*opening lines of Song: ‘I had a dove and the sweet dove died’ (1819), by John Keats.
From The Adventures of Miss Barbara Pym (2021), by Paula Byrne:
“…One of the most poignant themes of The Sweet Dove Died is the portrayal of a once beautiful woman growing old. The antique fruitwood mirror lent to Leonora by James is one of her favourite objects because its old glass reflects a kinder image than that seen in modern glass. It is cruel when James takes the mirror back and Ned comments how tired Leonora is looking and treats her like an infirm old woman. Pym was feeling this, too. In her notebook, she wrote of her string bag filled with books and ready-packaged food for one.
In several of her novels, Pym makes a cameo appearance as herself, rather in the manner of Alfred Hitchcock’s brief appearances in his own movies. In The Sweet Dove Died, she makes two. One is the dreadful Ba (Glover’s pet name for Pym), ‘toothy’ and ‘ruddy-faced’, who appears at a party and suggests that Leonora do voluntary work to fill her time. But the second cameo is heartbreaking. Pym drew on her own solitary pilgrimage to Keats’s house in Hampstead, on that soggy day when she had been so moved by Fanny Brawne’s engagement ring:
All the same, the overcast skies and dripping rain spread a pall of sadness over the little house, with its simple bare rooms. There was nobody else looking over it except for a middle-aged woman wearing a mackintosh pixie hood and transparent rainboots over her shoes. She was carrying a shopping bag full of books, on top of which lay the brightly coloured packet of a frozen ‘dinner for one’.
Leonora at first looks with contempt at the unnamed woman, for anyone who could live this way. But then, given her own recent unhappiness, she feels a sudden stab of compassion: ‘She saw the woman going home to a cosy solitude, but her dinner heated up in twenty-five minutes with no bother of preparation, books to read while she ate it and the memory of a visit to Keats’s house to cherish.’ And then Leonora caught a glimpse of her face, plain but radiant, as she looked up from one of the glass cases that held the touching relics. There were tears on her cheeks.
The woman is, of course, Pym…
…The appearance of two sisters in An Academic Question is another of Pym’s Hitchcockian cameos: ‘Two women who had just retired from jobs in London’, come to lunch when Caro is at her mother’s. ‘They were rather nice, spinster sisters.’ One is in her late fifties, the other just sixty. ‘Their lives were busy in an admirable way’: they speak of making alterations to the garden and plans for a motoring holiday in Shropshire. One of them, Caro feels sure, must once have been beautiful. ‘They must have loved in their time, perhaps loved and lost and come through it unscathed.’ Hilary had indeed retired from the BBC and Pym had just a year to go before she retired at the statutory age of sixty. The sisters were beginning to think about moving out of London to the country…”