I love Barbara Pym, there is some modicum of comfort to be found in those unique slices of village life that she recreates and I have greatly enjoyed her novels, Excellent Women, Some Tame Gazelle, and Jane and Prudence in the past. To this list, I will now add Crampton Hodnet, another lovely novel with a brand new enticing avatar to match.
Set in North Oxford, Crampton Hodnet is a delightful comedy of manners with its full arsenal of vicars, curates, spinsters and tea parties – elements so characteristic of Pym’s magical world.
The book opens in Miss Doggett’s elaborately decorated Victorian drawing room where she’s hosting an afternoon tea party for the young Oxford students, some of them have been regulars, others invited for the first time. Assisting her is her companion, Miss Morrow, a spinster reasonably young but generally viewed (by Miss Doggett at least) to be past her prime or in other words, a generally accepted “marriageable” age.
Miss Doggett is a demanding woman with a dominating personality, always a commanding presence in a party or a gathering and ready to ingratiate herself with the wealthy aristocratic class at the drop of a hat; in sharp contrast, Miss Morrow is a quiet, sensible woman who for the most part is content being relegated to the background. Often having a low opinion of herself, she has learned to adapt to Miss Doggett’s views and way of living, however rigid, although there are times when she is struck by an air of wistfulness. Miss Morrow sometimes wonders about her limited existence in North Oxford, whether being a companion to an elderly lady is all there is to life.
Miss Morrow did not pretend to be anything more than a woman past her first youth, resigned to the fact that her life was probably never going to be more exciting than it was now.
We are also introduced to Miss Doggett’s nephew Francis Cleveland, a respected professor of English Literature at one of the Oxford colleges, his easy-going wife Margaret, and their daughter Anthea who has fallen deeply in love with Simon Beddoes, an ambitious young man hoping to make it big in politics. Miss Doggett thoroughly approves of Anthea’s relationship with Simon given his influential family background, although the young Anthea frets over Simon’s commitment, he adores Anthea but there’s a sense that there might not be much substance in his feelings towards her.
Things in this sleepy Oxford town begin to get exciting with the arrival of a young curate Mr Latimer, an assistant to the vicar Mr Wardell. Mr Latimer is a good-looking man with a charming personality, rumoured to have been caught up in some romantic entanglements, a past he is looking to shake off and begin afresh. At the vicar’s request, Miss Doggett readily agrees to lodge him at her home; after all, what temptations can there possibly be in her household that can lead Mr Latimer astray?
When Mr Latimer arrives, Miss Doggett quickly takes him under her wing and at first, he is relieved at the fact that there’s no attractive woman in the house to tempt him. However, he and Miss Morrow quickly become friends, and when thoughts of marrying and settling down begin to assail him, he wonders whether Miss Morrow might not make a suitable match. She is a practical, straightforward woman after all, and the two of them get along quite nicely.
For a woman who makes it her business to know of all the happenings in the town, Miss Doggett is surprisingly unaware of the possibility of romance brewing in her very own house. However, the vicar’s meek wife Mrs Wardell has observed Miss Morrow and Mr Latimer together and Mr Latimer in a desperate attempt to ward off gossip, cooks up some long-winded story of how he visited a distant parish in the Cotswolds called Crampton Hodnet lending the book its name (“Was there such a place? Miss Morrow wondered. She was sure there was not”). It’s a tale that astonishes Miss Morrow who never imagined that a clergyman would resort to telling lies.
But there are more complications in store. Francis Cleveland seems to have begun an affair with his student, the intelligent and attractive Barbara Bird much to the chagrin of Miss Doggett, who although aghast, secretly revels at the idea of interfering in the outcome of the affair. After all these years, the Clevelands’ marriage has reached a comfortable space where Mrs Cleveland is happy to have her own time without her husband always pottering around…
After the first year or two of married life one no longer wanted to have him continually about the house. Mrs Cleveland hardly noticed now whether her husband was there or not, and she was too busy doing other things ever to stop and ask herself whether she was not perhaps missing something. The best she could say of Francis was that he gave her no trouble, and she thought that there was a great deal more than could be said of many husbands.
It’s this very indifference that irks Francis Cleveland who is taken in by Barbara’s attention towards him, and the fact that they can converse on so many intellectual topics. But while Francis contemplates the prospect of leaving his marriage and a comfortable home and setting up all over again with Barbara elsewhere (the idea of an affair being more thrilling to him than its execution), it soon becomes clear that Barbara’s idea of love is of a different kind – she is much more interested in intellectual compatibility rather than romantic love or physical intimacy which to her has ‘sordid’ written all over it.
Crampton Hodnet might come across as a light-hearted novel and in many ways it is, but it is also filled with some universal truths about people and relationships. Some of the themes the novel explores are – the ups and downs of marriage, the idea of romantic love versus platonic friendships, the meaning of happiness and a sense of life having passed by, disappointments in love that the young take too seriously, and the perennial debate between seeking excitement by beginning something new as against being content with what you have, the comfort of familiarity.
Pym as usual has a marvellous, subtle flair for comedy and while there are many such moments peppered throughout the book, the memorable conversation between Mr Latimer and Miss Morrow as they devise possible explanations for their late evening walk which could unnecessarily raise eyebrows was a particular favourite of mine.
Flawed yet endearing, the characters are brilliantly etched and Pym has a knack for making astute observations on their personalities – the domineering and interfering Miss Doggett; the practical, attention-avoiding Miss Morrow; the childish, but much older Francis Cleveland torn between his exciting affair with Barbara Bird and being fussed over in his comfortable home; his absent-minded, easy-going wife Margaret who does not take her husband too seriously (“after nearly thirty years of married life she had come to take very much for granted the handsome, distinguished husband whom she had once loved so passionately”); the charming, frivolous curate Mr Latimer and the idealistic Barbara Bird with her desire for love more as a concept inspired by the great poets.
In Crampton Hodnet, not all set-ups that signal the possibility of romantic love necessarily have a happy ending, and it’s this aspect where Pym’s wisdom shines through. As the introduction to the novel points out “the characters themselves seem very satisfied” with these outcomes and that is what makes the novel such a fulfilling read.