Bem’s novels rarely specify a specific year. They are more textured with place than time. Extensive references to post-war “austerity” or the “welfare state” do most of the work to create the period. “A Little Green Leaves,” set in the 1970s (and published in 1980, the year of Bem’s death), doesn’t sound very different from the stories she arranged in the 1930s and 1950s. Seasonal cycles continue to be important throughout the evolution of historical eras. The everyday trumps the dramatic. In “No Fond Return of Love,” from 1961—Pym’s last novel before it went out of print—Dulcie, a cataloguer from her home in suburban London, notes, “People blame a person for indulgence in trifles, but life consists of them. And if we had Great grief or great love, who will blame us if we only want trivial things?”
Religion, not faith, is central to Beam’s Britain, and feels essential and irrelevant. The parish is continually shrinking, and worshipers advance forever under the Victorian Gothic spire. Church rituals do not lift souls. They keep callers restricted to the ground floor. The bodies buried in the churchyard did not seem to go to heaven or hell; It seems they are dead. Contemplative and submissive, Evensong provides repetitive true music of the Pym world, but fewer ears may lean toward it. We learn from A Glass of Blessings (1958) that Father Bode now “dos a great deal of visiting in the afternoons . . . if he does it in the evenings to find that people watch television and do not like to be interrupted.”
The humor of the novels is so sinister that sometimes the reader reaches the middle of a new sentence before he starts laughing at the previous sentence. In “Jane and Prudence,” Prudence recalls “the other houses Jane and Nicholas lived in and the strange kind of ruin they seemed to have created around them.” Given the small size of the work, there is something heroic and fictitious in comedy. (The main character in “Some Tame Gazelle” is called Belinda, possibly for the heroine of “The Rape of the Lock”) The cut is cute, but it cuts. In “No Fond Return of Love,” Mrs. Beltane is described as “an elegant, blue-haired, motionless woman of about sixty, who imagined herself to have seen better days.” This intelligence depends more on speaking than on presentation, and Bem was one of the 20th century’s greatest practitioners of distant third-person voice. Some of the remarks we hear are sad—Miss Veriqueer, the elderly former nanny of A Few Green Leaves, “has nothing to complain about in her present life, except that it was not the past”—but the most devastating are the comedy, as when Miss Jesse reflects on Morrow, from “Crampton Hodnet,” the unrequited love “that lasts for so many years, sometimes dies and then returns like a prick of rheumatism in winter, that you feel it in your knee as you approach the top of a long flight of stairs.”
Over thirty years ago, Bem’s best friend and literary implementer Hazel Holt published an autobiography. This new film from Paula Byrne, whose former subjects are Jane Austen, Kathleen (Kick) Kennedy, and Evelyn Wu, is a bolder, more daring relationship. Her judgments are mostly sound, but for all her weight, there is something heady about her. The headlines for his short classes (“In which Miss Pym is sent to boarding school”) are meaningless. Whatever fantasy exercises Bem may have indulged in, it is not appropriate to “imagining her life as a picaresque adventure, with Fieldingesque narration,” as Byrne insists do. Even a dust jacket photo of young Barbara Beam sitting on a rock cropped in a way that looks like it’s picking up a bug.
Born in 1913, she is the daughter of a lawyer. She left the town of Oswestry to go to a boarding school near Liverpool, and in 1931 she went to St Hilda’s College, Oxford. Since her arrival, whatever her literary mindset may be, romantic pursuits have occupied her more than academic activities. Photographs show Pim looking playful and spacious, with charmingly crooked English teeth. Open and playful to the experience, she pushed herself to the cusp of a little desperation, and tried on various characters, including a young redhead named Sandra, whose rude character Pym often spills out in public and in the pages of her memoirs. Byrne describes a “tendency to self-punish” and the compulsion to respond to moderate attention from excited, obsessive young males.
Bem gave her most devotion to Henry Harvey, a handsome student of C.S. Lewis who had, as Byrne puts it, “an air of pretentiousness and arrogance.” Anyone who imagined that Bem was hyposexual must think that, in her first encounter with Harvey, she “bent down and bit him hard on the cheek,” creating Sylvia Plath’s legendary first encounter with Ted Hughes. Harvey continued to use Pym as a sexual means, while printing his papers, draping his stockings, and bringing him flowers. According to Byrne, he “set the pattern” for Pim’s relationships with other men: the more they mistreated her, the more deeply she felt in love. Rather than mutual intensity, Harvey promised her, in a letter, “respect and appreciation”, eventually offering little of either. .
Pym can even turn romantic relationships into an addiction. In her memoir she wrote “Twenty Hours – But Maybe Twenty Years of Memories” about Julian Emery, a future Member of Parliament, whom she occasionally haunted in the late 1930s. During that decade Bem also made several trips to Germany, where she became engaged to Friedbert Gluck, an SS officer who treated her better than Henry Harvey. Feeling agitated by the Nazi pageant, Byrne writes, Bem was slow to develop suspicions of the system, not to mention the “horror and guilt” that Byrne assured us later felt. For part of the war, Beam lived in Bristol, having secured a job in the German section of the UK Oversight Office. (When applying for the job, she honed her language skills by re-reading Glück’s letters.) In no time, she became engaged to Gordon Glover, the estranged husband of her housemate. Glover was soon ostracized in the charade of the noble “abandonment,” but for Baim, the emotional consequences continued after the affair itself. Later in her life, she was offended by the constant attraction to Richard Campbell (Skipper) Roberts, the distinguished colonial son of the Bahamas. Roberts was a gay man teasing her with his nude image, who once hit her cat in a moment of annoyance.
