The Sweet Dove Died by Barbara Pym

Barbara Pym
The Sweet Dove Died

I do adore Pym's writing, it makes me chuckle but there are also hidden layers of meaning to it. I find I read a couple of chapters and enjoy it on that first level, then I go back over the two chapters again and notice the exquisite phrasing and in-depth subtle meanings that I might have missed the first time, and often then jot these down in order to cherish them.

The Sweet Dove Died by Barbara Pym available on Amazon
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I do adore Pym’s writing, it makes me chuckle but there are also hidden layers of meaning to it. I find I read a couple of chapters and enjoy it on that first level, then I go back over the two chapters again and notice the exquisite phrasing and in-depth subtle meanings that I might have missed the first time, and often then jot these down in order to cherish them.

Humphrey Boyce, the owner of an antique shop, and his nephew James who works for him, make the acquaintance of Leonora Eyre, who they both find attractive as she is inbetween their ages, Humphrey being nearly 60 and James being 24, and she being nearly 50. Leonora is content in her single life, though enjoys the company of her elderly male admirers, she doesn’t have to work as she has been left money by her parents. She sometimes dines with her friend, Meg, who brings along her protege, Colin, aged about 20 who is gay and brings his lover, Harold. Leonora doesn’t really like Colin or his friends, and doesn’t understand why Meg cares for Colin and makes sacrifices for him. Leonora sees both Humphrey and James again, though spends much more time with James and he seems to confide in her and she to gently tease him. James meets Phoebe at a party and they begin a relationship, although he doesn’t tell Leonora about Phoebe. 

Leonora really isn’t likeable, she is snobby and judgemental and selfish, so I struggled with the book a little as I didn’t care for her or about her, whereas in Excellent Women I liked, and felt a little sorry for, Mildred, so this book felt different to that one, and not as enjoyable. Excellent Women also had the main character, Mildred, as the narrator, so I felt I knew her more and it felt more intimate, whereas Leonora isn’t the narrator in this book and I think I therefore felt more distant from her. It is clever how Pym displays Leonora’s character so clearly though, just from a few thoughts expressed by her, Pym doesn’t need to state that Leonora is selfish and uncaring towards others, it is just so beautifully demonstrated by the thoughts and words that Pym chooses to give her. 

I was unsure what kind of a relationship both James and Leonora hoped for from each other. Leonora does seem to care what James thinks of her, more than she cares about the opinion of her other admirers. And James also seems to be getting more snobby and judgemental, I’m not sure if this is Leonora’s influence or if it’s just becoming more apparent as we get to know more of him. I was particularly wondering what choice James was going to make regarding the person he wants to spend time with, as the different aspects of his character seem to be reflected in both Leonora and Phoebe, he clearly admires the elegance of Leonora and Phoebe’s lack of this exasperates him, but he also seems to feel in awe of Leonora and not fully comfortable around her whereas he can relax around Phoebe. Or is he, with Phoebe, feeling a little like Leonora feels with women friends, that she clearly enjoys being more elegant and attractive than them, does James like being with Phoebe as he also feels superior to her in this way? There then seems to be a hint that James could also have relations with men, he is propositioned and they are interrupted before we hear what James’ response would have been, and Humphrey also seems to have doubts about James’ sexuality, and then later it seems to be implied he is having a relationship while abroad with a man called Ned. Later still, Humphrey refers to Ned as James’ lover, but there seems no outward speech or declaration about this, I slightly struggled to believe people like Leonora and Humphrey would be so familiar and accepting of such a situation to be able to recognise it. 

Phoebe comes to the antique shop while James is away, Humphrey delightedly tells Leonora that James has a girlfriend and she manages to conceal her hurt feelings before him but is upset and shocked when alone. Leonora decides James will live in the newly vacated flat in her building on his return from his travels, without consulting him about this, and she gets his furniture out of storage and puts it in there, also taking back the furniture he had lent to Phoebe, which also allows her to see what Phoebe looks like. 

