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About the Author
Barbara Pym (1913-1980) was born in Oswestry, Shropshire. She was educated at Huyton College, Liverpool, and St Hilda's College, Oxford, where she gained an Honours Degree in English Language and Literature. During the war she served in the WRNS in Britai
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Sunday Tea Party
It was a wet Sunday afternoon in North Oxford at the beginning of October. The laurel bushes which bordered the path leading to Leamington Lodge, Banbury Road, were dripping with rain. A few sodden chrysanthemums, dahlias and zinnias drooped in the flower-beds on the lawn. The house had been built in the sixties of the last century, of yellowish brick, with a gabled roof and narrow Gothic windows set in frames of ornamental stonework. A long red and blue stained-glass window looked onto a landing halfway up the pitch-pine staircase, and there were panels of the same glass let into the front door, giving an ecclesiastical effect, so that, except for a glimpse of unlikely lace curtains, the house might have been a theological college. It seemed very quiet now at twenty past three, and upstairs in her big front bedroom Miss Maude Doggett was having her usual rest. There was still half an hour before her heavy step would be heard on the stairs and her loud, firm voice calling to her companion, Miss Morrow.
It was cold this afternoon, but there would not be a fire in the dining-room until the first of November. A vase of colouredteasels filled the emptiness of the fireplace over which Miss Morrow crouched, listening to the wireless. It was a programme of gramophone records from Radio Luxembourg, and Miss Morrow's hand was on the switch, ready to fade out this unsuitable noise should the familiar step and voice be heard before their time.
Jessie Morrow was a thin, used-up-looking woman in her middle thirties. She had been Miss Doggett's companion for five years and knew that she was better off than many of her kind, because she had a very comfortable home and one did at least meet interesting people in Oxford. Undergraduates came every week to Miss Doggett's Sunday afternoon tea parties, and her nephew, Francis Cleveland, who lived only a few houses away, was a Fellow of Randolph College and a University Lecturer in English Literature.
Miss Morrow, in spite of her misleading appearance, was a woman of definite personality, who was able to look upon herself and her surroundings with detachment. This afternoon, however, she was feeling a little depressed. She shivered and pulled her shapeless grey cardigan round her thin body. She looked out of the window at the dripping monkey-puzzle tree, whose spiky branches effectively kept out any sun there might be. Then, turning back to the wireless, she advanced the volume control so that the music filled the dark North Oxford dining-room and seemed to bring to it some of the warmth and sinful brightness of a continental Sunday. There's magic in the air said a smooth, lingering voice against a background of rich, indefinite music. Miss Morrow knew this one. It was chocolates, a programme for Lovers. And then suddenly it went scratchy, and she remembered that it was not really a gay continental Sunday she was listening to but a tired, bored young man sitting in a studio somewhere between Belgium and Germany, putting on innumerable gramophone records to advertise all the many products that thoughtful people had invented to help you to attract your man or get your washing done in half the time.
If I had any strength of character, thought Miss Morrow, I should be able to take a wet Sunday afternoon in North Oxford with no fire to sit by in my stride. I might even take a pleasure in its gloominess and curiously Gothic quality. But such pleasures are only for the very sophisticated who can look on them from a distance without being swamped by them every day of their lives. There were one or two young men who enjoyed Miss Doggett's tea parties and found delight and comfort in the Victorian splendour of her drawing-room, but Miss Morrow did not pretend to be anything more than a woman past her first youth, resigned to the fact that her life was probably never going to be more exciting than it was now. With a sudden twist of her hand she turned off the music. It was degrading to think that she could not take a quiet pride in her resignation and leave it at that. In less than half an hour the undergraduates would begin to arrive, filling the hall with their dripping mackintoshes and umbrellas.
Miss Morrow went quickly upstairs to her large, cold bedroom and put on her dark green marocain dress. The mirror was in an unflattering light. She saw only too clearly her thin neck and small, undistinguished features, her faded blond hair done in a severe knot. There was no time to put powder or a touch of colour on her cheeks, for Miss Doggett was already calling her.
