Vulpes Libris

A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.

“Allegra! … Isn’t that lovely?” Names in Barbara Pym’s novels

9781844084517A few months ago, I reviewed Barbara Pym’s Excellent Women here, and shared my delight in discovering what she did with the name of one of its characters. So, when Bookfox Kate suggested a week on Names, I knew exactly which author I wanted to choose. To recap quickly, the example that I found for that review was this one:

Rockingham! I snatched at the name as if it had been a precious jewel in the dustbin. Mr Napier was called Rockingham! How the bearer of such a name would hate sharing a bathroom!

As well as being the pivot of a particularly good example of one of BP’s jokes, I savoured the fact that in an earlier paragraph Mildred, the narrator-heroine, had said of herself ‘Let me hasten to add that I am not at all like Jane Eyre, who must have given hope to so many plain women who tell their stories in the first person, nor have I ever thought of myself as being like her.‘ Nevertheless, as I pointed out, Rockingham had a touch of Rochester about him, and gave Mildred some of the Jane Eyre treatment, just enough to remind me just what a subtle game Barbara Pym can play with the names of her characters.

Sometimes she plays an unsubtle game, though. In the scene I have just quoted, two women speak to one another and it would work as the beginning of a game of Consequences – if Mildred Lathbury meets Helena Napier, by the dustbins, who is wearing the shapeless overall and old fawn skirt? Yet Mildred, hiding behind her name and the persona that everyone gives her because of it, confounds the reader with her wit, perception and breadth of mind – as well as being a genuinely nice and good person.

9781844085798The first sign that Barbara Pym was going to enjoy herself hugely with her characters’ names was in her first published novel, Some Tame Gazelle. In this not very heavily disguised roman à clef set in a country village where, rather improbably, a group of university friends had settled in middle age, her main characters have the names of the medieval and early modern writers that Pym, and her heroine Belinda, had studied with such joy at university. The two sisters are Belinda and Harriet Bede, the Archdeacon who is the object of Belinda’s unrequited love is called Henry Hoccleve (nothing so obvious as Chaucer), and even the new curate is called the Revd. Edgar Donne. This gives rise to another excellent BP joke. Naturally the overbearing and erudite Archdeacon, who crafts his sermons from classics of English poetry rather than Holy Writ, shows off in the Parish Magazine: ‘The Reverend Edgar Donne – the name is of course pronounced Dunne – will be with us by the time you read these words … Nobody will be more glad to welcome him than I myself, for whom these last few weeks have been more trying than any of you can possibly imagine.’ However, when given a genuinely warm welcome by Belinda and Harriet, the curate, who is much less erudite but a much nicer person than the Archdeacon, says to Harriet ‘Well, actually, as a matter of fact …’ the curate looked embarrassed, ‘I don’t pronounce it that way. I can’t imagine why the Archdeacon thought I did.’ Belinda has to stifle her feelings of pity for someone who has never even heard of, let alone experienced, the poet John Donne.

Names mean a lot to BP’s characters too. Very often in the narrative one person considers another’s name, weighing it and its possibilities, judging its suitability to the personality that owns it. After Mr Donne has cleared up any misunderstanding, it gives rise to the following exchange:

‘It makes one feel quite odd to have one’s name mispronounced or misspelt,’ said Belinda, evenly. ‘Almost like a different person.’
‘Oh yes,’ agreed Harriet, ‘like Gorringe’s catalogue.’
The curate looked politely interested but puzzled.
‘You see,’ Harriet explained, ‘they once sent me a catalogue addressed to Miss Bode, and somehow I’m so lazy that I never bothered to correct it. So now I have a dual personality. I always feel Miss Bode is my dowdy self, rather a frumpish old thing.’
‘She must certainly be most unlike Miss Bede,’ blurted out Mr Donne with surprising gallantry.

The title of this piece is taken from a passage in Excellent Women where reaction to a name wonderfully reveals two contrasting personalities and outlooks on life. Mrs Gray, a clergyman’s widow, is a newcomer to the parish. Everybody thinks they know what a clergyman’s widow should be like, but Mrs Gray is altogether younger, more glamorous, and a bit of a heart stealer. Mildred’s friend Winifred, Father Malory’s sister, tells her all about Mrs Gray, who has just moved into the Vicarage flat.

