Sunday, April 5, 2015

two spinster writers

Even today, when I open (Stevie) Smith’s books or read her poems, I get a little rush of recall, a little flavour of the revelation experienced back then. Here was a writer whose prose, the very rhythm of it, as well as its raw disjointedness, conveyed a startling freedom of both thought and expression. It wasn’t just her ideas, it was the mood and atmosphere she created, plus the strong sense of kinship I felt. One minute she was joyful, the next she felt the daggers of envy or the clammy sludge of depression. This from her third novel, The Holiday: “This sadness cuts down again upon me, it is like death. And the bright appearance of the friends at the parties, makes it a terrible cut, like a deep sharp knife, that has cut deep, but not yet quite away.” What a relief these sentiments were from the bright, hard 1980s world I was living in: a world of Cosmopolitan magazine, Cindy Crawford, and feeling the burn in pink legwarmers. Smith wasn’t trying to be happy. She’d never heard of such nonsense. “I am a desperate character,” she said.

- Amy Jenkins

The critic John Bayley wrote that (Barbara) Pym’s novels “take entirely for granted the fact that we live in two worlds, one of extreme triviality typified by the work situation, social exchange, irritations, small comforts of eating and drinking” and one of “romance, aspiration, love-longing, loneliness, despair.” Bayley’s characterization of this second world is a little too melancholy, but the duality he identifies is central to Pym’s work. Mildred and her equivalents in other Pym novels do nothing that is bold or unconventional. They have few ambitions beyond maintaining a perfect respectability. But their mental landscapes are extravagant.

- Hannah Rosefield