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Some Tame Gazelle by Barbara Pym – Meet Belinda, the clever spinster

Some Tame Gazelle by Barbara Pym (1950) French title: Comme une Gazelle apprivoisée.

Some tame gazelle or some gentle dove or even a poodle dog – something to love, that was the point.

For April, our Book Club chose to read Some Tame Gazelle by Barbara Pym, thanks to Jacqui’s recommendation. It is my second Pym after Excellent Women. What a delightful read it was!

We are in a little village in England, probably in the 1930s, as it’s before WWII et rather far from WWI.

Harriet and Belinda Bede are two spinsters, both over 50. They live together near the vicarage. Harriet is the most outgoing of the two. She’s friendly, cheerful and loves to socialize. Her pleasure in life is to take care of the curates of the village. She loves to have people at diner and share good food. She gets along well with Count Bianco, who regularly proposes to her and gets refused.

Belinda, our narrator, is quiet and has been in love Archdeacon Henry Hoccleve for thirty years. They met at college, bonded over poetry and she was heartbroken when he married Agatha instead of her. She now lives with her unrequited love and gets a bit bullied by Henry’s wife.

Some Tame Gazelle tells the story of the village over the span of a few months during which several events occurred. A new curate arrived, much to Harriet’s delight. Agatha went away to heal her rheumatism, freeing Belinda from her looming presence. An old friend from college, Dr Parnell came to stay at the vicarage with his colleague Mr Mold. This setting reminded Belinda of their youth. And then Agatha came back, accompanied by Bishop Theodore Grope, in charge of a diocese in Africa. All these visits and arrivals disturbed the usual course of Harriet’s and Belinda’s lives.

Harriet is bubbly and seems to have decided to make as much as possible of her life, within the constraints of country life. She enjoys nice and fashionable clothes, she cares for good food and good company. Pym says about her that Harriet was still attractive in a fat Teutonic way.

Belinda tries not to delve into the past and succumb to melancholy but living so close to Henry is like constantly pouring salt in a wound that never has time to heal to be painless at last.

Belinda is humble, probably because she doesn’t think of herself as loveable and worth of any attention after being rejected by Henry. Besides, Harriett always shines more in company and Agatha picks at her, chopping at her self-esteem.

Henry is a disagreeable pompous man but I couldn’t help feeling sorry for him. He’s not fit for the life of a clergyman and I wondered how he came to this career, suspecting that Agatha roped him into it, as she is the daughter of a bishop. Henry seems only interested in poetry, a love he shares with Belinda. His sermons are full of literary references that fly over his parishioners’ heads:

The congregation suddenly relaxed. It was just going to be one of the Archdeacon’s usual sermons after all. There had been no need for those uncomfortable fears. They settled down again, now completely reassured, and prepared themselves for a long string of quotations, joined together by a few explanations from the Archdeacon. He began at the seventeenth century. Belinda reflected that if he had gone back any further, the sermon would have assumed Elizabethan proportions.

He neglects his duties as a clergyman and it’s hard to say whether he’s lazy or simply can’t be bothered with them because he doesn’t have the calling that should go with his position. He lacks the necessary people skills, the empathy and the ability to find the right comforting words at the right time. He sounds selfish and irritable but I thought it might come a deep unhappiness and dissatisfaction with his life. He sounds like he wishes he has married Belinda.

Under Pym’s writing, Belinda is a delightful middle-aged lady who casts a lucid and funny look at her life and her fellow villagers. She sees a lot and is quite astute in her perception of people and the meaning behind their actions. She’s benevolent, sees the good in people and tolerates their little flaws and quirks as everyone has theirs. She’s not blind about Henry’s shortcomings but loves him anyway.

Men in Some Tame Gazelle aren’t great people. They see women and wives as convenient co-workers and caretakers for old age. A most distinctive skill for a woman is her ability to knit a good pair of socks, well-shaped and of the right size. Dear, no wonder Harriet stays single. Dr Parnell sums it up in a blunt statement: After all, the emotions of the heart are very transitory, or so I believe; I should think it makes one much happier to be well-fed than well-loved.’ A way to a man’s heart is his stomach and his well-socked feet.

Still, I couldn’t help feeling sorry for Belinda and Henry. They seemed well-suited for each other and Belinda’s life is a waste of her talents. She could have been so much more but her crushed hopes put her in a shell she never went out of. And Henry is probably living the wrong life, with a career that was not his calling.

