This is one of Pym's earlier books set in the 50s, and I found this more similar to Excellent Women rather than to The Sweet Dove Died which was written later, though this book isn’t written in the first person as Excellent Women is. There are funny bits in the book, but also sad touching bits too. I loved lots of the phrases and lines, but there seemed less funny and ironical ones than in Excellent Women, perhaps because the main character in this book, Dulcie, seemed lonelier and sadder compared to how capable and observant Mildred seemed in Excellent Women.
This is one of Pym’s earlier books set in the 50s, and I found this more similar to Excellent Women rather than to The Sweet Dove Died which was written later, though this book isn’t written in the first person as Excellent Women is. There are funny bits in the book, but also sad touching bits too. I loved lots of the phrases and lines, but there seemed less funny and ironical ones than in Excellent Women, perhaps because the main character in this book, Dulcie, seemed lonelier and sadder compared to how capable and observant Mildred seemed in Excellent Women.
Dulcie Mainwaring goes on a conference regarding editing and proof-reading and indexing, after her fiance, Maurice, ends their relationship. She is an indexer and proof-corrector, and works from home (I am so envious, it sounds like a perfect life). At the conference she is in the room next door to Viola Dace, who does research and has begun writing a novel. Viola is dismissive of Dulcie, seeing her as ‘already halfway to being a dim English spinster’, and hopes Dulcie won’t try and spend time with her at the conference. Viola has previously worked with Aylwin Forbes, who is the editor of a journal and is lecturing at the conference, and she hopes he will turn to her now his wife has left him. Dulcie thinks Aylwin is very good-looking, and begins to think she has slightly fallen in love with him.
Dulcie’s 18 year old niece, Laurel, is coming to stay with Dulcie in London while she does a secretarial course, and on a shopping trip to buy curtains for Laurel’s room Dulcie sees Aylwin at the tube station but doesn’t speak to him. She also sees Viola on the same shopping trip, who invites Dulcie for a meal which Dulcie eagerly accepts, although Dulcie recognises Viola isn’t overly warm in issuing this invitation. Dulcie also randomly discovers that Aylwin’s brother, Neville, is a vicar at a local church, and as she enjoys the challenge of researching information about people she determines to find out which church this is.
Laurel arrives to stay with Dulcie. She and the neighbour’s son Paul seem attracted to each other. Viola calls Dulcie up out of the blue saying she has fallen out with her landlady and asking if she can stay with Dulcie for a couple of weeks, Dulcie is surprised but says yes. Dulcie goes to Viola’s for the meal which Viola hasn’t made much effort with, they talk about Aylwin who lives nearby and he emerges from his house as they walk by on their way to the bus stop, he walks with them briefly and then feels inhospitable for not inviting them in for a drink. Dulcie goes to look at Aylwin’s mother-in-law’s house, where his wife Marjorie is now living after the separation, she has discovered the address by looking in the telephone directory and has enjoyed the research of this. There is a jumble sale happening at the house, in aid of the church organ, so she can justifiably enter and talk to both the mother-in-law and wife, to her great delight. Not long after she leaves, Aylwin arrives with flowers for his wife and is then discouraged from entering due to the jumble sale, he is unsure then what to do with the flowers so takes them to Viola as a thank you for her volunteering to do the indexing of his book, he meets Laurel at the house who thinks he is good-looking.
Dulcie receives an invitation to a viewing at the gallery where Maurice works, she initially thinks she won’t go but Viola is keen to go so they do, Dulcie thinking Maurice may not even still work there. He is there and comes to say hello, Dulcie finds seeing him again brings back lots of the hurt she felt at him breaking off their engagement, even though as time has passed she has convinced herself they wouldn’t have been suited and that it was for the best for it to end. Viola and Maurice chat, and afterwards Viola displays surprise that Dulcie had been engaged to such a good-looking man, which causes Dulcie further pain.
Dulcie visits her Aunt Hermione and Uncle Bertram to deliver their Christmas presents, they are siblings who frequently bicker, but she is also prompted to visit them knowing Neville’s church is near them and she plans to visit this. She finds the church and is intrigued when Neville’s housekeeper arrives to lock up and refers to some trouble, Dulcie wonders if this is between Neville and a lady of his congregation, particularly as there was a lady crying in the church. She shares all this with Viola, who seems uninterested, Dulcie explains this is like a kind of game to her and admits to herself that it seems ‘so much safer and more comfortable to live in the lives of other people, to observe their joys and sorrows with detachment as if one were watching a film or a play’ and also says later ‘People blame one for dwelling on trivialities…but life is made up of them. And if we’ve had one great sorrow or one great love, then who shall blame us if we only want the trivial things?’ (these lines seem to me to indicate Dulcie’s loneliness and makes me feel sad for her). Dulcie suggests to Viola that they invite Aylwin to dinner, in her eagerness to try and find out more about Neville, though she suggests they can pretend it is to talk about indexes. She then wonders about the need to also invite another man, and Viola suggests Maurice.
