Thursday, June 6, 2013

Crampton Hodnet

Writing about Barbara Pym's novels seems to get a little harder with each additional one that I read, at least in terms of avoiding repetitive gushing over the funny yet realistic characters and cozy atmospheres that pervade so much of her writing. Since Crampton Hodnet, one of Pym's earlier novels, has all of those common Pymsian (or is it Pymish?) elements, I'll try to highlight its more unique qualities, the foremost of which is its slightly darker, more melancholy air. Pym's novels often deal with the little moments of ordinary life, and the mishaps, misunderstandings, and minor romantic intrigues that arise from them. The personal dramas in Crampton Hodnet don't necessarily have satisfactory endings: the spinster doesn't marry the eligible bachelor who comes to town and the pretty twenty-year-old girl doesn't end up with the aristocratic Oxford undergrad. Even the story lines that do turn out well seem to take a rockier path to get there, as seen by the middle-aged poetry professor who makes a bungled attempt at running away with an attractive young student before returning to his wife. Although there are similar escapades in some of Pym's other novels, they're generally portrayed through the lens of  good-natured humor. The affair in Crampton Hodnet comes closer to being an instance of truly destructive adultery than anything else I've read from Pym so far. This slightly less positive point of view didn't diminish my enjoyment of the novel, but actually added some interesting layers to the work, especially when you consider its position in Pym's writing timeline, written in her earlier years when you might assume she would be more inclined to adopt a youthfully optimistic tone. It may be an indication that Pym was still refining her writing style with this novel, playing around to find the perfect balance of humor, characterization and plot that are so apparent in later novels like Excellent Women and Jane and Prudence.

Speaking of Jane and Prudence, Crampton Hodnet centers around two characters who make supporting appearances as neighbors in that novel, the elderly Miss Doggett and her spinster companion Miss Morrow.  I've written before about how Pym has her characters make cameos in novels other than their own. What she does in here isn't quite the same thing, particularly where Miss Morrow is concerned. The Miss Morrows of Crampton Hodnet and Jane and Prudence are the same in name and situation only. In Jane and Prudence, Miss Morrow is obviously dissatisfied with her job as a companion to Miss Doggett and, through a series of closely calculated machinations, surprises everyone by ending up engaged to one of the more sought-after bachelors in the novel. In Crampton Hodnet, she is a different version of herself, more meek and resigned to Miss Doggett's bossiness, but also more inclined to take pleasure in the small moments of everyday life. And while she also receives unexpected attentions from an eligible bachelor, her reactions to him make her seem like a more nuanced and sympathetic character than her alter-novel counterpart.

And finally, I noticed one other unique feature of Crampton Hodnet that sets is apart from Pym's other works: the author photo on the back cover of my edition. The common author photo of her holding her cat is so familiar, that it was a nice change to see a different version of her, sitting here with this unknown gentleman:

Who is he? And, more importantly, is that some knitting he's holding?


  1. I think Pym excelled at writing light, humorous novels, but there is definitely a dark side to her books that I have only begun to realize. I just bought a copy of Crampton Hodnet and will read it sometime this year - I didn't know it featured Miss Doggett and Miss Morrow!
    I've never seen that photo of Pym - I love the standard cat one, but it is nice to see a different side to her.

  2. The gentleman is the famous (or infamous) Henry Harvey. She had an affair with him at Oxford and he treated her badly. She wrote about him as "Archdeacon Hoccleve" in Some Tame Gazelle.

  3. Also, he is lighting a match. Barbara Pym actually had a cigarette in her mouth, which was later airbrushed out by some clueless publisher.



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