Sweet Dove Died by Barbara Pym


“I HAD a dove and the sweet dove died;
And I have thought it died of grieving:
O, what could it grieve for? Its feet were tied,
With a silken thread of my own hand’s weaving;
Sweet little red feet! why should you die –
Why should you leave me, sweet bird! why?
You liv’d alone in the forest-tree,
Why, pretty thing! would you not live with me?
I kiss’d you oft and gave you white peas;
Why not live sweetly, as in the green trees?”

The title of Barbara Pym’s penultimate novel is taken from this poem by John Keats. She builds her story on its theme beautifully.

Leonora Eyre is the central character and she is a wonderful creation – a wealthy, elegant, and beautiful middle aged woman. She lives alone and is proud and aloof, with little to fill her time, save indulging her own pleasures.

She dines out with men who are never encouraged to expect more from her than her company at dinner. Her female friends are few and far between, and she keeps them at arms length, expecting them to admire her while she takes little interest in their lives and concerns.

It seems that Leonora has no understanding of basic human warmth and interactions.

Humphrey Boyce owns an antiques shop where he works with James, his nephew. The meet Leonora at an auction and while Humphrey sets his sights on Leonora, she has her sights on James.

James is receptive to Leonora’s overtures, but she cannot quite keep him in her thrall. She sees off his young woman friend but not the young man who captures his attention.

Barabara Pym draws Leonora’s character so well that, despite all of her failings, you begin to pity her. But Leonora will not be pitied and carries on her life the only way she knows how.

This is a dark but wonderful book. It is beautifully observed, restrained and unsensational, but at the same time gripping

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