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  • "For the Ovaltine Had Loosened Her Tongue":Failures of Speech in Barbara Pym's Less than Angels
  • Jill Rubenstein (bio)

"Well, hardly that," ventured Belinda, growing a little more confidential, for the Ovaltine had loosened her tongue. "I mean, it's a bit late for anything like that, isn't it? Henry is always loyal to Agatha and feels quite differently about her," she added hastily, in case her sister should take her up wrongly.

—Barbara Pym, Some Tame Gazelle

Barbara Pym's best novels meticulously and often hilariously examine the problem of imperfect or totally failed communication, the primary source of both comedy and gloom in her vision of human relations. It need be noted only fleetingly that men and women can rarely talk to each other in Pym's novels. Her male characters are generally exploitive, although not intentionally cruel, almost always egotistical, frequently pompous, insensitive, and patronizing, sometimes endearingly childlike, but hardly ever as smart or discerning as the women who endure them and love them. Although Pym's women generally display considerably greater intelligence, sensitivity, and self-awareness than her men, they enjoy little more success in communication, even with the most benevolent intentions toward each other. Critics have frequently noted the triumph of the ordinary in Pym's novels and her glorification of the pleasures of everyday life (see Brothers, Larson, Snow). Ordinary routines such as housework, cooking, and shopping may indeed help to preserve sanity and even offer a source of joy. However, for many of Pym's characters the ordinary falls far short of the heart's desire. To compensate for the inadequacies of quotidian existence, they exercise a transforming imagination upon the dull and occasionally burdensome activities of daily life. This ability sharply distinguishes them from Pym's male characters, who exercise their imagination only upon themselves, whereas the women use imagination to transfigure their worlds, including, of course, their men.

Toward the end of Less Than Angels, Pym quotes a significant passage from Austen's Persuasion:

While Delia and Felicity had been trained for careers, Elaine had been the one to stay at home. She might, if she had come upon them, have copied out Anne Elliott's words especially as she was the same age as Miss Austen's heroine: "We certainly do not forget you so soon as you forget us. It is, perhaps, our fate rather than our merit. We cannot help ourselves. We live at home, quiet, confined, and our feelings prey upon us. You are [End Page 573] forced on exertion. You have always business of some sort or other to take you back into the world immediately, and continual occupation and change soon weaken impressions."


Because they are imprisoned in the routine of common domestic life, Pym's female characters suffer the pain of loss and disappointment with considerably greater sharpness and duration than do her male characters. Consequently, many of them endure or escape this pain through the imaginative transformation of their limited milieux. As a result, these women often inhabit fictive worlds of their own creation and find themselves incapable of successful communication with other women who live either wholly in the real world or in different fictive worlds. Between or among these characters, language loses its effectiveness, interpretation fails to function, and meanings become hopelessly indeterminate. The effects vary from high comedy to touching poignancy and usually coexist in close juxtaposition within the same novel. That this phenomenon occurs with such remarkable consistency in Pym's fiction suggests a reexamination of her attitude toward the trivial and ordinary round of life. Like Catherine Oliphant in Less Than Angels, Pym's most engaging female characters regularly metamorphose reality through their imagination, whereas her least sympathetic ones remain bound to the limitations of actuality.

The theory of speech acts, first developed by J. L. Austin and John Searle and later applied to literary criticism by Mary Louise Pratt, Barbara Herrnstein Smith, and Stanley Fish, provides a useful conceptual tool for examining the failures of speech in these novels. Austin inaugurated speech act theory in his identification of the "performative," an utterance that is itself the performance of an action, such as "I promise...


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pp. 573-580
Launched on MUSE
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