'Miss Morrow! Miss Morrow!' she called, her voice rising to a shrill note. 'Where are the buns from Boffin's? Florencesays she can't find them. You ought to see to these things. Where did you put them?' 'In the sideboard, in a tin,' shouted Miss Morrow, struggling with the hooks of her dress.
'The Balmoral tin.'
'What? I can't hear you. Why don't you come down?'
Miss Morrow rushed out of her room looking rather dishevelled. 'I mean the tin with the picture of Balmoral on it,' she explained.
'Oh, here they are, madam,' saidFlorence. 'I'm sorry, I didn't look in here.'
'Well, hurry up! The young men will be arriving soon,' said Miss Doggett. She was a large, formidable woman of seventy with thick grey hair. She wore a purple woollendress and many gold chains round her neck. Her chief work in life was interfering in other people's business and imposing her strong personality upon those who were weaker than herself. She pushed past Miss Morrow, who was hovering in the doorway, and entered the drawing-room.
'The fire has been lit for half an hour,' she said, glancing swiftly round the room to see that everything was as she liked it. 'It ought to be quite warm now, but in any case young people don't feel the cold. Nor would older ones if they wore sensible underclothes,' she added in a deliberate tone.
Miss Morrow understood the implication. It concerned a cotton vest which had been found among the laundry four years ago. It had been claimed by Miss Morrow.
'There is no warmth in cotton,' continued Miss Doggett. 'We would hardly expect to find warmth in cotton.'
Miss Morrow felt the reassuring tickle of her woollen underwear and turned away to hide a smile.
The big, cold drawing-room, with its Victorian mahogany furniture and air of mustiness which the struggling fire did nothing to dispel, waited to receive the young people. Miss Doggett moved heavily about the room, arranging chairs and putting out the photographs of Italian churches, the dry-looking engravings of Bavarian lakes and the autographed copy of In Memoriam which Lord Tennyson had given to her father, in case any of the young men should be interested in Art.
The bell rang. There was a pause, then the sound of the front door opening and a scuffling in the hall.
Florence announced Mr. Cherry and Mr. Bompas.
Mr. Cherry came, or rather stumbled, into the room. Mr. Bompas, with a whispered 'You go first', had pushed him too hard.
'Ah, the first arrivals,' said Miss Doggett, making them feel that they had come too early. 'Your aunt is a very great friend of mine,' she added, turning to Mr. Bompas.
'Oh, yes?' said Mr. Bompas vaguely. He had a great many aunts and was trying to think which one could have been responsible for this invitation. He was short and thickset, with fair, bristly hair. He was expected to get his Blue for football. Mr. Cherry was thin and mousy with spectacles. He was a thoughtful young man, quite intelligent, but very shy.
Miss Doggett now turned to him. 'Canon Oke wrote to me about you,' she said ominously.
'Canon Oke?' Mr. Cherry waited uncertainly. What was the vicar of his home parish likely to write about him? he wondered. He believed that it could hardly be anything to his discredit.
Miss Doggett paused and said in an impressive tone, 'He told me you were a Bolshevik.'
Mr. Cherry was as startled as the others at hearing this violent word, and he was as conscious of its incongruity as applied to himself as he imagined they were. 'I'm a Socialist,' he said shyly. 'I suppose he meant that.'
'Socialist may have been the word he used,' said Miss Doggett, 'but I really see no difference between the two.'
'Oh, yes?' How silly that one couldn't think of a more powerful reply! 'Of course I'm a Socialist!' he ought to have said passionately. 'How can any decent and reasonably intelligent person be anything else?' But he lacked the courage to say this in a North Oxford drawing-room, when they hadn't even started tea.
'What, you a Socialist?' said Mr. Bompas. 'Surely you don't go to the Labour Club?'
Mr. Cherry, feeling all eyes on him, sat twisting his hands confusedly.
