Opinionated, 70 year-old Miss Doggett, insists on giving teas to undergraduates at Oxford and dutifully they arrive, suffering through it and escaping as soon as they can. Suffering Miss Morrow, her paid companion, has to put up with every sort of verbal abuse, but what else is there for a 35-year-old spinster to do, with no fortune of her own?
The place of course livens up when the new curate comes to live with them. Used to have all women flocking about him, trying to catch him for a husband, the house is a welcome reprieve for him, in the beginning. Miss Doggett pampering him and Miss Morrow hardly noticing him at all, seeing through all the women and Mr. Latimer, as being ridiculous and false.
He is not the only ridiculous person in North Oxford. Miss Doggett’s nephew, Francis Cleveland, have taught literature for 25 years without altering his jokes or lectures at all. Now he is going through a midlife crisis and his young student Barbara Bird shows up right in time to boost his manly ego, making him feel young again. After all, what is wrong in that? His wife is no longer exciting and have a life of her own, not relying on him anymore, nor admiring him. And his daughter finds him equally ridiculous, being completely absorbed in falling in love with the students he brings home to dinner, ignoring the fact that her father wants to be worshipped.
After a long walk on a Sunday afternoon, Mr. Latimer misses evensong and when the vicar’s wife comes around to find out why he wasn’t present, Mr Latimer doesn’t tell her the truth, that he was out for a walk with Miss Morrow and they could not find a bus to take them back in time. He is embarrassed over the notion of having taken a walk with her and tells Mrs. Wardell a lie about having to bicycle out to a parish called Crampton Hodnet, to fill in for a vicar friend out there. He lives in mortification after that, that anyone will find out the truth and start thinking that he and Miss Morrow are an item. On the other hand, he feels that people talk too much about love in this place and that perhaps he should consider marriage to keep the women off his back. Some sensible woman his own age. Miss Morrow perhaps would not be such a bad choice after all?
He is not the only one caught in a lie and afraid of getting caught. Francis Cleveland is falling passionately in love with pretty Barbara and wants to show it in a physical way. This man is no longer a puppy, showering his beloved with 18th century poetry, which is what Barbara really wants out of this school crush. She wants to admire from a distance, have intellectual discussions about romantic poetry, nothing physical. So Francis passion really disappoints her.
On a particularly depressing spring evening, Jessica Morrow puts on her new leaf green dress, which she has not dared to use in case of Miss Doggett’s disapproval. The latter does highly disapprove of the dress but Mr. Latimer decides that he must propose that night, even though he has avoided speaking to Miss Morrow ever since their walk. With her usual sense and logic, Miss Morrow doesn’t even suspect what he is up to. After all, she does not have particularly high regards for him, but sees through all his falseness, which so impress all the other ladies. The proposal is not received the way he thought it would be received. When he suggests they escape the house together, she thinks he means going out to the pictures. When he says that it is a proposal, she suggests that he should have a glass of ovaltine before bedtime since he is obviously ill. She also tells him that marriage is a rather drastic escape from terrible lodgings, that respecting someone does not promise that you will come to love the person eventually, and regretting the marriage one day is as bad as a divorce. Mr. Latimer is shocked at her refusal. But what did he expect? She wanted love, not respect and esteem, she wanted to be happy not that they MIGHT become happy.
When Mr. Killigrew from the Bodleian, goes up to the British Museum, his mother’s suspicions are confirmed. He sees Francis Cleveland with Barbara Bird and he overhears their conversation, when Francis tells Barbara that he loves her and she confirms that she loves him. Barbara doesn’t dare to tell Francis that her love is the kind you do not act upon and she contemplates how to tell him that, on the train back to Oxford. Meanwhile Francis sits and contemplates divorce, remarriage and what life will be like in a small house, no money and having Barbara to care for all his needs. He will sort things, he tells himself, even though he always avoids nasty things and lets his wife Margaret deal with them. But she would not deal with this mess would she?
When Mrs Killigrew, invites all people who need to know about Francis Cleveland’s indiscretion, the news are received in various manners. Several people have testified to having seen them both hither and thither, hiding in bushes, being seen in public and so on. Everyone is raising an eyebrow. But the person who should have done something about things, thinks that it is all alright. Mr Freemantle, the Don of the college states to all of them that men must be allowed to cheat on their wives, he has done so many times. His poor wife is in shock. Miss Doggett goes home having decided that Mr. Latimer must talk to Francis, but Mr. Latimer is not interested in anything but himself so he refuses. He heads off to Paris instead. So Miss Doggett heads off to speak to Margaret Cleveland. As things turn out, Francis is present as well and while his wife had already heard rumours about him, she had not believed them. But now Francis declares his love for Barbara in front of both Margaret, Miss Morrow and Miss Doggett and then leaves.
Anthea Cleveland, who has been dating Lady Beddoes’ (widow of an ambassador), son Simon, has started worrying about their love. After the term was over, he has not been in contact. Her mother also feeling somewhat disillusioned, they both go up to London. Margaret to think and Anthea to try to find out where Simon is and why she has not heard from him. Francis can’t believe how cold his wife is, to just leave him instead of having an open confrontation. So he decides to first have a romantic punt on the river with Barbara and then head off to Paris with her. While he is excited, Barbara has to persuade herself that this is what she wants. But when they arrive in Dover, the last boat has left and they have to take in at a hotel. Sitting on the bed, Barbara panics and decides to flee the scene. And when the other hotel guests ask Francis where his daughter has disappeared to, he starts realizing how foolish he has acted. He starts driving home, but his car dies on the road. That is when Mr. Latimer appears in his car, coming from Paris.
Arriving at the Cleveland’s house, Anthea is in hysterics since Simon has written to her that he has fallen in love with someone else and is practically engaged. Miss Doggett is devastated since it had been such a good match for Anthea. Noone really takes notice of Francis, which makes him mad. And then Mr. Latimer exclaims that he is in love and practically engaged to Lord Pimlico’s youngest daughter Pamela, 19 years old and just out of finishing school in Switzerland, having met her in a cathedral in Paris. Noone raises an eyebrow even though he is 16 years older than the girl!
When the new school term starts, Margaret is back to pampering her husband as usual. Anthea has found a new young man to go out with, Simon’s best friend Christopher. Miss Doggett is planning new tea parties for bored students. Mr. Latimer is spending all his time in London with Pamela. And Miss Morrow continues being the grey little mouse she has always been.
To compare this book to Jane Austen is an outright insult. It has nothing of her quality, nor any of the witty dialogue which Austen has become famous for and this book is more of a parody of the middle classes of the late 1930s, than a social observation, like all of Jane Austen’s works are. While she has become a classic and never out of print, Barbara Pym’s novel is dated. There is no way about it. It would make a moderately fun film or theatre play, but noone would really laugh out loud. It’s more of a smirk novel. A tiny bit cozy but more of an irritation really at some of the characters’ flaws and bad ways. It’s an alright read compared to some trash things published today by modern authors, but unless I am given some of Pym’s novels for free to read, she is not an author I will return to. Except, I do have her biography based on her diaries and letters, and THAT I think I might enjoy because I suspect she herself was a much more interesting person than her novels are. Especially since she served in th WRNS during the war.