I was getting more and more intrigued with just what Leonora was hoping for with James, and what he was hoping for in general. She doesn’t seem to want anything physical with James, though she did briefly let herself wonder about them being quietly married, she seems to care about him quite deeply though, very differently from her other admirers like Humphrey who she seems to keep around her so that they can flatter her and make her feel good about herself, I think it started off like that with James but has progressed further than that to her almost needing him. And I was beginning to feel nervous for her being hurt, she seems to have made herself vulnerable, perhaps for the first time, she’s let someone affect her cool and calm exterior, and I worried for her that she is opening herself up to possible pain. She does seem a little vulnerable at one point, feeling old and a little lonely with James about to go away for several weeks, actually crying by herself which I imagine she rarely does

Then I was back to wondering who James would choose, what does he feel for Leonora and Phoebe and Ned? He sees Leonora from a distance and feels love and pity for her, what does that mean for their relationship, it’s not physical attraction between them, is it a motherly thing he’s looking for although she doesn’t seem very motherly, are Leonora’s feelings for James actually motherly but she doesn’t realise so? He is obviously physically attracted to Phoebe as he’s slept with her, but now there’s Ned in his life then I’m wondering if Phoebe was just a front to convince himself he’s not really attracted to men. 

Leonora and Ned then meet, with Ned almost seeming to state his possession of James by coming to the flat and knocking on Leonora’s door. She immediately feels ‘on her guard’ and she feels that he ‘wanted to take James away from her and she was not going to let him’, she recognises that Ned is more of a threat than Phoebe ever was. Ned also quotes a poem to her, The Sweet Dove Died, about a dove being tied by the poet’s own hands, which makes Leonora uncomfortable sensing that Ned is implying this is what she is doing to James, though she tells herself she is being ridiculous. She tries to have some control over things by suggesting all three of them go out together but she increasingly feels the odd one out. Ned also urges James to break away from Leonora and convinces James to move out of Leonora’s flat, and James has also lied to Leonora several times saying he is busy and can’t see her. James is nervously thinking how to tell her he is moving out when Humphrey offers to do so, which James accepts. She is shocked and upset and hurt, and when she and James next meet they are stilted and constrained with one another. She goes to stay with friends for the weekend when his furniture will be removed. James calls her far less and sees her less, and she eventually realises she has been completely dropped by him, as he was urged to do by Ned. Ned then begins to get bored with James and cheats on him with other men, he sees James less frequently and doesn’t answer his calls. James finds himself wondering what Ned is doing and who he is with, much like Leonora wondered about James. Is the book demonstrating that strong cold confident people, like Leonora and James, can be vulnerable and hurt and how this changes them and makes them aware of how they may have hurt others? 

Leonora begins to feel less contempt for other women and to be able to empathise with them and not pity them, now she is feeling more vulnerable and unhappy herself. She now doesn’t like being on her own as much as she previously did, the time drags and she even considers getting a job or doing voluntary work, and she becomes obsessed with cleaning and rearranging the ornaments in her flat. She breaks down in tears infront of her friend who asks about James, seeming to be similar now to Meg and her agony over Colin, feelings that Leonora had previously scorned. 

Ned prepares to go back to America and comes to tell Leonora that James has acted badly in cutting her off and that he himself was shocked to discover this and that she must forgive James and take him back. Ned seems almost cruel and taunting in this and almost wanting to see Leonora break down, which she doesn’t do. Leonora doesn’t agree or disagree to forgive James or to see him again. 

I was wondering at this point how I wanted the book to end, would it actually be a happy ending to have Leonora and James back together again, would they not then just regress back into their former selves and the same thing happen again with James finding someone else and hurting Leonora again, or would they be different and more appreciate of each other after both being hurt? Or perhaps Leonora would not allow James back and would stay by herself but be stronger now and appreciate people more and be less scornful of their vulnerabilities after feeling vulnerable herself, but would she have the strength to reject him? Would James actually ask Leonora to take him back, would he want to appear vulnerable to her like that? 

James does visit Leonora to apologise, and she does tell him she forgives him but she is constrained with him and says she doesn’t know where they go from there. He leaves her flat as Humphrey arrives with some flowers and to take her out. The final words of the book are Leonora thinking that the best flowers are ones you have bought for yourself, so is this a sign that she has recognised she is better off alone and independent? We don’t actually get a resolution or know what happens to the characters, and after my surmising and wondering too!

