It is a truth universally acknowledged that romance writers are not romantic.
Wait! Is that a lie? Oh, I don’t know! I’ll admit that I was thinking about the portrayals of romance writers often by writers in other genres. Not manly men writers who think all women who write romance are frivolous, empty-headed and unrealistic — like a lot of the crime guys I know who are comfortable suburbanite dads who write about killing sprees, gritty drug dealers and serial murders which are totally realistic in their lives.
I’m reading Barbara Pym on a whim because I realised despite binging on her books when I first discovered her back in the 90s, I had not read Less Than Angels which is about academics, so perfect for me. And I’ve been mostly reading very dark crime stuff, so change of pace. Though Pym is often compared to Austen for all the good reasons, as Salley Vickers points out in the introduction, she really has a lot more in common with Kingsley Amis, particularly in this novel.
Pym has a dry humour that builds through characters. She skewers people so deftly they seldom feel the barb. “Academic toilers,” one character asserts, “do not understand the art of being fashionably late.” Indeed, “the hands of the library clock were barely pointing to six when a mass of people seemed almost to hurl through the door.” It adds to the amusement that the academics are all anthropologists studying ‘primitive’ cultures, while Pym studies theirs.
The best character of course is the romance and ‘women’s magazines’ writer, Catherine Oliphant. A lot of the story comes from her perspective and she’s so odd and funny (and often unappreciated by others especially men, who find her somewhat scandalous because she says what she thinks). Pym’s perspective is equally direct: “There are few experiences more boring and painful for a woman than an evening spent in the company of one man when she is longing to be with another.”
Catherine finds people react oddly to her being a writer: “‘So you write? Stories, Deirdre told us.’ Her tone was a little uncertain for she had never met a writer before. She had heard that either they hated you to mention their profession or were offended if you didn’t.” But she’s no more confident in talking about her work, as Pym tells us, “adopting the rather derogatory tone behind which writers sometimes hide from the scorn and mockery of the world.”
But she makes a living at it — in contrast to the starving students and shabby genteel poverty of the faculty. Catherine offers outrageous opinions to suburban folks, who in their typically British way are reluctant to admit to being appalled. “Yes, of course women do think the worst of each other,” Catherine tells one ‘uncomfortable’ woman, “perhaps because only they can know what they are capable of.” She lives an unconventional life and though it is not without heartache, she’s also more realistic and thus adventurous.
The young student Deirdre, in contrast, falls head over heels and only gradually begins to realise the difficulty of real love — and disappointments. “Women so often find themselves examining a man’s books, trying to find something intelligent to say about them, and even at nineteen Deirdre was beginning to get her share of it.”
Pym isn’t exactly romance, although there is a lot of jockeying for romance in her books. They are laugh out loud funny at the most unexpected moments. But she has a deep understanding and love for romance and romantic tendencies. Her characters quote poems by Donne, Barrett and Shelley, and she refers to Austen’s Anne Elliot and even quotes her words about how women do not have the luxury of forgetting so quickly, then briskly informs us of the character, “Elaine was not much of a reader…which was just as well, even if she missed the consolation and pain of coming upon her feelings expressed for her in such moving words.”
Pym may not be romantic, but she loves romance.