Barbara Pym is the disarming British novelist whose books have, luckily for us, been enjoying a revival both here and in her own country, ever since she was designated in a Times Literary Supplement poll as the most underrated English writer of the century. Quite unlike the bevy of British ladies (Nancy Mitford, Angela Thirkell, Ivy Compton-Burnett, Iris Murdoch) whose novels seem to melt into a ragout of conversation, trivia and admired kookiness, Pym, who died in 1980, doesn't trade on eccentricity or unruly behavior. Though deft in her pursuit of those elusive currents that draw people to one another (or repel them), she is calm rather than neurasthenic. Alert to ethical considerations, she is nevertheless not in the least righteous. In the world of modern fiction, where only sin is guaranteed to spellbind and our prominent authors come most alive in the moments they conjure up death or evil, Pym is a lone sturdy figure, bent on making virtue entertaining.
The setting of the newly released "No Fond Return of Love" (first published in England in 1961) is more confined than those in the novels that came before it, with hardly any of their congenial church bustle. It takes place mainly in the suburban house of Dulcie Mainwaring, and the members of the cast--distant relations, neighbors, chance amours and exasperating friends--don't even have a parish in common. But Barbara Pym is so reliably tidy in her plots, and she begins on so quizzical a note, that we take it for granted, even as she ushers in her unprepossessing characters, that our condescension is not meant to last.
The heroine, Dulcie, is the ultimate version of Pym's "excellent women," even mousier and more self-effacing than Mildred in the novel of that name. She works at indexing, her author's notion of woman's most thankless job. Rejected by her fiance', she plods about in sensible shoes and a wardrobe of drab grays and browns. She is compulsively polite, placating even the woman who comes to clean. When Mrs. Lord ritually reports on her lunch--the latest is "eggs on welsh and a Russian cream"--her employer immediately responds, " 'It sounds . . .' Dulcie hesitated for a word, 'delicious,' she pronounced with rather more emphasis than she had intended."
At a scholarly conference Dulcie attends to divert herself from disappointed love, her horizons broaden at the sight of Alwyn Forbes, destined to become the romantic object for three women. Handsome but pedantic, he is giving a lecture on "Some problems of an editor"; and some time later, at a dinner Dulcie arranges in an unprecedented burst of social ambition, he discloses "in a full, satisfied tone" that his book on a very minor 17th-century poet will be published by Oxford University Press. Tongue-tied both with women who oppress him and those who appeal to him, he is a creature of Pym's amusing assumption that men are the weaker sex and need to be rescued by women from their ineptitudes. Meanwhile Dulcie befriends, at the same conference, the cross, ungracious Viola Dace, also an indexer but one who fancies herself a future novelist. The story moves along on the trolley of services and civilities beyond the call of duty, conferred by Dulcie upon underserving recipients. She puts up, with utmost solicitude, two ungrateful roomers who hate the suburbs: her niece, Laurel, who hankers for a little bed-sitter with an electric cooker in London, near "brightly lit streets, Soho restaurants and coffee bars"; and the moody Viola, who disdains household chores and leaves her clothes lying about. Dulcie also invests an enormous amount of gratuitous emotion in the marital problems of Alwyn and the colorless wife who has left him.
There is a terrifying element in Barbara Pym: She lays her characters (and us) bare to all those small mortifications that are usually not admitted, and perhaps ought not to be, except in the hands of an implacably honest writer committed to the proposition that in the end it is less hurtful to be blunt about matters that customarily make us wince. Dulcie is constantly acknowledging her lack of glamor, letting the maid give her tips on improving her looks; Viola's exotic Spanish shawl dips into the soup; and an elderly unmarried brother-sister couple secretly plots to escape from the familial clasp. The characters bubble along, uncertain in courtship, marriage, careers. Or more exactly, we who are conventional see them as bumbling while Pym, an incorrigible optimist (her realism notwithstanding) believes that, often as not, they are eventually guided by wholesome intuition. Thus Viola gives up her highfalutin academic ambitions and settles for a courtly little Viennese clothier. Dulcie's apparently aimless pilgrimage to Taviscombe by the sea during a chilly Easter holiday to "research" Alwyn's family history turns out to be the most fundamental of female contrivances: She somehow senses that she will make him a suitable wife. In the long run, everyone obeys Pym's imperative to face his true limitations--or strengths.
But the wisdom in "No Fond Return of Love" should be put in its place, as only a fringe benefit of its comedy. A shade more rueful than her typical fiction, Pym's sixth novel still furnishes many of the familiar absurd characters and choice moments that her devotees expect: an absent-minded vicar unnerved by persistent lady admirers; Dulcie's Brazilian neighbor, Sen or MacBride-Pereira, in his room munching broiled almonds and catching sight of couples in close amorous conjunction; Viola in the kitchen, tuned out of Dulcie's worry about cooking marmalade because she is engrossed in Britain's intellectual monthly, Encounter. Pym is also an expert on the mortifications of the flesh--the damp hotel mattresses and the hilariously dismal foods that unmarried women treat each other to, like a quick macaroni-cheese or semolina pudding. But no matter how dreary the food or the situation, the reader knows comfort is at hand: "Life's problems are often eased by hot milky drinks"; "There are various ways of mending a broken heart"; and, if it is up to Barbara Pym, the dowdy heroine can always count on getting her man.