Hi everyone! Today I’m reviewing Barbara Pym’s Some Tame Gazelle, which was her debut first published in 1950. I read Pym’s Excellent Women last year and thought it was fantastic, so decided to seek out more of her work. She’s not really an author I’d heard of previously, which seems kind of ridiculous; my undergrad was English Literature. But anyway; Some Tame Gazelle revolves around two middle aged sisters living in a small village. Harriet is really outgoing and chatty; always interested in fashion and gossip whilst younger sibling Belinda is more introverted. Every year, Count Ricardo proposes to Harriet and every year she rejects him, whilst Belinda has been pining for married Archdeacon Hoccleve for 30 years. This year however is different as two men enter their lives – librarian Nathaniel Mold and bishop Theo Grote.
Pym captures life in a small community, with all its little politics and scandals. Very much like in Excellent Women, she excels at bringing the inhabitants to life, with the small cast meaning we can spend a lot of time getting to know these people. Whilst perhaps at times bordering on cliché, I did like the portrayal of Belinda and Harriet. Belinda is probably the main protagonist, as it seems most of the narrative is told from her perspective, but Harriet is also given plenty of time to shine. One sees their flaws and qualities so it is easy to sympathise with them (though why Harriet constantly refuses Ricardo I have no idea), making the novel a joy to engage with.
The details Pym adds to this world are really charming. There are these little off-sides about minor (or non-appearing) characters which are both quirky and awkwardly realistic. One of these occurs near the start of the book, when it is discovered that Lady Clara Boulding is to attend the opening of a garden fete: ‘It was of course fitting that this should be so, as she was the daughter of an earl and the widow of their former Member of Parliament, an excellent man in his way, although he had never been known to speak in the House except on one occasion, when he had asked if a window might be opened or shut’ (pg14). Little snippets like this both make me smile and cringe – I can think of several MPs today that description could probably fit.
An aspect that has dated is the attitude towards Africa. Bishop Grote has recently returned from the continent after decades of living with a tribe. We are never given the name of the country he lived in, or many details as to the tribe itself. It seems like one homogeneous group of people. It could be argued that Pym is mocking the British attitudes of the time towards people of Africa, or indeed foreigners in general – half of the villagers come up with bizarre notions at some point in the story – but one doubts due to the time period the book was written and published in. How much the average Brit knew about Africa back then, I don’t know. I was never sure of Pym’s intentions whilst reading those sections and that threw me a little.
The ending of Some Tame Gazelle is also an interesting one to consider. When I initially read it I was disappointed; I stared at the final page thinking, ‘That’s it?’ Yet looking back and reflecting, it was the best ending for these characters. It felt like they had achieved what they wanted, admittedly in a roundabout way, and it is hard to think of a more fitting climax.
Some Tame Gazelle, whilst enjoyable, never reaches the heights of Excellent Women. It feels too much like a first novel, and I could see elements Pym had taken and used to better effect in the second book. As I mentioned, the discussions of Africa were off-putting. But I imagine fans of Pym or cosy, light reading will find lots to enjoy in the novel.
Some Tame Gazelle is published by Virago and you can find more information here.