Home > 1970, 20th Century, British Literature, Novel, Pym Barbara > The Sweet Dove Died by Barbara Pym – meet Leonora, the manipulative spinster

The Sweet Dove Died by Barbara Pym – meet Leonora, the manipulative spinster

December 13, 2020 Leave a comment Go to comments

The Sweet Dove Died by Barbara Pym (1978) French title: La douce colombe est morte.

‘Life is cruel and we do terrible things to each other.’ ‘Yes, that’s the worst of it.’

My reading of The Sweet Dove Died by Barbara Pym was sandwiched between fluffy Patricia Brent, Spinster by HG Jenkins and nightmarish The Catherine Wheel by Elizabeth Harrower. Writing this billet after the others makes me realize that The Sweet Dove Died is a middle ground between the two.

Humphrey is a widower who has taken his orphaned nephew James under his wings. James is in his twenties and has started to work at Humphrey’s antique shop. His uncle is showing him the ropes, James works with him but has no artistic background, no real interest in the industry. It’s easy, that’s all. (James was not yet sure what he wanted from life, and had so far tended to avoid violent extremes of any kind.)

Humphrey and James meet Leonora at an antique book sale. She’s a middle-aged single woman. She’s attractive, old-fashioned, enamored with the Victorian era and the three strike an odd relationship. Humphrey hopes to woo her and win her over. On paper, she’s perfect for him and he’s perfect for her.

The problem is Leonora is attracted to James, who is charming and extremely handsome. She doesn’t act on it but she takes up all his attention.

I don’t want to reveal too much about the plot, to avoid spoilers. It is an interesting story to read as Leonora is a mix between a praying mantis and a pretty poisonous mushroom. Under her fragile appearance (“At the last minute she slipped a bottle of smelling salts into her bag – one never knew, there might be unpleasantness.”) is a cold hard and egoistic woman. She’s ageing, lonely and James is a satisfying toy to have:

Sometimes it seemed almost as if she had created him herself – the beautiful young man with whom people were always falling in love and who yet remained inexplicably and deeply devoted to her, a woman so much older than he was.

Leonora stages her life, her décor, her clothes and is performing as soon as someone might watch her. (She herself preferred crème de menthe; she had changed into a green chiffon dress which gave her a feeling for that drink.) She loves being the center of attention. It wouldn’t be an issue if she didn’t start manipulating James’ life to secure his attention.

And James in all this? Contrary to Clemency in The Catherine Wheel, he never stood a chance against Leonora or other people who want his attentions. He’s got a weak mind, doesn’t know what to do with himself. He’s not sure about his sexuality either. He goes with the flow because it’s easy.

Leonora is always put together and her old-fashioned vibe suits him. For example, Leonora wears gloves. In the summer. In 1978. And like Jenkins’s characters in Patricia Brent, Spinster, she thinks that Tea is a panacea for all ills and a liquid for all hours. She likes Victoriana antiques and loves Tennyson’s poetry. (I’m not British, I’ve never studied British poetry but to me, Tennyson is Miss Silver’s favorite poet and he’s associated to old ladies who love to knit sweaters for their armful of grand-nephews or nieces. What does Tennyson evoke to a British reader?)

James is a pawn between several characters in the book. All are charmed because he’s very handsome, polite, kind and never makes a fuss about anything. He got on my nerves because I get irritated by spineless characters. While reading The Catherine Wheel, I was desperate to see Clemency fall into Christian’s net, I wanted her mind to win and set her free. Here, I was watching James be a toy and I never pitied him because he was weak from the start and rather happy to go with the flow and not have to make any decision by himself. It’s not really charitable of me, but I thought he deserved his fate.

The Sweet Dove Died could be as suffocating as The Catherine Wheel but it’s not, thanks to Pym’s constant and light sense of humor. She deflates the tension with amusing remarks (The young waiters darted about, responding with charming politeness to the halting holiday Italian some of the diners felt obliged to practise on them.) or with Humphrey’s clumsy attempts at wooing Leonora.

The Sweet Dove Died is an odd tale, very different from the other Pyms I’ve read. Excellent Women starred Mildred, the spitfire spinster. Some Tame Gazelle was all about Belinda, the clever spinster. The Sweet Dove Died pictures Leonora, the manipulative spinster.

Three unmarried women who have a different reaction to their spouseless status. Mildred decides that she’s better off without a husband, Belinda accepts to live with her unrequited love for Henry. Leonora decides she wants James as a companion and that the end justifies the means.

Highly recommended.

  1. December 13, 2020 at 3:58 pm

    Isn’t Barbara Pym wonderful? She never writes the same book twice. Tennyson is nowadays our of fashion but at the time Pym wrote the book very much the sort of poet one learnt by heart at school, coopted by the more imperially minded, official, not a rebel.

    Like

    • December 13, 2020 at 5:16 pm

      She’s a wonderful writer, a sure bet. I like to have a mental list of those sure-bet writers.
      Thanks for Tennyson, it helps.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. December 13, 2020 at 4:53 pm

    How interesting. This isn’t a Pym I’ve read and it sounds perhaps a little darker than the ones with which I’m familiar. There *is* always an edge with her, which is satisfying but it does seem as if she went a bit deeper with this one.

    Like

    • December 13, 2020 at 5:21 pm

      I thought it was darker than the two others I’ve read too. It’s cleverly done and her writing is marvelous.

      There’s a trend in her books, though. Men are either ridiculous or spineless or both. The lead character is a spinster (named like that or not)

      Liked by 1 person

  3. December 14, 2020 at 3:58 am

    Pym seems to be an author with whom many people are familiar and I am not. I’d better include her in my audiobooks – she can’t be worse than most of what I listen to. I was conscious in the 70s that there were still people for whom the 60s had not occurred, my parents for example (I don’t remember now if mum, who was then in in her 40s, still wore a hat to church). Luckily I avoided in my schooling all that ’empire’ poetry, Tennyson is mostly famous in my mind for The Charge of the Light Brigade, but I wonder if he also wrote the boy stood on the burning deck.

    Like

    • December 14, 2020 at 2:54 pm

      Yes, she seems well-known among British readers. I think you’d like Excellent Women.

      I don’t think my grand-mother wore gloves at the end of the 1970s. (She’s from the same generation as Leonora) I’ll ask my mother about it.

      Thanks for your feedback on Tennyson.

      Liked by 1 person

  1. April 4, 2021 at 9:39 am

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