Two years ago at the age of 52 I had a minor heart attack. I know it was minor, because I’m still here to tell the tale. It happened just as lockdown began, so I was alone during surgery, and was not permitted visitors in the hospital ward. In several respects, I preferred being alone. Before I went into theatre, I had a few moments to think about my life. I said a few prayers, mainly of the “please let me survive, I have three children, two dogs and a nice husband” kind. But my overwhelming feeling was of gratitude. I have had a wonderful life. I’ve travelled the world, spent most of my working life reading and writing books, and have met great friends along the way. If it were time to meet my maker, I felt ready. Nevertheless, I was grateful for the surgeon’s optimism and warmth, and the last-minute phone call to my friend, a doctor, who reassured me that I would definitely live to tell the tale.
On reflection, in times of stress, I have relied on the Rosary; you can’t really beat a few Hail Marys in time of need. There is something ineluctably soothing about the rhythm and repetition of the prayer. I don’t always carry rosary beads, so count on my fingers, which is fine. I very much like the words “full of grace” and “blessed art thou amongst women”. My other favourite prayer is Julian of Norwich: “All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well.” I think the “and” is a very important word in this prayer. I’ve always been passionate about poetry, and I feel that in bad times, a short prayer or poem can reach the parts other writing cannot reach.
I’ve also been thinking a lot about comfort reading, especially during the pandemic. I found myself turning to old favourites, such as Wodehouse and Austen, but a few years ago I began reading the novels of Barbara Pym, and decided that she would be the next subject for a biography. When my biography was published this April, I had many letters telling me that Pym was a great comfort read in times of uncertainty. Not only is Pym uproariously funny, but she also creates a comfortable, some might say old-fashioned, world. She peoples her novels with recognisable characters: clergyman, spinsters and dowagers with cats. Pym’s religious faith, as for many, remained a private affair, but there are telling moments in the novels, when, for example, a heroine pops into a London church during lunchtime for a quiet moment, or a character like Sister Blatt appears, “splendid in her high old-fashioned bicycle like a ship in full sail” – the image itself redolent of George Orwell’s evocative description of England: “Old maids biking to Holy Communion through the mists of the autumn mornings.”
One of my other jobs is as a literary adviser for a TV series called Sanditon, based on the unfinished novel by Jane Austen. I’ve noticed that many of the fans of the show have spoken about how the show is the perfect comfort watch in times of anxiety. Again, I wonder if the sense of an ordered, structured and familiar world, (some might call it “cosy”) provides the necessary escapism from what people on social media call RL (real life). Dr Samuel Johnson once said that the only end of writing is “to enable the readers better to enjoy life or better to endure it”. Seems very sensible to me.
I recently returned to England, having moved to the USA BC (Before Covid). I live in the desert, so I was overwhelmed by the lush green English countryside, reminding me of Jane Austen’s beautiful phrase, “English verdure, English culture, English comfort, seen under a sun bright, without being oppressive.”
My new book is about the writer Thomas Hardy, and I made sure to spend time in the West Country. I enjoyed being on an English train whistling through the glorious English countryside, with its amber fields and snowy flocks of sheep. I even spotted a shepherd’s hut (probably now a nice middle-class office, or spare bedroom), but in my imagination, I only saw farmer Gabriel Oak and his faithful sheepdog, George. I also spent time in Oxford which was my home for several years, living in an Oxford college. Though a Roman Catholic, I attended chapel whenever I could, mainly because of the marvellous choir and the glorious colours of the interior designed by William Burges. It always reminded me of the chapel in Brideshead Revisited, which was at the heart of my biography of Evelyn Waugh. Like Barbara Pym, I’m a fan of evensong. As she says: “I love Evensong. There’s something sad and essentially English about it.”
The Adventures of Miss Barbara Pym is out now and is published by William Collins
This article first appeared in the November 2021 issue of the Catholic Herald. Subscribe today.
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