Barbara Pym dismisses Sunday guests

In 1977 Barbara Pym was voted one of the most underrated writers since 1902 by English critics responding to a poll in the Times Literary Supplement. Pym, who had been publishing novels for nearly 30 years, was compared to Jane Austen. ``Crampton Hodnet,'' from which we excerpt today, was written in 1939 but only published in 1985, when her rediscovery opened the way. Her books are about small circles of English characters whose intelligence does not limit their comic possibilities. Here, Pym has Miss Morrow, paid companion to Miss Doggett, observe a gaggle of Oxford students Miss Doggett has invited to one of her teas. Miss Morrow had been listening to Radio Luxembourg. `Oh, Miss Doggett, is it really so late?' said Michael and Gabriel suddenly. `How terrible of us to have stayed so long! We were so engrossed in dear Lord Tennyson's signature.'

`Yes, it must be nearly half past six,' said Miss Doggett, glancing at the marble clock on the mantle-piece. `I'm afraid I must send you away now. We are going out to supper at my nephew's house.' The Clevelands would not be having supper before half past seven at the earliest, but Miss Doggett always liked to be there a good three quarters of an hour before that time, so that she could catch the last of the Sunday afternoon guests. It was sometimes interesting to see who stayed longest.

Mr. Cherry and Mr. Bompas stood up eagerly. Then, to his horror, Mr. Bompas heard a crack and felt something scrunch under his foot. It was the little cactus he had told Mr. Cherry to be careful about. With elaborate concentration he moved the crushed mass of flower-pot, earth and plant with his foot, until it was hidden behind a footstool embroidered with pansies. The others were so much absorbed in their leave-taking that they did not notice his rather curious movements, as if he were practising dribbling a football.

`I'm afraid we've monopolised you,' said Michael and Gabriel. `We'll be really unselfish and not come to tea again till next term.'

`Oh, Mr. Bompas, I meant to have a long talk with you about your aunt,' said Miss Doggett. `You must come again.'

And so, with many protests and mumbled speeches of thanks from Mr. Cherry and Mr. Bompas, who seemed to be having a race to see who could get out of the room first, the party broke up.

Miss Doggett followed them out into the hall, but Miss Morrow stayed to put the chairs back into their proper places. First of all she removed the crushed cactus from behind the footstool. It could easily be repotted. She was full of admiration for the skill which Mr. Bompas had shown in dealing with the situation. She hadn't believed him capable of it. Perhaps the future held something more for him than sitting in a room somewhere in Luxembourg, putting on gramophone records. She really believed that he might go farther than that, and the discovery made her glad and filled her with hope even for herself, so that she walked upstairs humming one of the tunes she had heard earlier in the afternoon. From CRAMPTON HODNET by Barbara Pym, edited by Hazel Holt and Hilary Walton. Copyright 1985 by Hilary Walton. Reprinted by permission of the publisher, E. P. Dutton, a division of New American Library.

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