Almost all of these things of unfortunate desire eventually find unattractive versions of themselves (though perhaps better than they deserve) in Bem’s novels. In “Some Tame Gazelle,” Henry Harvey breaks into the puffy archdeacon Hockliff, whose Belinda wears stockings while still holding a lamp. Bem’s deficiencies also come for the fictional defeat. The books contain many instances of stalking behavior by the female characters, including Dulcie’s spying on a group of brothers in “No Fond Return of Love”.
Many novelists allow notable characters from one book to make cameos in another. Archdeacon Hoccleve appears again in “A Glass of Blessings,” and we continue to receive news of Mildred Lathbury long after her service as the heroine of “Excellent Woman” (1952). Such repetitions can be a treat for loyal novelist readers, or hilarious fun for the novelist herself, and a new pruning for the ever-growing railroad of a feature film. But in the case of BIM, practice may indicate something more. In “Crampton Hodent,” the character closest to Bem herself is Barbara Bird, a beautiful poetry student who turns Professor Cleveland’s head on and nearly drives him to leave his wife. A decade and a half later, impudent and slightly scrawny Miss Bird appears at a London literary gathering in Jane and Prudence. We see her “pushing herself forward, hitting on a novelist with greater discernment than her and picking up a plate of sandwiches.” Self-mockery may be helpful, but it’s also a possible example of how Pym sometimes, according to Byrne, “laughed with her pain.” At this point, in 1953, readers had yet to see Barbara’s dewy and attractive bird; Her younger incarnation was still in a drawer with the rest of the “Crampton Hodnet” members.
Pym’s most correct association between gays and homosexuals was Robert (Jock) Liddell, whom she was initially angry with for her unbalanced enthusiasm for his friend Henry Harvey. But Liddell, himself a novelist, came to introduce Bim actual Respect and appreciation as well as affection. Emboldened by a long and intermittent literary struggle marked by false starts (Pym even tried a spy novel) and derailed by personal adventures, acts of war (after a censorship office job, Bem went to Italy with the Women’s Royal Naval Service), and a loss of confidence due to disapproval. Liddell knew “Some Tame Gazelle” was special, but sixteen years passed between his reading of its first edition and the release of the book, in 1950, the year Pym turned thirty-seven. After the war, he removed the Nazis from the old manuscript (the “swastika brooch” became a “small seed-pearl brooch”), and in order to get the book at the finish line, he urged Bem to take “very seriously” Jonathan Cape’s advice to “make it more harmful” . With the added rhythm, the indefinable qualities of the novel stood out more clearly. When the book is published, the guardian “Delightfully entertaining,” he said, “but it can’t be described more than a delicious taste or aroma.”
Bem was on her way. She can now successfully practice her art while continuing her day job as an editor for anthropological publications produced by the International African Institute. She toiled there for nearly thirty years, and although the connection between novel writing and anthropology is hardly lost for her—there are plenty of field researchers in her books—she seems to have never visited Africa.
During the 1940s, Bem began to discover what Byrne considered her main theme, “male incompetence”—something that always required self-sacrifice, usually unmarried, “excellent women.” This last phrase became the title of Bem’s second novel, which, like No Wonderful Return to Love, refers to the biblical Martha, who served Jesus behind the scenes without confession. In “A Glass of Blessings,” Willmit Forsyth, a married lukewarm type of excellent woman, believes there may be “some justification [her] Life is after all ‘if she can succeed in hiring two clergy with the right housekeeper. But it is Mildred Lathbury, the “Excellent Woman” actress, who remains the most extreme and well-known Martha in BIM. Active parishioner and part-time employee admits Mildred, an active parishioner and part-time employee In “an organization that helped poor gentle women, as being “exhausted to bear the burdens of others”. However, her real complaint is against herself. It feels “useless” even while using it; She could see “nothing really great” in herself; She speaks, in her sole discretion, “with effort.” Byrne quotes Philip Larkin’s remark that Mildred “suffers but no one can see why she doesn’t, like a Victorian taxi horse.” (Biblical Martha had no problem telling Jesus more than once.)
Mildred understands that “virtually anything could be the work of a woman who is unattached and has no problems of her own, and who takes an interest in her friends.” Such an attitude seems to make an excellent woman an ideal storyteller. However, for all the praise the “Excellent Woman” has received, Mildred’s character is so oppressive that Bem’s sense of humor and powers of observation cannot work to their full potential. She is one of the few first-person narrators in Bem’s work, and the novelist has undoubtedly recognized that her best imaginative opportunities lie in the ultimate, niche entitlements of the third person. When Pym employs these, it intervenes in and out of a range of viewpoints, retaining control over the characters’ thinking and using narrative adjectives (“Think Cassandra”), lest the reader make the mistake of believing that the author has the wrong insight. Beam also remains free to veto the dialogue: “I don’t really think it’s our business,” Miss Doggett said. “We’ll let it fall,” she added, “and she has no intention of doing anything like that.”