Winifred came up to me, her eyes shining. ‘Oh Mildred,’ she breathed, ‘what do you think her name is?’
I said I had no idea.
‘Allegra!’ she told me. ‘Isn’t that lovely? Allegra Gray.’
I found myself wondering if it was really Mrs Gray’s name, or if she had adopted it instead of a more conventional and uninteresting one. ‘Wasn’t Allegra the name of Byron’s natural daughter?’ I asked.
‘Byron! How splendid!’ Winifred clasped her hands in rapture.
‘I’m not sure that it was splendid,’ I persisted.
‘Oh, but Byron’s such a splendid romantic person,’ said Winifred, ‘and that’s the main thing, isn’t it?’
‘Is it really?’ I asked, still determined that I would not be forced to admire Mrs Gray. ‘Doesn’t one look for other qualities in people?’
‘Oh Mildred, you’re so practical,’ laughed Winifred. ‘Of course I’ve always been silly and romantic – it’s just how you’re made.’

Well, I think that is brilliant stuff: two personalities revealed, a tiny riff on self-reinvention, a third character comes alive, and Mildred’s prescience is showing – and all from a name.

Barbara Pym also loves nomenclature and its occasional bathos and ridiculousness. In Some Tame Gazelle Harriet Bede, who has collected curates since girlhood, reminisces about those she loved who have moved onto higher things, including Bishoprics in far-flung parts of the Empire:

‘I should like to number Bishops among my friends,’ said Dr Parnell.
Harriet seemed to brighten up at this. ‘Bishops? Well, of course I know quite a number,’ she mused. This was not really surprising, for after all every bishop has once been a curate. ‘It couldn’t be Willie Amery, I suppose, or Oliver Opobo and Calabar – isn’t that a lovely title? – no, he’s in Nigeria, I believe. Of course it might be Theo Grote, Theodore Mbawawa, as he signs himself,’ she smiled to herself. ‘That would be nicest of all.’

Naturally, Theo Grote is now no longer the beautiful, willowy curate of Harriet’s recollection.

9781844085804I have bookmarks strewn all over my copies of BP’s early novels, but I mustn’t give away too many of her perfectly-chosen names or her even better jokes. Just one more, then, from what is probably her finest novel (shoulder to shoulder with Excellent Women), A Glass of Blessings. Wilmet Forsyth (treasure that name, too), cherished wife, intelligent and perceptive but over-imaginative and under-occupied, is dangerously close to forming a one-sided romantic attachment to the slightly unsatisfactory Piers Longridge. Here, out together in London, they pass a furniture depository (a Pym leitmotif) and muse on the sadness of belongings that are languishing in there, whether desperately missed, or forgotten and unloved.

‘You would have to pay, of course,’ said Piers. ‘It would be like keeping an aged relative in an institution.’
‘Yes, that grand piano for which you’ve never found room in your new flat. It’s rather sad, really, isn’t it.’
‘But Wilmet, life is like that, you know. Like your name – so sad, and you so gay and poised.’
‘Did you know that my name came out of one of Charlotte M Yonge’s novels?’ I asked him. ‘My mother was very fond of them. But why do you think it sad?’
‘Because it seems to be neither one thing nor the other,’ he said, rather mysteriously, and then fell silent.

I share BP’s fascination with names, and in thinking about it for this article, I wonder if the root of this fascination is one we share. I am a librarian by profession, and authors’ names are therefore very important in my life. I am sure that work with catalogues and retrieving books have opened up neural pathways in my brain that make me take note of names in a particular way (mind you, I am baffled by the effect that I can remember the name of obscure writers of non-fiction in the 60s and 70s, while I can’t remember the name of a living breathing human being to whom I’ve been introduced less than an hour ago. I think I remember books better than faces – oh dear.) Barbara Pym for many years worked for a learned institution, and edited its learned journal. She also had an enthusiasm for bibliography. In A Very Private Eye, her posthumous autobiography compiled from her letters and diaries, there is evidence that she gleefully collected names and made a note of them, as in this hilarious little diary entry:

Gems from Crockford:
de Blogue (formerly Blogg), Oswald Wm. Chas.
The organist of Bristol Cathedral is called A. Surplice Esq.

