Some Tame Gazelle by Barbara Pym

The title of Barbara Pym’s first published novel, Some Tame Gazelle, might not seem to have any connection to the plot, but the quote appears early in the novel:

Some tame gazelle, or some gentle dove:

Something to love, oh, something to love! (Thomas Haynes Bayly)

I happen to share that feeling–people need something to love, and if there’s no person available, then let it be a dog, a cat, a hamster, or a budgie. If push comes to shove, a plant will do. Even my neighbor has his Harley Davidson since his missus departed for less turbulent pastures. Anyway, the need to have something to love is evident in Some Tame Gazelle, the story of two spinster sisters, Harriet and Belinda Bede, in their fifties whose lives are built around the local church and its clergymen. The sisters live together in a life of genteel comfort, and while they can afford a maid, there’s a little nip and tuck when it comes to meals if no guests are expected at the table. The two sisters are completely different: Belinda, the eldest sister is a romantic introvert whose male ideal, somewhat incongruously is the “dear Earl of Rochester.” Yes, Belinda in many ways is someone who doesn’t get the nuances of character as we later see through Belinda’s decades long devotion to the unrequited love of her university days–now the local, pompous married Archdeacon Hoccleve. Harriet, on the other hand, is an extrovert, a plump flirt who obsesses about her appearance, and always has a crush on whichever young, pink-cheeked, innocent curate is assigned to the local church. She’s a groupie of sorts: “She was especially given to cherishing young clergymen, and her frequent excursions to the curates’ lodgings had often given rise to talk.”

Some tame GazelleThe novel begins with bubbling excitement over the new curate’s attendance at dinner. Belinda is fully expecting Harriet “to be quite as silly over him as she had been over his predecessors,” and the relationships Harriet has with the series of curates who’ve passed through seem to cover all sorts of roles from surrogate mother & sons to vague courtship.  One of Harriet’s problems is that she doesn’t know whether to mother the curate du jour or giggle and flirt with him. Needless to say she does both–but she’s not alone in the parish when it comes to fussing over the curate. This seems to be a popular pastime with the single women, and whether or not they are too old to be jealously possessive about the highly-prized curate is beside the point. But in spite of the slight awkwardness generated when a mid-fities spinster fusses over a single man young enough to be her son, those involved seem happy with the arrangement. It’s one of those ‘no damage done’ situations with everyone glossing over the possibly unhealthy ramifications of these relationships. Harriet immerses herself in questions such as ‘is the curate getting proper meals?’ and whether he needs a new of pair of hand-knitted socks. For their part, the curates benefit by getting regular free meals.

So while the novel opens with the exciting prospect (for Harriet, at least) of a fresh, young, curate, The Reverend Edgar Donne, Belinda faces the thrill of the Archdeacon’s wife, Agatha going away on holiday and leaving her obnoxious husband behind. To Belinda, of course, the Archdeacon, “dear Henry,” can do no wrong, but we get a glimpse of the domestic trials of being married to the Archdeacon–an immature man of insufferable ego and full of constant complaints:

Belinda recognized the voice as that of the Archdeacon. He was leaning out of one of the upper windows, calling to Agatha, and he sounded very peevish. Belinda thought he looked handsome in his dark green dressing-gown with his hair all ruffled. The years had dealt kindly with him and he had grown neither bald nor fat.  It was Agatha who seemed to have suffered most. Her pointed face had lost the elfin charm which had delighted many and now looked drawn and harassed.

Belinda cannot fathom the reason behind Agatha’s bad temper and thinks that “Agatha should humour dear Henry a little more.” This is a position of some naiveté as Belinda, who has never moved beyond idealized love, has no idea how grueling married relationships can be and just how taxing and demanding her idol Henry really is. The prospect of Henry alone creates no small amount of speculation between the sisters and raises the question whether or not the Archdeacon is upset or delighted by his wife’s absence.

When the day came for Agatha to go away, Belinda and Harriet watched her departure out of Belinda’s bedroom window. From here there was an excellent view of the vicarage drive and gate. Belinda had brought some brass with her to clean and in the intervals when she stopped her vigorous rubbing to look out the window, was careful to display the duster in her hand. Harriet stared out quite unashamedly, with nothing in her hand to excuse her presence there. She even had a pair of binoculars, which she was trying to focus.

