CRAMPTON HODNET. By Barbara Pym. Dutton. 216 pp. $14.95.
CRAMPTON HODNET is a novel held together not so much by its plot or characters as by its tone -- a tone which, in its self-deprecatory wryness is instantly recognizable as Barbara Pym's.
Pym wrote most of the novel in 1939, set it aside during the war, and then grew disenchanted and turned to other more promising work, like her masterful Some Tame Gazelle. Ultimately, she felt, Crampton Hodnet had become dated and unpublishable. Today, we can see how wrong she was, for Crampton Hodnet is not only publishable, it is timeless. The story is set in Oxford during the '30s -- most particularly that uppercrust enclave on the university's outskirts called North Oxford. Like many such neighborhoods North Oxford never changes very much. Barbara Pym satirizes its quirks and self-importance with gentle glee.
The cast of characters will be familiar to Pymites: two spinsters, in this case an older Miss Doggett and her thirty-ish companion Miss Morrow; the obligatory young curate, Mr. Latimer, a lodger in Miss Doggett's house; Francis Cleveland, a middle-aged don, his frumpy but likable wife Margaret and their beautiful daughter Anthea; plus a succession of undergraduates, college masters, clergymen and dons.
If Crampton Hodnet has a problem, it is that Pym seems never to have made up her mind whose consciousness would anchor the novel. She bounces us from Miss Morrow's to Francis Cleveland's, to Mr. Latimer's point of view, to name only a few, in dizzying succession. They all have their contributions to make to her finely drawn portrait of their small world, but Pym might have been wiser to let Miss Morrow, whose sensibility and wit seems so nearly her own, lead us through the novel's episodes.
These vary from the amusing to the farcical. In fact, Hazel Holt, Pym's literary executor, writes in the introduction that it is the most purely funny of all her novels. She's right. It will make you laugh out loud.
Take for instance the source of the title. Mr. Latimer invents "Crampton Hodnet" as an excuse for his absence from evensong one afternoon when he and Miss Morrow get stranded by rain on a country walk. Later that evening when Mrs. Wardell, the rector's wife, stops to inquire after him, the curate lies like a trooper. "He had suddenly received a message from a friend who was vicar of a distant parish in the Cotswolds, asking him to go over and take evensong." The name of the parish, he glibly informs Mrs. Wardell, is Crampton Hodnet.
Mr. Latimer has wild dreams of escape from his life as a clergyman. And he is not unlike others who want to stretch the confines of their staid North Oxford lives. Francis Cleveland, for instance, a middle-aged specialist in 17th-century English literature, fancies himself in love with his student Barbara Bird. This "little lapse," as one of his friends charitably calls it, provides the novel with its central conflict. Francis pursues Barbara donnishly, setting up little trysts in the university botanical gardens, meeting her in the Bodleian Library, and most daring, taking her up to London to the British Museum, ostensibly to do research, but actually to press his affections.
There, as the two pore over Milton's commonplace book, he declares his love. They are observed, indeed have been followed, by one of Francis' colleagues, Edward Killigrew, who has "padded along behind them until he managed to get quite close. He was glad he was wearing his shoes with the crepe rubber soles. He had found them very useful in the Bodleian and had been able to approach people and hear many interesting conversations without being seen or heard himself."
Edward with the help of his old mother, an intrepid gossip, spreads the news of Cleveland's indiscretion until everyone knows. Reaction is mixed. His wife's "first impulse was to laugh. The British Museum! How like an Oxford don to choose such an unsuitable place to declare his love!" There is consternation in the senior common room at Barbara's college. "Oh that man!" clucks Miss Gurney, the English tutor. "Men are the ruination of women. . . . The only girl who seems likely to get a first, and now look what's happening."
We never discover whether Barbara Bird manages to get her first, an Oxford honors degree. It's one of the little loose ends Pym leaves untied. What we do know is that inspite of "little lapses" and minor tempests, North Oxford always regains its equilibrium. The novel opens on a wet October afternoon with a beginning-term tea party, and so it ends on a similar afternoon one year later. As Anthea muses, "There will always be North Oxford tea parties as long as there's any University left" -- a statement of resignation, yes, but in Barbara Pym's estimation, a reassurring observation nonetheless.