So I’m not surprised by her passion for names nor by the wonderful riffs she makes on them, and I’m not surprised that I share that passion so intensely. Barbara Pym is a supreme novelist, and I hope in this piece I have given you just one more reason to seek out her novels, read and love them.

Barbara Pym‘s novels are:
Some Tame Gazelle (1950)
Excellent Women (1952)
Jane And Prudence (1953)
Less Than Angels (1955)
A Glass Of Blessings (1958)
No Fond Return Of Love (1961)
Quartet In Autumn (1977)
The Sweet Dove Died (1978)
A Few Green Leaves (1980)
An Unsuitable Attachment (written 1963, pub.1982)
Crampton Hodnet (written c 1940, pub. 1985)
An Academic Question (written 1970-2, pub. 1986)
Civil To Strangers (written 1936, pub. 1989)

A Very Private Eye: An Autobiography in Letters and Diaries (1984) is currently out of print.

9 comments on ““Allegra! … Isn’t that lovely?” Names in Barbara Pym’s novels

  1. c mcgaughey
    January 25, 2013

    Another delightful piece on Pym. I do hope fewer months elapse before your next, Hilary.

  2. Erica
    January 25, 2013

    Oh yes! You have given me another reason to re-read Pym’s novels. I had not given the names the thought they deserve – thank you for this lovely post.

  3. Kate
    January 25, 2013

    Lovely stuff, I’m with you all the way on Pym’s naming magnificence and cleverness. You’ve reminded of many that I’d forgotten.

  4. Erica
    January 25, 2013

    A mistake in the date for An Academic Question, I think?

  5. Hilary
    January 25, 2013

    Oops, yes – thank you, Erica, corrected now. Starting to write it in 1907 would have been quite something ….

    Thanks to you all for your kind comments!

  6. Janine
    January 25, 2013

    What a thoughtful and intelligent article about one of my very favorite authors. I’ve read her books several times and each time find more in which to find amusing and touching. Regarding the author’s (of this article) memory for names: I read in a book about learning additional languages that the language(s) one learns at a young age reside in a very specific and rooted spot in one’s brain. The languages one learns later on in life are scattered here and there, which explains why I can immediately remember the word for window in English and French but I keep forgetting it in Spanish. I think early and well loved authors become part of the very fabric of our brains, while meeting that new person at the book club; what was her name again? So often I’ll encounter a situation and I’ll think: oh, this is such a Pym moment; or if a certain experience is verging on satire, a complete Austen scene; I can think of so many similar examples. Also, when we read and re-read a beloved author, I feel we truly love her. We come in contact with another’s essence and are forever changed by it.

  7. Jackie
    January 26, 2013

    When I discovered Ms. Pym in my twenties, I thought her delightful and your recent posts have reminded me that it’s been too long since I’ve reread them again. Plus, your list has a few from the late 1980′s that are unfamiliar to me, so perhaps they hadn’t been published when I first read her work?
    Your quotes showcase her subtle humor in everyday situations, which is one of the things I most enjoyed. As an American, I think some of the jokes pass me by, because some of them are of things so distinctly English, especially at that time, that they are unfamiliar here. I’m envious of the extra layer that gives UK readers.

  8. Hilary
    January 28, 2013

    Followers of Vulpes Libris in the USA may be interested to know that Barbara Pym’s early novels have been released in eBook format by Open Road Media: http://www.openroadmedia.com/barbara-pym

  9. kirstyjane
    March 11, 2013

    As I’m discovering Pym (at last — how did it take me this long?) I had especial delight in this piece — for which thank you very much indeed!

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This entry was posted on January 25, 2013 by in Entries by Hilary, Fiction: 20th Century, Theme weeks and tagged , , , , .

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  • (The header image is from Aesop's Fables, illustrated by Francis Barlow (1666), and appears courtesy of the Digital and Multimedia Center at the Michigan State University Libraries.)
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