No soft incense

No soft incense: Barbara Pym and the church

Edited by Hazel K. Bell
Anna Brown Associates and the Barbara Pym Society
2004; £7.50; (56p. P&p); Pbk.; 115p.;
ISBN 0954331664
Available from the Barbara Pym Society,
St. Hilda’s College, Oxford, OX4 1DY.

Most of the thirteen papers in this volume were originally presented at meetings or conferences of the Barbara Pym Society, a very active organisation based at St. Hilda’s College, Oxford. They are preceded by an amusing foreword by James Runcie, writer and film-maker and son of a former Archbishop of Canterbury.

In the first paper, the Rev. David Cockerell considers the relevance of the church of Barbara Pym to the world and church of today. He states that probably few English novelists of the post-war period have described the church so sympathetically and humourously. Her churches are generally Anglo-Catholic, hence the title of the book, and the next contribution, by Robert Smith, explores London churches with Barbara Pym. Surprisingly the twelve churches described do not include that beacon of Anglo-Catholicism, All Saints, Margaret Street.

There are two contributions by Kate Charles. First, a mini-history of Anglo-Catholicism (very mini, consisting of two pages only), which includes an amusing ‘Anglo-Catholic A-Z’ (for example, B is for Biretta, G is for Going over to Rome, H is for High Mass/Low Mass, V is for Vestments). In the second (‘At ease with the ladies: Barbara Pym and the clergy’), she discusses “Barbara Pym’s clergy in relation to the women in their lives: their wives, their sisters, above all those worthy parish women who support, cherish and pamper them and – heaven help them – even fall in love with them”. Triona Adams also considers clergy wives (‘Roman matrons and Christian martyrs‘).

Father Gabriel Myers, a monk of St. Anselm’s Abbey, Washington, DC, has three contributions: a monkish view, a pilgrimage in search of Barbara Pym and the Victorian hymn. I was amused by the reference to Pym sometimes feeling ‘churched out’ and her tongue-in-cheek proposal to give up going to church for Lent. Father Myers sympathised with this proposal but, like her, never quite had the courage to do so.

In ‘Communal rites: tea, wine and Milton in Barbara Pym’s novels‘, Judy B. McInnis demonstrates Pym’s “subversive use of Milton through an investigation of the nature of love in relation to the rituals of tea and wine consumption in her novels”. She states that the mingling of sacred and profane love fascinated Barbara Pym as much as it did Milton, to whom she often alludes.

In the other contributions, Eleonore Bilber considers Anglo-Catholicism in Pym’s novels; Joy Grant discusses Roman Catholicism in her novels; Father Gerard Irvine provides a clerical directory from the novels; and Tim Burnett examines social class, “one of the principal motors of Pym’s fiction and certainly one of the principal sources of her humour”, and her clergy.

Inevitably, in a collection such as this, there is occasional repetition. For example, we are told that Pym wrote about Ronald Knox “what a pity it was he ever went over to Rome and how beastly to do it and become a Roman priest” on page 30 (by Eleonore Bilber) and on page 32 (by Joy Grant). Of course a number of Anglo-Catholic priests (including a former Bishop of London) went over to Rome when the Church of England admitted women priests and I wonder what Barbara Pym would have thought of women in the priesthood. On page 56 Kate Charles quotes an extract from A Glass of Blessings in which Sir Denbigh, following a comment about clergymen always being surrounded by women at social functions, says “It makes one wonder whether it would really be proper to admit women to Holy Orders. Is it likely that a woman would be surrounded by men at a parish gathering and would it be seemly if she were?

As one would expect from a former editor of The Indexer and the winner of the Wheatley Medal for an outstanding index, the book has an excellent index. I would like, however, to have seen entries under Evangelical church, low church, transubstantiation and vestments and a cross-reference from high church to Anglo-Catholicism.

I really enjoyed reading this book. I have to confess that I have never read Barbara Pym and the contributions to this collection have made me resolve to do something about this. Perhaps when our Interregnum at church is over I shall have more time to do some leisure reading.

Contributed by Ken Bakewell, MA, MCMI, FCLIP, a CLIS Life Vice-President and Emeritus Professor of Information and Library Management at the Liverpool John Moores University.