Laurel brings her friend Marian to the house, who makes Dulcie feel very old and aunt-like. Laurel is keen to move into a flat in Marian’s building and hopes Dulcie will help her convince her parents of the suitability of this while they are there for Christmas. Paul arrives with a plant for Laurel, and suddenly and passionately kisses her.
They have the dinner party, Dulcie brings up the subject of Neville but Aylwin doesn’t give any information apart from saying that he has been rather troublesome lately and his mother has had a good deal to put up with. Aylwin flirts with Laurel. Maurice tries to kiss Dulcie saying perhaps the breaking off of the engagement was a mistake. She tells him it was for the best and that they wouldn’t have been happy together and it is too late now. She wonders, as he broke off the engagement saying he was unworthy of her love, does he now consider himself worthy, or that her standard is now less high.
Laurel moves into Marian’s building, which is close to Aylwin’s house, he watches her most mornings at the bus stop but can’t think how to speak to her, eventually they get off the same bus together at the end of the day and he invites her in for a drink. His mother-in-law then unexpectedly arrives asking him what he proposes to do about Marjorie, he asks what he can do seeing as she left him, and asks why Marjorie didn’t come there herself. He suggests she and Marjorie might like to stay at his mother’s hotel in Taviscombe that Easter. He later takes Laurel out to the theatre and kisses her. Paul feels neglected at Laurel not being home at the times he has called round, she determines to spend more time with him while Aylwin is in Tuscany. Viola and Bill Sedge’s relationship is also developing, he is the Austrian brother of Dulcie’s aunt’s cook.
Dulcie and Viola go to Neville’s church but he isn’t there, they discover he has gone to stay with his mother at her hotel in Taviscombe. They decide to also go and stay at the hotel. Marjorie’s mother and Marjorie have also decided to stay at the hotel. Dulcie is intrigued by the Forbes family, learning that they used to be a family of status and lived at the local castle but that the elder son died and the younger son was cut off from his inheritance for marrying the owner of a local hotel, this being Aylwin and Neville’s father and mother. Dulcie also searches around the cemetery for Mr Forbes’ grave. Majorie and her mother arrive at the hotel, occasioning some embarrassment on Dulcie’s side as they both remember her from the jumble sale, and awkwardness on Viola’s side as she was the woman Majorie saw Aylwin kissing prompting her to leave him, but Marjorie doesn’t seem to recognise Viola. Aylwin returns from Tuscany and decides to go and see Majorie to sort things out, yet is told by a neighbour that they are away, he guesses they’ve gone to his mother’s boarding house so also goes there himself. Aylwin and Marjorie and her mother meet in the library, where Dulcie already is bending down looking at the books hidden by the shelves, she is embarrassed to be there overhearing their conversation but feels she cannot draw attention to herself by getting up and leaving. Aylwin says he has met someone, though it is very early on the relationship, and he will file for divorce. He leaves the library, and Dulcie manages to sneak out as Majorie is weeping while her mother abuses Aylwin. Dulcie goes for a walk on the front wondering who the woman is that Aylwin is referring to, then bumps into Aylwin who recognises her and is horrified to realise this must mean that Viola is also at the hotel. He speaks to Dulcie about his feelings for Laurel, she is horrified and tells Aylwin he is far too old for Laurel. Dulcie goes on to ask why he doesn’t pick a more suitable wife, someone who could appreciate his work and help him with it, and nearer to his own age. She also questions herself again whether she is in love with him, or just infatuated with him like the lady at the church was with Neville.
Viola gets married to Bill Sedge. Marjorie meets a man on the train home from Taviscombe and begins a relationship with him. Aylwin proposes to Laurel and is rejected. Dulcie’s Aunt Hermione marries her local vicar. Aylwin then decides, using Austen’s Mansfield Park as an example with Edmund realising at the end of the book that Fanny is the one for him instead of Mary Crawford, to head to Dulcie’s house to propose to her!! And the book ends as he reaches her front door with flowers, which is sooo mean as we don’t know if she will say yes or not!
I thought Dulcie was rather a sad lonely unfulfilled character, and she almost lived in a fantasy world becoming obsessed with brothers Aylwin and Neville Forbes. I guess she could be viewed as content in this obsession, doing her research about them and finding out facts, but I felt it demonstrated how unfulfilled her life and work are with her entering so enthusiastically into this research. She does recognise this herself, observing it is safer to live in the lives of others and observe their joys and sorrows, and safer to only want trivial things. She does question herself too on her feelings for Aylwin and Neville and if she is falling in love with them or infatuated with them or annoyed at them, and I’m not sure of her answer to this question or how she would have answered Aylwin’s proposal. And I can’t decide, if she accepted his proposal, whether they would be happy together, I’m tempted to think that Aylwin would just use her to index his books and would cheat on her with other women, but maybe he really has had chance to appreciate her qualities and is ready to settle with someone more suited to him than Marjorie or Laurel. I am torn with what I want for Dulcie, I don’t like to think of her continuing life alone and sad and just observing others and being satisfied with the trivial, so perhaps marriage with Aylwin would be the better option, but I worry that he won’t love or appreciate her. I was intrigued with the reference to Mansfield Park, as I love Jane Austen, I guess if we were to take that book as a guide then Edmund’s eyes are eventually opened to Fanny’s qualities and he falls in love with her, as she has long been in love with him, and they are happily married. So is this what happens with Dulcie and Aylwin? I wish wish wish I knew!
