An Unsuitable Attachment

      I feel sometimes that I can’t reach Faustina as I’ve reached other cats.  And somehow it’s the same with Mark,’ [Sophia said.]
    ‘Oh, dear,’ Ianthe heard herself saying, feebly, she felt… Wives shouldn’t talk thus about their husbands, she thought resentfully, especially when they were clergy wives.  Nor could one really compare a sacred and honourable estate like marriage to a relationship with a cat.

      When John returned from lunch – very punctually, just before half-past one – Ianthe found herself studying him and taking in the details of his appearance.  She could find no fault with his dark grey suit, red patterned tie and white shirt. Only his shoes seemed to be a little too pointed – not quite what men one knew would wear.

      [Penelope] wore a black sacklike dress, a large silver medallion on a chain, black nylon stockings and flat-heeled shoes.  Her hair was dressed in a ‘beehive’ style, which was now collapsing at one side.  The Pre-Raphaelite beatnik, Rupert thought, wondering if anybody had every called her that.

Barbara Pym completed An Unsuitable Attachment in 1963, her fiftieth year, sent it to Cape, who had published her six previous novels, and was stunned when they refused to publish it.  She wrote to Philip Larkin, ‘I write this calmly enough, but really I was and am very upset about it and think they have treated me very badly.’  This was the beginning of her 15 years ‘in the wilderness’, which would not end until 1977 when she was famously named twice on the Times Literary Supplement list of most underrated writers of the century and Quartet in Autumn was shortlisted for the Booker Prize.

The ‘Attachment’ in the title is that between Ianthe Broome, an attractive, well-bred librarian, and John Challow, a younger coworker who is her social inferior. Perhaps even more unsuitable is the attachment between the vicarage cat, Faustina, and the vicar’s wife, Sophia.  The Rev’d Mark Ainger’s unfashionable North London parish is at the centre of this book, and the parish trip to Rome is classic Pym, full of high comedy and continental romance.  Players from other novels make frequent cameos, and Pym fans will be delighted to recognize Everard Bone from Excellent Women, Esther Clovis and Digby Fox from Less Than Angels, Wilf Bason from A Glass of Blessings, and Harriet Bede (with a curate in tow) from Some Tame Gazelle. Philip Larkin said that ‘It is all rather like the finale of a musical comedy.’