'I think it's so nice to have all these clubs,' said Miss Morrow pleasantly. 'You must find them a great comfort.'
'Comfort?' said Miss Doggett. 'Whatever should young men of nineteen and twenty be wanting with comfort?'
'Well, of course they don't need it in the same way that we do, but surely there is no person alive who doesn't need it in some way,' said Miss Morrow, hurrying over the words as if they might give offence.
'You certainly don't need it when you're dead,' said Mr. Bompas cheerfully.
'No, I don't think so,' said Miss Morrow in a dreamy tone. 'I think I should certainly need no comfort if I could know that I should be at rest in my marble vault.'
'I think it is extremely unlikely that you will be buried in a marble vault, Miss Morrow,' observed Miss Doggett in a dry tone.
At that moment Florence opened the door and announced three more guests. First came two beautiful young men, one dark and the other fair. The dark one was carrying a small cactus in a pot.
'Oh, Miss Doggett,' they said, giving the impression of speaking in unison, 'how wonderful of you to ask us again! It gives us such Stimmung to come here. We've brought you a little present.'
'Oh, Michael and Gabriel, how kind of you!' Miss Doggett stood with the cactus in her hands, looking for somewhere to put it. 'Perhaps you would kindly put it on that little table, Mr. Bompas,' she said, handing it to him.
Mr. Bompas stood up, awkwardly holding the cactus. As far as he could see, the room was full of little tables, and the tables themselves were covered with china ornaments, photographs in silver frames, shells from Polynesia and carved African relics. Not one of them had room for the little cactus. Was he then to be burdened with it all through the afternoon? he thought with rising indignation and a disgusted look at the young men who had brought it. At last, taking care that nobody saw him, he placed it on the floor between himself and Mr. Cherry and sat down again. 'Mind you don't tread on it,' he whispered urgently.
'You must meet each other,' said Miss Doggett. 'Of course Michael and Gabriel are quite at home here,' she added, smiling. 'They are in their second year. Whom have you brought with you?' she asked, noticing for the first time another young man, who was still standing in the doorway.
'Oh, we didn't bring him,' said Michael. 'He just happened to be coming in through the gate at the same time. But we gave him some words of cheer. Gabriel quoted Wordsworth to him.'
'Yes, I quoted Wordsworth,' said Gabriel, in a satisfied tone.
'Ah, you must be Mr. Wyatt,' said Miss Doggett triumphantly. 'Now we can have tea.'
The five young men were now arranged round the room.
Where but in a North Oxford drawing-room would one find such a curiously ill-assorted company? thought Miss Morrow. The only people who seemed really at ease were Michael and Gabriel, but then they were old Etonians, and Miss Morrow was naive enough to imagine that old Etonians were quite at ease anywhere. They sat giggling at some private joke, while the others made an attempt to start a general conversation.
Mr. Wyatt, a dark, serious-looking young man who was reading Theology, asked if anyone had seen the play at the Playhouse that week. Nobody had.
'I hope that doesn't mean that we shall have nothing to talk about,' said Miss Morrow gravely.
'Now, Gabriel, you like Russian tea, don't you?' said Miss Doggett.
'Yes, he thinks he is a character out of Chekhov,' said Michael. 'He looks perfectly lovely in his Russian shirt. He nearly wore it this afternoon, but we thought it wasn't quite the thing for North Oxford and we can't bear to strike a discordant note, can we, Gabriel?'
'But isn't there something Chekhovian about North Oxford?' said Mr. Wyatt unexpectedly. 'I always feel that there is.'
'Yes,' said Miss Morrow, 'but I don't think you feel it when you live here. You lose your sense of perspective when you get too close, and the charm goes.' She said these last words rather hurriedly, hoping that Miss Doggett had not understood their implication.
But Miss Doggett was talking about shirts. 'I think it is just as well to dress conventionally,' she said, 'otherwise I don't know where we should be. I suppose Mr. Cherry would be appearing in a red shirt.'
