Wednesday, August 09, 2006

No fond return to Barbara Pym

I've been a Jane Austen fan since the eighth grade, when I was required to read Pride and Prejudice. But unlike my girlfriends who adored the dashing Mr. Darcy, I loved the book for Austen's wry observations, veiled sarcasm, and witty dialogue. So while I eagerly read all of Austen's novels, it wasn't for the longing glances and romantic endings. Similarly, while I loved Jane Eyre, the selfish and brooding Mr. Rochester could have been snipped out of the story and I wouldn't have missed him. And the too-tragic Heathcliff's mooning over Cathy wasn't romantic, but just plain silly. What a sap! No wonder the girl teased him mercilessly, even from the grave.

No, I wasn't a romance lover. I didn't begin reading modern romances until I began writing them (see the explanation on this page of my website). But I now read quite a lot of romance, and now we're getting to the point of this post.

Yesterday I paged through Barbara Pym's No Fond Return of Love, which I first read more than twenty years ago, along with three or four of her other novels. Back then, I loved the book. But yesterday...not so much.

Not at all, in fact.

I was bored silly. I would have put the book down, life's too short to read dull novels, but I was so amazed at how much my literary tastes have changed that I kept turning the pages in a kind of stupor. What I had once thought a charming novel is now pedantic. The dialogue does not sparkle. But what really startled me was the lack of well developed characters in the book. Again, I've spent the past five years reading modern romance novels, and in those books characterization is everything. For a romance novel to work, readers must deeply admire the heroine and they must fall in love with the hero. In No Fond Return, I pitied Dulcie but thought her quite foolish. And I longed to slap the middle-aged Aylwin and tell him to grow up. Yes, I'm aware that the book isn't a classic romance, but it does have very strong romantic elements, and this time around, they did not work for me.

Barbara Pym, who died in 1980, is still fairly well regarded in literary circles, but I'm finished with her. Now I'm trying to understand whether reading romance novels has refined my taste or corrputed it --although I suppose there's a third possibility. Perhaps this change in my reading tastes is on a par with growing tired of minty mouthwash and switching to a cinnamony one.

What say you, dear readers? Have you had similar experiences?

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Anonymous said...

Perhaps it is largely due to a change of perspective...twenty years is a long time.

I've found that I am rediscovering many of those old classics we were required to read in high school and college. Many of them I did enjoy back then, but when I revisit them now...well, they are different somehow...some much better, some not so much. Different characters draw me in this time around. Maybe its life experience, motherhood...I don't know.


Julana said...

Not with Pym. I never did like her. I've always had good taste. Ha. :-)
I'm sure I've had that experience, but can't put names to the authors this minute.

TrudyJ said...

I've never read Barbara Pym, but I have had that experience of rereading an old favourite and discovering that my perspective on it has changed. The most striking example was probably Sheldon Vanauken's memoir A Severe Mercy, which I read as a teenager and loved. I reread it numerous times and thought it was just the perfectly romantic story of an absolutely ideal love. Coming back to it years later it seemed very different -- kind of a portrait of an unhealthily codependent relationship with a rather domineering man. I'm pretty sure we can chalk that one up to life experience rather than to changing literary tastes though.

cjoy said...

My interests seem to cycle through. Romance for a while, mystery/suspense for a while, no-time-to-read-thanks-to-kids for a while. . .and so it goes. =D I have only been reading for roughly 25 years to date, and I find that the books I enjoyed then are quite boring to me indeed, when I read them to my 5 year old son. But then, I don't believe that's quite what you wanted to know, now, is it?

Along the way, however, I do think I've had the experience of finding a book I'd previously liked rather distatesful or lacking later.

Joy said...


Have you read's Pym's "Excellent Women"? It's by far my favorite of her novels, and I enjoy it each time I reread it.

Neal said...

Funnily enough, I had just this experience only last month. I re-read Heinlein's "Stranger in a Strange Land". For those of you that don't know, this was controversial when first released back in the sixties because it espoused a futuristic "free-love" (very sixties) society and understandably got a lot of people's backs up. I read it about 15 years ago, when it seemed far less controversial, but quite enjoyed it. I read it again last month and had to force myself through every last page -- I came so close to giving up. it just seemed to me that the character of Jubal was just so obviously Heinlein's idealistic fantasy version of himself (the benevolent, always correct, always admired, perfect, sugar daddy). How could I have not noticed this 15 years ago?

I can't tell you how much it wound me up.

Two Jane Austen related points:

1. I've just come back from a holiday in the West country and we stayed near Bath, which we visited several times. Beautiful, beautiful city, where Jane Austen lived for some time. We didn't visit the Jane Austen museum though.

2. Have you ever read "The Eyre Affair" by Jasper Fforde? I just read it (it was a good antidote to the Heinlein), and if you like the idea of playing about with the plot of your favourite Austen novels in a tongue in cheek way, then this might be for you. Very funny, but be prepared for a mighty suspension of belief before you tackle it. (It would be wrong to compare this with Hitch Hiker's Guide, but it's certainly in the genre of comedy sci-fi).

Brenda Coulter said...

Joy, I don't believe I ever read Excellent Women, but I'm not in the mood to read another Barbara Pym book just yet.

Neal, I have not read The Eyre Affair, but it sounds like a hoot. I think I'll look that one up.

Thanks, everyone, for reading and commenting. You people always have such interesting things to add to my posts.

TrudyJ said...

Another vote here for The Eyre Affair and all the sequels ... I love this series.

Susan Kaye said...

I have to agree "utterly and completely" in the words of Mr. Rochester. In fact, my annual read of Jane Eyre may be my last. While I can still deal with Rochester--literary Bad Boys are the only ones I will tolerate--the exposition was a grinding bore, annoyingly excessive and unbelieveably dull.

I am now afraid to read my other fave, Little Women.

Take care--Sue

Laura Vivanco said...

Brenda, maybe it's a bit cheeky of me, but as you've said: 'For a romance novel to work, readers must deeply admire the heroine and they must fall in love with the hero', I was wondering if you could come across and take a look at what I posted about romance readers and how they relate to the hero at Teach Me Tonight

I know, I admitted I was being cheeky. The think is, I kept thinking about it, and I did a bit more background reading relating to inspirational romances in particular (that bit's down in the comments section) and the academics who'd studied inspirationals were discussing how the inspirational romances encouraged the reader to feel in love with God. So I was wondering if that meant that the reader doesn't fall in love with the hero in the same way as she might if she was reading a non-inspirational romance (not, of course, that the two necessarily exclude each other, but it just got me thinking).

Brenda Coulter said...

Laura, cheekiness is not tolerated here at No rules. Cheekiness is actively encouraged. And as I have been reading your excellent blog nearly every day since you started it, I'm flattered by your interest in my thoughts. I left a rather detailed comment on your post.

Laura Vivanco said...

I actively encourage detailed comments (says Laura, cheekily). They give so much more food for thought. Oh dear - have just noticed that the dialogue box I'm typing in is right beside that picture you have of the M&Ms, and I just mentioned the word 'food'. I feel hungry now.

~~Olivia said...

Many of the romance novels that were popular in the 1980's don't work in today's market. I can't stand to read those books anymore. The heroines are much smarter and have deeper personalities.

We don't have the naive waifs who are the secretery to the boss alpha-hero.

I'm glad the romance genre has changed.

With that said, the novels of Jane Austen endure forever. I'll take a Georgette Heyer novel anyday.

Brenda Coulter said...

Olivia, I wasn't a romance reader until I started writing it almost six years ago. But I keep hearing about how awful things were in the 80's, and I'm almost tempted to hunt up a few of those books just to see what everyone's talking about.