With Agatha away, the Archdeacon makes more visits to the Bede household, and Belinda makes a few visits to the vicarage. Vague long-distant memoires and lost opportunities are stirred accompanied by just a whisper of mild discontent.

How odd if Henry were a widower, she thought suddenly. How embarrassing, really.  It would be like going back thirty years. Or wouldn’t it? Belinda soon saw that it wouldn’t. For she was now a contented spinster and her love was like a warm, comfortable garment, bedsocks, perhaps, or even woolen combinations; certainly something without glamour or romance. All the same, it was rather nice to think that Henry might prefer her to Agatha, although she knew perfectly well that he didn’t. It was one of the advantages of being the one he hadn’t married that one could be in a position to imagine such things.

Some Tame Gazelle makes some interesting statements about love; we see Belinda still in love, decades past the initial onset, and she cannot see that the Archdeacon is flawed and not really worth her worshipful attention, and yet does that really matter? There are a couple of times when reality punctures Belinda’s image of the Archdeacon, but she turns away from her perceived disloyalty and criticism and chooses to keep her perfect image of the Archdeacon. Harriet, is a study is serial adoration, and she smoothly moves her infatuations from one curate to another. While no great crisis occurs in this delightful, humorous  novel of manners, nonetheless the calm, orderly world of the Bede sisters is threatened by the arrival of two eligible men including one of Harriet’s long-lost curates, now middle-aged Bishop Theo Grote,  who returns from darkest Africa. According to Belinda, Bishop Grote “doesn’t have all his goods in the shop window,” and as one of Harriet’s past pet-project curates, he’s now a eligible bachelor….


Filed under Fiction, Pym, Barbara

21 responses to “Some Tame Gazelle by Barbara Pym

  1. This is my favourite Pym novel; you’ve summed it up most well. Must be almost time for a re-read… I feel like I should be saying something meaningful to add to your review, but really all I can come up with is a “thank you”; such a pleasure to see one’s reading shared!

  2. I’ve only read one Pym to date and keep telling myself I must read more. I love the sound of this. I love writing like: “and he sounded very peevish. Belinda thought he looked handsome”. That’s delicious!

    I also enjoy finely observed novels about characters living quiet lives because they show the human-ness in us all. It sounds like one of the ideas it’s exploring is that of the imagination – that idea that she could “imagine” because she didn’t have to face the reality. Pros and cons to that, eh, and a great notion to explore.

  3. PS I haven’t forgotten my Bah humbug book … I do hope to get to it this year!

  4. Sounds like an entertaining character study. When I was younger I think that I would have been incredulous of someone pinning for an infatuation for decades on end. Now, having seen people do it I understand that it is somewhat common.

  5. I’ve got this and will certainly read it one of these days. Isn’t it a story of unlived lives? I find this a bit creepy.
    I’ve only read The Sweet Dove Died.

    • Pym’s characters have rich, active, interesting lives–and there’s more than a hint that perhaps as single women, they are happier than their married counterparts

  6. Interesting – but it seems a little like hard work to me, the themes being so dated. I suppose in those days there were still some women to whom a curate was the peak of romantic longing and an archdeacon was a man to be reckoned with. Pity the poor curate today – it seems a very lonely furrow to plough

  7. This sounds delightful. I’ve never read her but it’s something I’d enjoy. Women pining for clergymen, it’s a bit exotic seen from a Catholic country. (These things happened, of course, you just don’t have novels like this about it, as far as I know)

    From what you wrote, it seems that both sisters never left the stage of adolescent love. One is loving an idealized man and the other goes from crush to crush. Their maturity stopped at that stage and stayed there as they never moved forward with their lives.

    • That’s an excellent point. Didn’t think of that. Of course, sex never entered the picture and at one point Harriet implies that the Archdeacon wants a divorce and poor Belinda is all flustered. Imagine trying to move the idealized love at this stage of the game.

      I’ll be reading and reviewing all of her books.

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