'Oh, really? Do tell us why.' Michael and Gabriel turned to the unfortunate Mr. Cherry, whose face had turned as red as the shirt he might have worn had he not put on his most conventional blue-and-white-striped one.
'I suppose Miss Doggett means because I'm a Socialist,' he said, in a muffled voice.
'Oh.' Michael and Gabriel were obviously disappointed at this dull explanation. They were not interested in politics.
'You have nothing to eat, Mr. Cherry,' said Miss Morrow, passing him two plates.
He hastily took a chocolate biscuit and then regretted it. When your hands were hot with nervousness, the chocolate came off every time you picked up the biscuit to take a bite. He ought to have thought of that before, but he had been so grateful to Miss Morrow for offering him something that he had eagerly seized the nearest thing. So often at tea parties you had to wait ages before anyone noticed your empty plate, and when your tea had been finished in nervous little sips there was nothing to do but hope and gaze bravely into space.
Mr. Cherry surreptitiously wiped his chocolaty fingers on his clean white handkerchief. He wasn't really at ease with people like this, he told himself defensively. He couldn't be expected to have much in common with this old woman and her companion, those two giggling pansies on the sofa, that hearty Bompas or even with Wyatt, the theological student. He wouldn't come here again. Next time he would have a previous engagement.
'Now, Michael, what are you laughing at?' asked Miss Doggett indulgently.
'He wants to see the engravings of the Bavarian lakes,' said Gabriel, 'but he's too shy to ask.'
'I shall be glad to show them to you,' said Miss Doggett. She turned to the others. 'Michael and Gabriel are really interested in Art,' she said impressively. 'One so seldom finds that nowadays. I don't mean that hideous stuff you call Art,' she said suddenly to Mr. Bompas. 'Not those pictures that might just as well hang upside down.'
Mr. Bompas, whose pictures, being school groups and photographs of actresses, were of the sort that must of necessity hang right way up, had nothing to say to this.
Miss Doggett sat down between Michael and Gabriel and opened the portfolio of engravings.
The others began some sort of a conversation with Miss Morrow, but it was a poor thing which soon flagged, and eventually the three of them stood up to go.
'But you can't go yet,' said Miss Doggett. 'I've hardly spoken to you.'
'I'm afraid I really must,' said Mr. Wyatt. 'We have chapel at six.'
'And Mr. Cherry and Mr. Bompas, you have chapel too?' For one fatal second they hesitated and were lost.
'I want to talk to you about your aunt,' said Miss Doggett to Mr. Bompas. 'And, Mr. Cherry, I think you need some advice from an older person.'
Michael let out a snort of laughter and received a sharp kick on the ankle from Gabriel's elegant suede shoe.
Miss Doggett cleared her throat and said impressively, 'I always think it such a pity when I see young people up here wasting their time in doing something which can only bring disgrace upon their families. All this Socialism and Bolshevism, for instance. If you take my advice, Mr. Cherry, you'll have nothing to do with it.'
'I don't see how it can bring disgrace on my family,' said Mr. Cherry, with sudden boldness.
'Do you think your mother would like to see you speaking in Hyde Park?' demanded Miss Doggett.
'My mother is dead,' said Mr. Cherry, feeling that he had scored a point. 'I was brought up by an aunt.' He smiled. He rather liked the idea of himself speaking in Hyde Park.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Crampton Hodnet"
Copyright © 2013 the estate of Barbara Pym.
Excerpted by permission of Coffeetown Enterprises, Inc.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
This early novel by Barbara Pym, published posthumously, is a comic delight. Filled with misplaced affections between characters whose love lives are fumbled when not being dashed, the novel keeps the reader entertained throughout. While not at the level of a Jane Austen, Pym provides an exquisite rendering of the small Oxford society of an earlier time. This with characters that are timeless yields a wonderful read.
