THE LAST of Barbara Pym's novels to be made available in the United States, Some Tame Gazelle, written in 1950, was actually the first published in England. In it the author of Excellent Women and No Fond Return of Love introduces readers to what has become known as the "World of Pym"--English country villages with their population of middle-aged spinsters, clergymen and a gaggle of assorted village eccentrics and visitors.
Harriet and Belinda Bede, the heroines of Some Tame Gazelle are two of Pym's many "excellent women." They are middle-aged, unmarried, religious (Church of England, naturally) and endlessly willing to give of themselves to those around them. Harriet is chubby, gregarious, concerned with fashion--an aging but lovable coquette. Belinda, the elder, is thin, shy, a closet romantic who, since her college days, has harbored an unrequited and unexpressed love for the town's vicar.
The sisters have two things in common: their spinsterhood and their love for each other. Along with various townspeople and visitors they also share the need to love and be loved. Hence the novel's title, "some tame gazelle, or some gentle dove:/ Something to love, oh, something to love!," from a poem by Thomas Haynes Bayly.
Surrounding these two wonderfully realized ladies is a cast of equally memorable supporting characters. There's Edgar Donne, the most recent in a long line of young curates taken under Harriet's wing; Archdeacon Hoccleve, Belinda's secret love, the pompous, peevish village clergyman who envies his more popular neighbor Reverend Plowman and takes perverse delight in showing off his erudition by preaching sermons completely beyond his parishoners' comprehension; Agatha Hoccleve, the outspoken wife of the archdeacon who is, in Belinda's words, "a most intelligent woman. She knows a great deal about medieval English literature. And then there's paleography," her emphatic tone explaining its importance in their married life. There's Edith Liversidge, whom everyone refers to as "splendid, probably because she hadn't very much money, dug vigorously in her garden and kept goats." And Count Ricardo Bianco, "a gentle, melancholy man who had admired Harriet for more years than could now be remembered and had the habit of asking her to marry him every now and again." These and others who enter and leave the village affect the Bedes' lives in unexpected ways.
Nothing much actually happens in Some Tame Gazelle, for Pym is a minimalist when it comes to storyline. What does occur is the ordinary goings-on of country life. The archdeacon's garden party, his sermon on Judgment Day and an evensong and a slide presentation by a visiting bishop are probably the novel's highlights. Yet from such simple stuff Pym has fashioned a precise portrait of human experience, using delicate irony, penetrating insight, and genuinely delightful humor.
Much as Jane Austen's miniaturized world of the provincial gentry of Regency England is well suited to her examination of social mores and pretensions, so the circumscribed existence of Pym's characters serves as a perfect backdrop for her finely targeted psychological portraits.
One reviewer of an earlier published novel (Quartet in Autumn) described her people as "mice in the wainscoting of life, never invited to the table, contenting themselves with its crumbs." The description is apt, for Pym's people are those one might see everyday yet never notice because they are so commonplace and unexciting, concerned more with boiled chicken and knitted vests than with dioxin spills and thermonuclear war.
But Pym gives them importance. She shows us their thinking, details their small comforts, exposes their essential solitude, all without sentimentality. She demonstrates, particularly in the case of Belinda Bede, that the state of being alone can be a vocation more worthy of praise than pity.
In addition, throughout Some Tame Gazelle, Pym shows a particular gift for illustrating, totally without cruelty, the ways in which the faintest glimmer of romance can turn her sensible spinsters and aging gentlemen into absolute twits.
I've no doubt that those who have savored Barbara Pym's later novels will find much to please them here. And those, making a first acquaintance with her, will surely be delighted, moved and impelled to seek out other works by a novelist who was once--but is certainly no longer--obscure.