A Tame Gazelle is a great study of characters, being in Belinda’s head was charming. Pym also shows a society full of social constraints, of etiquette and habits. We see it in passing when Belinda muses “Also, it was the morning and it seemed a little odd to be thinking about poetry before luncheon.” How can there be a rule about when to think about poetry?

As a French, I also had a lot of fun with the food. It is of much importance to Harriet’s well-being and Pym shares about the various menus. I wondered what sardine eggs, cauliflower cheese, a tin of tongue, potato cakes, Belgian buns, trifles and rissoles could be. And I found this discussion most puzzling:

What meat did you order?’ ‘Mutton,’ said Belinda absently. ‘But we haven’t any red-currant jelly,’ said Harriet. ‘One of us will have to go out tomorrow morning and get some. Mutton’s so uninteresting without it.’

What has mutton to do with red-currant jelly?

  1. April 19, 2020 at 1:34 pm

    I always find Pym’s novels a comforting but also stimulating read. I posted on this one a couple of years ago, and enjoyed the fun she has with literary allusions – and snobbishness. There’s always a lingering sadness beneath the surface humour, too.

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    • April 19, 2020 at 5:07 pm

      I find her novels easy to read but well-written. Her observation of human nature is full of humanity and humour. I always enjoy writers who don’t take themselves too seriously.
      Many a true word is said in jest, is that the right saying?

      I missed most of the literary references in Some Tame Gazelle as I don’t know much about British poetry. I know the names but not what poetry current they represent or what image their bring in the mind eye of the British reader.
      I still understood that Henry was pompous and that’s the most important. 🙂

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  2. April 19, 2020 at 1:39 pm

    I’ve been a vegetarian a very long time but I thought mint sauce went with mutton (no one eats mutton any more, they eat hogget and call it lamb) but I suppose red currant jelly could. I’ve eaten most of the others at various times and I quite like cauliflower cheese (I eat it, not cook it, but I think it’s boiled cauliflower with a white sauce). I think I would want a wife for more than well-fitting socks, even in England, but perhaps the arch-deacon’s experience with Agatha has given him very low standards.

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    • April 19, 2020 at 5:11 pm

      The mix of sweet and salt is not customary in French cuisine, so for us, it sounds weird.

      I’ve looked for pictures of cauliflower cheese and I didn’t know that Béchamel sauce is called cheese. I cook them too.

      All the men in this book are only interested in a wife if she can cook and knit socks. They all have either very low standards or very low opinions of women’s abilities.

      Like

  3. April 19, 2020 at 2:35 pm

    Strange indeed, mint sauce on a special occasion but gravy usually. It seems that lamb has indeed become synonymous with mutton, I’m not sure why, certainly growing up on a sheep farm where a sheep was killed regularly to feed the household, it was never a lamb, always a ewe, and of varying age.

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    • April 19, 2020 at 5:14 pm

      Hmm, to be honest, mint sauce doesn’t sound much better than red-currant jelly but what do I know?
      Strange that this meat has changed names, from mutton to lamb. Bill mentions it too.

      Like

  4. April 19, 2020 at 2:57 pm

    I really enjoy Pym and this sounds a delight! Full of her clever observations and characterisation. I have no idea what sardine eggs are but they sound revolting.

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    • April 19, 2020 at 5:15 pm

      It’s an excellent read in these times.
      There’s a timelessness in the book that extracts you from your quotidian and Belinda is wonderful. Kind but not stupid.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. April 19, 2020 at 5:47 pm

    She’s very entertaining, but there’s always an undercurrrent of sadness I feel with Pym. We don’t usually get a happy ending with her.

    As for the meat. I’ve been vegan for decades, but casting my mind back mutton is old sheep as opposed to young lamb. Hence the expression “Mutton dressed as lamb” for an older woman dressed far too young for her age, but I guess that’s one that’s gone out of use nowadays as people wear whatever they want, whatever their age. Presumably the old meat wasn’t very nice and had to be tarted up with some kind of fancy sauce to make it palatable. Yuk….

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    • April 19, 2020 at 5:53 pm

      I felt sad for Belinda. She’s such a lovely person and she could have been a lot happier.

      Thanks for the explanation about mutton/lamb and for this expression.

