INSPIRATIONS FROM THE BOOKSHELF Barbara Pym


Jo E. Verrill is inspired by 'analogue stalking', and the wonderfully relatable characters of Barbara Pym


I’m going to take a bet that a fair few of you won’t have heard of Barbara Pym - it’s very much a case of if you know, you know.  Although she is not a children’s author, I’ve been revisiting her novels recently and would love to share with you what this excellent woman has taught me about characterisation.

I'm focusing here on No Fond Return of Love, which is a gentle farce led by Dulcie Mainwaring, who, in short, is an endearingly massive nosy parker about other people’s lives.

At the beginning of the book, Dulcie falls in love with Aylwin Forbes, a visiting lecturer at a ‘learned conference’ she attends. She forms an unlikely friendship with his previous ‘squeeze’ Viola – who (awkward!) still carries a torch for him – and they end up like two little old dears solving a murder mystery as they seek to find out every diddly detail about his life. 

As a writer of fantasy comedy, I have a tendency to think my characters need to be outrageously quirky. But the absolute beauty of a Pym novel lies in the banal: the everyday thoughts and actions of her characters, which are so deliciously relatable. 

It’s the silly stuff she picks out, like Dulcie walking into her dreary new friend Viola’s flat after a dinner invite and looking around anxiously for signs of what they’ll be eating. That’s exactly what I’d do. 

Like all fine characters, Dulcie and Viola must have a flaw that drives them away from their goal. While Viola is suffocated at times by her own bitterness and neuroticism, Dulcie is equally held back by never thinking of herself – only others. In short, she spends so much flipping time finding out everything she can about Aylwin, she never actually gets around to romantically pursuing him.

Dulcie 'analogue stalks' Alywin
(Amazing cover illustration: Jessie Ford)

It's Dulcie’s insatiable curiosity that drives the novel, and I love the pre-internet quaintness of Dulcie ‘looking up’ Aylwin and Viola in the phone book, ‘going to the library’ to thumb through Who’s Who, and even doing a ‘walk by’ on Aylwin’s ex-wife’s mum’s house. She does in analogue form exactly what we’ve all done digitally when we’ve met someone we fancy: cyberstalked them on social media, looked up their exes, their mum, Google-Earthed their houses…

You really get the sense that Dulcie’s character was infused with Barbara’s – to create such amazingly 3D people she too must have had an insatiable curiosity about them. Indeed, until her death she remained a spinster, and I can’t help but wonder if she spent too much time ‘analogue stalking' to ever fall in love...

Pym: not only brilliant, likes cats too!
(Mayotte Magnus © The Barbara Pym Society)

Header image: Excellent Women cover, superbly illustrated by Jessie Ford.

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Jo E. Verrill is an enthusiastic writer of humorous books for children, and an advertising and broadcasting standards consultant. 

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