A fairly young cleric who declares his intentions for a comfortable, spinster companion to the rock of North Oxford society, an aging Oxford don who falls foolishly in love with a bright, pretty student in spite of the fact that he has been comfortably married to a worthy woman for many years, and his young adult daughter who is madly in love with a shallow young man, who on the surface, seems to be a perfect match - these are the characters that inhabit North Oxford in Barbara Pym's first novel.This was my first exposure to Barbara Pym, and I really enjoyed it.The characters were great archetypes, (especially the forbidding Mrs. Doggett), and Pym wrote about the follies of love and romance almost as well as Jane Austen. Her observations of human character are just as keen and timelessly relevant as Austen's.I also loved the feeling at the end that no matter what would go wrong in the lives of the characters there was a dual sense of fresh new beginnings like that of the new school term, and a sense of solid timelessness and comfort like the university, itself.
This was a funny and quick read. It's set in North Oxford and centers around a group of neighbors. To me, it showcased human curiosity and how quickly rumors spread and grow. One of the most successful things about this novel was Pym's ability to portray the thought processes of the characters. Good fun for anyone who likes cozy English novels and wants a good laugh.
This was my first introduction to Barbara Pym. I had decided that I should read some of her books when I found out that she was said to be "the most underrated writer of the century". I was not dissapointed, I found her writing to be very witty, intelligent, and just all around hilarous. As someone else on the list just wrote about a book, I found myself running to the drawer for a highlighter while reading the first chapter.Unfortunately I got so wrapped up in the story that I forgot to highlight many great little bits I would have liked to be able to find again. Definitely will be in my reread pile. A quote from the book: "Margaret Cleveland, who had at one time helped and encouraged her husband with his work, had now left him to do it alone, because she feared that with her help it might easily be finished before one of them died, and then where would they be?" This novle was published posthumously, and now having read two more of her books, I find this one to be a little bit more cohesive and flowing than the others, maybe because of a more modern editor.
This book is a cure for insomnia. Sorry I spent money onit.
Wonderful social satire.
England¡¦s spinsters An essay on the works of Barbara Pym I love the atmosphere of the English countryside and Barbara Pym wrote some witty novels ABOUT ENGLAND, maybe full of common places, but absolutely real. Crompton Hodnet has all the ingredients: ¿Ã the spinster Miss Doggett, always complaining and judging, she never had a man in her life but usually talks LIKES[as she knows all about the world. ¿Ã Her companion, the plain Miss Morrow, considered ¡§not even a woman that a man can fancy¡¨ by everybody INCLDUDING herself, that suddenly discoverS her potentials when a new clergyman arrives in town, and despite of all the other spinsters already in love WITH Mr. Latimer, he FINDS Miss Morrow interesting because she is the only one WHO doesn¡¦t want to be married. ¿Ã Mr.Cleveland,a middle-aged man , good-looking, married with a woman WHO IS not interested in him anymore. ¿Ã Barbara Bird, his pupil at Oxford, HAS FEELINGS FOR HIM for him, because his lectures are fascinating. Professor Cleveland HAS FEELING FOR HER TOO because she is intelligent but since things remain platonic they are happy and he feels younger, when they tell their love to each other and THEY BOTH THINK ABOUT the idea of a life together, the romance ends. Barbara doesn¡¦t feelS ANYTHING anymore FOR the idea of being in love for a married man. People in town starts to gossip ABOUT them, the story seems the main attractions for all the spinsters of the village included Miss Doggett ( that happens to be the aunt of Mr. Cleveland) . The only one WHO doesn¡¦t seemS too worried ABOUT IT ALL is the wife, the flirt for her is just a fling. That keeps her husband away from the house longer, so she can do her chores and he feels also more happy than with her and their daughter. ¿Ã The daughter, in love for a wrong guy WHO ONLY thinks ABOUT his diplomatic career and WHO doesn¡¦t love the way she does. This is a novel written in 1939 but still is the perfect mirror of a society that never changes in rural and small towns. Provincial Italy of the 2000s is not very different from the countryside of UK IN wartime. A writer to rediscover, but scarcely found in shops. Viviana Meroni