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Crampton Hodnet by Barbara Pym

Post Date: May 14, 2014 by josiemounsey

Crampton Hodnet – the name of an eccentric gentleman, of limited means, whose unusual name gives him a certain cachet with the denizens of the bucolic corner of England he chooses to grace with his presence?


No.  Not even close.  The name was conjured up by the Reverend Stephen Latimer when asked to explain why he had missed evensong at his church in North Oxford.  “I went on my bicycle … to Crampton Hodnet …”.  To take the service for a fellow member of the clergy who was sick, the curate said.  The lie tripped off his tongue, obscuring the truth that he had gone for a long walk with Miss Morrow, the paid companion of the bossy woman in whose house he rents a room.


Reverend Latimer is typical of the at times unexpected behaviour of Pym’s characters.  Unthinkable in the modern-day era, he regards Miss Morrow “… simply as a man might regard a comfortable chair by the fire, where he can sit with his slippers on and a pipe in his mouth.”.  So, what made him propose to her?


Pym’s stories are timeless.  The reader is drawn inside the middle class drawing rooms of North Oxford, where amid the solid Victorian furniture, aspidistras, vases of teasels, and genteel tea parties, dwell thwarted ambitions and unrequited passions.  Humour creeps in, as in Miss Morrow’s explanation to Mr. Latimer:  “There are no sick people in North Oxford.  They are either dead or alive.  It’s sometimes difficult to tell the difference, that’s all.”.


Between 1950 and 1961, Pym published six novels, but Crampton Hodnet (one of her earliest completed stories) wasn’t published until 1985.  One can only conjecture that in the heady and bustling 1960s, her writing was thought to be irrelevant.  After sixteen years of obscurity, fame and recognition returned.


For those, like myself, familiar with Oxford, Crampton Hodnet will particularly resonate, as we picture Magdalen Bridge, the Banbury Road, or the Bodleian, for example.  In Pym’s endearing tale, a senior assistant at the Bod, one Edward Killigrew, a gossip with an Oedipus complex, recounts with relish how on a trip to London he overheard Francis Cleveland, a long-time married Oxford don, declare his love to a female student.  In the British Museum, no less!  Can it get any sexier than that?!


If you crave excitement and adventure, Pym’s novels aren’t for you.  Unlike historical tomes focusing on major events in history, they tell of the minutiae, the day-to-day goings on that make up the fabric of so many people’s lives.  Her characters exhibit traits many of us recognize in people we know or might have known.  There is comfort in their familiarity.  Infused with her intuitive gentle brand of humour, they are an important addition to the literary canon.

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