There are several funny scenes in the book, namely at the conference and at the Taviscombe Hotel, and mostly this is due to people being thrown together and struggling to get along and make awkward small talk. I also loved that Pym put her book, Some Tame Gazelle, on the bookcase at the Taviscombe Hotel, this was a nice touch and makes me want to read that book. And of course, I am thinking I now have to re-read Mansfield Park!
Some lines that made me smile:
‘There are various ways of mending a broken heart, but perhaps going to a learned conference is one of the more unusual’.
‘A bell began to toll, which seemed to Viola to add to the gloomy feeling Dulcie had given her’.
‘Had he…seized her in his arms in some dusty library in a convenient corner by the card index catalogues one afternoon in spring?…How irritating it sometimes was, the delicacy of women!’.
‘Her own greatest pleasure in life was a tricky item of classification or bibliographical entry’.
‘Dulcie and Viola and two women in flowered rayon dresses sitting on the basket chairs, offering each other cigarettes and speculating about the hardness of their beds. It was not long before conversation petered out’.
‘Life’s problems are often eased by hot milky drinks’.
‘Dulcie was conscious of a tramping of footsteps past her door, almost as if the place were on fire and people were hurrying to safety…she realised that it was nothing more alarming than enthusiasm for early morning tea’.
‘(Aylwin) took a sip of tea. It tasted strong and bitter. Like life?, he wondered’.
‘A little group of women, wearing hats, came in with the self-conscious air of people who have risen early from their beds to go to church, and now hope, though very humbly, for a breakfast they feel they have earned’.
‘That was the worst of trying to be helpful, she reflected, so often one did the wrong thing’.
‘His small congregation heard him say, almost with disappointment, that those who do such work (making an index, correcting a proof) have perhaps less opportunity of actually doing evil than those who write novels and plays’.
‘Dulcie lived in…undoubtedly a suburb (but) “Harrods do deliver”, as her next-door neighbour so often repeated’.
‘She did not care for men, with their roughness and lack of daintiness, though the clergy were excepted, unless they smoked pipes’.
‘She noticed that he had been carrying an Evening Standard, and it gave her an insight into his character to see that he was the kind of person who bought an evening paper at lunchtime’.
‘One did not go out to see people for the sake of a meal, she told herself stoutly, thinking of all the things she disliked most, tripe, liver, brains, figs, and semolina’.
‘Of course there should have been wine and a lovingly prepared dressing of oil and vinegar, but Dulcie drank orange squash and ate mayonnaise that came from a bottle’.
‘Dulcie suddenly wished that she had brought her knitting. There was that look about Viola that presaged the outpourings of confidences’.
“They didn’t have any (baked beans)…the man in the queue after me asked for baked beans and he got them. I didn’t say anything but I was quite upset”.
‘…the conversation of the two clergymen, which was really most unsuitably catty’.
‘It was sad, she thought, how women longed to be needed and useful and how seldom most of them really were’.
“People always know where they are with me” she would say rather smugly, it never occurred to her that people might not always want to know such things’.
“Perhaps you will join us one day”…in the rather perfunctory tone in which social invitations not meant to be accepted are sometimes issued, and to which the only suitable reply is a murmur’.
‘She had not come up to expectations, like a character in a book who had failed to come alive, and how many people in life, if one transferred them to fiction just as they were, would fail to do that?’.
‘The silence in the room was broken only by the sound of water being poured out into glasses, perhaps the most dismal sound heard on an English holiday’.
“I see that dogs are not allowed in the public rooms,” she said impulsively, for he had come out as if to speak to her…”Well, I expect we could make an exception for yours” (he said). “I haven’t got one,” Dulcie blurted out’.
‘People were…just sitting with that air of hopeless resignation that people on holiday so often seem to have’.
‘…thinking it rather odd that he should have remembered his mackintosh after what must surely have been a rather upsetting scene…but perhaps his early upbringing in Taviscombe had made it automatic’.
“Oh, not really,” said Miss Lord, in the off-hand tone that in many people is a sure indication of umbrage having been taken.
“Yes, he has turned to Hermione at last, or rather she has indicated the direction he should take. I suppose women always do that, really”.