in Lettie’s place, and the poorer for it.
This was quite a contrast to our first Pymalong read, and while Pym’s fine eye for the workings of British society and of people’s behaviour was again on brilliant display, I do hope our next Pymalong book will strike a less somber and subdued note again and leave more room for her particular brand of wry, gentle humour. For a novel of less than 200 pages in length, it took me quite a long time to finish Quartet in Autumn and quite a substantial effort to return to it time and again — if it hadn’t been for the buddy read, I might quite conceivably have DNF’d it, not because it’s not well-written (it is), but because it is simply such a depressing book.
Is this the fate that would have awaited Pym’s heroine from Excellent Women, Mildred Lathbury, if she had decided upon permanent “spinsterhood”?
So quintessentially late 1970s — cheap drabness (the cityscape and office life mirroring the four protagonists’s personal lives), occasionally contrasted with and punctuated by the visceral shocks of the psychedelic age. Pym (1913-1980) quite obviously more than empathized with her protagonists — but unlike other writers born before WWI and still publishing books in the 1970s (looking at you, Dame Agatha and Ms Marsh), she seems to also have looked upon the concerns and attitudes of the representatives of younger generations with quite a fair amount of sympathy.
Now that the two female protagonists have retired (and I’m about halfway through the book), it seems a good moment to take a break. I wonder how Pym is going to keep the “quartet” together, though — the office so far having provided their only, albeit persistent, point of contact. I guess I’ll be finding out tomorrow!
“… Curried whale, goodness, you wouldn’t feel like having that for tea, would you? I had an argument about it the other day with Protheroe — you know how strictly she keeps Lent and all that sort of nonsense — well, there she was eating whale meat thinking it was fish!”
“Well, isn’t it?”
“No, of course it isn’t. The whale is a mammal,” said Dora in a loud truculent tone. “So you see it can hardly count as fish.”
Hah. Take that, Mr. Melville …