As ever, there are so many wonderful lines in the book. Many demonstrate Leonora’s character so subtly yet archly: 

‘Leanora had long ago decided that her grandparents were much more distinguished-looking than her father and mother whose photographs had been hidden away in a drawer’.
…in white orlon cardigans with the bright floral print of their dresses showing through them. How did such people manage to get time off in the week? Leonora wondered’.
“Your wife” she said, her tone reverent to conceal her boredom. She considered it a slight error of taste that he should be able to think of another woman, even one long dead, when he was with her.’
“One has to be tough with old people” Leonora went on, “it’s the only way, otherwise they encroach”.
‘Leonora had little use for the ‘cosiness’ of women friends, but regarded them rather as a foil for herself, particularly if, as usually happened, they were less attractive and elegant than she was’.
‘Perhaps she (Leonora) had never loved another person with enough intensity’.
“A bucket!’ Leonora echoed. Really, did one look the sort of person who would have a bucket?’.
‘She was touched to think of him going to so much trouble, when of course she could perfectly well have phoned Harrods to deliver it’.
‘There seemed nothing for it but to go down and make tea, a drink she did not much like because of the comfort it was said to bring to those whom she normally despised’.
‘She had always cared as much for inanimate objects as for people’.
‘One would hardly want to be like the people who fill the emptiness of their lives with an animal, Leonora thought’.

And so many lines that make me chuckle with their accuracy and poignancy:

‘Christmas Day itself passed in the rather mysterious way that the Christmas Days of middle-aged people without young families usually do pass’.
‘The only thing to be said for work was that it gave one less time to brood and it was supposed to be satisfying for its own sake to the middle-aged’.
‘She opened her front door and experienced as always the pleasure of being home among the pretty Victorian furniture and objects with which she had surrounded herself’.
‘There was something about the idea of an orphan that brought out the best in Humphrey, that desire to do good without too much personal inconvenience that lurks in most of us’.
‘…straight home to gloat over my enchanting little book’.
‘…the unusual and old-fashioned elegance of her wide-brimmed hat which cast fascinating shadows on a face that was probably beginning to need such flattery’.
‘He wondered how many times she had seen such a sight (a ruined temple) to arrive at the conclusion that it was one of her favourites’.
‘Of course, the fact of being male singled him out from the crowd of women, most of whom seemed to be shapeless, fat, and middle-aged’.
“Are you any good at gardening?” she asked. “No”, he said quickly, seeing himself having to mow the lawn’.
‘No doubt his mother was dead, Phoebe thought, giving him an unfair advantage over her, with a mother alive in Putney’.
‘…gave a spurious air of distinction to the restaurant, as if exotic concoctions were being created at the tables when it was often no more than a portion of frozen peas being warmed up’.
…the petty thefts one hears about in the suburbs”. Mr Lambe came from one of these himself, though he did not see himself as doing so’.
‘And this most decidedly was a girl. He had put on his spectacles to make quite sure, for it wasn’t always easy to tell these days’.
“You can get a train from Sloane Square, I believe,” said Humphrey with the vagueness of one who never uses public transport.
‘He had certainly made amends for it by asking his builder to call round the next day so that the leaking roof had been quickly repaired. That was the kind of thing one really wanted from somebody like Humphrey’.
“Not smoked Parma ham” said Humphrey hastily…a colleague of his had had an unfortunate experience with it.’
“I thought, well, perhaps this has somehow been arranged, you know”, she inclined her head upwards in the direction of the ceiling’.
‘When the moving day came, Leonora was of course woman enough to watch from the shadow of her curtains’.
‘…their relief at the eventual return (from abroad) to good plain food and the Anglican Church’.
‘It seemed to him that only a woman could think of a trivial thing like stopping the milk when one was in the middle of an affair’.
‘Leonora did not trust the kind of man one was apt to meet in trains’.
‘All Ned asked of a present was that it should have cost the giver a lot of money.’
‘Books as presents were somehow lacking in excitement and romance’.

I was wondering, as I was reading it, when this book was written, if it isn’t perhaps one of her earlier books as there seems slightly less witty turns of phrase and description (I’m aware I have quoted many, but compared to Excellent Women there are far less). I see it was written in the late 60s and published in the 70s, and I can’t help feeling this isn’t such an easy time for Pym to be writing about, she seems more naturally suited to the politely restrained 50s and the mild spinsters of that time, rather than the more liberal late 60s and 70s and that later world feels a little strained to read. It seems that she wrote six books between 1950 and 1961, and then continued writing over the next 16 years but these weren’t published until later. I wonder if all her later books were set in the 60s and 70s, or if it was just this one and the rest are set in the 50s. It makes me more tempted to stick with her earlier books, I think, as I loved Excellent Women which was written in the earlier period. It will be interesting to compare more of hers from each period and to see if she always sets her stories in that current time or if she goes back to setting her stories in the 50s even though she is writing in the 60s and 70s, I do hope so.

All of her books are wonderful treasures though! Even though this isn’t perhaps one of my favourites, I still enjoyed every minute of reading it.

The Sweet Dove Died by Barbara Pym available on Amazon
 Kindle  Hardback
 Paperback

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