Goodreads: Some Tame Gazelle
Barbara Pym is a master at capturing the subtle mayhem that takes place in the apparent quiet of the English countryside. Fifty-something sisters Harriet and Belinda Bede live a comfortable, settled existence. Belinda, the quieter of the pair, has for years been secretly in love with the town’s pompous (and married) archdeacon, whose odd sermons leave members of his flock in muddled confusion. Harriet, meanwhile, a bubbly extrovert, fends off proposal after proposal of marriage. The arrival of Mr. Mold and Bishop Grote disturb the peace of the village and leave the sisters wondering if they’ll ever return to the order of their daily routines. Some Tame Gazelle, first published in Britain nearly 50 years ago, was the first of Pym’s nine novels.
Some Tame Gazelle is one of those lovely classics that don’t seem to be “about” anything in particular, yet are so interesting and insightful when it comes to the lives of the characters and the place they live in, that one falls headfirst into the story.
I know if I were ever to write a book, it would need to be one strongly centered around a plot; there would be a quest or something particular the characters were doing that would tie the book together. I love books like Anne of Green Gables that are difficult to summarize because they’re not about one major plot point; they’re just about the characters’ lives. I think these books must be among the hardest to write and to write well because they rely so much on the author’s being able to write compelling characterization and make insightful remarks about human nature. Barbara Pym, like some of the great authors before her, excels at this.
The back of my copy of Some Tame Gazelle says the book is about “unrequited love,” which I think is as specific as one can get– but, of course, that’s a theme more than a plot point. Pym explores that theme with sensitivity and clarity, however, offering readers a range of characters who do (or not) experience romantic love: one woman who has quietly loved her friend (now married to another woman) for decades, a man who keeps asking another woman to marry him and being confused, a woman dreaming about men she hasn’t seen for years only to find they’ve changed. The beauty of the novel is that I have practically nothing in common with these people (the main characters are two unmarried women in their mid-fifties), but I see life through their eyes and understand.
And there are small moments, the quiet moments of life that Pym excels at noting and celebrating, that truly make the characters “relatable.” In one scene, for instance, one of the protagonists is thinking contentedly about how she has chose the correct shoes for an occasion, only for her sister to off-handedly remark she had always found that style of shoes a bit frumpy. The protagonist then goes off to her event, uncomfortably aware now that she is wearing dowdy shoes. I’m probably a bit young to feel “dowdy,” but I think many of us can relate a bit to suddenly becoming conscious of being unfashionable or not wearing the right thing, yet stuck wearing it anyway, sure in the back of our minds that everyone must be noticing. These seemingly insignificant scenes — such as a character wearing uncool shoes — are where Pym skillfully gets into and portrays the human mind.
Finally, I enjoyed the absurd amount of literary quotations and allusions in the book. There’s a particular respect for Middle English texts, which is so unusual that I couldn’t help but love it, as I, too, enjoy medieval texts. Characters even admire other characters for their knowledge of Middle English literature. Wild. Now, I am fairly certain that some of the literary quotations (which are from a variety of literary eras) are there a bit to poke fun at the characters (some, for instance, quote texts constantly but haven’t read much since college and seem to be a bit too much invested in reliving their glory days as undergrads rather than living in the present), but I still found it impressive how many were worked into the novel, and I appreciated them simply because I appreciate classics.
This is only the second Barbara Pym novel I’ve read, after Excellent Women, but I think she’s becoming a new favorite author of mine.