      I guess you’re right about the old meat not being tasty: I’ve read in a short-story by Stephen Orr a remark about a woman whose cooking skills were outstanding because she could cook old mutton and make it good.

      As I said in comments before, mixing sweet and salty is not part of the French cuisine canons. So it’s always disconcerting for us. (And there also the fact that we cannot stomach jelly)

      Liked by 1 person

  6. April 19, 2020 at 6:48 pm

    I’m so glad you enjoyed this. It’s one of my favourite Pyms, largely on account of the Bede sisters who are beautifully drawn. I completely agree with your commentary on Belinda. Pym’s ‘excellent women’ are often much more insightful than their peers consider them to be. As you say, she notices things that others might miss, quietly getting on with her life while expecting little in return.

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    • April 19, 2020 at 8:04 pm

      Thanks for the recommendation, Jacqui.

      Belinda is very intelligent, she keeps her thoughts to herself because she’s a peacemaker and knows that everyone has their flaws.
      I wish she were more demanding for herself though.

      What did you think of Henry? Do you think that he reached a stage in his life where he considered that he married the wrong person or not?

      Like

  7. April 19, 2020 at 9:26 pm

    I have read a lot of Barbara Pym, but not very recently. She was rediscovered in the early Nineties, and I read most of her work, including ‘Some Tame Gazelle’, then.

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    • April 20, 2020 at 1:17 pm

      Do you remember which one you preferred?

      Like

      • April 20, 2020 at 3:50 pm

        I kind of remember that ‘Quartet in Autumn’ was one I particularly liked.

        Like

        • April 20, 2020 at 9:36 pm

          That’s good to know. You’re not the first one to mention it.

          Like

  8. April 19, 2020 at 10:29 pm

    I love Barbara Pym, and this one is just such a classic.

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    • April 20, 2020 at 1:18 pm

      It’s a great one and I’ll read other books by her in the future.

      Like

  9. April 20, 2020 at 9:23 am

    This was my introduction to Pye. I enjoyed the subtlety of her character portraits. My favourite is a somewhat darker tale however called Quartet in Autumn.
    I’ve never heard of anyone in UK having red current jelly with mutton. It would be a very odd combination. Mint sauce works better because it isn’t sweet – more of an acidic taste.

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    • April 20, 2020 at 1:20 pm

      I’ll keep in mind that Quartet in Autumn is good as well.

      Perhaps Pym wanted to show that the two sisters are a bit special, with this red currant jelly reference. I see that British readers are surprised by the combination.

      Like

  10. Jonathan
    April 20, 2020 at 3:09 pm

    I’ve enjoyed the Pym books I’ve read so far but Quartet in Autumn is my favourite and was also my first.

    I had so much cauliflower cheese as a child that I haven’t had it much as an adult. It’s cheap and quick to make and it goes well with crispy bacon. I would imagine a lot of the food references are there to highlight the characters’ class as so much does in English fiction.

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    • April 20, 2020 at 9:38 pm

      Quartet in Autumn seems to be a frequent favourite.

      I didn’t think that the food references could be an indication of the social class but that’s a very good point.

      Liked by 1 person

  11. Vishy
    April 22, 2020 at 12:35 pm

    Looks very interesting, Emma! I haven’t read Barbara Pym yet. I loved the quote you shared about Henry’s sermon 🙂

    Like

    • April 22, 2020 at 9:08 pm

      She’s a great writer: very subtle in her observations and easy to read. It’s a great reading time, a bit of comfort read even if there’s an indeniable sadness behind Belinda’s brave attitude.

      Like

  12. May 26, 2020 at 1:27 pm

    Pym is marvellous. I’ve read Glass of Blessings and Excellent Women, and I loved both.

    The redcurrant jelly thing, I’d guess it was a pairing with mutton that was common at the time. Mutton fell out of favour for a long time and only relatively recently became fashionable again. Perhaps during its period of unpopularity the idea of pairing it with redcurrant was lost?

    Men do tend to be a bit useless in Pym, but then men tend to be a bit useless in Wodehouse too. It’s somehow part of the charm of the novels.

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    • May 26, 2020 at 9:45 pm

      Good to know about Glass of Blessings, I’ll definitely read more by her. It’s read but well-written and I loved her angle, the way she draws her characters.

      I can only imagine how redcurrant jelly can make mutton taste interesting. 🙂

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