When Darwin and I were students traipsing about Europe, we stayed in a lodging house in Bath, England. In the morning, the assembled lodgers sat in the dining room as the proprietress, Mrs. Guy, came in to take the breakfast egg orders. She stopped by my chair first.
"How would you like your egg, fried or scrambled?' she asked.
"Scrambled," I said.
"Scrambled please," she said.
"I beg your pardon," I said, flushing. "Please."
"I only mention it because you seem like a nice girl," she said, "but I'm not a servant, so it's important to say please. I know in America you're used to having servants, but here it's important to be polite."
A hundred answers to this flashed through my mind -- Americans don't have servants; I was raised in a trailer park -- but I was so flustered that all I could say was, "I'm very sorry."
"Oh, don't apologize!" she exclaimed. "Now I feel bad!"
You can be sure that the rest of the breakfasters were copious with their "pleases", and that there wasn't much conversation around the table.
I was reminded of this bit of ancient history as I was reading a novel by Barbara Pym. Her books, or the ones I've read, have been set in post-WWII England. Women work in offices but still spat over whose standing is low enough to have to make the tea for everyone. Rations are still hoarded. Clothes are serviceable shoes or dowdy tweed skirts or elegant cotton frocks. Hats are worn and holidays are taken. There are vicars and clubs and feuds amongst the parish worthies, and always, in the background, lurks the danger that someone might go to chapel or turn to Rome. And people know their places in the social order.
The blurb compares Pym to Austen, and perhaps that's apropos if all Austen means is "comedy of manners". But I don't find any deep moral center to Pym. The church is central, but it's a church of mere activity: jumble sales and teas and rivalries and deep grudges over who reads the Lesson. Things seem to happen, and they're often comic things that beguile an evening, but no one is striving to become a better person, to ask moral questions, or even connect with anyone else. Indeed, there's a strain of isolation running through the two books I read. Everyone seems essentially unknowable to anyone else. Even relationships and marriages don't seem to be built on a sense of anything shared. The point of view skips about from character to character, even on a line-to-line basis in one of the novels I read, Jane and Prudence, which only serves to emphasize how little people understand each other. I felt a little sad and remote while reading, even as I enjoyed myself.
Still, the novels are charming ("That great English blight"), and Pym has a great turn for cleverly phrased observation and for the ridiculous elements of British society.
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