Louis de Bernières, bestselling author of Captain Corelli’s Mandolin, explains in an excerpted version of his fascinating introduction the unusual history of Crampton Hodnet by Barbara Pym. Crampton Hodnet was published on 2 August 2012.
Crampton Hodnet is a novel with a most intriguing and unusual title. One’s first reaction upon seeing it is to think: ‘What on earth can this be about?’ Anyone English would suspect straight away that it must be about a picturesque village – such a name is on a par with Piddletrenthide, Thornham Parva or Blisworth. The village turns out to be entirely invented, an improvised lie on the part of a clergyman in the novel, who does not want people to know where he has really been. Incidentally, Hodnet is a village in Shropshire, the county in which Pym was born, and Crampton was her middle name.
It may seem strange that a novelist should write a perfectly good novel and then never get round to having it published. Writers often sit on their work like this, however, and it can happen that a book goes through several drafts over a period of twenty years or more. If you feel that it is not quite right, or could be improved, or has missed the tide, it is natural to withhold it and think of reworking it later. Pym seems to have felt that Crampton Hodnet had missed the tide.
She began to write it shortly after the outbreak of the Second World War, and had finished it by April 1940. However, she obtained war work in the censor’s office in Bristol, and then fled a very painful passion by joining the WRNS, a job that took her to Naples in 1944, where one of the naval officers of her acquaintance became material for the character of Rocky Napier in Excellent Women. Crampton Hodnet has nothing to do with the war or with the way that the world had suddenly changed, and it must have seemed to Pym to have become an irrelevance.
Time and taste move on, and nothing travels in the same direction for very long. In retrospect, it seems clear that Crampton Hodnet sits comfortably beside the six novels that constitute Pym’s early career in writing, and that the fact that it seemed dated when first written is no longer relevant seventy years later. The book has not in fact dated. The distance given by time has shifted the perspectives so that what seemed beside the point in 1944 now fits in where it had seemed not to, like a new building erected in an established garden that only looks exactly right many years later.
Crampton Hodnet is rescued from obscurity by the fact that it is about characters who immediately become real, and are very human indeed. The characters are pathetic and ridiculous, each in their own way, but Pym’s mockery of them is entirely affectionate and her psychology is astute. Her humour is barbed, but sympathetic and ironic, the humour of someone English who sees how peculiar the English are, in particular the English of the unspectacular middle class, who are rather like Oxford, in which ‘Everything went on just the same . . . from year to year. It was only the people who might be different. The pattern never varied.’ The book is crammed with witty aperçus that make me wonder whether Pym had been a fan of Oscar Wilde in her youth. The difference is that Wilde’s humour is pointedly outrageous, and Pym’s is more subtle and truthful. I remember English people who were just like these characters, and I still come across them.
As is well known, later in her career Pym found new recognition thanks to support from such writers as Philip Larkin, David Cecil and John Betjeman. Pym published her beautiful novels Quartet in Autumn and The Sweet Dove Died; her old or unpublished novels were put out by Macmillan; and she enjoyed just two vindicatory years of success before cancer took her away in 1980, when she was in her mid-sixties. Crampton Hodnet was not published until 1985, but it received instant recognition that might have surprised Pym herself. For the Pym admirer, it was like having a Christmas hamper left in the porch on Boxing Day and finding that it was from a long lost friend who had not forgotten what they liked. I devoured it in the course of two railway journeys, and when I had finished it I found myself thinking, ‘Oh damn,’ in a wistful tone. I held it in my hands with a distinct sense of annoyance that the pleasure of reading it had come to an end and, just as you should when you finish a good read, I happily went through it again, trying to find all the best passages – such as Mr Latimer’s proposal.
Now here it is, back in the light after its first publication in 1985, an entertainment that is funny, poignant, observant, and truthful.
Louis de Bernières